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.

2016

2016-06-10-10-40-42

Our little love club: Little Dot (renamed Dorothy), Graba, and Lt. Dan. Only Graba made it to the end of 2016.

I typically end the year by answering the same year-end survey, but this year I’m too lazy to dig it up. I also forgot to pay my rent and overlooked a few other things; like today, I missed a meeting, but that wasn’t entirely my fault since the person who set it sent me the wrong date. So I guess 2016 really did a massive number on us. Remember when we were all bitching about 2009? I got really fat in 2009, but that’s beside the point (which I also have yet to make).

What I’m after here is maybe changing the questions we ask ourselves, year after year, especially when it comes to what we want, what we are becoming, and how we are to live.

This year, I realized having too many cats derails you from living your own life. However, this isn’t even a question of quantity, but of one cat feeling like too many cats. 2016 was, no doubt, the year of Little Dot – I spent most of this year feeling like I could and should save her, and taking the emotional and financial hits for it. We–her vets, her reiki healer, my partner, and I–somehow extended her life by another 5 months. She passed away in October, in the care of my boyfriend and the good people at The Pet Project in San Juan, while I was in Texas, visiting my sister.

And while I will always love and miss her, the capacity to care that came out of that loss also revealed so much about my relationships, as well as the possibility of relating to people through animals. I have a boyfriend now (not entirely because of the cats), and because he is a wonderful human being, in that time of need he showed how much he is able to give, in loving what I love. In all those months of caring for Little Dot, I never once heard Javier say that she’s “just a cat” or make any suggestions about letting nature take its course.

In September, we began nesting, cohabitation…basically he moved in. His verbal crutch is adding “basically” to everything, even if it’s not basic or basicalized in the process. I had some basic ideas of the number that cohabitation does on any relationship, and basically you show everything. Especially if you live in a studio.

So even if we’ve only been dating for a year (as of this month) and living together since September…_BASICALLY_, what I’m trying to say is that it’s nice to be known this well by anyone.

And as I should know by now, I’m still not that comfortable talking about what intimate, romantic relationships mean to me. At least not online. Maybe in some kind of support group with people who share this discomfort? Maybe I (no, definitely, I) have some unresolved issues given the past relationships I dragged myself and other people into? What I am sure of though is that I’m with someone with whom I can unpack all that baggage; I am, after all, with someone who’s willing to live with me. Also, it’s really convenient, since he hails from the deep south. (Re, the south: I still hate the south. Yuck. Gross. Burn that shit down. Set fire to every toll gate. Save us all from this blight on urban planning.)

Once you make these kinds of changes–like, living with your boyfriend of less than a year–the resolutions become an inevitability. I resolve to make space for another adult human being in my life. This adult human being does not need to tolerate me, since he is in no way bound to me by blood, nor does he possess any responsibility for my existence. If we run out of toilet paper, I either have to run out and buy toilet paper instead of scrounging around through the bottom of my purse for Krispy Kreme napkins, or politely ask him to pick up some toilet paper. If we are to grow up into fully-realized human beings, we need to do this together, respectfully, honestly, with love and occasional heartache.

And these things are a lot to take on for 2017.

I also resolved to adopt fewer cats and spend more time at the shelter, mostly with the cats at the Sick Bay. I now know them all by name and they recognize my scent (which is basically the scent of other cats, but whatever).

2017 will be okay.

Dedication

For Norma Crisologo Liongoren

To say Norma Crisologo Liongoren was dedicated is an understatement. On top of the curatorial work she had been doing since 1981 at the Liongoren Gallery in Cubao, Quezon City, Liongoren practiced social research, and community organizing and development, while nurturing and supporting the careers of countless visual and performance artists.

Born on September 22, 1946 in Lingayen, Pangasinan, Norma Crisologo, or Nong as she was called by those closest to her, studied nursing at the University of the Philippines in Manila, where she first encountered Alfredo Liongoren, who was then the Art Director of the Philippine Collegian. After marrying the artist, Nong’s nursing degree took her to Davao, where she practiced an art of caring that became vital to her curatorial endeavors.

To call her dedication an understatement however feels cliche, especially in a field known for thankless jobs and inflated egos, where one is expected to work for love and getting paid in exposure. Nong knew all of this, yet she labored quietly but relentlessly, joining both mainstream events known for spectacle (and speculation)–such as Art Fair Philippines–while opening her own often community-based efforts in the confines of the gallery where she also made her home.

