Something from Nothing

Charles Buenconsejo on Reality, Anxiety, and Emptiness

Excerpted from an article I wrote for this month’s issue of Arts+. Charles Buenconsejo’s The Way Up and The Way Down is ongoing at Blanc Gallery on Katipunan Extension until Dec. 6, 2014

On a sunny morning in September, Charles Buenconsejo climbed onto the roof deck of his condominium tower to break things. This has been a recurring theme in his recent work, where destruction is performed and restoration attempted within the same series, and is just as evident in this commission: a collaborative work for a lifestyle broadsheet, with fashion designer CJ Cruz.

The two had spent that morning filming and their video opens on a grey structure, a bright red pipe runs down one side and a ladder runs down its center. Past the 10-second mark, a bright red bowl is hurled from atop this formidable yet anonymous location, hitting the ground with the resounding crash to be expected from handcrafted ceramic subjected to the whims of gravity. The silence herein is not broken as much as it is punctuated, as an assortment of colored crockery—bowls, mugs, plates—all shatter and disperse in this empty landscape.

Sitting next to me while I view the spectacle on his Macbook, Buenconsejo is careful to point out how seemingly opposing events compose a single process: chaos and order, creation and destruction – one cannot exist without the other. His studio, a high rise loft which he shares with his wife, Grace, overlooks one of Metro Manila’s busiest districts, a maze of concrete, steel, and dust that inspires the tone for most of his recent work. There is some confusion though to calling it “recent work” in that the 29-year-old has already exhibited solo, granting him two Ateneo Art Awards yet—having only begin his career as a fine artist in 2012—all his work is still “recent”.

Despite being in its early stages, his art is carefully considered and meticulously conceptualized. On his window, he has scribbled the words “death” and “time”, as if to describe the chaos outside, but really to frame another solo—his fourth in less than three years. Below death and light are “clock” and “video installation”, the latter referring to the form it will take, expressing his fascination with the mechanization of passing time. Beneath the window, perched atop a stack of books, magazines, and catalogues, is a model of the installation itself, scaled down in black cardboard. Buenconsejo, shyly apologizes for the clutter. Although the final product will be installed indoors, at the Blanc Gallery in Katipunan, the model originating from his imagination resembles a land mass, reminiscent of the earth works initiated by artists like Robert Smithson in the 60s.

From Consolacion, Cebu, Charles Buenconsejo studied Fine Arts at the University of the Philippines – Cebu before he relocated to Metro Manila in 2007 to pursue work in publishing. After five years of shooting for fashion and lifestyle glossies (“Lahat ng kabaduyan dinaanan ko!” he says, jokingly) he was invited to mount a solo exhibition at Art Informal. The result was Reality is a Hologram (2012) – a series where Buenconsejo uses photography to explore the field of perception by returning to its most fundamental components: light and space.

Despite the striking differences between the work he has produced for glossies and the work he exhibits in galleries, photography has provided conceptually dense terrain for unburdening himself of these nebulous and often unwieldy questions that cannot be expressed in words. Thus, in Reality he allowed light to do the talking: not only as a means of illuminating his subjects, but by turning it into the subject itself – bending it, casting it as color, as shadow, and as multiple exposures.

Disillusion and fatigue combined with conversations with two of his uncles (one, Dean Nicanor Buenconsejo of the University of Cebu – San Carlos, the other Dean Jose Buenconsejo of the University of the Philippines, College of Music) pushed Buenconsejo to explore more philosophical territory in his art practice, which he sees as an extension of (rather than a transition from) his commercial photography. If concepts like light, mortality, and time are any indication, his solo shows have been a means for him to lay out his ideas about the things that make everyday life measurable – the often overlooked elements that give coherence to the spaces we occupy and the days that pass; the very infrastructure of existence.

It is poetic and apt that Buenconsejo should begin his conceptual work by tugging at a thread that is common to both scientific inquiry and creation myths. This continues in Destination Unknown (2013), where he moves from considering light in stasis to capturing it as ephemera. Through photos and video, reduced to ash, or allowed to singe paper, he treats welding sparks as objects of contemplation. To weld, after all, is to melt material down in order to bind two parts: a unifying act that involves simultaneous creation and destruction. Weld can also be heard as “welt”, which is German for “world”. Given the conceptual frame supporting the action and the German translation, it becomes evident how language is fertile ground for exploring the concepts present in Destination Unknown, but Buenconsejo sums it up more astutely by simply asking: “Hindi ba nagsimula naman ang lahat sa basag? (Didn’t everything begin with a bang?)”

I chose these walls

I bought a painting: my first gallery purchase was delivered to my dad’s house early last week. It wasn’t much of a plunge, meaning I had a lot of time to consider the memory I had embedded of it before actually contacting the gallerist, who then told me (like a good salesperson) to “get it while it’s cheap” – cheap being relative in the case of average collector/clientele, and myself, the currently unemployed student.

