Shooting to Kill

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Jel Suarez, Never Missed/Never Will
June 3 at Underground
2/L Makati Cinema Square
2130 Chino Roces Ave.
Makati MM

The visuality of a political regime is typically at its most striking in journalism, whether in state-sanctioned reportage, or mainstream media coverage. Among the images that have found their way into a nation’s consciousness, we find a young woman mourning the death of her partner, weeping while cradling his broken body, children squatting candidly around the candles where a relative had fallen; here is a bloodied altar in a home said to have been raided by plainclothes policemen; here are more policemen doing push-ups as their Chief looks on, appearing to berate them; here is a Christmas party at the mall, held for children who had lost their parents in the ongoing war.

Hanging over all of this is a closed fist – iconic of the promise for change that continues to resonate with the millions who maintain their own promise of unwavering support, amidst the gunshots and the rising death toll.

Photo from the US Embassy protest dispersal, from GMAnews.tv

These images come to us—viewers and citizens—in fragments, often attached to headlines that fail to capture the reality on the ground: “the ground” often feeling like another country altogether, a dystopia far removed from the absurdity coming at us through social media. That everyone has a camera and an internet connection these days fulfils a steady demand for something new to look at, whether out of habit or out of indifference: the friend making dinner, another friend’s winged eyeliner, flatlays made to look as if they were taken in someone’s impeccably clean home, and more art, always more art.

Then in this steady stream of the inane and mundane, one image somehow rises to the surface. It is a foot.

via Louie Cordero

It is not even a photo but a detail from a photo: the foot is zoomed-in and scaled-up to fully occupy a heavily pixelated square. A foot trapped under a tire, flexed, tense, probably numb from the excruciating pain of being crushed beneath a van driven by one officer Franklin Kho. A foot – dismembered several times over, first beneath the crushing weight of Kho’s vehicle, then removed from its context, captured digitally, edited onscreen, then posted online where it is subjected to the malleability of individual opinions.

Collage, as a medium and method that borrows freely, often with irreverence and good humor, finds a natural fit in this layered act of dismemberment that has come to define how we interpret information in the age of Post-Truth – resulting in a confusing visual language made universal through the collapse of time and space made possible by globalization.

Collage succinctly describes how living in the Age of Information has altered not only what, but how, the eye sees; in which acts of dismemberment illuminate the dangers of allowing violence to go the way of banality, pointing out our complicity not only as viewers, but as consumers of this violence. Cutting and pasting traces outlines of the carnage, while taking care not to make a spectacle of the pain of others; asking instead, in times like these, what is art supposed to achieve?

In Never Missed/Never Will, Jel Suarez confronts how the injustice we often see online, becomes reduced to the mundane: “Never missed” referring to the recent waves of state-sanctioned murder that, in their ubiquity, now barely merit a reaction. By rearranging what we are used to seeing, or what we expect to see, Suarez’s collages turn an aesthetic gesture into a critical method, foregrounding what we lost when our capacity to express outrage became reduced to mere icons.


Jel Suarez (b. 1990) is a visual artist born and based in Manila, PH. Her craft is in the practice of collage, intricately cutting catalogs of old masterpieces, as well as contemporary exhibition catalogs. A fascination with draperies and structures allows her to explore collage as another form of painting, in an attempt to produce alternate ideas, narratives, and landscapes. (paraphrased from Suarez’s profile written by Syar S. Alia on http://rimbundahan.org/jel-suarez)

Identity and Ideology

reunion_garibay

Manny Garibay, Reunion, oil on canvas (2007
Note that this is not part of Ikalawang Milenyo

Manny Garibay, Ikalawang Milenyo
20 May 2017 Art Cube
Karrivin Plaza, Pasong Tamo Ext.
Makati, MM

The blurring of boundaries between church and state has been relentlessly examined throughout Manny Garibay’s artistic practice. Despite the bleak pictures he paints, his layered observations present a complex and nuanced discourse on everyday life and the characters that populate it. A preoccupation with earthly delights, with gadgets, with the ephemeral and material often appear in Garibay’s canvases, cradled in the hands of the everyman.

[…]That Right-wing populism has recently hijacked Christianity calls for a renewed interest not only in how people are guided by their beliefs, but in how religious institutions operate. Numerous instances of repression, violence, and intolerance—especially with Islamophobia running rampant in otherwise secular institutions—can be traced to the interpretation of Judaeo-Christian doctrine. And yet, the Christian religion remains a pillar of faith, empathy, and compassion – a resource for multicultural community, humanitarian relief efforts, and peaceful social integration. While Christianity has been a cause of alienation, for many, it continues to serve as a sanctuary.

