This is just the way people talk

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Ang Kwento Nating Dalawa (2015)
Nestor Abrogena
1 hr. 30 or something

This post has spoilers because I need to talk about that clusterfuck of an ending.

Ang Kwento Nating Dalawa opens with Sam walking towards a train station. He takes a phone call and explains he is late. We find out he is a filmmaker, among other important details meant to fill us in on the life of an accomplished young man who is on his way to Berlin for some filmy thing we’re never really filled in on. Further in, he meets up with Isa as he is transferring from one train to the next. She explains that she is also late, she has an exam. Oddly enough, there seems to be no rush, and for the next ten minutes we watch them dawdle, dragging their feet, towards the next train.

Using transport as a backdrop for a relationship that’s going nowhere makes for a promising metaphor, and references to movies that have done the same (Two for the Road, Richard Linklater’s Before… series, Sa North Diversion Road, That Thing Called Tadhana) are peppered throughout Ang Kwento Nating Dalawa. There is a very clear debt to Before Sunrise, specifically: there it is onscreen in one of Sam’s classes.

What Ang Kwento… seems to neglect however is that these were films that coasted by on the strength and sheer delight of watching two very intelligent people talk, with love as the side effect. That’s not what this movie is. In Ang Kwento Nating Dalawa, we have the opposite in that it is fucking painful to watch its characters attempt conversation–which is really strange considering that Sam is a filmmaker and Isa is a writer. But it’s painful and awkward and you wonder how these two even bother, but whatever. We’re already here! Here being this mess where Isa has a boyfriend named Frank who is abroad  (maybe?), but the point is this dude she was cuddling on the train with is not Frank. He is Sam (the filmmaker who can’t talk good). And Sam all throughout is trying to sit Isa down to talk about “the plan”. Like so: “So what’s the plan, Isa”

“I don’t know, I have to a) meet my groupmates, b) record this song, c) rewrite my script because it’s cheesy.” Heck, I thought the plan was to rush to school because she had an exam. Or something. Whatever, she’s avoiding him, we get it. I thought this whole time was that Isa’s plan was to take her midterms, but I guess not.

This happens throughout the day and into the night. We follow them around while they try to talk but end up not reallly talking. There are cases in which actions speak louder than words, and this…could be one of them. Actually, there are so many other vehicles which could have been used to unravel the messy narrative of Nestor Abrogena’s directorial debut: comic book, music video, photo essay. It is, after all, very beautifully shot. Instead we have this full-length feature that requires dialogue and gets awkward chit-chat for trying to convey that man, relationships are hard! Cheating on boyfriends is hard! Commuting is hard! Life is hard!

You know what else is hard, this film seems to say, writing a script for people who can’t improv to save their lives. When the narrative isn’t overburdened with the infidelity-induced anguish of these kids, it takes a stab at lightness by bringing in Luke – some smug asshole whose only job is to call everyone else in this movie an asshole–and Karen, who Luke is trying to either date-rape or charm into having sex with him despite repeatedly being rejected. I know this is supposed to be funny, but it’s not. It’s gross. And “Baby It’s Cold Outside” was written more than half a century ago, so this “he’s only being a jerk because he likes you,” needs to stop being packaged as rom-com fodder.

BUT WAIT, we soon find out that Luke is not the biggest jerk in this movie! And neither is Isa! The thing is, it took me two tries to get through Ang Kwento Nating Dalawa: the first time, I could only take an hour of its insufferable babbling, but I also wanted to understand the links between conversation and reason and the constant claims about how “real people” talk, especially with the current administration.

Then I read a review in which a plot twist THAT WILL BLOW MY FUCKING MIND was mentioned, and here it is (spoiler):












Sam is actually Isa’s professor. Or, Sam is also Isa’s professor.

So here’s the thing: we have a movie, we have several hours to justify this even messier side of the quandary in that YOU DO NOT DATE SOMEONE YOU’RE GOING TO HAVE TO EVALUATE. It’s pretty fucking basic that allowing the personal and professional to intermingle that closely just adds up to some really fucked-up power play, and no amount of “love” or anguish that looks like love, or agony can fix that.

Unless, of course, you can talk your way through it (e.g. “Brief Interviews with Hideous Men”, “Apocalypse Child”, or “Sa North Diversion Road” again)?

