This House is Open but You’ll Have to See It My Way

Louie Cordero at Open House, The 3rd Singapore Biennale

Search for Louie Cordero online and you won’t find a lot of pictures of Cordero himself; instead, you will be inundated with choice cuts from a body of work done over the span of nearly ten years, with a range running from the sequential to the sculptural. Setting aside a prolific career, Cordero is personable without the persona. He laughs easily and speaks in what could be described as a warm deadpan. He has most of his epiphanies while biking, and his favorite color is yellow ochre, because not only is it “the color of s**t, right?”, but a transition towards sepia: setting the tone for nostalgia and sentimentality for a fading past, which figures into Cordero’s work just as heavily as the scatological humor and fluorescent hues for which he’s known.

From his studio in Cubao, Quezon City (a former comic book publishing house) he has done album covers for The Sleepyheads and Radioactive Sago Project. He is also behind Nardong Tae (Nardo the S**t), a series of four photocopied comic books (with a fifth one on the way) about an anthropomorphic turd fighting for justice in a world submerged in the metaphorical crapper. Locally, Cordero identifies his audience as “young, daming bata,” the types who would find humor in his work before anything else; but one can just as easily enter the Cordero canon through, in his words the “very regal” gallery setting, with shows such as Sacred Bones (2010) and Absolute Horror (2008). “The reason why I work and I still do what I’m doing is because,” after a pause, “I don’t know what I’m doing.” He continues with a laugh, “But I don’t need to explain myself in a literary or academic form, because this comes off to me as a more interesting way to show what I want to do and say what I have to say.”

Cordero has made a name doing figurative pieces, taking cues from comic book imagery, kitsch, and ephemera, bringing to mind local contemporaries such as JP Cuison and Jayson Oliveria. The word “visceral” has been used to describe his work, hinting at how Cordero borrows from 70’s horror and cult classics. There have been departures from this aesthetic, such as Slow Education (MOSpace [2011]), but he has made the inevitable return with My We (2011): his contribution to 2011’s Open House, the 3rd Singapore Biennale, which was spread over four different locations around the city and drew over 196,000 visitors. “The best part was collaborating with so many different types of people on this project,” he says of the hand lent by art students, electricians, airbrush painters, carpenters–even tailors, all working together with generous funding and support from the Singapore National Arts Council, and the organizers and curators of Open House.

For My We, Cordero exhibited a hot pink room cluttered with figures, frozen on the floor and mounted on the walls, in futile attempts to escape gruesome deaths. Broom handles impaled fibreglass torsos, cartoon faces were now stuck with forks, bottles, and butter knives. No kitchen utensil was deemed too innocent for the kitschy gore, to which gaudy paintings on the Pepto-Bismol walls bore silent witness. “I was fascinated by how the works of prosthetics artists for horror films turn into cult objects. That’s why all the wounds and gore imagery were done in that way,” says Cordero, describing a tedious process that involved casting live models, then adding clay wounds before executing the final product in fibreglass.

Luckily, My We did not suffer the same fate as Simon Fujiwara’s installation, Welcome to Hotel Munber, which was in the room adjacent to Cordero’s at the Singapore Art Museum. Similar to the controversy surrounding Mideo Cruz’s Politeismo (2011) last year, Fujiwara’s installation was censored (publicized as “under maintenance”) due to complaints of suggestive and pornographic content, and eventually de-installed before reaching the public eye. My We only blurs the line between the pleasures of entertainment and the public’s morbid fascination with brutality; a comical train wreck that raises larger questions about how audiences should receive corrosive images, versus how they actually do.

Setting the soundtrack in the corner of the room was a videoke machine, generously coated in candy-colored skulls and psychedelic scenes of suffering. Looping on the machine was a muzak rendition of none other than “My Way”, with the words going up in flames as the song played. Written by Paul Anka in the late 60’s, “My Way” was conceived as an anthem for the end of Frank Sinatra’s career, sung in bitter protest at being forced to retire. Since then, both the Sex Pistols and Jay-Z have released renditions of this hymn to former glory – which also happens to be a fitting anthem for Cordero’s home country, where it’s every man for himself (or as Cordero’s title suggests, every faction for themselves). But the song truly gained notoriety as the subject of a New York Times piece about the “My Way Killings”, a string of murders committed at videoke bars around the Philippines, on account of frustration with the song, singer, audience, or all of the above. “Perhaps we should not be enjoying ourselves at the expense of such a serious subject,” wrote Singaporean blogger Cindy Yeo, in a review of Cordero’s work which received the piece as a direct commentary on the killings.

