or Maintaining an Artificial Peace, pt. 2: notes for Sa Ngalan ng Batas (In the Name of the Law)
A series of oil on canvas works by Emmanuel Garibay, produced by the Center for Art, New Ventures, and Sustainable Development and hosted by The Jorge B. Vargas Museum and Filipiniana Research Center
Like magic, the term “sa ngalan ng batas (in the name of the law)” opens doors, ends arguments, strikes fear, and instills discipline. Once uttered, the name of law invokes the power of the institution: these proverbial walls that keep societies in line, distinguishing the citizen from the outsider. Ultimately, it separates the individual being from the participant in social life.
“No man is an island” –when the poet John Donne wrote these words, it was highly unlikely he was using them to refer to the tasks of administering peace and order that came with the formation of modern society, and yet peace and order are integral to coexistence, at a time wherein coexistence is non-negotiable.
Building on the realization that what is legal is not necessarily ethical, Garibay continues to pull at a thread that has consistently woven itself into his body of work, looking at icons, representation, and the stubborn role they play, for better or worse, in the fabric of society. In this series of oil on canvas works, Manny Garibay explores the limits of justice as both concept and system with a colourful cast of characters devoted to the bureaucracy of everyday life. Departing from the theory and jargon that have been used in discussing the law—from Aristotle to Agamben—only simple language is used in Sa Ngalan ng Batas.
With a catalogue of titles like “Enforcer”, “Kampante (Comfortable)”, “Lumang Larawan (Old Picture)”, and “Madasalin (Religious)”, he hints at the laymen’s terms that describe the small, seemingly harmless details which nonetheless complicate our realities as members of a just and democratic society. In the faces of these everyday people, we see how corruption can unfold in even the most banal tasks.
It is in “Abugasya”, the picture of the average law student buried in the language of the legal system, that we find primary clues to the complications which Garibay has so often portrayed in his work as a social realist and activist, drawing from his education in both theology and sociology. In “Abugasya”, Garibay not only paints a picture of a man enslaved by doctrine, but portrays that very moment where words fail us, in a reminder that just and democratic are not descriptive characteristics of a republic, but remain normative in their failure to find an anchor in the common good. Through an almost mundane representation of the scholar working late into the night, we are confronted with the difficulties of enforcing a text without a unifying ideology linking what is good and what is just; where the view from one person’s window remains another’s life on the ground—and the seeming impossibility of reconciling the two.
Garibay’s law student hints at a tendency to let the books blind us to realities that are often right outside our doors. It is precisely this phrase, “in the name of the law”, that turns individuals and entire communities into subjects of a system that puts the citizen—as conscript or clerk—before the human being. In his ruminations on the force of law, Jacques Derrida (whose weapon of choice was also language) writes of the law as a text. Here we find both its greatest weakness and greatest potential: if text rests on a foundation of language, then it has been constructed. And what has been constructed can just as well be deconstructed.
“[T]he fact that the law is deconstructible is not bad news. We may even see in this a stroke of luck for politics, for all historical progress,” Derrida continues, in a statement that wields infinite potential for those able to manipulate language. This is good news for writers, preachers, and of course, lawyers, but Garibay uses another medium to frame and construct his arguments. Sa Ngalan ng Batas is not an exhibition that uses language as a weapon, but as its subject, showing how common people have turned to and made instruments of the word, the text, or the book, thus evoking the poet Paul Valéry’s description of language as “the god gone astray in the flesh.”
This confusion between the sacred and secular compromises the role of ideology, allowing words to lose their weight and language to become a mere instrument for drawing societies inward through promises of justice or salvation. Here, Garibay draws parallels between the legal system and religious congregations, not only in their use of doctrine, but in their contemporary conflicts when it comes to how sacred institutions coexist with modernity.
The other conflict Garibay hints at in this series is one of authorization, where the term “enforcement” is itself rooted in force, and the problems we encounter when we come face-to face with those tasked with not only interpreting, but enforcing these texts that govern the actions of all. This is most evident in his triptych of mug shots, distinguishing between common and high profile criminals, and how the punishment for their sins is reflected in their faces. These faces show that the differences between having committed a crime and a sin are not found in the act itself, but from the people who commit them.
The very definition of “force” may be contradicted by the vacant and vapid everymen that populate his work, yet in the hollowness of their expressions we see another kind of violence, the kind that arises from decades of apathy and indifference. Here, Garibay depicts the nameless personas that have grown all too familiar – the law student burning the midnight oil, the traffic enforcer coasting along a chaotic cityscape, the newspaper reading everyman, precariously perched on an edge he himself cannot see. It is precisely by voiding his subjects of a specific identity that Garibay is able to construct an environment built not of spaces and places, but of faces.
Or rather, of icons: this may be the outcome of an inherently patriarchal belief systems used throughout history as instruments of colonization, Sa Ngalan ng Batas illustrates a symbolic order predicated on the persona, their only unifying thread being the compromise of individuality. This remains the most common invocation of ideology—or lack thereof—in the country’s political system: see it in the campaign posters, in the billboards, and in the stained glass windows that populate the routines and rituals of everyday life in the Philippines, proving that monolithic ideas are not only expressed by tyrants or large monuments.
Echoes of this order are found in Garibay’s images where the faceless intersect with the familiar, their only unifying thread being the compromise of subjectivity, in the Foucauldian sense. What comes to light instead is the idea of the Homo Sacer, or “bare life”, an idea introduced by Giorgio Agamben, who writes “We have seen the sense in which law begins to coincide with life once it has become the pure form of law, law’s mere being in force without significance. But insofar as law is maintained as pure form in a state of virtual exception, it lets bare life…subsist before it.”
“How do the powerless use the instruments of the powerful?” asks Garibay. The question in turn is reflected in the characters who, in their familiarity, are easily reduced to caricature. The same sentiments can be found in Raoul Vaneigem’s Revolution of Everyday Life, an exploration of the channelling of mass hypnosis and state control through the seemingly harmless facts of day-to-day living—the news, our entertainment, our dwellings, and the things we are conditioned to “need”—where he declares: “The man of survival is man ground up by the machinery of hierarchical power, caught in a mass of interferences, a tangle of oppressive techniques whose rationalization only awaits the patient programming of programmed minds.” While Garibay uses a conventional, almost conservative, medium to treat a shameful subject, perhaps what should be most disturbing is the fact of their familiarity, and the patient programming that has turned the subjects of these pictures into the status quo: a system of self-interest resulting in an unstable foundation.
Sa Ngalan ng Batas: Reflections on Philippine Law, Culture, and Society, a solo exhibition of oil on canvas paintings by Emmanuel Garibay, will run on the 3rd floor of the Vargas Museum from October 4 until November 4, 2014.