The even bigger problem here is that despite there being other characters given screen time, specifically to lecture Sam on why this shit should stop, no one mentions that “Dude, maybe you should call it quits with this chick because SHE’S YOUR STUDENT.” First, ew. Second, we are instead led to believe that she’s the one with the problem. She’s the one who needs to make a plan, to clear shit up. This whole thing is packaged as “romance” because we’re supposed to find it ***AaaaaawwwwwW*** ˜ROMANTIC˜ when people (dudes, in particular) pull this against all odds bullshit rather than respecting someone’s space–especially if that someone is YOUR student (note: not A Student, Your Student, as in someone you will be giving a grade to). In that rather than see Isa as off-limits because she’s in this ethically compromised position, she is only off-limits because she “belongs” to someone else.

That, right there, is some serious Wattpadd-Twilight-50 Shades level toxicity packaged as noble infinite sadness wank, and despite having all the time to clarify or justify why these jerks keep being jerks, Abrogena fills the screen with establishing shots of Metro Manila (here is Makati CBD! Now here’s the Pasig River! Now Edsa! And now we are in…side Isa’s bedroom? What the fuck just happened, where the fuck are we?!). The rest of the film is Sam being sad: here he is being sad by the train tracks, now he’s sad while looking out over the balcony, now he’s sad while staring at himself in the bathroom…and before that, he’s really sad while looking at his laptop. What’s he even looking at? It’s a mystery…

From what I’ve read about this movie (from the little that is posted online) Ang Kwento Nating Dalawa began as a twenty-minute short, and to be fair, it works as a collection of scenes.

Strung together in an attempt at coherence however, the thread is lost, with cardboard cutouts fumbling through a story that unfolds over the course of one day and the following morning. This isn’t the kind of story that really needs to be told though, because it gets us nowhere, speaking only of messy people without revealing any of the inner complexity that makes them into actual human characters. These are pretty pictures though, but what a waste of film.

It goes on

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One of my kittens, Porky (aka Paul, Jr.) died last week while I was in Malaysia. The first message I received upon landing was from my Mom, expressing her regret at having to be the one to deliver the sad news.

I try to give all my cats fair attention, but I somehow overlooked whatever had been ailing Porky. Right before I left, he was finally vaccinated, after a long wait due to his frail health. Nicknamed for his flaring nostrils, Porky had already been confined when he was very young for respiratory problems that prevented him from putting on weight–despite his having been pudgy as a newborn kitten. He was born in December, and being the only tuxedo in Paul Stanley’s litter of three, became her Junior. He was a sweet kitten with a kind face and big inquisitive eyes. This picture is of him perched on the pile of books that passes as my nightstand. This is the view I often woke up to when he was still living with me, before I had to leave him with my Mom, who cares for my cats whenever I’m away.

I was so busy before leaving for that last research trip–this time going from KL to Penang to Sabah, and back to KL to wrap-up. Little Dot had fallen very ill, and to this day she still hasn’t fully recovered. She still can’t walk. While Porky was never the liveliest in the clowder, none of us saw it coming. Still, I can’t help but feel sad, despite the urgency to keep going. Small animals by default lead small lives, and his whole world was limited to my apartment, his vet, and my mom’s house. I would have wanted him to see beyond that, but all I can hope for at this point is that he at least felt loved while it lasted. I wish he had known that if I could have been there to cradle him as he passed on, I would have been there.

But if life goes on after the loss of a human being, what more with a six month old kitten? There’s essays to be written, exhibitions to hang, places to go, people to meet, etc. Not that my cats give a shit about these things, which is precisely why their company provided so much comfort. With them, it was all about food and naps and time slowly being emptied out.

A sick cat on the other hand is all about grief and worrying and “why can’t she stand?” But it’s also about the tiniest, most incremental improvements: warm paws, color restored to their noses and ears, finishing their food. Now that Little Dot can lift her head, I feel like celebrating.

Mom assures me that he went peacefully and that he was buried properly, and that’s really the least we can do to recognize that a life was lost, however small. It still angers and frustrates me that so little is expected of us when it comes to the way we treat the other beings that we happen to share this world with–and how quick we are to abuse this privilege, this belief in what we’re owed by virtue of being human. And how undeserving we are of the title.

Rest in peace, Porky. We really did our best to give you a good life.

Line By Line

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Marc Gaba goes beyond the visual

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Marc Gaba, Vault, 2016, oil on canvas, 65 x 80 in.;

There is an exuberance to Marc Gaba’s use of color, a buoyancy that almost contradicts the discipline of each stroke, each stripe on the canvas. Using a palette knife to apply the paint, one can imagine the amount of care that went into the seven paintings that make up Days of Creation – a visualization of first chapter in the Book of Genesis, which was exhibited at Galeria Duemila from April 8 to May 30.