In light of all this, Garibay reminds us of the need to soberly discuss the legacy of Christianity, especially in the Philippines: where, as a colonial consequence, it demands to be interrogated as sharply as any other inheritance from the West. In Art History, this is known as the discourse on modernity / coloniality, wherein the culture of the colonizer is exalted, legitimized as the source of “Grand Narratives” within the realm of anything from the artistic, to the technological, to the spiritual. In this case, religion—specifically Christianity—is integral and instrumental to the same enlightenment logic that ushered in the rise of neoliberal capital, belonging to the Grand Narrative of “The West”.

This is the argument set forth in Ikalawang Milenyo – a title referring to the two thousand years of the Christian religion and its ties to Western modernity. It is invoked in the composition of the titular piece, a corrupted Last Supper that bluntly critiques the personality politics that are imposed and inscribed upon the institutions of concern to the artist. The paintings on paper and wood, through a keen engagement with portraiture, turn a critical lens on the phenomena through which men become gods or are made into martyrs at the hands of their fellow men. As character studies, they document Garibay’s interest in the iconic and archetypal.

Although better known for his renditions of the common tao—a nameless, yet no less familiar figure in the Philippines—this time the critique is more pointed, as Garibay takes aim at the ways that fame, power, and money have wrested control over local institutions. A portrait clearly depicting boxer-turned-senator, Manny Pacquiao, is one of the clearer jabs at this continuing predicament, yet there are darker elements in the other works. Particularly striking, in light of recent events, is the inclusion of a painting of a policeman in Kalsada, indicative of the banality of corruption.

The sharp turns between icons and everyday people, even showing icons as everyday people, raises another problem in this displacement of faith within an all-consuming capitalist structure. In “Art and Knowledge: Towards a Decolonial Perspective,” academic and critic Therese Kaufman discusses the dangers inherent to the gradual but nonetheless deliberate shift from commodity capitalism, or the production of goods, to “cognitive capitalism” or the production of knowledge. She describes the movement of “certain forms of production”, mainly industrial and manual labor, to the peripheries, leaving the production of data—in text, in images, in a nutshell: knowledge—to the core; thus perpetuating the same Grand Narrative, a continuing coloniality of The West and The Rest.

Cognitive capital however is not limited to the production and consumption of data, as it is distributed in a global market, through global brands that did not necessarily displace religion, but function alongside it, sometimes as catalysts. With the data that circulates in this neoliberal capitalist scheme comes a deluge of images and information, sowing the seeds of culture, of faith, as well as propaganda and falsehood. With the endless streams of data inundating the consumer of cognitive capital, it becomes difficult to distinguish the good from the bad, the constructive from the destructive.

In the case of art and knowledge, it becomes more difficult to ensure that these products which typically come from a good place will, in the end, serve the common good—unless we revisit that crucial question, asking instead “What do we believe in?” Only then, can these images serve to undo the banal, seemingly harmless methods by which religion—often a source of hope and strength—continues to corrupt and colonize our spirits.


The image, Reunion was used in Rod Pattenden’s “Recognizing the Stranger: The Art of Emmanuel Garibay,” which appeared in Issue 68 of Image Journal

On the Naming of Parts Unknown

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“Blood Moon” from Moon Cycle series, serigraph, edition of 4, 30″x10″

Alex Cu UnJieng, Jouissance
20 April 2017 at Hiraya Gallery
Makati Shangri-La Mezzanine Level
Makati, MM

It’s a flower, a hoo-hah, a woo-woo, a purse, a pussy, a pocket. Rarely will we have the gall to say the word out loud. Young women in particular are taught to call it by any other name, anything but what it actually is: a vagina.
By calling attention to this signifier of the abject – of both birth and blood, creation and destruction, and violence, always violence, Vancouver-based printmaker Alex Cu Unjieng raises the multiple ways that the vagina is interpreted in polite society. For this, the title Jouissance makes a fitting entry point (no pun intended) to expand the conversation, transcending the abjection so commonly and conventionally linked to female genitalia.

Like abjection, jouissance is exhaustively discussed in the writings of feminist philosopher Julia Kristeva, whose portrait appears in this exhibition. The word however does not directly translate: Jouissance is joy and pleasure, but it is also, among other things, shock and hysteria. Jouissance describes a lack of control and the streams of consciousness that make new ways of thinking possible—not only about body parts, but about femininity in general. It is always about transgression.

