Proof of Life

Mek Yambao
Is this How You See Me?
Metro Gallery
27 July 2019

“Most people think that unless you use a camera, you’re not seeing anything. But that’s a 20th century disease. I like looking at it with my brain, where the language and the I/eye are in total cahoots.”

– Masha Tupitsyn

 “I believe that there is power in vulnerability especially when the world forces you to be tough” wrote Mek Yambao, in preparation for her second solo exhibition, Is this how you see me? The title is not a question, but is simultaneously a desire and a demand in which several layers of imagery come into play. Six large paintings magnify our view of the self on a phone screen – a view which has rapidly become the default setting for how we see the world and the life within it. As instruments of contradiction, the camera (or rather, the phone, because what is a phone without a camera these days) appears in these paintings as a means to conceal as well as reveal the subject.

Here, painting becomes part of a process, somewhere in that space between modification and acceptance, in which one must realize the place of the image within an ongoing discussion. That Yambao does not hide the use of photographs in painting these life studies is in itself a statement on the blurred line between the image and self – what Masha Tupitsyn referred to as a “disease” in the epigraph that opens this essay. To Yambao however, the image is saddled with potential, with the question “Is this how you see me?” posed both as a demand for visibility and a desire for normalcy. Normal, in her words, is “not to be stared or gawked at,” but seen – a word that has become so burdened in an age where accelerated connectivity and access to information have also resulted in oppression and erasure. 

“I remember the tipping point when I was younger and had to come to terms with it…that people are gonna look anyway.” Yambao is referring to a rare skin condition called lamellar icthyosis. While neither life-threatening nor particularly debilitating, she shares that is has caused her some discomfort throughout her life, especially at the social and psychological levels. In high-concept terrain of contemporary art, a conversation around skin would typically be dismissed as superficial, relegated to the cosmetic and ornamental along with other feminine concerns. “Skin care” as a domain, after all, posits that our skin is a thing that we wear. 

To talk about skin however is impossible without talking about the politics of appearing. To demand to be seen is therefore a political demand – a demand for the reconciliation of difference, whether that difference is cast by complexion or by ability. For anyone not born into the default settings of the world (read: white and flawless – a setting which the art world is greatly and often unapologetically complicit in), it can sometimes feel as if it is your skin that wears you. This is also the case for rare genetic conditions, like for Yambao. With this, she draws us to her preoccupation with textures: the smooth glass of a mirror, the well-worn ergonomic comforts of our mobile phones, and the grain of the wood on which she is painting all of this.

Wood grain is consistently visible throughout Yambao’s work, in that it is sometimes used to stand-in for the skin of her subjects. Is This How You See Me? however is her first time to use that texture to focus on what ails her. The manufactured smoothness of the board – the evenness of the surface, the grain that can only be made to appear through excessive sanding – draw a link between sanding a surface down and the socially conditioned need to erase a “flaw.”

What art history can teach us about painting is that the very practice in itself heavily deploys the erasure, concealment, and smoothing over of the flawed surface. Consider the idyllic scenes in a Vermeer, where the artist turns away from civil unrest to show that life goes on. Or closer to home, consider the choices of Fernando Amorsolo, whose endless series of rural landscapes was finally interrupted by the burning of the intendencia during the Second World War. 

Prior to the Expressionist and the Dadaist, to paint was to reimagine the smooth surface, and to consider the grain of the material was something a viewer could only encounter by accidentally seeing the back of the work – the untouched, unvarnished surface that was meant to be kept against the wall. 

Beyond desires and demands to be visible and to carry on normally, Is This How You See Me? is ultimately not only about seeing, but about considering that texture as lived experience. It asks a viewer to go beyond that accidental encounter with the proverbial back of the painting and really think of what it is for a concern to be skin-deep. To see as one feels is after all at the root of empathy, and to ask to be seen in this case goes beyond the visible and into the restorative.