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?)”

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