Badly Buried

Alessandro di Pietro. Tomb Writer, 2021. Photo by Domenico de Conte.

Artists: Jacopo Belloni, Irene Coppola, Alessandro Di Pietro, Giovanni Giaretta, Eleonora Luccarini, GianMarco Porru, Agnese Spolverini, Massimo Vaschetto, Ilaria Vinci

Co-curated with Jade Barget and Naz Cuguoğlu

Coordinated by Lucrezia Calabro Visconti and Michele Bertolino

Dates: October 2 – November 28, 2021

Palazzo Re Rebaudengo, Piazza Roma 1, Guarene

Beneath the Palazzo Re Rebaudengo, there lie underground tunnels. Nobody knows where they lead or what they hide, but some say that if you listen carefully at night, you can hear voices and see shadows turning quickly around the corners. Beneath the cover of domestic space, these tunnels might stand for how the fantastic is merely hiding in plain sight.

Badly Buried is a descent—a dive below to what lies beneath. Beyond secret tunnels that serve as our gateway to the subterranean, we begin to discern the underground as a shapeshifter: it is the soil, the subconscious, a mine, a sex dungeon, a cave, or a grave. It is a space where both the material and the imaginary coalesce.

The appeal of the underground has shaped mythology, epic poetry, and popular forms of literature across time. From 24th century BCE Egyptian myth of Osiris’ descent into the underworld to become master of the Afterlife, to Jean Valjean’s fall into the clammy sewers of Paris, that hide the wretched, in Victor Hugo’s Les Misérables in 1862. In Notes on the Underground (2008), historian Rosalind Williams surveys the subterranean as conceptual terrain, charting a genealogy of tales so ancient and universal that their fundamental structure—the opposition of surface and depth—may well be rooted in the structure of the human brain.

Descending into the underground and its inner worlds is an act of searching, of contending with the unknown, the abject, and the internal; of opening passages and holding space with the monstrous. Journeying downwards, the exhibition asks: What knowledge arises from the act of descending physically, psychologically, and socially? Emerging from the underground, what narratives do we uncover? What can obscurity reveal?

Having crossed thresholds between worlds, knowledge resurfaces in the form of performances, installations, and moving image works investigating notions of labor, secrecy, pleasure, monstrosity, and death. The works bring us from the bowels of a BDSM dungeon to a pixie’s bathroom, from the depths of the subconscious to the earth, and back again.

Jacopo Belloni’s sculptures and installations bring esoteric practices, rituals, and contemporary spiritual practices to the historical space of Palazzo Re Rebaudengo. Ilaria Vinci’s works are speculative in their nature—making use of fantastical realist narrations, she imagines alternative realities, while Alessandro di Pietro’s “TOMB WRITER” turns the palazzo into a tomb, where dead bodies return to the earth—a cyclical way of thinking about time.

While entering the room that holds Irene Coppola’s work might feel like ascending above ground, the scars she surfaces from recent history tell another tale. Using industrial materials, Coppola plants a ghostly orchard, where tropical plants silently testify to the violence of warfare and colonial intervention. Climbing further puts the viewer in front of GianMarco Porru’s “MALEDETTA.” In this three-channel video installation, we witness a hypnosis session where a voice offscreen reveals, in spellbinding detail, how Medea—a magician and master in the art of potions and poisons—turned into a monstrous figure as a result of forces far beyond her control.

Journeying into the underworld also means looking inward, into our own depths. For Badly Buried, Eleonora Luccarini nosedives into the abyss of her multidimensional self to wrestle with her alter ego, Leonard Santé, while Massimo Vaschetto explores BDSM culture wherein, resembling the katabasis motif in literature, sadomasochists descend to underworlds and return physically, emotionally, or spiritually transformed. There, the artist finds resonances with Christianity.

Sinking deeper into the underground of the Palazzo, Giovanni Giaretta’s media archaeology practice excavates fantasies of the cinema cavern and the minerality of our digital devices. Beneath slick surfaces, the extracted materials seep through. These excavations and extractions take us further down to the bitumen mines of Abbateggio, where Agnese Spolverini tells a story not only of hidden labor and oppressive working conditions, but the immense sympathy and solidarity needed to sustain life in this hostile environment.

