Tuesday, February 26, 2013


“Real politics is to engage to resolve problems within a collective with enthusiasm. It's not simply to delegate problems to the professionals. Love is like politics in that it's not a professional affair. There are no professionals in love, and none in real politics.” – Alain Badiou

“The President’s Office” (curated by Antares Bartolome[1]) occurred at the U.P. Vargas Museum from January 8 until February 9 this year. It was purportedly part of “Blind Spots,” a working series exploring restricted spaces as springboards “for imaginative construction.” So, presented with that goal, how did one—like a poet—show off anticipated wit upon neither images of seen reality nor the concocted images of surreal dreaming but upon merely hidden but ostensibly real spaces? How did the imagination work around this latency?
    But the deeper question would be: what was the resultant of such an exercise? With which did the imagination try to work? Detached humor? A more direct caustic humor? Emotional sarcasm/satire? Empathy? Sympathy? Understanding? Paranoia? Ignorance? Indifference? What? The artist could in fact have explored all these points of flight with all the usual creative aplomb or fun were he using more universal imagery, as, say, a child in a garage unseen by its mom trying to back up the car. Exploiting such an emotional scene-situation for artistic concerns and causes is commonplace, especially in the cinematic art of pounding our universalized, normal hearts.
    It’s a different story when art becomes political. The imagination may be allowed all sorts of humor and colors of expression (the too-dark, the too-red, the green with envy, the yellowed, even the too-heavenly-white), but simply cannot suffer to be seen as shallow in its working with ignorance. This, especially in a country currently under someone at the helm who has been counter-critiquing his “matatalinong” (read: ignorant) critics, labeling them as mere workers in a burgeoning criticism industry, working, that is, to keep the network or readership ratings up or keeping opposition party elements in the sound bites roster. In short, here is a president flaunting the substance of achievement while quasi-exposing what he likes to call journalism’s possibly-corrupted refusal to see the good. And, indeed, could the “fourth estate” proposal be a myth in our corrupted or partisan times?
    In this show’s case of handling a political motif, however, values other than a literal criticality’s were placed on the table. Despite the mind-influence of the more overtly political exhibition in the museum gallery’s adjoining wing (which mused on the question of land use from progressivist art’s standpoint), or despite the show’s wall notes claiming a portrayal of a “den of thieves,” in the end “The President’s Office” put forward less the emotion or intellections of politics than the luxury of the imagination, in the end clarified what installation art qua craft and art is all about. The individual concepts may indeed have been familiar, may have been established before by jokes from the drinking-binge table or the radio station booth or the sitcom set, materializing as our "expectations, fantasies, and perceived relationships that overlay our collective imaging of the seat of power." But the show’s PR-announced point—exploration rather than expression—unwittingly or wittingly succeeded as elegant executions of simple black jokes, expanding on the jokes by sheer subtlety of imagery rather than an insistent expressionist righteousness.

    For instance, with Soiree (Dahil sa Iyo), Alwin Reamillo’s offering of a possible Palace piano[2] (red, white and blue feet and the President’s seal on the body’s side for this symbol of opulence) took on the acerbic but common view of the Presidential office as one that’s often just playing our economy via the fiat of mere ear training. But departing from the clichés of radio broadcasters who may know little or nothing about fiscal policy, Reamillo donned the robe of the poet and looked for a rarer eloquence to deliver the same old message. Here, he literally filled the piano’s soundboard with a large amount of shredded bank notes (bought from a community of garbage pickers in Gloria Arroyo’s province after watching a TV report’s discovery of a Central Bank secret disposal in 2011). Then he glued a wooden heart’s-anatomy chart (“wooden” pun not intended?) to the center of the grand piano’s top, almost neutralizing the acerbic wit and projecting a serious note. Apart from the playing-with-our-money context’s referencing a central space in Malacañang called the Music Hall (often used for important meetings with selected members of the cabinet and for entertaining foreign dignitaries/diplomats), the glued-on heart’s and title’s alluding to Imelda Marcos’ favorite love song, “Dahil Sa Iyo,” the P20-P50 notes’ carrying the images of the Palace and Old Congress building, and the shreds’ simulation of a garbage dump or volcano (read: social volcano), the formal contrast between the piano’s lacquer gloss and the shredded bills’ matte truly affected glamour not only to the mind but also to the senses, taming thus the politics somewhat without erasing it. In the end, it was the elegance of the satire and our tempted senses’ reaction to the presentation apart from the sardonic statement itself that became the point. It didn’t matter now if the original criticism was correct.

