Life Between the Cracks

Filipino artist Kristoffer Ardeña on his ‘non-space’ space, where every nook is a creative corner and a venue to connect and untether from everyday realities

Interview Karl Castro, with Patrick Kasingsing
Images Kristoffer Ardeña

Kristoffer Ardeña in his element

Hello Kris! What’s on today’s art to-do list?

Hahaha, curiously enough, I make a written daily to-do list when I have my coffee and bread for breakfast at Sofia’s, the neighborhood cafe. My studio practice is divided into two spaces: the lab, where I experiment with new ideas and techniques, and the workspace, where my assistants and I make artworks that already have an existing trajectory like the cracked tarpaulin paintings. Today’s agenda in the lab is mainly focused on creating an ambitious new cracked impermanent painting using 200 objects. In the workspace, we continue painting the big tarpaulins, which take months to finish.

The pandemic has brought many of the things and systems that define normal existence to a grinding halt. Can you tell us how the pandemic affected your creative life? Has this limbo-like existence amidst the pandemic brought forth new artistic ideas and themes to explore?

Honestly, it hasn’t negatively affected my creative life. Why? Because, as I jokingly said to my friend, I’ve been in lockdown mode since I’ve moved to Bacolod. My routine and social relationships are very limited here by choice, and the only thing I do is focus on my experiments in and out of the studio.

Now, the creative life in the studio during this pandemic has been really intense. When the pandemic and lockdown started I took it upon myself to do three things.

First, pandemic for me meant two years. Having this timeline in mind, I wanted to intensify my studio production. So, from the onset, two weeks before lockdown, I already stockpiled on materials, printed the tarpaulins good for a year’s worth of work, then met with the guys I work with so that even during lockdown we would still be working.

Second, intensify experiments. So, I am focused on doing paintings in public spaces, making artworks that, for me, push the limits of what is already tried and tested.  Since August of last year, I’ve been working on a series of 100 painting performances. Remus Abella, who is in charge of producing the artwork in collaboration with 10 trans women in Bago will be using a hundred cracked paintings made from ukay-ukay clothes that were sourced from the same town. Since, as I’ve told you, I’ve been in this lockdown mode for a few years in the Philippines, this pandemic has not been a time of reflection, but a time of action.

Part of my profession requires me to constantly travel outside the Philippines, and because of this pandemic and the difficulty of traveling, all my travel plans for 2020 and this year are canceled or postponed. But, it also has enabled me and the different people I work with outside the Philippines to create new modes of working and continuing projects.

We’ve all been ‘trapped’ in our corners for a year. How would you describe your creative space in three words?

A non-space space.

Were there corners of your living and studio space that you have rediscovered or saw in a new light?

Yes, well, constantly. For example, I love sleeping with the mattress on the floor and I move it around different spaces in the studio. Sometimes I’ll sleep on top of the table.

Any new additions or modifications to your space in response to the pandemic?

None. Everything in the studio was thought of before the pandemic. The bamboo papag space was already designed way beforehand and filling the studio with plants was something that I’ve always wanted to happen and not as a response to the present health crisis. Even in my old home in Dumaguete I lived surrounded by nature and also wanted to do that in my Bacolod studio.

How do you think the pandemic will impact the way we mount or experience art and art exhibitions?

It needs to. It is not a matter of whether it does or doesn’t because this global crisis challenges us to reimagine not only the way we experience art but also how to approach exhibition-making. Going online is not the solution. This is just part of the response. Art is intrinsically a relational experience. With this in mind, creative people in their own situations wherever they are, perhaps even knowingly are finding ways to reach out to others.

How do your immediate workspace and the larger environment inform the materials and techniques you use in your work?

Yes, it is intrinsic to my practice and this shows in the material experiments as you can see in my use of tarpaulin and elastomeric paint, two very common materials in the Philippine rural and urban environment.

Based on your experience, how would you compare life in Negros and life in Spain?