Nothing stays underground for long when they are badly buried. The soil will erode, bringing secrets, suppressed knowledge, and social underworlds to light.

Click here to download the exhibition booklet.

All photos by Domenico Conte (2021).

Where We Are: When the Storm Comes?

When speaking of revolution, we often forget to mention the many moments of waiting and merely surviving. Experiencing the mundane means that you have survived another day – there is nothing to report because you have evaded surveillance.

Hương Ngô, We are still here / Chúng ta vẫn ở đây / Narito pa rin kami

Where We Are: When the Storm Comes? is an online zine in three languages, done in collaboration between feminist publishers Gantala Press and Bar de Force Press. This project is an attempt at documenting everyday life and feminist responses to being locked down or surveilled, as part of our respective country’s solutions to curb the COVID-19 pandemic.

Gathered here are projects that question and critique the rhetoric of resiliency and the strategies of discipline, silencing, and censorship that pervade the so-called New Normal for both the Philippines and Vietnam.

Nasaan Ka Na, Mara-bini?

Mga Kuwento ng Kalayaan at Kasarinlan na Kinakatawan ng Mga Rebeldeng Anak ni Francisco V. Coching / Tracing a History of Liberation and Empowerment in the Stories of F.V. Coching’s Rebel Daughters

29 January – 7 April 2019

Pasilio Vicente Manansala

Cultural Center of the Philippines

Pasay, Metro Manila

In 1935, the comic book novelist and illustrator Francisco V. Coching created Mara-bini, what Professor John Lent referred to as “an Amazon-like warrior” whose adventures pre-date those of Darna and Wonder Woman. Shortened from “Marahas na Binibini,” (which directly translates to “fierce maiden”) the name does not only evoke images of a woman as a warrior, but draws attention to perceived contradictions of being both brash and graceful, intimidating, yet lovely. 

In the komiks, Mara-bini lifts a lost stranger from the muck, her serene face a portrait of both compassion and strength. That Coching could conceive of this character is radical and ahead of its time. The series in which she appeared, first published in 1941 in Bahaghari, was discontinued due to the Second World War. It is this abrupt ending that raises bigger questions about what could have been had Coching’s readers grown up with more heroes just like Mara-bini.

Women in Violent Times

But Mara-bini did not entirely disappear. In the 1953 series, Dumagit, she appears once again, defending her space before the appearance of the titular character, with whom she will eventually fall in love. This, unfortunately, is the role readers have become more accustomed to seeing, both in and out of Coching’s work. 

In the ongoing grand narrative unfolding under the capitalist patriarchy, we see women constantly cast as victims, if not merely love interests. Other instances would go as far to cast them as both. 

The oppression women experience each day is often magnified in the universe of the comic book–a medium known to target boys and men, wherein women are often silenced or sexualized. “Komiks in the Philippines is virtually a man’s world, from the publishing managers, writers, and illustrators to the workers in the publishing house,” wrote Glady E. Gimena in The First One Hundred Years of Philippine Komiks and Cartoons. In Liwayway Magazine, where Coching often published his work, we will see women as mere objects in the advertisements that surround the features and serialized novels. Titles like David Martel: Pleyboy Ditektib and …naku, ang BABAE! abound, casting women in often reductive, if not oppressive, roles.

Installation view, CCP Pasilyo Vicente Manansala. Photo: Poklong Anading.

Women on the Battlefield

Foremost a storyteller, Francisco V. Coching’s elaborate and occasionally unlikely plots found ways to represent women with their own identities and complexities.

In Espada (1952), one of Coching’s best-loved characters, La Sombra, makes an early appearance. But instead of a Carlo or an Angelo behind the mask, our hero is actually Leonida, daughter of Don Teofilo, who later becomes the town’s mayor.

Women cross-dressing in order to cross enemy lines repeats itself in Duwag ang Sumuko (1964), a serialized drama set in World War II. Here Isabel crops her hair and prioritizes function over form by wearing pants. With this costume, she attempts to convince guerillas that she is Abel, a soldier who can fight alongside the best of them.