    An elegant caustic humor, meanwhile, showed in the collaborative work The Stockholders by Mity de la Peña/Jed Nacabuan/Patch Qunito/J.P. Samson. This literal wall piece factured the common intelligentsia wisdom that says Philippine political maturity is rooted not in history but in cinema. Hastily painted portraits of past presidents and presidential wannabes carried titles of movies (local and Hollywood) and were placed at the tips of a painted tree’s roots. Meanwhile, right below this, Leo Abaya’s Rigodon played with the check-patterned floor tiles of the Palace and associated this with the chess game of politics by illustrating a (pseudo) chess problem using floor stickers of chess-piece shapes and photo-stickers of Philippine presidents’ faces as chess pieces (all pawns) on the fake tiles. The idea of the artist as whining mimic or mocker of a chess composer would here have to be mentally contrasted with the idea of that imagined composer who often laughingly wins.

    To address the issue of security amidst political conflict and ambition, Cian Dayrit provided readymades-of-sorts titled Trophy Pelts, involving cult-religious “bulletproof vests” placed in the gallery, thus evoking the late dictator’s (and his wife’s) predisposition to fall for such indigenous superstition as well as the present president’s adherence to ethnic Chinese-Filipino feng shui beliefs. The title may likewise refer to the belief in a throne/power as divine grace.

    But it was Manolo Sicat’s furniture set, Palamuti ng May Sala, that was able to produce a multilayered statement akin to Reamillo’s. Albeit gleaming in white, the coffeetable made of steel bars wrought into the word “Mabuhey” on its glassless top was unusable, as were the benches made from pieces of discarded wood, with their backs looking a lot like an architect’s model of slums. As foyer pieces that seemed to welcome Palace visitors to a reality beyond the whitewash, this was one of the show’s works that wore the loudest color of mockery.

    Looking outside the gallery’s glass walls from where the lobby white furniture pieces were, one could glean Buen Abrigo’s half-concealed puppet-looking armalite-toting figures with woven bags for head masks positioned on some trees, PP1017. While suggestive of Palace security sniper personnel, the woven-bags-for-masks called to mind the appearance of the local informants of the Japanese-invasion era called the “makapili”. Were these snipers supposed to be the same type of traitors, personnel deriving from a social class who have nonetheless chosen to serve lords of another social class, a ruling class?

    Another amusing piece was Lisa Ito’s Personal Domain, a wall map under glass emulating the appearance of official technical maps or military maps. However, this emulation led to surprise (or did it?) as it happened to be by a more personal presidential map where state nomenclature gave way to filial historiography. For instance, an island was named “Asyenda ni Lolo” while another was called “My Sanctuary.” Indeed, in Philippine politics elitism is a perfect equivalent of British royalism.
    Kristine Calayan’s Made to Measure featured portal columns made of raw piña fiber and rice paper, classy but vulnerable. Behind this, Mark Justiniani’s 2-in1 piece, Hole/Appointed, was outstanding. For Hole Justiniani appropriated a part of the gallery’s architecture for imagining Malacañang and the Presidential chair. While a stainless Damocles sword hung above the chair in Appointed, beside it on the white floor was a manhole-shaped glass-covered floor exit (for Hole). The hole revealed an aluminum ladder rung leading down to an unknown tunnel area, with rows of light bulbs illuminating the way. It was an elegant piece of work that was terse but sweet, with all the moods of sci-fi, spy cinema, and steampunk converging in the brain’s own creative appreciation.

    Then, coming out of a blackened wood gate (simulating precious mahogany) was the piece by Salvador Alonday, What stood there in the doorway, a sculpture of a large sea turtle with a human head (in concrete and acrylic?), possibly referencing folk parlance’s regard for the turtle-man as one who is slow and seldom comes out of his house. For a large king turtle-man to be let out of its house and beyond, out of its gate, is to hasten a political contextuality of what’s impossible, or of wishful thinking, or otherwise of a shocking fulfillment of what we think could never happen—the slow leader has come out of his comfort zone to face his nation.

    Now, what were a couple of paintings—two from Buen Calubayan’s Landscape Eternal series—doing in a show of installation art pieces, unless they were to be read as installation art pieces themselves? An erstwhile First Lady had the reputation of being a buyer and collector of expensive local paintings and priceless foreign ones, modernist as well as of previous periods, so: would she have bought these paintings of what looked like fallen bodies on a tree-surrounded rally ground and of a blood-spattered open field? Would any president’s wife or sister receive them? Should one, there’s a new paradigm.