I have never been unemployed by choice, at least not for this long. And even if people have told me that my current status as a student counts, the lack of urgency to my schedules attests to the contrary.

Back to this painting: I have never been one to make expensive purchases, even as “investments”. As a design graduate, I’m conscious of material components and construction, but I can’t bring myself to justify an exorbitant price tag. Not even as an indulgence. For a time, this was fertile ground for growing my insecurities about belonging (even remotely) to the fashion and retail industries. I could not argue on behalf of a product that was meant to be perishable, to sit close to the skin and both distinguish its wearer while signifying belonging. There were levels of uniformity and standardization that just did not merit a 5-figure price tag, even with the justification of it being an “investment”. There was no point in working to cultivate a product or a practice that I disagreed with so fundamentally; yet, the production process or the entire economy surrounding clothing still interested me. I was just in the wrong place when it came to cultivating that interest.

And so I quit.

And now I have this painting.

If there’s anything I’m thankful for, it’s having had the creative process as a constant presence. My whole life was spent around people who made things with their hands and put their hearts and minds into the work. Sometimes you see the effort sometimes you don’t, but the products themselves are so loaded with myths about creativity that distract from other arguments for their existence. Right now, the only reason I’m turning to for having it is that it exists because the person who made it exists and I want her to keep making things because I like what she does. I’m not writing this as a critic, but as someone who just bought something that can grant some level of comfort, or some way of making a space a home by reminding me of the things I value about continuing to exist and trudging forth in a largely thankless profession.

Still, I wouldn’t trade my work for anything else.

And now it’s nothing but embarrassing admissions about the damage that comes with unemployment: I wake up late. I only get out of bed when I can no longer put up with the kittens pestering me for food. There are days when I don’t write anything even if the whole point of having time off from full-time employment is to write full-time and obtain my degree as soon as I can.

On the days when I’m not writing, I draw. What is kind of embarrassing is that I just keep drawing the apartment I reserved that I have yet to sign a contract for or move into. I’m uneasy with the fact that I’m genuinely happy living alone and that for so long, it seemed like such an unattainable goal, something that came with relocating abroad or getting married – two things that I have no plans for. Then it became something I ticked off a list, along with other things that got did dis yr YEAH! SELF-FIVE!

I forget who, but someone wrote that the greatest labyrinth is the desert. And even with all of this, with the tiny apartment with my name on the door and the thesis that demands my attention and the promise of another degree, I’m bored. And of course I’m bothered by my boredom and with feeling ungrateful because of it. It’s a boredom borne of being busy, of having a job you can’t escape because I’m my job. And rather than gently nudging myself from step to step, I see me violently dragging myself around, and for what? What happens after you have trouble distinguishing one happiness from the next?

Book Club #2: Political Idiots

Aleksandar Hemon’s Nowhere Man, William T. Vollmann’s “Three Meditations on Death”, and Jasmina Tessanovic’s “Diary of a Political Idiot”

Art Workers Coalition, And babies, 1969

“I don’t bother to think what will become of us, I just know I have to survive.” –Jasmina Tessanovic, “The Diary of a Political Idiot”

And just like that, we are back here, sitting in a circle and just kind of staring each other down. I know you were all expecting that joining a club would vastly improve your social skills, but you’re with me…and…so…I thought this book club would be a joke, but it turns out I also needed it to take a break from all the reading I had to do for my MA Thesis (built on a historical framework dating from the end of the Fil-American War to Occupy…FUN!!!), I figured I’d make it a productive break and revisit my collection of literature from the Croatian-Serbian conflict.

Last time I cornered you all into this crapola I mentioned a Balkan edition to acquaint us all or immerse us in the human element of what happened in former Yugoslavia in the 90s. I saw this unfold from the comfort of my grandma’s house, watching CNN in an airconditioned room. Ahhh…cable. Thank you CNN for those sweeps through images of crying women and children layered with the standard sterile narration. I knew something was happening, but something was always happening.

Years later, I would watch a movie with Sarah Polley and Tim Robbins that quietly dealt with the subject, but this was more than a decade later so I was utterly confused about the historical backdrop which took place pre-Google—especially with, you know, being perpetually saddled with my country’s own shit. This is where I learned that it’s not history unless there’s some well-dressed white dude (or Will Smith) charging towards the fore. On a horse. I mean, at this stage I knew more about American relations with aliens that may–or may not exist–than I knew about things that actually happened in this hemisphere. (Also, has anyone seen Fury?)

There should be more emphasis on the quiet, because that’s what stuck from the story that played out between Polley (a hearing impaired nurse) and Robbins (her charge). There was no score, no sudden flashes back to endless gunfire, no spectacle. It spoke of the aftermath but focused mainly on the human cost, when all we’re left with are the stories of what we went through, the reasons we are left alone, and the few who are willing to listen.

