Table for One

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ADRIAN EVANGELISTA, A World of My Own, oil on canvas, 48 x 96″, 2018. From fb.com/TheMetroGallery

  1. Food and solitude are not meant to be taken together, at least not according to social norms dating back to the onset of high modernity. A table at a restaurant is meant to seat two at a minimum. Some places have even attempted to absolve diners of this predicament by offering artificial company: a massive stuffed Moomin plushie, perhaps? An actor in zombie make-up? A pretend boyfriend? A cat? Anything to distract oneself from the deafening silence that comes with taking a meal by one’s lonesome in a public place.
  2. While the discomfort and inability to enjoy eating alone are rarely about the food, the food does however have the capacity to magnify the experience and with it, the discomfort. Yet even if food is only meant to address physical needs, the void left by a diner’s absent companion shifts the sensation from the body to the mind. There is a name for this: the Spotlight Effect – in which individuals tend to overestimate the amount of attention and ridicule they suffer by being alone in public. This is not limited to eating, but to any activity that typically calls for some form of social engagement.
  3. Thank god for our phones then, and for the escape offered by the unseen online mass. Where the newspaper, radio, and television once offered solace from the anxiety of a table set for one, today’s lone diner can escape into the comforts of the web. Every day, an untold number of photographs are uploaded to social networks, with platforms such as Facebook, Twitter, and more notoriously (as far as meal photography goes), Instagram playing host to countless pictures of brunches, lunches, and avocado toasts. It is this same categorical cross between the photographic and voyeuristic that terms like “flat-lay” and oversharing have made their way into everyday vocabulary.
  4. Because we share these experiences—even through the superficial framing of a picture in an endless online scroll—we are never really alone. Still, consider how this same spectacle designed for the individuated space of the screen does not necessarily birth new connections. Rather, it only makes our connections—not only to food, but to each other—even more complex.
  5. The literature devoted to experience of eating alone is dense and rich with subjectivity. Solitude, if anything, can potentially kill one’s appetite, as described by the novelist Nathaniel Hawthorne. Of his experiences dining in Paris, Hawthorne wrote in his diaries of how he was, “[A]shamed to eat alone…It becomes the mere gratification of animal appetite…these solitary meals are the dismallest part of my present experience.”
  6. “Dismal” is infused by photorealist Adrian Evangelista in each of his works on the subject. The food, despite appearing in full color, floats otherworldly off a canvas done in shades of grey. These are meals demanding to be finished at once, magnified in importance by their acting as distractions from the shame of a world bearing all its eyes upon the solitary diner. At times bearing a strong resemblance to outtakes from a film noir set, Evangelista zooms in on the view of a diner clearly bothered by the fact of a meal going unshared, a view in which every object—a plate, a window, a coffee cup—become outsized with meaning and metaphor.
  7. There were however those who relished their solitude, understanding that being alone was not the same as being lonely. In 1889, the turn of the century and arguably the birth of the cityscape as we know it, the composer Haydn was reported in the Boston Daily Globe as having ordered a meal at hotel restaurant that could have fed five. Baffled at the sheer size of the Hungarian composer’s order, the hotel waiter allegedly told him, “But sir, the company is not come.” To which Haydn replied: “Pooh! De gompany! I am de gompany!”
  8. This other side of eating alone is captured in the work of Mek Yambao. While Evangelista meditates on the accompanying anxiety found on the flipside of all those carefully curated and flatlayed photos of perfectly plated meals, Yambao responds by taking a more whimsical turn. In her work, eating alone becomes a chance to be more honest with oneself – to order without fear of being judged, to lick one’s fingers, to express genuine delight or disgust through the smacking of lips or gagging without having to worry about being impolite.
  9. On the average, a person living in the contemporary moment, under neoliberal capitalism, will eat roughly 89,790 meals[1] before their death. Some of those meals will be taken alone, amidst actual Scientific reportage that eating alone is not only bad for business, but bad for your health. While these claims are backed by Scientific research, how useful is it to draw generalizations when an average person will eat close to a hundred thousand meals in their lifetime? This does not even account for the fact of hunger, the fact that the person with access to food is, in fact, a very lucky person to begin with.
  10. This is how Evangelista and Yambao paint a complex picture from a seemingly silly predicament. The experience of eating alone may at first appear easy to dismiss, but it is about recognizing the need to reclaim the mundane. Food is not only meant to nourish, it is meant to be savored, to teach us to sit back and enjoy the moment, alone or with friends, and always at one’s own pace.

[1] Computed based on an average lifespan of 82 years, multiplied by 3 meals a day, 365 days in a year: 82 x 3 x 365

Written for Table for One, two-artist show featuring the work of Mek Yambao and Adrian Evangelista. Metro Gallery, San Juan. December 8, 2018. The photo of Adrian Evangelista’s work is from the Facebook page Metro Gallery.

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Stories of Restoration , Songs from the Sea

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Installation view from Songs from the Sea, solo exhibition of Nunelucio Alvarado which ran at the Iloilo Museum of Contemporary Art (ILOMOCA) from November 10 – December 20, 2018.

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.

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.

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Nunelucio Alvarado. Nawong series, 100 drawings on handmade paper, 8.5 x 11 inches, 2014-2018.

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.

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.


Written for Nunelucio Alvarado, Songs from the Sea.  Curated by…me? I know this is a citation but it’s so weird to cite yourself in the third person. Anyway…Iloilo Museum of Contemporary Art (ILOMOCA), 10 Nov – 10 Dec 2018.