And yet, color is not the first thing that comes to mind when speaking of Gaba’s work–at least not when confronted with One, an oil on canvas measuring 80 x 65 in. which opens this series. A bright white orb floating in a sea of darkness, One represents the calm command to let there be light, signifying not only the dawn of time, but the separation between the visible and the unseen. For Gaba, it could also be “a ball of yarn, suggesting ‘the beginning of the spin,” or–in jest–“the white-haired vagina of a very old African woman,” suggesting perhaps the cradle of civilization?

Kidding aside, Gaba pointed out that despite telling a story of contrasts, the color black was not used in this rendering of the first day–nor does it appear anywhere on the palette used to paint the Days of Creation. By using very deep browns instead of black, Gaba meant to evoke that “if to be human was to be of the earth, then the act of God creating man can be derived from the same idea.”

And it was good and thus, Gaba asserts, through this seemingly inconsequential choice of colors, that the book of Genesis is a story not only of how God made a world of differences (between night and day, between sky and sea), but an ongoing narrative of humanity’s place on earth. This affirms Gaba’s belief that true power is not about spectacle and grandeur, but can be found in the calm, gentle rhythm of shared responsibility, as seen in Kingdom – a wall-bound installation showing 139 photocopies of the artist’s hands.

Beyond showing how we got here, the creation myth he renders is about presence: where the Days of Creation take place not in a largely constructed past, but in a future that continues to take shape in the now. It thus becomes no wonder that Gaba’s paintings–especially his more recent works–are so large, demanding an awareness of their countenance and a need to step back in order to be viewed in their entirety.

“I am acutely sensitive to scale,” says Gaba, a statement affirmed by New Condition (2014), created for a group exhibition at the Vargas Museum entitled, Still. From afar, New Condition depicted an aerial view of Tacloban in the wake of Typhoon Yolanda. It measured approximately six by seven meters “in order to capture a disaster that was larger than all of us.” Up close however, the work becomes a collection of crowdsourced responses to “what, in the context of climate change, do you love without apology?” Applied in varying shades of grey and blue, the words on the canvas act as “a tendered primer for environmentalism,” honest answers to what makes existence worthwhile, amidst crisis and destruction.

The smaller works in Days of Creation measure 60 by 80 inches (or five by six-and-a-half feet); the other pieces are not much larger, at 65 by 80. Like the small moments that are revealed in New Condition, what appear to be lines on canvas become layers and textures and an entire spectrum of color that is barely perceptible from afar–let alone on a screen or a page, which is a typical problem for painters. Gaba’s insistence on the experiential nature of his work links him to the legacy of abstract minimalists, such as Agnes Martin, who painted details so precise and so exquisite, that they made her work difficult to photograph and just as impossible to document.

Rather than rely on documentation, Gaba asserts the need to “experience painting.” To this, the use of lines in his painting practice can be described as both strategic and conceptual – a means of describing the process and tracking the work’s unseen dimensions, where lines denote the strokes and textures that come with the application of paint, as well as their trajectories. To Gaba, the line is both a means of representation and a means of thinking about painting.”My work is about space, about what lines produce.”

“What lines produce” may also refer to Gaba’s writing. A published poet, Gaba has a way with words that skillfully articulates his formation as an artist working across several disciplines. “The work that I was doing in poetry very much resembled visual art,” he says. “I spent a lot of time staring at the words…so when people say I was a poet and now I’m a painter, that comment tends to overlook the fact that my poetry was a very visual practice.”

To this, Gaba cites the influence of Mark Lombardi, who gained some notoriety in the early 2000s for his graphs and maps which drew links between global finance and international terrorism. Lombardi referred to these works as “narrative structures”, and in a similar manner, but completely different method, Gaba combines the visual and the verbal in his work. It is in his combination of media and disciplines that one finds an insistence on the visuality of poetry and on painting as a literary medium, as well as a working definition of what it means to practice abstract art.

Through abstraction, in what is arguably his most accessible work, Gaba goes beyond using painting to illustrate and interpret the word of God. Here, painting is also a method of inquiry and an ongoing, open-ended exercise, hence Days of Creation. In the white cube of Galeria Duemila, the exhibition consists not only of a suite that signifies a week’s worth of work (at least that’s what it was in the hands of God; the series itself took Gaba months to complete), but is completed by installation and sculptural pieces.

Affirming this need to go beyond the visual, the viewer’s hands are required to complete the Future Shape of the World, a sculpture composed of a mirrored pedestal that houses a soft lump of black clay which one can play with–shape, if you will–by reaching through a round opening on one side, covered by black garters. Through Future Shape…, Gaba composes an exercise in contradictions: here is a vitrine one can look into without actually seeing its contents, in a space and a module that demand the performance of reverence while requiring the viewer to reach in and touch what has been deliberately concealed. These are elegantly rounded out by Future Shape being, after all, a malleable object.