Cultural work, especially in the highly-specialized, highly-competitive field of fine art, often utilizes a small, skilled staff, and Nong was no stranger to this fact that many museums employed fewer than a dozen to hang, market, guard, explain, and ultimately conserve works of art – making space not only for beauty, in all its subjectivity, but the often contrasting ideas that accompany this very subjectivity. Nong knew all of this, and made sure to treat those around her not simply as workers, but as friends and family. These ideas fueled a relentless drive to make something or somewhere more than a gallery, with so much to be said for what she actually made space for in the house on New York St.

“She adopted a whole family,” shared her daughter, Hannah, of the people running the Liongoren Gallery’s day-to-day affairs. On top of that, studio space in the compound also served as temporary shelter for those displaced by Typhoon Yolanda in 2013, when as many as twelve families took refuge within those walls.

“Ma never had a problem in her mind about opening her doors to people,” continued Hannah, “Up to the very end, my mom stubbornly worked and fleshed out her beliefs. Her lifetime couldn’t catch up.”

And from the beginning, ahead of her time, she clearly understood that a gallery was meant to make space for the better world imagined through art. Art, Liongoren understood, expressed in form and concept the potential to spark revolutions; more importantly, and beyond Art with a capital A, she understood the limits of the gallery space. For cultural work to mean anything, Liongoren knew that culture was about people, and the most meaningful events took place when relationships were formed.

Published in the Nov-Dec 2016 issue of Art+ magazine, in loving memory of Norma Crisologo Liongoren.

Beyond Autobiography

Alee Garibay’s As It Is…

In the years since I began writing about the painting practice of Alee Garibay, her work has drastically shifted from the abstract to the unmistakably concrete and personal, with this show as no exception; yet, the same cannot be said for the horizon of her concerns, which continue to grasp for the universal. The layer of text that has become characteristic of her paintings is noticeably absent from this series – perhaps rendered superfluous by the scale and intricacy with which she attempts to recover the coherence of a life that could so easily be dismissed as random or accidental.

With As It Is…, Garibay reframes the everyday, reclaiming the banality that allows it to be swept aside or cast off. The work documents a brief period of perpetual motion, living between home and studio or hosted by old friends. Ironically, this “semi-nomadic” lifestyle also allowed her to more closely observe the personal as well as the general conditions of domestic space–or a lack thereof. Movement is crucial to the work, in that the series narrates a period in Garibay’s life wherein home was not necessarily a place, but a verb.

This is often joked about as a symptom of “trying to find oneself” – a state bearing the same damning diagnosis of narcissism that this generation has become accustomed to; but what we can choose to see instead upon peering into these works is a recovery of the poetics of noticing – or The Everyday (2). The very phrase As It Is… references this political and artistic movement originating from the 1960’s avant-garde, one that involved “the embrace of the ordinary” and “a lyrical appreciation of the small, simple, and ephemeral things in life…” The aimlessness and “deliberate strategy of boredom” evident in the aesthetics of The Everyday, however, are contradicted by Garibay when asked about how she portrays the subject.

“There’s an impetus for clarity and form, for ‘refining’ the concept of self,” she explains. Indeed, the spaces that turn up in this series are intimate, recalled photographically yet hazy with nostalgia. There is a voyeuristic quality in the (re-)composition and recollection of the rooms and unmade beds that have thus far prevented Garibay from drifting off into full-blown aimlessness. Her titles as well testify to an acknowledgement that these states are fleeting but necessary, as in Overnight or Abang (tr. “to wait”); and despite the time spent or lost, they may be for the better, as in Sanktwaryo (sanctuary) or Pahinga (tr. “to rest”)(1). The figures in Bantay and Paanyaya elevate the series to a spiritual level, implying how every act of exploration or self-care is also a matter of acting upon faith.

In “Clearing the Ground” (1961), Henri Lefebvre wrote that “it is in everyday life and starting from everyday life that genuine creations are achieved, those creations which produce the human and which men produce as part of the process of becoming human: works of creativity (3).” Through painting, As It Is… moves beyond autobiography, offering a deliberate and meditative observation of what has otherwise been rendered invisible by ubiquity. By re-stating and reclaiming a slice of life “As it is,” we are thus invited to look harder.

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(1) Note: This is not Garibay’s first time to intimately render domestic space; the subject was integral to her contribution to Kapitbahay – a two-man show with Renz Baluyot, also shown at Art Verite.

(2) Sally Banes (1993). “Equality Celebrates the Ordinary,” in Documents of Contemporary Art: The Everyday, edited by Stephen Johnstone. Cambridge, MA: The MIT Press, 2008. p. 114.

(3) Henri Lefebvre (1961). “Clearing the Ground” in Documents of Contemporary Art: The Everyday, edited by Stephen Johnstone. Cambridge, MA: The MIT Press, 2008. p. 31.