The Work of Art in the Age of Being Together

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Alee Garibay, Alon and Yaya Lucy, Oil on Canvas, 48 by 36 inches, 2018.

In Kasimbahay, Alee Garibay shows how tracing the outlines of a friend’s face is its own kind of muscle memory, obtained through hours spent relating to one another. The title, which means to share a house (“magkasing-bahay”), describes how our most immediate relations teach us about life, coexistence, and growth.

“Portraiture is my first love as a painter,”[1] she wrote in an interview prior to this show. In these impressionistic accounts of the people who make and share her home, Garibay also attempts to convey the divine. Re-imagining the household as a church simultaneously becomes an attempt to reclaim the church not as a hall of worship, but as a transformative space where the banal becomes sacred and the spiritual is felt in the ground. Here, portraiture becomes not a tool for enabling narcissism, but a means to revisit the sainted and iconic.

“As I did the portraits,” shares Garibay, “I began to ponder at how the stories that we have come to know as ‘gospel’ are really about ordinary people who found—and made—meaning in their life through a direct and contemplative engagement of their life experiences.”

To Garibay, portraiture is not simply a series of moments, but a matter of being present in that moment – an attentiveness and patience that also links us to the past. The black and white tones of the works recall the daguerreotype – Louis Daguerre’s method of printing on silver plates, which became the first publicly available photo process. Referencing this age old technology, Garibay provides a sense of a legacy, lending gravity only available to images seen in memoriam. If a daguerreotype, at the time, conveyed awareness of what it meant to capture a moment, Garibay’s portraiture expresses how the hand can convey what has been made possible by keeping one’s heart open.

The practices and methods distilled in Kasimbahay express not only a profound appreciation of Garibay’s intimate relations, but an awareness of her artistic practice: its embedded histories and the technologies it must coexist with in the age of digital reproducibility. Within the contradicting elements of portraiture, photography, and contemporaneity, Garibay composes an anachronistic narrative of radical love, reframing an ethics of hospitality—of acceptance and generosity—in an age of increasing distrust.


[1] Personal communication, 27 September 2018.

Written for Alee Garibay’s solo exhibition, Kasimbahay, which opened at Blanc Gallery in Quezon City on October 13, 2018.

 

Hunger Pains

Or Curating While Hungry

 
I just got back from Bangkok where we (meaning Mich and I) hung a quilt for Grrrl Gang Manila at the Bangrak Market. The quilt is half of Soft Bodies, which consists of two pieces, the other being Lesley-Anne Cao’s Thread (2016). 

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Bangrak Beauty, and installation view of Mich Dulce’s At Least I Won’t Regret Anything (2017)

I find myself struggling, more than usual, to get out of bed and back to work nowadays. While I’m lucky to find work in the cultural sector, I’m beginning to find it more and more difficult to convince myself that  no job is too small. On some days, it’s about continuing an old or ongoing project. On others it’s something fun, like hanging work in a market, in another city.

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Installation view of “The Book of the Courtier,” from Lesley-Anne Cao’s Thread (2016), embroidery on fabric.

Everyday though, it’s uncertainty. The word for this or at least the term around which the art world has built a discourse, I’ve learned over time, is “precarity”; and no matter how much has been written valorizing or condemning it, nothing can really prepare you for the difficulty of facing it head on each day.

A friend once told me that the best way to work is to “avoid work,” in his terms, to just keep getting paid for things that don’t feel like work. This is how we end up working for 16 hours straight on some days, while other days we never even leave our beds. Except to eat.

Lately, living in Manila has us fucked in every orifice by inflation on top of taxation. I never had to have the vocabulary for this up to now, but now it feels like studying this new layer of precarization has become a full-time job. I can’t relax because it has gotten too expensive to even eat. If I don’t know where my next meal is coming from, I can’t get any sleep, and now I’m too tired to even think; and if I can’t think, I can’t work.

All I do is worry. The only thing that stops me from worrying is more work–the kind of work that does not require a lot of thinking, only heavy lifting. While curatorship–at least the kind of curatorship I’ve gotten used to, which requires me to constantly be cleaning surfaces, comparing prices between hanging and lighting fixtures, and lifting heavy shit, because none of the shows I’ve done has granted me the luxury of hiring a professional installation team–allows me to enjoy the best of both worlds.

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Registration table at the opening of Quid Pro Quo, curated by Elissa Ecker and Rebecca Vickers for the Bangkok Biennial

What frustrates me is that I usually love the part that requires me to write and think and discuss, but these tasks have become scarce, mostly because I’ve become incapable of thinking of anything beyond the doom and gloom sweeping through the Philippines. In reality though, that frustration has long been replaced by genuine anger, the kind that eats through your stomach and kills all hunger and any lust for life. And if I–a middle-class woman who is typing this from a coffee shop–feel that ulceration, then how much worse is it for everyone else?

Being in Bangkok was a good working break. I felt the difference in my eating habits. Eating–because there was work to do–felt like a chore to tick off a list; the difference came with actually being able to enjoy it; being able to savor every bite without feeling fucked over by rising prices and taxes and an uncaring government with nothing but disdain for its own people. I could eat without feeling like an inconvenience to my country who has to pay out the nose just to survive. And while Thailand, at least according to some people, is really no better than the Philippines on political front, at least when it comes to food, they are the clear winners. At least there was that.

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.

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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.