In Pambihirang Tatlo (1968), Coching continues the World War II narrative, this time with Victoria as a competent leader of a guerilla contingent. Unlike Isabel, Victoria is accepted as she is and does not have to play dress-up to be trusted with her job.

Considered a golden age of film production in the 1950s, studios like Sampaguita Pictures and LVN Pictures drew heavily from serialized komiks like those of Coching’s Kontra-bida (1955). Images based on original illustrations made use of Coching’s (and Federico Javinal’s) well-known cinematic framing, producing a fascinating addition to the stereotypical roles that actresses were often cast in.

Coching’s Bella Bandida (1970) follows Anabel through an elaborate tale of revenge, from being a girl next-door to the comic strip’s bandit queen. Refusing to be a mere love interest or second in command, Bella displaces Tigro, the head of the Dambuhalas, by seducing him in exchange for power and recognition. She gets revenge not through violence, but through reforming the powers that had failed her. This epic saga of a woman in control of both her destiny and her sexuality shows how Coching did not shy away from weaving a more complex tale of female agency. 

While Mara-bini and Bella Bandida showed women going off the grid, Waldas (1954) and Talipandas (1958) portrayed women working within the confines of the capitalist patriarchy. Both komiks featured themes that triangulated between sexuality, agency, and capitalist gains within an otherwise unforgiving system. Rather than trivializing the ordeals women must face in order to get what they want, Coching casts an eye that may not always be sympathetic, but is definitely engaged in their plight. 

Women Continuing the Fight

A rich variety of characters and stories runs through Coching’s work, granting the reader a look into his ideas about where women belonged when it came to the everyday struggles he portrayed in his komiks.

While often possessing stereotypically feminine traits–softness, compassion, empathy–Coching’s female characters are also allowed agency and even militancy in choosing their battles. Depth and meaning are added to the phrase “Rebel Daughters,” once considered in light of the komiks medium. These works circulated en masse, often contradicting the constraints and expectations typically placed upon Filipina women. Targeting the middle to lower classes, one can imagine the ideas that stirred and sizzled upon their consumption.

Installation view, CCP Pasilyo Vicente Manansala. Photo: Poklong Anading.

By asking “Nasaan ka na, Mara-bini?” in light not only of Coching’s women, but of the rebel daughters of today, can we possibly trace an arc from Mara-bini’s first appearance to the leaders of contemporary feminist movements? 

Declarations of “The future is female!” as well as hashtags like #BabaeAko and #IamEveryWoman can find a safe space within the frames Coching drew, in which women lifted men up with little effort, commanded armies, and most importantly, led movements. 2019.

Nunelucio Alvarado

Songs from the Sea

10 Nov – 10 Dec 2018

Hulot Gallery,

Iloilo Museum of Contemporary Art

Mandurriao, Iloilo City

Detail from Nawong, 2015-2018, acrylic and gouache on handmade paper.

It takes two hours to travel to Sagay from Bacolod, along a well-paved highway flanked on either side by vast expanses of sugarcane. Planned and built during the American colonial regime, the whirr of rubber on asphalt echoes the metallic spin and thrum of the sugar mills that first brought prosperity to Negros’s elite. They serve as a reminder that down these same roads, the cogs of industry and empire still move in tandem, bearing the spine-like stalks of sugarcane as proof that modernity is a product of backbreaking work. No harvest is made without first toiling in the fields. 

The difficult questions of “whose toil? Whose back is being broken?” has long preoccupied the painter Nunelucio Alvarado. Nune, as he is called by friends, is a founding member of the Black Artists in Asia—one of the most prominent collectives in the region. Born in Fabrica, Sagay, where the monocrop that flattened the province gave way to the steam trains and railways of the Insular Lumber Company, Alvarado first learned to paint from his father who worked as a sign painter. Alvarado lives humbly, choosing to stay in Negros and work within his community for most of his life. 

Nawong, 2015-2018, installation view.

