Words and Images John Alexis B. Balaguer
Official Photos and Interview Cultural Center of the Philippines
On March 10, 2022, the Cultural Center of the Philippines opened the much-awaited exhibition of the 2021 Thirteen Artists, its first on-site exhibition for the year. The exhibition features the works of artist-awardees Allan Balisi, Nice Buenaventura, Gino Bueza, Mars Bugaoan, Rocky Cajigan, Geloy Concepcion, Patrick Cruz, Ian Carlo Jaucian, KoloWn, Czar Kristoff, Lou Lim, Ryan Villamael and Catherine Sarah Young and will be held until June 5, 2022 at the Bulwagang Juan Luna, Pasilyo Juan Luna, and Pasilyo Guillermo Tolentino galleries.
The TAA was created in 1970 to showcase the works of artists who exhibited the artistic intention to “restructure, restrengthen and renew art making and art thinking…that lend viability to Philippine art” (CCP). This year, the exhibition was curated by Shireen Seno, herself an awardee in 2018, and features paintings, sculptures, video works, and site-specific installations. Seno says of the exhibition, “When we think of Thirteen Artists, we tend to expect a show – a showing-off of sorts. These are, after all, the artists of the here and now. But what is art for, after all, and what does it mean to be here, now?”
Upon entering the exhibition area at the third-floor hallway gallery, one finds the works of Ryan Villamael and Patrick Cruz which touch upon notions of geography and temporality around political histories. Villamael’s series Index (2022) is composed of paper structures with a mirror or old books base, enclosed in glass vitrines. The cut-out structures are formed by actual images from archival material about post-World War II in the Pacific geography, fashioned as architectural scaffolding. The series connotes a cartographic effort to deconstruct the historical structure of political precarity and find its reverberations in the revisionist present. Per Villamael, “The current similarities of the tensions leading up to World War II are bleak and terrifying in their parallelisms, and this work meditates on what feels like history’s inevitable cycle.”
Ryan Villamael’s Index series
Towards the other end of the hallway gallery is Cruz’s Gamu-gamo (2022), a two-part installation of a video essay about termites and the mineral dolomite, and an existing clock from the CCP set to Vancouver time where the artist is based. The installations explore the nuances of time and history, the Manila Bay being a site of witness of both trade relations and the devastations of war, and recently a political anchor camouflaged by a beautification project using the mineral. Cruz shares, “It seems that these illusory gestures still work; casting a spell on the public to temporarily forget the pangs and turmoil of our time, a kind of amnesia. Perhaps Gamu-gamo is also critical to the way we as Filipinos perceive and interpret time and history like the Gamu-Gamo’s attraction to the light and forgetting it was fire.”
Allan Balisi’s Autonomy of Painting series
In the next exhibition area in the main gallery hallway are a set of site-specific paintings by Allan Balisi titled Autonomy of Painting (2022). The oil on canvas works are based on piles of naked mannequins in different states of decay in the CCP’s storage. With a consciousness of the institutional history of the Center and its connections to the Marcos dictatorship by founding, the notion of art as independent of life is challenged by the paintings’ urgent allusions to individuals who have been stripped of their rights and discarded as mere bodies and objects during the state-enforced abductions of the Martial Law time. Balisi quips, “[…] hangga’t meron mga minorities na binabalewala, may historical revisionism, may mga taong biglang na lang nawawala, at may kapabayaan na nangyayari – gustong i-capture sa isang naratibo lamang, pero sa mabilis nga magbago ang naratibo lalo na sa panahon ngayon.”
Entering the main gallery, one finds the sculptural installations of Gino Bueza, Props and Problems (2022). Utilizing acrylic on canvas, cement, steel, wood, hinges, and floral foam, Bueza paints on interactive and mobile objects meant to be skated on as the ideas of street and institution merge. “Ang kahulugan nito bilang pagsakop ng kalsada at pagtakda nito bilang playground. Maaaring suhestyon nito ang pagtingin sa sarili,” Bueza says. Balisi’s and Bueza’s works review the elitist contexts of art in institutions and their inevitable relations to immediate society and self-instituting cultures.