“The world is an unfinished work of creation,” wrote Gaba in his statement on this latest series, “and as long as we exist, we are still creating the world.” The choice of the pronoun “We” refers just as much to how reaching in to touch, feel, and manipulate the Future Shape of the World requires not only faith in what we create, but how–amidst this ongoing act of creation–the self remains the only thing we can clearly perceive and deliberately shape, so that we may live on this earth among others.

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This is an unedited  version of a feature written for Art+. At the time of writing, the visual artist Marc Gaba was getting ready to open an exhibition on the Book of Genesis entitled Days of Creation at the Galeria Duemila. The show will run until May 30. Galeria Duemila is located at 210 Loring Street, Pasay City, Metro Manila.

Name, Kind, Application, etc…

Charles Buenconsejo at ArtInformal

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Opening on 21 April 2016

The images in this series were taken with a small camera, much in the way that everyday life in the 21st century is documented with the smallest of cameras – a literal pinhole into the everything and nothing of the most mundane existence. The lie here—or the contradiction—is to call these documents part of a series.

What Charles Buenconsejo presents instead is a tidal wave of images, or rather an attempt at making sense of the deluge captured through this bizarre (and ongoing) experiment with self-surveillance.

“The pool is a system of movement….”, wrote David Foster Wallace in “Forever Overhead”, a short story in which he narrates (what might be) the internal monologue, running through a young boy’s head. The setting is a public pool in the middle of summer. It is his birthday and he has just turned 13. He is climbing the ladder towards the diving board, steeling himself to submit his body to gravity and make the jump. And yet, in the eleven pages that Foster Wallace uses for the story to unfold, nothing actually happens–at least nothing noteworthy, nothing epic, in the grand tradition of American letters: a boy, accompanied by his family, celebrates his birthday at a public swimming pool. We are told “The pool has a strong clear blue smell.” The ladder is slender. Its rungs are “very thin”. And the water “is only soft when you’re inside it.”

While Buenconsejo rarely raises the subjects of fiction as examples in his work, fiction provides an interesting channel for unpacking the artist’s fascination with the paradox, or the inherent contradictions of merely existing in the information age. Bearing a range of references that runs from Plato to John Berger to Alan Watts, it is all too easy to dismiss Buenconsejo as an artist trapped in and victimized by his own mind—and his attention span. In every solo exhibition, from 2012’s Reality is a Hologram to last year’s Relative Nothing at the Ateneo Art Gallery, the artist presents an exhaustive (and occasionally exhausting) inquiry into a singular metaphysical concept – whether it’s time or light or repetition.

By carefully considering the medium and method of creating his work, Buenconsejo has moved past photography and video and into the more arbitrary categories of mixed, inter, or new media. An example of this would be the video and object installation, Life, Death, and Rebirth, and Just Like A Sea of Mirrors (currently on view at The Metropolitan Museum of Manila as part of The Philippine Contemporary: To Scale the Past and Possible, curated by Patrick Flores and Tessa Maria Guazon). This suite, consisting of two screens and one mound of broken ceramic and glass, swept into a neat circle approximately 2 feet wide, breaks down the process of the work’s creation: showing the actual rooftop where Buenconsejo tossed a shopping spree’s worth of brightly-colored crockery onto the cement floor; followed by what might be the same situation, this time with the scene of the crime washed out and filled in with bright white nothingness; down to the objects that may (or may not) have been compromised in the stylized wreckage.

Asking what it means when life, death, and rebirth move in a single cycle, he magnifies and fragments that moment when an everyday object hits the ground and becomes something else. And while the two videos arguably function as both documentary and data, it is the object itself–voided of its intended use–that points to both the absurdity of “intended use” in a universe where we are all dust. There is also the futility of treating an object with so much care, ascribing so much ritual, in a world where the fragmented and the whole refer to the same thing.

The Math

The Math was supposed to be a title of a column for which I grossly underestimated the research. In its short run of two editions on Pinoytuner, I proposed to do a very sober count of gateshares, seating capacities, recording costs, etc. – in other words, the numbers that added up to independently producing and distributing music.

What got in the way of that was, as always, the math of my own life. It should be a bigger problem that cultural workers are still the only people relied upon to document the existence of culture, and yet we end up so caught up with the business of existing (i.e. paying the bills) that we are unable to fully commit to the task.