Surrounding her audience with these vaginas, Cu Unjieng gives both a name and face to that which has been hidden, condemned, and policed, but in its own way, celebrated. Through this celebration of parts unknown, Cu Unjieng invites us to go beyond looking, beyond seeing, and towards the act of occupying the image with good humor and affection.

For this, her chosen medium is crucial to extending the invitation to the vagina party. Print, after all, is meant for public discourse, one that encourages repetition and mass distribution. Paper is meant to be touched and turned in one’s hands; in the most classical, romantic sense, it is through paper that ideas are transported. With Jouissance, Cu Unjieng makes space for parts to become participatory.


The art practice of Alex Cu Unjieng draws heavily from the intersections of being a woman and an immigrant, creating work that expresses a constant negotiation of identity. Cu Unjieng received her BFA in Visual Arts with a minor in Film Studies from the University of British Columbia. For Jouissance, her first solo in Manila, she combines printmaking techniques with watercolour and illustration.

Display Cases

CONTEXT: I recently had the opportunity to be part of the curatorial team of ESCAPE from the SEA, a contemporary art exhibition in Kuala Lumpur, MY organized by the Japan Foundation Asia Center and Japan Foundation KL Office. On the night of the opening, there were complaints received about one of the woodcut prints, made by Pangrok Sulap (tr. Punk Rock House), a collective based in Ranau, Sabah. This is just one piece in a three-part article about what unfolded after that first anonymous complaint was lodged, wherein the organizers chose to take the work down, and followed it with a lengthy silence about what had transpired.

The last I heard from Sze (i.e. this morning) I asked her what was up, and she replied that she is “still filled with despair.” While I cannot safely say that the crisis happening (because yes, it is still taking place) due to and at the exhibition for which we are credited as co-curators has been averted, much of my attention has already been diverted: diverted to other matters, as we tend to see everyday life as something that happens when we are not busy with art.

There are so many other things that structure our days and make up the so-called grand scheme of things. In this so-called grand scheme, we are led to believe that art can only claim so much space. It definitely does not help that the art we make and busy ourselves with has to share this laughable amount of space with other art. As I write this, our other lead curator, Hiroyuki Hattori, is in Cuba preparing for another large show. SauBin Yap on the other hand is attending to family matters, while everybody else is, little by little, if at all, being drawn in by the demands of everyday life in the modern world—art-related or otherwise.

Sze, on the other hand, is still in despair, and reminds me that despite being able to safely retreat back to my hometown (a place that should drive any thinking human being to despair), these are still matters that concern me, not only as a co-curator, not only as someone who works with art and artists and is constantly involved in cultural production, but as someone with a stake in the limits and boundaries set on freedom of speech. In other words, as a human being.

Earlier this week, the council at the University of the Philippines (where I am currently a lecturer) convened a meeting wherein faculty members across the Departments voted to decrease the number of General Education units from the core curriculum from a requirement of 45, to a mere 21 units – amounting to a mere 7 course requirement in either the Sciences, Social Sciences, or the Humanities. Combined with diminishing funding allocated to the arts and a non-existent cultural agenda, it does not take a genius or a prophet to foresee which programs will get hit the hardest by the changes set to take effect in the next school year.

Again with despair: this leaves those of us in the arts and humanities with more questions than answers. What many fail to see though is that for some, this reduction of units is already the answer. I did not come from an arts program. I was trained in the highly technical Clothing Technology, which combined Business Administration and Engineering. While many of my colleagues in grad school spent their final years, as undergrads, in museums or other cultural offices, I sat in a factory computing the optimum number of steps to streamline the production process of a pair of jeans (it’s 12 steps, like Alcoholics Anonymous). Unlike most of my colleagues in my undergrad department however, I learned to become wary of terms like “entrepreneurial” and “manufacturing,” in a word, I was critical of industry.

Now that I’m working (not predominantly, but often) in the arts, I see how the term is being put to use, with art in some venues occupying that functional space of producing entrepreneurial subjects rather than citizens and telling people what to look at rather than different ways to see.

It is easy to commit to despair when what we should be doing is asking: where, if public education falls short, can institutions like museums and other art spaces pick up the slack? And this is what confuses me most about this situation we find ourselves in, wherein my tendency to believe in a museum as a space that will fight not only for art, but for artists, has been (to put it VERY LIGHTLY) challenged. Questions like, “When art is censored, what or whom is being responded to?” do not interest me quite as much as the response itself: that censorship should consist of the deprivation of space rather than the denial of existence. Given that this incident took place in the age of information, big data, and Web 2.0, the act of censorship only affirmed the existence (possibly even the relevance) of the work; and in the attempts to create something positive in its absence (like a video depicting collective endeavor), it only marked the violence of the deprivation that comes with being silenced.

