We Are Not Aimless and “This Often Misunderstood Art Form”
“Eto. Tae siya,” was the sparse and laconic explanation given by Apol Sta. Maria when asked to describe his contribution to We Are Not Aimless, an exhibit launched at Manila Contemporary on the 22nd of January. Curated by Zeus Bascon, We Are Not Aimless gathered 27 names that were already established in the creative industries, a crew composed of graphic designers, art directors, comic book artists, and children’s book illustrators to contribute visual distillations of their ideas on illustration as artistic practice.
“One of the biggest challenges I faced as a curator was defending the need for this type of show,” says Bascon, a board member of Ilustrador ng Kabataan who ventured into soft sculpture for this exhibition, “but I couldn’t even come up with a concrete definition of illustration”. Pieces such as Mica Cabildo’s crocheted works, and toys by Isabel Roxas and Abi Goy, only add to the ambiguity of defining both the products and practice of illustration. By presenting a collection that was about as organized a Surrealist parlor game, Bascon and co. made it difficult for the exhibition to guide the viewer towards a singular narrative that would redefine illustration, which was already described in the notes as an “often misunderstood art form”, and assert its place in the canon of Contemporary Art. In this chaos, one is more likely to find a defense of aimlessness, rather than a contradiction to it.
According to Bascon, “aimlessness”, in the case of the illustrator, is to lack any unique motivation besides “slavishly” following the written word. This is based on the experiences of its practitioners, wherein the fruits of their labor serve to supplement texts, whether these are stories or advertising copy or magazine features; and that as a practice, it is mere preparation for higher art forms. This places the illustrator in the ambiguous space between artist and artisan, maintaining that archaic distinction between high and low culture, wherein illustration occupies a realm unworthy of the gallery or museum. Illustration is too light and too popular. Peter De Vries once said that “Everyone hates me because I’m so universally liked,” as if popularity and mainstream viability were threats to artistic integrity, and indicated a lack of that elusive critical component that which has the power to both elevate and alienate, making Art worthy of the sterile situation offered by the gallery.
But in this day and age, what is the gallery but another space for mass media?
To quote from an interview with AA Bronson of Canadian art collective General Idea of “[The] gallery’s relationship to art [is] very much like the garage’s relationship to the car: we use the gallery to tinker with and repair the work, but the real function of our art is out on the road, in a way — it’s within the current of the culture.” This analogy implicates the gallery as the fuse, whereas the public arena in which illustration operates—whether it’s the magazine, the street, or the billboard— is the current. Thus an exhibit like We Are Not Aimless signifies a reversal or bubbling-up, similar to the stir caused by Takashi Murakami with the when he brought Superflat and Poku (Pop + Otaku) culture to galleries and began commanding gallery prices for what could only be recognized by Western sensibilities as “low culture”. Yet, according to Murakami, this dichotomy of high and low within the art scheme is foreign to Japan—a culture that bears an undeniable influence on the overall aesthetic of We Are Not Aimless.
If there is one aspect in which this exhibit succeeds, it is by breaking the institutional parameters of art exhibition and shedding light on the manner in which we currently consume art—as a flattened object, which is primarily what illustration is. The stories read to us when we were children provided our earliest encounters with illustration: as 2-dimensional illuminations of existing narratives, texts we couldn’t give two shits about because what mattered were the pretty pictures. Today, our visual language is informed by the motions of scrolling down pages arrived at with a few clicks and consumed in the absence of the context provided by proximity. This could explain why We Are Not Aimless unintentionally bears an aesthetic similar to a teenager’s tumblr feed, wherein illustrations share space with all manners of creative endeavor regardless of how clearly the boundaries were defined, regardless of the skill and technique employed in the creation of each piece, and regardless of distinctions between high and low. This made Manila Contemporary, a space for exhibitions which occupy that narrow boundary between the popular and the avant-garde, an excellent choice to stage this exhibition.
What this could signify is a triumphant return to the sensibilities of the avant-garde, culminating in a collection that takes advantage of the absence of the conditions that honed the expertise of these artists; conditions like deadlines and stifling agency work, which most of the artists, including Sta. Maria, Manix Abrera, and Dan Matutina, are no doubt familiar with. Many of the exhibit’s participants were Fine Arts or Communications graduates who cut their teeth in the fast-paced advertising industry—a business dependent on the capitalist and consumerist conditions—and their contributions to We Are Not Aimless would eventually provide commentary on this business.
But the key word here is “creation”. Despite its attempts to break boundaries through form and content, what the exhibit failed to highlight was the motivation shared by its participants, which was to create for the sake of creating. In the words of John Berger, to draw is a form of meditation; a process that involves adding line to line in the creation of a cohesive whole—a process that perfectly distills the emotions tapped into when looking at We Are Not Aimless as a whole. “I know it’s called ‘We Are Not Aimless,’ but ironically, I started these pieces without an aim,” admits Eeshaun, a self-taught designer who has done work for both private and public institutions in his home, Singapore. “I just start with one color and one form until the whole space is filled and I need to stop,” implying that a possible aim of drawing is to stop drawing.
While the act of illustration may meander and dawdle towards completion, its purpose and responsibility towards creation remains clear. And through Berger’s definition of adding line to line, point to point, We Are Not Aimless somehow manages to hit the spot.
This originally appeared in the Mar-Apr 2011 issue of Contemporary Art. Hooray!