No stranger to hard labor and the militarized environments created to protect elite interests, Alvarado is known for work depicting dignity amidst death and despondency in the cane fields of Negros. One of these older works, Kaupdanan sa Kampo, hangs in the galleries of the ILOMOCA. A massive piece, measuring 5 by 8 feet, the word kaupdanan means “company” in English, translating in this case to a camaraderie despite hard labor. The five men in the frame are surrounded on all sides by bundles of sugarcane, there is no space for anything else to peek through, no light nor air, stripping the work of the romance typically associated with depictions of farm life in the Philippines. 

“[T]he myth of the rural idyll never did find a congenial ground among the artists of Bacolod,” wrote the critic and historian, Alice Guillermo, in her essay on Alvarado entitled “Sugar is Bitter.” Yet, the men in the kampo, for all the darkness that surrounds, still display a dignity and resilience – traits Nune has over time become known for depicting without glorification. The artist’s gaze remains squarely fixed, not so much on suffering, but on what it is to survive systemic injustice in a deeply feudal society.

For Songs from the Sea, Alvarado shifts his gaze, to the coastal areas of Sagay – a town far removed from the concrete and cacophony of the city. Here, the artist has made not only a home, but a community, far from the opulence of Bacolod and Silay, but in no way removed from the concerns of Negros Island.

Installation view, Nunelucio Alvarado, Songs from the Sea, 2018.

Inaawitan ako ng dagat (I am serenaded by the sea),” he says of the peace he has found in this place, a peace that has paved the way for a new kind of prosperity – one that feeds back into his community, enriching the lives of its members through art. This may seem like a far cry from Alvarado’s jarring depictions of Negros’s cane fields and mills, from which the harsh and oppressive conditions created for its most downtrodden workers cast an unrelenting glare at the viewer from within the frame. But Alvarado still draws a strong thread between both forms of engagement, citing new ways we can work together, expressed in this exhibition though the simple act of staying local while reaching out.

Like most of Nune’s works, Songs from the Sea begins with a story, and here we start with the most seemingly mundane objects. Recovering rocks, sticks, paper, and plastic, Songs is an attempt at reclaiming humility and recognizing how space is shared not only within society, nor only among humanity, but with everything that surrounds us. Recounting how he had badly stubbed his toe on a rock, shattering the nail and causing it to bleed, Alvarado instead retaliated with what he knew best: by putting brush to paint and giving the stone color. “Nawala ang depression ko dito, (My depression went away with this,)” shared Alvarado, while contemplating one of his works – not a large canvas, but a pebble, small enough to turn in the hand and enclose in a fist. 

There is sweetness in the gesture, but also an acknowledgement of potential: with it came the recognition that color draws happiness and breathes life into space. It was a stone that started Alvarado’s affair with the so-called small things that make up this show – an affair that not only reflects, but builds upon the notion that art is not only restorative, but radical in itself. 2018.

Living Spaces

Hyperreal Estate and the Architecture of Dispossession

17 August – 2 September 2017 at VETRO

Quezon City, Metro Manila

Featuring the work of Indy Paredes, Miti Ruangkritya, Grid Magazine (Fruhlein Econar, Edric Chen, Kenji Onglao), Make Believe Productions.

Miti Ruangkritya, Dream Property, 2015. Vinyl decal on glass. Photo by Sandra Dans.

Unlike property booms elsewhere, ours is neither fickle nor financialized: instead of global capital, it is underpinned by our globalized labor, and as I outline above, is sustained by sentiments of hope and home. It is possibly the most foolproof scheme for making money from an urbanizing, globalized country without an industrial base. This is a complex development that deserves more scrutiny. But one simple way that we can make sense of the property boom is to take as axiomatic the idea of property as theft.

This theft involves many interests, and takes many forms:

It takes the form of rent-theft, seen in the immense wealth accumulated by the biggest Philippine companies, underpinned by a return to rentierism, and away from value-creation; Of extortion, seen in the way landowners big and small keep their plots idle as speculative assets, withholding them from the common good until they can get a higher price—which, in turn, is invariably too high for a dignified life for most Manilenses; Of dispossession, of those forced from “prime land” for a new business district, from farmland for a new subdivision, and from the coast for a new resort; Of disenfranchisement: of a city built in a way where our civic role is not that of the citizen, but that of the consumer;

Seen in this light, a property boom is simply a looting spree: a heist coursed through millions of square meters of new-build real estate.

