Articles of Disagreements layers criticism upon critique
Another unedited excerpt! This time from a review of Planting Rice’s Articles of Disagreements, which ran at the Lopez Museum from September 19-December 20, 2014. This was also written for this month’s issue of Art+.
What makes a masterpiece? To Filipino art audiences, the term is typically associated with works that command reverence through the sheer spectacle involved in their display. Entire rooms are dedicated to single pieces, which are then placed under lights and behind glass. The spectacle of mastery is confirmed—applauded—by awards and a history (which usually just amounts to something being really, really old), adding up to incalculable value. To the casual museum visitor, the masterpiece validates both the cost of admission and the time it took to get there.
This calls attention to a curious gesture made by Planting Rice, a contemporary art platform founded by curators Lian Ladia and Siddharta Perez. In the exhibition Articles of Disagreements, which ran at the Lopez Museum—an institution known for its masterpieces—from September 25 to December 20, Ladia and Perez removed the works of Juan Luna and Felix Resurreccion Hidalgo from their exalted posts as central subjects of past exhibitions, and relegated them to the literal back end, where they hung in the library as archival pieces. The next step involved trading places, making space for the contents of the library in the central locations—locations where frequent visitors had become accustomed to seeing the Lopez family’s prized collection of 19th century art. Thus, prompting new questions for museum visitors not about “What makes a masterpiece?” but about what one usually expects to see in museums. This, Planting Rice seem to propose, is where the critics come in.
There are levels to criticism that are not as evident to audiences and markets, who are better acquainted with the published form often encountered in print. As a professional designation, the critic’s work is often relegated to catalogs, the walls, or in magazines, making the curatorial pursuit to “unearth the different forms of art writing and anecdotes of criticism in Philippine art history” particularly relevant. To limit this seemingly unwieldy field, Ladia and Perez made it a point to focus on a specific cluster of major texts that Ladia found in the library archives, taking liberty with the methods of curatorship unique to the Lopez by reconfiguring the term “permanent collection” to mean the holdings of the library and archive. Writings and other forms of documentation by Ray Albano, Joy Dayrit, Patrick Flores, Pete Lacaba, Purita Kalaw-Ledesma, Judy Sibayan, Bobi Valenzuela, and Fernando Zobel worked as guideposts for selecting complementary artwork.
To speak of “unearthing” is to acknowledge the titular “articles” as having been buried in the past, resulting in an exhibition permeated by nostalgia for a period in which criticism referred to published work. This highlights the different levels and venues in which critique takes place, showing how art criticism is not written solely by art critics, but is a dynamic and ongoing process that takes place both formally and informally, in classrooms or over drinks. In Nilo Ilarde’s There’s always a nail in a wall somewhere that can take a painting (2013), criticism is poetically framed as a process of perpetuity. The titular nail is hammered into place between two mirrors, propped on borrowed easels and made to face each other, the nail in the wall is thus infinitely reproduced through reflection.
Unearthed and critiqued through the work of Maria Cruz is the theory of value, often unquestioningly attributed to the masterpiece. Rather than taking value as a given in artistic production, Cruz’s Circles and Names playfully solicited donations from the surrounding community to make material worth and collaborative effort visible. For Cruz, the mission is to collect one million coins (she is halfway through as of this writing), seen in the circles and names she paints in her work. Circles in this case refer not only to the coinage that represents her subject, but to the people in her midst who have made it possible, or the ones she has named. The time it takes to finish watching the video of Cruz speaking about her work, Circles, testifies to the time one is willing to give to the realization of her project, highlighting the importance of community in the art world.
Cruz’s contribution is one of many that openly questions what counts as criticism by representing it as an art form in itself—by hanging it in a gallery, acknowledging its material formulation as education, as collaboration, as commentary, or as documentation. By framing critique as communal, Circles expands the definition of “criticism” beyond published work, accommodating the exchanges that take place in the informal and intimate spaces, exposing viewers to the a world of work that frames art-making as just another job. A spectrum can be drawn to illustrate the variety of jobs taken by artists to make ends meet, from the classroom-like tribute to Anselmo “Bobi” Valenzuela to Employee 55, where painter Buen Calubayan creates an office space out of an unpopular profession, shedding light on the removal of the representation of the artist at work from artwork itself.
This also unfolds the contentious cycles of converting language in the multi-sensory experience of exhibition making. This point of contention makes it particularly apt that one’s experience of the exhibition begins in shadows. The narrow hallway leading to the Lopez Gallery is painted black, and on the walls are reproduced photographs of installation views which bear markings Raymundo Albano himself made by hand. From there, the exhibit engulfs its viewer in text: in private correspondences, handwritten captions, and scrapbook clippings, all of which expose a private life of art production and curation, captured in words.
It is worth noting out that the Lopez Museum was founded on an intellectual tradition that encompassed journalistic integrity and criticality. The Manila Chronicle, one of the earlier Lopez holdings, had artist H.R. Ocampo in its staff; its leading opinion columnist, I.P. Soliongco, is credited as Don Eugenio Lopez, Sr.’s first adviser in assembling the art collection and library; and the museum’s first curator was none other than nationalist historian Renato Constantino. This made it a fitting location for an exhibition on the written word, where art is treated not as merely visual, but as a critical device.
The usefulness of Planting Rice’s historiographic strategy for curation is another issue altogether in the age of information, where we speak not of “articles” but of “content”, of “aggregation”, and would trade any amount of criticality for “media presence”. From behind the closed doors of a small space, it brought to life the documents that will continue to defend the value of claiming that “The critics loved it!” But for now, we speak of going viral as if articulation were some kind of disease—which it probably is, considering the concept of art criticism as a vocation that needs to be unearthed.