Ode to Common Things

Geraldine Javier at CICB, 2013
Geraldine Javier at CICB, 2013

Now you know some things about where to put your energy, about what it means to build up instead of tear down, what it’s like to nurture good things so they grow. You wouldn’t trade anything for anything. All of this is true. And yet let us not skirt the issue that something was lost. Something has been lost.
Elisa Albert, “Currency”

I was at Cheongju over the weekend for the 8th International Craft Biennale. For obvious reasons (okay, maybe they’re not so obvious, they never have non-selling design shows on this scale in the Philippines) I have never been to a design biennale, so when a friend I met at Gwangju the year before posted the announcements for the exhibition and the homestay, I jumped at the opportunity.

This is the result of coming from, and now teaching, a design program that’s ambivalent about calling itself a design program and seems less than enthusiastic (I’m kind of tiptoeing around the possibility of offending anyone here, you see) about the profession. But I have always been interested in design, and I’ve been lucky that my mom has supported and cultivated this interest in her own way, ever since she saw my cutting holes into my socks to make onesies for my dolls.

From there, she would bring back bags and bags of fabric scraps whenever she’d get clothes made. Usually they just got piled into a corner, only serving their purpose much later when I was in college and needed swatches for projects. But that was about it. Other than sampling them for portfolios and such, the opportunity to really exhaust the full potential of a material as pliable and versatile as fabric did not present itself. What was exhausted instead was the idea that we weren’t designers. Unfortunately this was done without making it clearer what designers could and should be doing.

There were other things that complicated this issue: for one, there’s the lack of a budget. We’ve been told we had to raise our own funds for our facilities – which is bullshit. It’s a public institution, and to apply the strategies of the private sector to running it is just cruel. We also come from a culture wherein aesthetic pleasure can only come from a place of economic stability.

All bullshit, and all bullshit capped by the nature of the institution that is supposed to be nurturing it.

the mushroom chair, sorry captions to follow

This is the 8th installment of the biennale, entitled “Something Old, Something New” for reasons you can probably Google. Every day I went, the place was packed. And packed in the sense that you don’t get anything out of this kind of design show besides the opportunity to be around objects. You don’t take anything home other than that experience.

On the second day, I went downtown to catch a show being hosted by the Gwangju folks, Huiung Jin and Dirk Fleischmann (that means “Meat man”, I know. It’s hilarious), who teach art at the university and run a chandelier building lab out of Cheongju, with Dirk lecturing and Huiung translating. That’s where I met Huiung’s wife, Venus, who was all, “I was wondering who the hell would want to come see a biennale and subject themselves to a homestay, and now here you are!”

And while it was one of the stranger things I’ve experienced (clue: it’s nothing like couchsurfing because couchsurfing is completely foreign to Koreans), I didn’t see anything strange about it to begin with because South Korea has always struck me as the kind of place that would go above and beyond to promote their culture at the level of industry. Further proof: Cheongju is actually the smallest city in South Korea (at least that’s what my hosts told me), and they have a fucking chandelier lab. They have art spaces, music venues (called Sound Garden and Pearl Jam – also hilarious), and they take the time to bring their kids to see some fucking contemporary art. When I say the place was packed, I mean the place was packed with children.

Meaning it doesn’t stop at effort, it actually gets executed, and I’m sure this has a lot to do with lifting their asses out of the third world, etc. There have been a lot (okay, around 3?) articles on modern art being a CIA weapon, or Oasis being part of a government conspiracy. The same has been said for Hallyu, or Korean wave, which kind of makes you wonder about the suspicion we’ve cast on government intervention in the arts–especially when it’s done right.

There’s a lot of hope in creating an atmosphere that says you’re capable of getting shit done–which is what design should be about. It’s not just about creating something functional, it creates an environment of efficiency, and that in itself is a beautiful thing.
South Korea is full of these kinds of places, which makes you wonder if another biennale, another conference, another area gentrified to attract the creative classes is redundant.

But it’s one thing to promote something or endorse it–which god knows we in the Philippines are good at. There’s a special case to be made for places such as this, which just a couple of decades ago were in even worse straits than the Philippines; and it’s a case I’ll probably only understand if I choose to get any further into it.

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