The coffee-table and the city: Western subjectivities and colonial buildings in Yangon
Paper short abstract:
Numerous recent coffee-table books reduce modernizing Yangon (Myanmar) to a crumbling relic that demands rescue and preservation. Their transient western creators merge urban and personal time horizons and commit their subject positions to a salvage project of a city that changes too fast for them.
Paper long abstract:
In recent years, numerous glossy coffee-table books have presented the city of Yangon, the former capital of Myanmar, as a crumbling city rather than a developing one. They describe it as 'timeless', not future-oriented, as a 'a city to rescue' within a perpetually closing window, rather than a beacon of modernity. The authors and photographers are Europeans, Americans, and Australians, and in their work, they temporalize the former capital of Myanmar similarly and specifically: documenting aspects of 'pastness' still present in contemporary Yangon through narratives of their personal immersion into the city, they emphasize the need to salvage ways of life or particular buildings for the future. Inquiry into the subjectivities, motivations and interests of the creators links these publications to larger questions of nostalgia, neo-colonial imagination, and the Western gaze. It also assesses the rhetorical means by which the present and past of Yangon are actively conflated in these publications, as urban and personal time horizons merge. The production and consumption of these coffee-table books and their selective retrotopias constitute (from the expatriate-accessible fringes of Myanmar society) a mode of coping with the rapid social changes usually labeled as the 'opening up' or 'transition' of the country. The coffee-table breaks through into lived environments mostly in local exhibitions and book launches, as well as the para-ethnographic research undertaken for the books. The latter presents a positional challenge to critical heritage research in Yangon that seeks to stay aloof of heritage promotion.