    Noel EL Farol’s bookshelf was one compound of context pieces, with each piece its own lyric poem.

    One layer of thought would have perceived the shelf contents as mere representations of presidential books/references. Another angle would have considered expression in material execution:
Unfinished Business (Series A) and (Series B) were constructions of discarded wood, thus books never touched again, never to be touched again at all; Spratly Islands’ Souvenir was a glass case filled with white silica sand, a touristy memento of what is otherwise a motif of geopolitical urgency; Filipino Favorits was another glass case containing rice and a water vessel, another touristy treatment of an economic point of class conflict; Target Appointees was a dartboard signifying a not-so-good marksmanship; while Executive Appointments’ glass case containing toy guns could have been toying with the idea of a shooting sportsman-president’s image of having appointed shooting range mates. Noli by JP and Fili by JP were books of constructed steel, presumably locked in, never to be read again, or otherwise mere monuments to a now-faux nationalist cause. Ang Bagong Balita was a copy of the Holy Bible cast in resin, unusable thus. Filosofi, a collage on found objects, seemed to signify precisely that—political philosophy as a syncretist’s collection of found objects, like slogans that can change like window curtains. Consti was supposedly a printed copy of the Constitution, or so said the engraving . . . on constructed steel—thus, again, not needing to be opened for reference since it couldn’t be opened anyway. Sure, the obvious social and political polemics of each of the Farol sub-pieces may falter in an argument of facts, but that would miss the point. Again, the point is the alienation of subjects of a land from the truth and facts behind a Presidency, any Presidency. It occurred to the artist to come up with a concept anthologizing mini-concepts, a mini-show by itself inside this anthology show—coming up with that was already a point for applause.
    Applause. Mideo Cruz inserted that audio player into Farol’s shelf and played in a loop the applause of US Congressmen for Corazon Aquino’s presence in their halls in 1986. He titled the sound recording Booby Trap, to allude perhaps to the presidential promise to pay all debts incurred by Ferdinand Marcos. Was the US Congress applause the trap that Aquino couldn’t get out of later? Was the applause and US Congress visit merely the crowning ceremony for a trap set up even before Aquino’s US-supported campaign began? In which case, who was booby-trapped, Aquino or her subjects? Consider the fact, also, that the recorded applause did sound a lot like a rainstick flurry, an aural cheese to a rat trap that would hurt.

    Finally, there was Renan Ortiz’ Sugod, positing Malacañang security in a tweaked survival video game called Lusob (Attack/Invasion). Often in a video game one can choose to be either the protagonist or the antagonist. Was the gun-wielder in the played loop a security man or a coup invader, then? Were the men in barong Tagalog executives of the Palace or were they attackers disguised in barong? Were they armed enemies or were they civilians? Whatever (partisan) setting you would have chosen for your imagination to play around in, the reality remains that the Presidency of a State presupposes enemies and conflict. And corollary to that, the hidden fact remains that the President of a given territory and race could also either be that nation’s hero or its treasonous villain.
    Reamillo’s Presidential wall seal encased in glass—and made up of shredded bank notes for border accoutrement and crab shells for the seal ground—laid the contextual axiom for all:

    Stating the obvious statement of this piece, titled Sa gisa ng Pangulo, amounted to The President having gotten to his post via a lot of hidden moolah and by the strength of his crab mentality. But could it also be usable for a non-obvious signification?—alluding to achievement by a popularity shredding the influence of moolah and by an ability to unite and trample on the need for crabs in the bucket? Whichever type of President one is, this seal can remain as the seal.
    And whichever type of President the viewer may support, the pieces in this show could remain in memory to refer to either a forgotten past, a disappointing present, or a long insufferable future. For their part, professional artists will continue to reflect a blinded and divided nation’s 20/20 imagination while abetting, examining, or merely suffering its ramifications. For art’s sake, yes, but also for reflecting on the polis. After all, political art is not just a professional affair. [END]

  • [1] son of activists Heber Bartolome (the folk rock singer-songwriter) and Maita Gomez (the late beauty queen)
  • [2] Reamillo’s is not exactly a total outsider’s perspective. The artist’s affinity with pianos (he has used the image in a previous restoration project called Nicanor Abelardo Grand Piano Project) stems from his family's involvement in maintaining all the pianos in the presidential Palace. Though he hasn't been to Malacañang himself, he often recalls the white piano his family built specially for the Marcoses. Imelda Romualdez Marcos's piano tuner was an older first cousin, whose brother also worked for Imelda’s brother and later Tacloban mayor Alfredo “Bejo” Romualdez.

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