Despite Yeo’s perception of the work, My We is a piece wherein enjoyment precedes commentary and representations of gratuitous violence. This was clear in the sharp bursts of “cheap enamel colors” (Cordero’s words) that merged with heavy metal imagery to produce the videoke centrepiece. This was clear in the comical doom written on the faces of the “victims”, who faced the final curtain by doing it their way, their final expressions resting on that narrow divide between orgasmic pleasure and searing pain. There is something undeniably funny about My We, or as the song goes: “And now, as tears subside, I find it all so amusing.” However, by viewing all of this in the privileged space of a gallery or a biennale, we tend to ask ourselves first if it’s even okay to laugh. Viewing an artist’s work in a context completely removed from the one in which it arose leads to a greater variety of readings, which could either be conducive or counterproductive to the artist’s vision.

Cordero admits that commentary on the “My Way Killings” was incidental and not the piece’s primary motive. “My other proposal was to bring in a choir of the old ladies who sing the pasyon, and have them sing Norwegian Death Metal instead, while maintaining the rhythm and intonation of the pasyon,” he says in Tagalog. Financial and logistical constraints prevented that from happening, so for the meantime, here was My We, the result of Cordero’s association of biennale’s title with parties– in which videoke is ubiquitous and “My Way” is a fixture on every playbook. “At the time, the last party I saw was one I biked past in my neighborhood. There were a bunch of rowdy guys outside, and from there I just came up with this image for what I would do,” Cordero shares.

This is how Louie Cordero usually works, with each piece first coming to fruition as a series of images in his head which he obsesses over for some time before giving them creative direction. My We is just another instalment in Cordero’s lengthy resume, in which humor plays an integral role, whether or not he intended it to, claiming the kitsch and irreverence of works past and present as the result of “bombardment”. “With every project, I feel like I’m being haunted by what I want to do. I can’t even sleep until I get it out of me.” This bombardment and obsessive behaviour can account for the cohesion of Cordero’s aesthetic, with inspirations ranging from back issues of Mad Magazine, to Fort Thunder, to Futurism.

A 2001 graduate of the University of the Philippines, College of Fine Arts, Cordero trained under conceptual artist, Roberto Chabet. Rather than get caught in the crossfire between the program’s social realists and conceptualists, he found himself carving out his own niche, one in which he could allow his work to flourish amidst the inexplicable sources of the many images that consume him. He worked even as an undergrad, illustrating for magazines like Pulp and the literary quarterly, McSweeney’s. The inconsistency of both incoming jobs and incoming paychecks however pushed him to pursue studio work full-time, reasoning that he would rather be poor doing something he loved, than working for compensation in a thankless environment. “I work eight to ten hours every day, except weekends. You still need that discipline.”

Currently, Cordero is working on a series of collages, doing flower paintings his way, to be exhibited at the West Gallery in Quezon City this March. Alongside that, he’s also beginning another sculpture: a 7-foot tall take on Tatlin’s tower, which resulted from pondering the perils of living in post-industrial society. “So if this is the tower,” he demonstrates by raising one arm, “I’m going to hang one little guy here,” he says gesturing to what could be a tier on the Russian futurist’s (yet) unrealized masterpiece. The vision is grand enough, leading to more eight to ten-hour workdays, slaving away in the studio, followed by proposals explaining Cordero’s fascination with Futurism and what he calls “the emptiness of gentrification”. “Pero (But),” he continues with a mischievous grin and further gestures to the poor figure he has chosen to dangle, “Nakalabas yung pwet niya (His ass will be hanging out).”

This article originally appeared in Contemporary Art Philippines, April 2012
Image via Lalaine Lim,

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