There is no need to compare. This will only lead to a sense of experiential void because one place will always have something missing. Acknowledging this allows me to see the positive side of what life in Negros island and Spain can offer. Yes, my life in Bacolod is almost the opposite experience of what my life is in Spain, but that’s also the beauty of being here-and-there.

Tell us more about your fascination with vernacular architecture in rural Negros.

It started when I moved to Bacolod. I asked myself ‘Why is heritage conservation here focused on houses of rich people?’ I mean, what about the houses of the rest of the 95%? I felt that we still adhere to that Western trope of thinking in terms of cultural-architectural conservation. When I was a fellow at the Academy in Rome, Italy, it was an eye-opener because Rome, as a city, felt like a museum trapped in time, yet this polar opposite of living in the rural tropics made me question why, how we have to reflect on the notion of conservation because the ethos is the total opposite yet, equally important. For me, vernacular architecture is extremely important. Something we need to be proud of because the DNA of the structural elements speak of the context of space particular to where I am and I felt this needed to be addressed and is something to be proud of.

Kris Ardeña: Balay Tropical is an ongoing photo essay, which started in 2015, extensively narrates and investigates the vernacular tropical architecture and its nuances in Negros island in the central region of the Philippines. The goal is not to create an objective system by which to classify architecture but to open an aesthetic inquiry to raise public consciousness regarding materiality, ephemerality, contextually rooted in the everyday lives. How do Negrenses respond to the land, domesticity, tropical climate, social and economic conditions, and how are these used as tools to create an architecture that is catered to the needs of the persons it serves, be it a family, a business, or an individual. Contrary to the buildings created by architects that dictate the way we live, these buildings are created mostly by people using their own knowledge and intuition. Although the project specifically focuses on architecture in Negros island, it does not serve to merely represent it, but to act as a platform for discussion towards a broader understanding of the subject matter as a geo-poetic framework for cultural engagement. Link to Issuu booklet

Let’s now talk about your works. Can you tell us about your concept of “ghost paintings”? How has your exploration of this concept evolved in the past few years?

Most of my painting series carry the underlying title of Ghost Paintings. It traces back to the first series of paintings I did in 2011 which were first exhibited in Oliva Arauna Gallery and La Casa Encendida in Madrid. It has evolved into different base supports like the tarpaulin cracked paintings, the toldo quilted paintings, etc.

Your social media accounts give people a peek into your artistic process and the wide range of media you utilize for creative expression. Is there still an artistic format or material you are raring to explore but haven’t?

Not so much into consciously seeking to explore art in terms of its medium. It just happens, depending on what sparks my curiosity. Although in the Philippines since I started my base here I had it clear that I would focus on exploring the specificities of painting.

A lot of your work touches on matters of identity and culture. How would you say you were able to cultivate a strong sense of nationality despite your travels and stays in various countries? What have your stays abroad taught you about being Filipino?

To be Filipino, what does it mean? It merits a subjective answer. I am not saying this as an artist but as a human being. In a way, your question already pigeonholes me into the notion of “Filipino-ness” therefore requiring expected answers, and in lieu, I don’t fully consider myself a Filipino. Why? Because my life path has taken me to various places and it has made a mark in shaping myself into the person that I am today. Belonging is an affective response, therefore, permeable and not some rhizomatic post-modern notion of geopolitics. That’s why I don’t like to be pegged into the bandwagon of the post-colonial discourse that predominates in Philippine art. I like the Spanish translation of the verb “to be” because it can be ser (“perceived truth of being”) and estar (“a temporal state of being”) because it is more open-ended. To be Filipino can be answered by a cliché word that has been overused in Taylor Swift songs…. it’s all about love, love as a response to the persons and the land and its complexities.

In this seemingly hopeless episode of human existence, what makes you defiantly hopeful for Philippine art? 

I feel neither hopeful nor hopeless about Philippine art in this pandemic because, like any system, it organically responds to the given context it immerses itself in. •

Kris Ardeña’s talambuhay tropical at @kris_ardena

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