In the silence that followed the removal of Pangrok Sulap’s work from the space at Art Printing Works, it was repeatedly asked where we, the curators and organizers, were. But we were here, in despair, given our limited role in the exhibition – still we were here. But curatorship—whether in your capacity as a junior or a lead—still depends so much on space: not just the national context of Malaysia and its unspoken but widely understood policies on criticizing its institutions, but the institutions given to art. After collecting my thoughts, what I still do not understand—and wish to gain a better grasp of, given that I am bound to work in a museum—is whether the museum is a living, breathing, empowering space for art, or simply a void?

Getting Back to Work

Upon returning to my old job at the University of the Philippines, this time as a lecturer, our department secretary passed me a simple document, stating that I had not been employed for all of 2016. She explained that this would explain the lack of information on any of my tax returns, that basically there had been no employer to formally and institutionally deduct taxes from my income. What it did however was confirm something I already knew, in the back of my mind, but had felt too shy, too sheepish, or too ashamed to admit – that I, who had always considered myself financially responsible, had basically hemorrhaged money for most of last year.

I cannot say this without a heaping dose of shame, not only because from the cradle to the grave, we are expected to be on an upwards trajectory of financial success and individual milestones; but that there is so much privilege in being able to quote-unquote-fall from or forego that narrative, and still be able to put a roof over one’s head and indulge in the little extras. In my case, the money I’ve been socialized into seeing as mere crumbs has provided for me, my cats, and for the past few months, my boyfriend.

There is a steady stream of help: My parents never let me down, friends made use of what I had to offer as a technical designer and writer, I got a grant and a fellowship that allowed me to keep busy, and then finally, I got another job. These were accompanied by the many small gestures that made life easier: new and old friends picking up the tab for meals, veterinarians waiving certain fees or giving discounts, just, you know, stuff. That stuff though has added up to an indispensable guarantee of not only survival, but gratitude.

Right before I left for Kuala Lumpur (to help install ESCAPE from the SEA), I spent days crying my eyes out. My kitten, Graba, was seriously suffering from whatever disease it was that her subsitute cat-mom, Little Dot (aka Dorothy), had succumbed to. Like Dorothy, Graba had seen a number of vets, none of whom were able to diagnose her properly. Unlike Dorothy, by then I already knew that the best option would be the most painful for me. Her doctor suspected she had been having multiple seizures, although none as severe as Dot’s, and as her second night confined at the vet approached, I decided to have her put to sleep. I held her paw as she breathed her last and told her I would always be there for her. And less than 12 hours later, I boarded my flight to KL – the excitement at mounting a big project in a foreign country mixing uneasily with the lead weight in my chest.

I have come to terms with having done my best, despite not being able to save her, but I still haven’t sorted out my feelings over losing her the way I did. The day before our opening, I remembered that I would be returning to an apartment that did not have her in it. That my demanding, occasionally depressed, but sweet kitten was already gone. And while I didn’t even have time to think about it, I still wept uncontrollably. But we had work to install, captions to write, and a catalog to edit. As had so often been the case, there was no time for grief.

In its place is gratitude, not only for having loved the way I did because a life as small as Graba’s, but finding and actually having other places, people, endeavors into which I can channel that love. My chest would tighten and I was never entirely sure which emotion was welling up – whether the shortness of breath was from pure joy or utter sadness. Sometimes I hate having to travel–and with Graba in critical condition, I thought the last thing I wanted to do was go on this trip. But this trip also affirmed something else: that despite not always feeling like I have a place in the art world, I still believe in art, still believe in artists, and the ones I’ve had the good fortune to meet during this trip are some of the sanest, most generous people I’ve ever encountered. And for that: gratitude.

I have been incredibly lucky to have spent a substantial chunk of my adult life around art – writing about it, seeing it created – but this is the first time I’m doing more than just puttering around behind the scenes and following orders. This is also the first time I’m being credited as part of a curatorial team, and I could not have picked a better team to work with.

Monday, I fly back home. Tuesday, it’s back to work after two weeks of missing meetings with my kids. Wednesday, we move out of our apartment, and Thursday, the Manila component of this exhibition series opens. Friday, I meet another team for the next project, and after that is the rest of my life and whatever and ever follows, amen. But forever I am grateful. I need to remember that the gratitude should outweigh the grief.