Kenneth Cardenas, “Measuring the Manila Square Meter,” from the catalog for Living Spaces: Hyperreal Estate and the Architecture of Dispossession, 2017.

It took over two years to find a space I was willing call home – not only because I didn’t see anything I liked, but because much of Manila and the spaces close to the university where I worked had all become prohibitively expensive. This was despite an ongoing real estate boom that was clearly going to result in an excess of residential spaces.

I became interested in how these condominium units—some measuring no more than 10 square meters—were advertised to young women, like myself, as well as the actual dynamics of making a home within them. From there, I drew up a rough sketch of the exhibition that would become Living Spaces while I was in Berlin, participating at a week-long conference called The Wohnungsfrage Academy. Named for a pamphlet written by Friedrich Engels in 1872, Zur Wohnungsfrage was one of the earliest documents to frame housing as a site of crisis, especially within the social conditions that were created as Western Europe underwent large-scale industrialization. Over a century later, facing new sets of problems created by global industry and mass-migration—although the two go hand in hand—The Wohnungsfrage Academy became a site where artists, theorists, and academics could reframe the housing question posed by Engels at the turn of the century.

At the time, I had also been studying curatorship at the University of the Philippines, where I was writing a thesis about women and emotional labor, and it was through strands on domestic work and the production of space that I made connections to Engels’ housing question. It is also through these connections that Living Spaces was first conceived using a feminist lens, attempting a discourse on the biopolitical subject, where dwelling is defined by mobility, resulting in citizenship (or citizenship as mobility) and what is being constructed in its place through architecture. Only by entertaining further questions about how this show concerned me did it also become a critique of curatorial practice, where the contemporary obsession with being seen can easily transform domestic spaces into display cases.

Using social media, we begin to decorate our homes to be worthy of instagram, and to garner likes not only for our taste or to stand-in for what we have achieved, but as potential streams of income through app-based services, like Airbnb. It is through these seemingly harmless and already mundane platforms that the housing crisis hits closer to home (no pun intended). By showing our dwelling places and living spaces as objects of desire, these images also succeed in flattening something that should not only be cast in concrete, but should be recognized as both public good and human right, effectively recasting it as abstraction.

And this is where the dangers of tackling a subject as sensitive as housing comes in: I was not only negotiating a site of perpetual crisis, I also had to remain wary of curation as a practice that traffics in imagery.

With the exception of a few institutions and practitioners, contemporary art, and by extension exhibitions, still maintains a steadfast allegiance to the tyranny of the visual, making it difficult to work with the subject using contemporary art alone. Because of this, it became important to include work from artists working outside of the exhibition complex. By working with a graphic designer, a musical theatre company, and the editors of a lifestyle magazine, this exhibition was an opportunity to acknowledge their complicity in the structures being critiqued, and to take a critical stance towards the larger repercussions of their practice. Yet, while we would also be working with sensitivities and considerations not typically entertained by contemporary artists, it was also by showing everyone’s work side-by-side that we could recognize the similarities between contemporary art and commercial work—especially in the context of a globalizing economy. Hopefully this was evident in the juxtaposition of the works shown by Indy Paredes and Miti Ruangkritya, with the designs, photo essays, and recordings of Marla Darwin, Grid Magazine, and Make Believe Productions. While Paredes and Ruangkritya created deeply emotional pieces, the two had very different approaches to threshing out that core: with Paredes coursing his sculpture through a fictional inhabitant and Ruangkritya adopting the voice and the eye of a salesman to sell us a homogenized dream.

The final layer of the exhibition was performed rather than displayed. In the attempt to articulate the very real problems of being precariously housed or homeless in the Philippines, I opened the floor to several speakers who, like the artists, also came from very different disciplines, all of which dealt with housing at some level. Because language was such a crucial component of constructing the global city and its cosmopolitan dwellers, I invited Anina Abola, a copywriter, to talk about selling a city that only exists in our imagination. Tess Quevedo is a colleague from the College of Home Economics, where I teach Clothing Technology.

Detail from Indy Paredes’s Still Aliens, 2017. Found objects, clingwrap, wood, cement. Photo by Sandra Dans.