Rocky Cajigan’s Mass
Also in the entrance of the main gallery is the installation Mass (2022) by Rocky Cajigan. Church pews with kneelers laden with salt, pinewood planks from a burnt Bontoc Museum house as altar table, and rusted hand saws are installed as interactive space mimicking a chapel. Setting up markers and copies of the book “The Duterte Manifesto” in the pews, one is invited to vandalize the propagandist literature as an exercise of erasure, commenting on similar erasures by state and church invasions of indigenous communities. Cajigan shares of his work, “There is very little recognition among indigenous communities of the issues that erase indigenous knowledge when it comes to specific ‘inculturation’ projects by Christian churches.”
The internet and social media as liminal spaces for the communal and personal become apparent in the works of KoloWn and Geloy Concepcion. Towards the middle of the gallery is P1sonet (2022) by KoloWn, an installation of ten computer stations imitating an internet cafe. The stations are interactive and are installed with web-based applications in real-time including generative, video, fake news sites, and an image slideshow of public works. In one station, the user is able to hear audio recordings of popular and infamous expressions with every push of the keyboard’s Enter command, from Mobile Legends to Duterte’s cuss words. With the work, the internet as contemporary communal space presents new ethical and humanistic challenges to society. “Society is declining,” says KoloWn, “so there are many things to talk about. The new streets are the internet.”
Directly in front of the installation is the section where Geloy Concepcion presents his photography series Sanctuario: Ang Pakikipagsapalaran ni Isagani sa Bansang Amerika (2022). Everyday life in the United States of the artist as immigrant and father are projected on six flat-screen TVs that resemble a film strip, composing a portrait of the artist. Personal life told in storied snippets blur notions of academic fine art and casual photography. He notes, “With smartphones and social media on the rise, they say everyone is a photographer now and I can see the tendency of artists to gate-keep the craft, so in doing this work, I’m trying to open doors and show that photography is inclusive […] .”
Further into the exhibition is Ian Carlo Jaucian’s Bon Bon Voyage (2022), a mixed-media installation including a single-channel video, sound, plastic packaging, vinyl sticker, isomalt, edible gold luster dust, and phonograph records made of candy. The edible records are replicas of the Voyager Golden Records that were included in the spacecraft Voyager launched into space in 1977 for intelligent extraterrestrial life, and plays classical music such as Bach’s Gavotte en rondeau partita No. 3 in E Major. The work mulls over the idea of Western colonization as candy, commenting on the culture of consumption. “The choice to make the records out of an edible material is a suggestion,” Jaucian shares, “that what’s contained within should be regarded as a fleeting treat, an impermanent, consumable opinion, as opposed to an enduring ambassador of earth that the original gold plating was meant to preserve for billions of years across the cosmos.”
Mars Bugaoan’s Still Life (2022) is an immersive installation made of plastic, found branches, discarded signage, and a single-channel video. The discarded orange plastics are fashioned in the shape of fallen leaves on the ground, a white-painted branch is installed in the center, and beside it, a video on the ground of a flying kite. Referencing the visual art genre, and the evocations of the words “still” and “life”, Bugaoan utilizes several artifacts from his own art-making archive as a reflexive gesture in this installation of a fantastic deserted landscape where nature seems distorted. Of this he says, “Sabay-sabay na nangyayari ang lahat sa mundong ang pagtingin sa oras at espasyo ay nagbabago. Walang simula, gitna o hangganan.”