This is on my mind now because it’s April, which means my annual health insurance tab is on its way.

I signed up for an annual plan because I knew I would only be overwhelmed by an additional slip of paper to account for every month. More or less, my fixed expenses are rent (11,000), gas (2,000<), cell phone service (500-1,500), and utilities (500 for electricity and water). Things are a little more flexible when it comes to food, which falls within a range of around 500 to 1,000 a week, and that includes the cats.

I could need another expense column altogether when it comes to my pets. I only have one dog and I've had her for ten years. The cats though–because of all my cats, I have a binder full of receipts and other such medical records which I refuse to go through because the amount I've spent on them might just depress me. On the other hand, I had that much to spend on them despite not having full-time employment, and I guess that's something?

Then there are the unforeseen expenses – trips to the vet, cute shit I spotted, things I can't let go, friends who need help covering their own expenses, nights out that I can't say no to because I have the worst FOMO.

My situation is not really exceptional. Not a lot of people working in the arts have full-time jobs; however, a lot of people working in the arts come from the same middle to upper classes, which should also give a good idea not only of who gets to call themselves "artists", but who gets to make art and the kind of art that gets made. If art mirrors social concerns, then this is definitely a big problem.
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Before I let go of the guardrail that is full-time employment and stable income, I signed up for all the things I knew I would be denied as a freelancer. I made sure to have a fairly comprehensive insurance plan, a US visa, and separate bank accounts for the things I needed and the things I might want, among other kinds of financial tools that would keep me afloat so that I could eventually work where I wanted and with whom I wanted to work with, rather than work for.

It did not happen overnight, in fact, it took close to a decade of planning, beginning from the moment I left Ateneo and realized my private school tuition for one semester could cover four years at UP and then some. In my dad's words: I received kickbacks from what was meant to pay for college; the way I see it, I saved us all close to a quarter of a million pesos (which is an insane amount to pay for education and, like art, tells us something about who gets to be educated, but that's another topic altogether).

Despite working in fashion and visual art – fields associated with excess – I am not the type to splurge. Except for underwear and hosiery, very few of my clothes are bought brand new. This has also taught me a lot about the strange geography of the city: because Manila doesn't do curated vintage, the used clothes go where the "garbage" goes. I did not realize how much of our income goes into clothing our selves until a friend told me about having to hide her credit card because her bill had already gone over a hundred thousand. We were both 23 at the time and overhauling our wardrobes to fill the demands of corporate life. But while her bills were in the six-figures, I only felt the burden of how I was supposed to store what I'd accumulated from other people's castoffs.

That was my third job, though. Three or four more jobs later, depending on how you count, the only thing I'm sure of is that I would not have been able to sustain this lifestyle without having been born into it. While my siblings and I didn't grow up in a wealthy household, we did not have to know what it meant to scrape by. There was always a good support system. Add to this that my sister and I did not attend the kinds of private schools that would have put us in even closer proximity to the myriad ways in which we could be found wanting.

I'm still trying to wrap my head around all these other numbers: the passport number I key in when I'm traveling, seat assignments, calories consumed…this morning, I texted my friend Kathy saying I couldn't shake off the sadness that comes with not knowing what we will and will not regret once we lose control of our bodies. Our friend Luis has been in the hospital for the past four months, and last night was the first time I visited him and our friend Mick, his girlfriend.

I hate hospitals and I hate that we don't have a lot of options when it comes to repairing our bodies or caring for our health. "What do we do, Kathy? Do we eat less sugar and live less so we can stay healthy? Once you're hospitalized, do you regret all the fun you had?"

"Let's just live our lives tapos bahala na, hahaha!" she replied.

My dad used to say "you can't take it with you," referring to all the wealth, all the things you accumulate in a lifetime. I say "used to," because my dad is also a hoarder who loves shopping for things he doesn't actually need, opting for things that make him happy. What he "can't take" with him, once he goes, is a house full of old plates, hardwood furniture, woven mats, books, and other bits gathered on his travels–even if he rarely ventures anywhere new.

I'm thinking of what constitutes wealth now because of how crucial wealth is, materially and conceptually, in the business of sustaining life. Hospital confinement is expensive, even health insurance is expensive, and in order to get adequate coverage, many of us working in the more precarious fields–culture, art, academia, entertainment–need to consider skipping a meal or two. And at the end of it all, it's still impossible to predict what's going to happen. And once it’s happening, what other options are there but to paddle forward. All we can know is that we have one shot at living, just one; and that has been the subject of so many cheesy narratives in film, in Nicholas Sparks novels, in platitudes our parents pass on…I guess living is really all there is to do.

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