Talking to Strangers

On Marionne Contreras’s A Collection of Bruises, Curses, Baby Teeth

In A Collection of Bruises, Curses, Baby Teeth, Marionne Contreras overwhelms the audience with a shocking amount of pink. It leaps through doorway and into the halls of the Cultural Center, working more as the very conceptual foundation of the show than simply as the color used to paint the walls.

That Contreras would choose a color used for so long to denote and describe women as vacant and vapid vessels feels both redemptive and confrontational, creating an atmosphere and producing the space. While this is arguably what any respectable installation should do, for a female artist to have a room of one’s own is saddled with far more than simply presenting her work. By speaking of her girlhood in a public gallery, Contreras’s first solo exhibition also tangentially refers to how being a girl has been reclaimed in recent years—by the Women’s Marches of 2016, by a female-led political opposition, and by the very promise of a future that is female—a future wherein “women’s work” will one day be about more than emotional labor and domestic servitude.

via CCP Visual Arts and Museum Division on Twitter

At the entrance of the small gallery hang a dozen candy-colored resin frames, strung precariously from the ceiling with loose bits of thread and fraying yarns. Their hollow centers begin the narrative of girlhood that stubbornly sits at the center of Contreras’s exhibition, a work that invites one to peer through while seeing nothing. To the left hangs some lady, a fiberglass bust of a woman’s face, shrouded by a floor-length veil and further concealed by a bouquet of flowers. Having worked on the piece for two years, Contreras speaks eloquently of the anxiety that came with revealing some lady to an audience. “I kept changing her face,” she shares, of this drawn out experience of carving out an identity that would risk being the focus of her first exhibition. Until finally, the only way to reveal some lady was to show nothing.

Everywhere in A Collection…, Contreras employs the materials and methods of “showing nothing”: a veil here, a curtain there, cabinet doors, a picture frame scaled down and drowned by its heavily ornamented surroundings. Plinths and tiles are placed to dissuade guests from coming any closer, yet in all these attempts, Contreras only draws more attention and scrutiny to this deeply personal unveiling of a woman coming into her own. The works ask you to listen, but also to look away.

Rather than bear the stereotypes associated with “the feminine touch,” the kind that makes a house a home, A Collection…projects an uneasy intimacy. It is both inviting and unsettling, wherein Contreras’s work is soft, delicate, and given to antebellum and Victorian prints and patterns, all the while failing to conceal a malevolence lurking not far beneath the surface. All throughout, her work suggests how softness is just a fragile, superficial layer that keeps the broken edges from piercing through.

“I really just wanted to make something beautiful,” says Contreras of the motivation to exhibit, and for the most part A Collection…is a showcase of beauty given the parameters in which the very idea of “the beautiful” is meant to work. In I am My Father’s Daughter, fabric and concrete work together in an altar-like tableau dedicated to the artist’s father, while on another wall, the harsh glare of neon spells out a subversion of this loving tribute.

Punctuated with a heart, the words “Daddy, Daddy, I want to kill you so badly,” cast a fluorescent glow near the gallery door. The work elicits giggles and uneasiness: daddy issues are after all both a reminder of systemic oppression under patriarchal structures but also of the privacy compromised as entertainment in this heavily networked age of oversharing. Because the work is so instagrammable, both levels of interpretation will undoubtedly make their way into the afterlife of the exhibition as a backdrop for countless selfies. It is also a line from one of Contreras’s poems and should be read, like most of the text that appears in A Collection, in the context of her need to make thoughts and ideas known; to let them out or get them down on paper, while keeping them to herself.

Before venturing into sculpture, Contreras’s chosen medium was poetry – evident in the texts on the wall, and in a letter left by the entrance for visitors to take. “Dear Stranger,” she begins in her letter, while in her wall text, she speaks of “some lady”; other characters in this narrative are a classmate, a mother, two fathers, a grandmother. It is through this cast that we may see A Collection not as the stories of objects, but of relationships and the memories built around them.

Narrating the strained ties formed with friends and family over time is further revealed in the title piece consisting of three assemblages. A Collection of Bruises, A Collection of Baby Teeth, and A Collection of Curses refer directly to a line in Contreras’s letter, where she speaks of collecting things as a child and placing them in boxes. In these miniature cabinets of curiosities, she mixes the magical with the mundane: a necklace, a book, a teacup, a coffee press, a skull, actual baby teeth, hand-drawn portraits, presents from friends and other odds and ends. The cabinets both open into a world that stubbornly stays small while attempting to reach out, and it is by placing these very deliberately selected and deliberately arranged collections behind half-open doors that Contreras is able to show her unease with exposure. Lacking the tongue-in-cheek humor of her works in neon (a medium that only makes sense in public spaces), the assemblages reveal sentiments that have yet to be threshed out, but might also be better left as they are, in all their organized chaos. There is no way to sum up these collection of things, in doing so, one would have to be able to make sense of a collection of memories, of moments.

One touching moment, hidden at the back of the room, is a corner table upon which Contreras has placed a dried up bouquet of flowers and a jar of soil. Above this hangs a drawing of a woman: her grandmother, the “original party girl,” who kept her sanity by going to dances while the Philippines was reduced to rubble during the Second World War. In this corner, rather than creating objects to stand-in for all the complicated emotions arising from memories, Contreras has chosen to pay tribute through preservation: the flowers were from her own wedding, the soil is from the grave. The woman in the picture died only two days after Contreras was married, making this tableau not a recollection, but an alternative. It may also be a way for art to grant a simple wish.

We lose people but we can keep objects, seems to be the stubborn refrain for any collector, but the tensions in Contreras’s Collection of Bruises, Curses, Baby Teeth reveal a knowledge that it is actually the opposite that is true.

This essay was commissioned by the Cultural Center of the Philippines Visual Arts and Museum Division as a response to Marionne Contreras’s first solo exhibition. It was assigned for internal circulation on the CCP Newsletter, with absolutely no official ties to any local periodicals or broadsheets.