Catherine Sarah Young’s The Weighing of the Heart
Catherine Sarah Young’s sculptures of human hearts, The Weighing of the Heart (2022) are cast from the ashes of the Australian bushfires in 2019-2020 and are exhibited wall-bound in grid-form, creating emphasis on the iterative subject. Referencing the Egyptian scene of the weighing of Imhotep’s heart against a feather, the works touch upon notions of grief and loss, and our emotional memories from crises. “The climate emergency will continue to be one of the biggest challenges of our time,” Young shares, “The arts have an important role in creating inclusive spaces for us to process our collective grief with the damage to the planet and to vulnerable communities worldwide.”
Toward the end of the main gallery is the land piece Rest (2022) by Lou Lim. With the shape and scale of a burial pit, the work is composed of wood, steel, epoxy, resin, soil, grow lights, and medicinal plants such as dwarf mondo grass, lemongrass, creeping charlie, oregano, and others. One might sit among these plants and herbs as it becomes a space for repose, the sitting eventually leaving imprints on the work’s surface. This performative and participatory quality of the landscape acknowledges the body amongst notions of death and healing. Lim shares, “I thought that to signify death side by side with rest helps with the questioning. I feel that as much as we need rest, our land too, needs rest. It has already absorbed so much grieving, and evil.”
Nice Buenaventura’s New Word for World is Archipelago
Also exploring notions of the natural, specifically geography and the climate crisis is Nice Buenaventura’s The New Word for World is Archipelago (2022), towards the end of the main gallery. Buenaventura’s three-part installation includes a charcoal and oil on canvas work, acrylic on canvas, non-toxic plastic, aerosol paint, and water on plywood that contextualizes climate change within colonialism and social justice. The artist consciously chooses materials that have minimal to no carbon or greenhouse effect. In one work, the artist applies a waterproofing solution on plywood creating the silhouette of palm trees with water, after footage of storms in the countries most affected per the climate risk index including Myanmar, Pakistan, Haiti, Puerto Rico, and the Philippines. Buenaventura says, “I feel like there is no bigger issue of our time than climate, and something as planetary in scale inevitably intersects with life, work, and the things in between.”
Finally, at the tail-end of the main gallery is Czar Kristoff’s To Watch The Sunset Once Again (2022), a room with two-channel video and sound. The videos consist of images of the sunset taken from Grindr profiles, and a video from Sunset Garden, a congregation organized by Kristoff and artist Zeus Bascon as a space to confront shame and desire while watching the sunset at Laguna de Bay. In the video, participants “Gil” and “Jhowell” are seen silhouetted by the sunset, as they are prompted questions and speak about their peripheral experiences of queerness, an effort to turn shame into action. “If a place can change its form based on the light it receives, I wonder if that can also be reflected in the way we look at our self-image,” Kristoff says.
The artist-awardees of the Cultural Center of the Philippines’ Thirteen Artists all exhibit critical perspectives on contemporary challenges in society, from invoking socio-political histories, critiquing structures and systems, listening and giving voice to minorities, exercising climate consciousness, and providing avenues for sharing interpersonal realities. In this time of crisis, one might ask how art might provide reflections, solutions, safe spaces, or possibilities in reimagining a new world–a daunting task for the art community, no doubt, yet readily acceded by thirteen young artists of the new contemporary. With this award and exhibition, more than the showcase is the show of cases, that the world might be presented as it is, so we are able to see art and life as no different. “This year’s artists call into question the very notion of presence,” curator Shireen Seno declares, with a radical evaluation, “this is a show about the gaps, the lapses, and the others that characterize our time.” •
John Alexis Balaguer is a curator, critic, educator, and artist based in Manila. He is the founder of Curare Art Space, a digital space for curatorial collaboration. He received the Loyola Schools Award for the Arts in 2012, the Purita Kalaw Ledesma Award for Art Criticism in 2019, and was the proponent of the heritage project which was awarded the Philippine Heritage Award for Adaptive Reuse in 2021. He currently contributes art writing and criticism to Art Asia Pacific magazine, and Kanto.com.ph, and is an Instructor of Fine Arts at the University of the Philippines – Baguio.