Are there other angles to Jose Rizal? This is one of the questions raised by a recent series of exhibits celebrating the sesquicentennial of a national hero, one of the few whose status has yet gone uncontested. Instituted by academic and cultural bodies, we see Rizal as a scholar, an artist, a subversive, a colleague, and a contemporary. We are challenged to see the mortal behind the martyr, the man behind the myth. Here is Rizal as your bro in aviator sunglasses. Here is Rizal in horn-rimmed specs, the unofficial patron of a campaign awash in yellow. These were shows that asked what makes a hero, and if the the picture we are looking at is the image of the hero or the hero in our image.
To define big words like hero (or nation or culture) demands more than a single visit or a single look. The reflex as of late has been to grab whatever strikes first, and allow that idea to germinate hoping for a successful outcome. This is what causes hysteria at the sight of a penis and allows viewers to steer clear of the #dark alley that is relativism. This is after all, dangerous territory to tread –especially for the ignorant; especially in the case of the Philippines where it is not only ignorance, but outright refusal to see things any other way (which makes complete sense for a nation that professes utter and complete devotion in matters of the unseen). It is just as evident in how even at the height of the controversy surrounding Kulo (CCP Main Gallery [Bulwagang Juan Luna], June 17-August 10, 2011) curated by Jesus Pacena II and featuring the work of 32 artists, few turned up to see the exhibit for themselves.
Meaning to seethe or to boil, Kulo was a study in what goes on once we decide to go beneath the surface. Here was an exhibit meant to challenge blind devotion, in a language Rizal himself would (presumably) have understood; but the mob present online and in public fora was nowhere to be seen at the CCP Main Gallery. What most forgot was that this was an exhibit about Rizal, a fact that has been overshadowed by the misinterpretation and sensationalizing of a single installation.
To say Mideo Cruz’s “Politeismo” is offensive is not only a given, but a lost cause, and to call out the offended for “ignorance” or “stupidity” doesn’t solve anything. It would be just as stupid and ignorant of the artist not to know his work could cause offense. You know what else is offensive? Having a fire lit under your ass. With every exhibit, a curator must run the risk of using the material to represent the complex, and allowing these complexities to get lost in the translation of the flattened object. Granted, exhibitions are a privilege not all artists are guaranteed, but has it really become too much to expect your work to be met with an open–if not an analytical–mind?
Which is also what makes Emily Abrera’s statement, that “as a culture…we ask questions” so infuriating, as it diminishes the fact that to ask questions is not a matter of being Filipino, but of being human. “Filipino” is the same tag we use to confuse fortitude with indignity and idolatry for religion. If the recent controversies (see also Santos, Rapha; Lao, Christopher) say anything about the Filipino, it’s a propensity to place virtue in blind faith and confuse a hive mind for standing united under the guise of nationhood. August alone has reduced the so-called Filipino spirit to fuel for becoming gawking bystanders and anonymous members of a lynchmob.
We revel in our mythologized “Pinoy” identity, one that is about as detailed and examined as a YouTube video gone viral. Pinoy is a problematic term that rests on fragmentation yet insists that we are the same, we are united, in spit of how quick we are to scapegoat and villify the less desirable elements of this so-called common narrative. Ever wonder why Filipinos are able to milk the short-term benefits of social media so well?
With over half a million Filipinos now on facebook, social networks have become platforms for modern day revolutions, further enabling our reputation as a peaceful people, all the while failing to acknowledge that even this is a form of violence. Here’s a tool that legitimizes the single dimension we call our “character”. Here’s an app that reduces our support for a cause to either “Like” or “Dislike”. Who needs conversations when we can simply drop bombs…or create a page with a following that is 66k strong (still fewer than the number of likes on Marian Rivera’s page).
To create scandal around a single installation on the grounds of what is and “isn’t part of culture” or what is and isn’t art is to admit that culture is not shared, but instituted. Are there other angles to a nation? Are there other angles to a hero or to a god? And in that light, shouldn’t we treat the image as just that: a singular angle, just a piece of a more complex and multi-faceted whole.
I mean, Jesus Christ (the expression, not the name), isn’t that what an exhibit is?
These are questions that are not only supposed to be tossed around but are meant to shatter the little bubbles we call perspective, bubbles that until now have been confined to the “true, the good, and the beautiful”. Only then that we can get a better look at the outside world.