This would be a recurring theme in the stories I’d later encounter about the Balkans, which had its share of media coverage, but never in the overwrought way history is typically spoken of if it is to signify its value. It was the kind of coverage that fell between British Royalty and the rising price of oil. There were no grand gestures, and this might be because the grand gestures were reduced to whispered secrets, as if this would contain the unspeakability of the atrocities committed. There’s also the matter of language, in which grief and curses were delivered in a language that few outside of the region understood. And so, a couple of decades later, it’s still largely made up of noise and footnotes–which is usually the case when your country is cast as a bit player in world affairs.

And hello from the Philippines, where it’s more fun! (Surprise, we speak English here!)

This makes it no coincidence that Aleksandar Hemon’s Nowhere Man opens not with its protagonists surveying the damage of a war torn home, but in a language school in Chicago. As Jozef Pronek (a recurring character in the author’s work) is reading aloud, our narrator is taken back to their childhood, as neighbours in Sarajevo, long before the siege:

“They built an ugly high rise, which we hated along with its tenants. So we would throw stones into the windows of the building and set their garbage on fire. We would corner a kid from the building and beat him up viciously. Pronek lived in the building and when we cornered him, he would never put up a fight—his nose would bleed, and he would look at us with scorching fury, and then he would just walk away. Eventually, the war against the building withered away, and we ended up playing with those kids…We let them settle, but they were still in our land, and we never failed to let them know that.”

Likening it to childs’ play speaks of the same banality referred to by Hannah Arendt; of how every petty thwarting can escalate to the more universal terms by which we understand death. “War is a great silencer of hypocrisy,” wrote James Blount, a former US soldier turned judge, referring not to the Balkans, but to the Philippines at the turn of the century. That’s it, I guess, you think you know and then you don’t, and as the bodies pile up, so does the knowledge of how easy it is to reduce a life – to make one death the same as the next, and the next.

So the real challenge is to find a language for the unspeakable, and this is where journalistic coverage takes on a literary, almost poetic quality. While Hemon dealt with the grief wrought by the siege through fiction, William T. Vollmann’s “Three Meditations on Death” and Jasmina Tessanovic’s “The Diary of a Political Idiot” began with the seemingly easy task of description: a catalog of pain done objectively, which is a mammoth task once you consider that it’s kind of fucking impossible. Think of cutting your thigh open, make the wound big enough and deep enough to show layers; then catalog the gore.

And that’s where the skills of writers like Vollmann and Tessanovic come through. This is from Vollmann’s “Siege Thoughts”, the third of his Meditations:

Every morning I woke up to chittering bullets and crashing mortar rounds. I hated the snipers I couldn’t see because they might kill me and because they were killing people of this city, ruining the city in every terrible physical and psychic was that it could be ruined, smashing it, murdering wantonly, frightening and crushing. But their wickedness too had become normal: this was Sarajevo in the fourteenth month of the siege. Needs lived on; people did business amidst their terror, a terror which could not be sustained, rising up only when it was needed, when one had to run.

And this is from Tessanovic’s “Diary of a Political Idiot” which appeared in Granta 67: Women and Children First:

It’s not even the killing that makes me die every day little by little, it’s the indifference to killing that makes me feel as if nothing matters in my life. I belong to a country, to a language, to a culture which doesn’t give a damn for anybody else and for whom nobody gives a damn.

The funny thing is after all of this, plus a lecture given by Hemon and writer Igor Stiks, I still don’t know much about the conflicts aside from the broad strokes offered in lieu of analysis. I do however, know the stories as told by Tessanovic and Hemon of exile and blackouts and what a pain in the ass it is to cross the street when there are fucking snipers all over the damn place and you could just die in your inconsequential quest for a quart of milk. War, the greatest hypocrisy, is a bitch to live through but there’s not much else to do besides continue living in the shadow cast by political conflict you’re helpless to control.

Amid carnage of this scale, it’s easy to dismiss literature or to recast definitions of value or things of consequence. What we want are strategies and statistics: body counts, shifting borders, land, and all these other complicated figures decided by powerful people who are not us. With or without war, we want to know how to get what we want, to report our victories. No one wants to count their losses, let alone describe their wounds.

At a conference I attended on design, one of the opening addresses (and I can’t find its author because the website is in Portuguese) had this to say: “In the universe of utilitarianism, a hammer is infinitely more useful than a symphony.” That was from a music professor and conductor belonging to the Department of Art and Communication at the University of Aveiro. I’ve committed it to memory as a reminder that despite the uncertainty of survival (especially in the middle of a decade-long civil war) there’s much to be gained by having faith in your voice, or in the words you use to tell a story. People are small and lives are dispensable and (I think this is from Nowehere Man [I left my copy at home–again]) others will continue to push forward with or without you. The labor of love that constitutes words, whether as movies, novels, diaries, or reportage, is another means to remember, to redeem, and to preserve dignity.