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.

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Like Water

Alee Garibay’s Room With a View

Alee Garibay’s landscapes have, as of late, come with the contradiction of portraying interiority. This began with  Kapitbahay, a series painted in 2015 for a two-man show with Renz Baluyot. More recent solos show a similar retreat towards the internal, depicting unmade beds, shelves and tables in disarray, or the curious gaze of an animal companion. In a way, Garibay uses her painting practice to make sense of the chaos and claustrophobia of modern life.

Room With a View is no exception to this trajectory. By depicting what is outside Garibay’s windows, we can sense the many rooms she has called home over the years. Through these seemingly flat surfaces, we are invited not only to cohabitate with Garibay, but to step inside her skin and better understand how home is but an extension of one’s body. And like the body, a home can resist or rebel despite one’s best efforts to belong within its boundaries.

Lightfooted
Alee Garibay, Light-footed, oil on canvas, 48 x 72 inches, 2018.

Siyudad (oil on canvas, 36 in. x 60 in., 2018) frames what appears to be an anonymous skyline, wherein Garibay softens the blighted urban landscape with the haze of oil on canvas. Using this media, she portrays the multiple layers of a city while reflecting on how a place that can be so unforgiving and alienating will eventually be called “home.” Similar narratives are repeated in Landing (oil on canvas, 36 in. x 60 in., 2018) and Tanawin (oil on canvas, 72 in. x 96 in., 2018), where the scale of the canvases seem to contradict the deeply personal narratives informing the works. In all three paintings, Garibay uses perfectly mundane views of Marikina, Quezon City, and Manila as channels to a far more complex inner landscape.

Alongside, Garibay runs a parallel narrative by exploring portraiture as landscape. Works such as RubyLight-footedStudio, and Dungaw (oil on canvas, 2018) place key figures from that period at the center of the frame. “This is me as I searched for meaning/myself in/through others,” she wrote in her artist statement. Unlike portraiture, the works are burdened with the same haze that blankets Garibay’s depiction of Marikina in Siyudad, and rather than show her subjects faces, what we see are impressions, figures that can only be accurately identified through Garibay’s memories. Through the hazy view offered by hindsight, she looks back on an often restrictive existence with forgiveness and acceptance by likening her experiences to the more feminine, intuitive spirit moving through the concrete shell of a patriarchal world. In this way, painting becomes a means and method of adapting to her environment, “like water taking the shape of it’s container.”

Yet, it is also through the complexity of home and identity that Garibay’s struggle with painting is revealed, with works like Studio (oil on canvas, 72 in. x 96 in., 2018), Himbing (oil on canvas, 36 in. x 48 in., 2016), Ruby (oil on canvas, 48 in. x 72 in., 2018) evoking the unique place artists occupy within the precarious conditions created by capitalism. Subjected to the uncertainty all freelancers face, a painter’s household must bear the burden of being both a place of work and a place of rest: hardened by the menial tasks of making a living but softened by the emotional labor of making a home.  Within Garibay’s profession, this already blurred line between rest and work is only further muddled by her having recently become a mother – a role that makes every waking moment a time to work while testing the very elasticity of time.

With these thirteen works, she asks: can we make ourselves at home in a moment? In a person? Can a moment be a place? Is space, like time, more elastic than it seems? By recreating these places through paint on canvas –  revisiting in her memory how they appeared and felt, and the views they opened up to – Garibay hopes to arrive at a clearer perspective.


Written for Alee Garibay’s solo,Room with a View which opened at Art Cube Gallery in Makati, Metro Manila, on April 13, 2018.

Cian Dayrit at the NuMu Triennial

Cian Dayrit, Civilized Society, 2017. Oil on canvas, 48 × 60 in (121 × 152.5 cm). Courtesy the artist. Photo: At Maculangan; from https://www.newmuseum.org/

Cian Dayrit (b. 1989 in Manila) uses sculpture, painting, and even embroidery to subvert the narratives embedded in a nation’s patrimony. By taking a critical stance toward the exhibition complex, Dayrit’s work raises questions about artifacts, institutions, and shared knowledge. Maps, monuments, and museum displays are treated with an irreverence that mimics the charm of the folk object but is far from good-natured.

Dayrit’s works in “Songs for Sabotage” reflect his concern for the imagery used to represent a country and its people, which has been reflected throughout his career in displays of flags, seals, monuments, and, perhaps most prominently, maps. This has recently led to a more collaborative and immersive practice involving counter-mapping—a method that describes the everyday lives of those on the ground, producing an alternative to the map as a value-free transcription of the environment. Counter-mapping exposes the politics inherent within an aerial view of geographic knowledge, and works instead to chart and illustrate terrains where we might see humanity more clearly.

Where Dayrit’s earlier works often dealt with the fictions that arise in the construction of the nation-state and the manufacturing of the citizen, his later collaborations with academics, local craftsmen, and marginalized groups attempt to excavate the difficult truths embedded in these narratives. One such collaboration took place in September 2017, when he led a workshop for indigenous and peasant communities who had taken refuge at the University of the Philippines, some of whom had been displaced by the country’s own military operations in its southern islands. Through these illustrations of the places they had left behind, Dayrit helped create an archive of territories that remain contested—the homes of communities for whom struggle and resistance are just another a fact of life.

Like the counter-maps Dayrit has gathered through immersive research, the works featured in “Songs for Sabotage” are rendered with a charming but effective clumsiness, with thick, textured daubs of paint highlighting their lack of depth and elementary composition. Occultas Archipelagi (2017) shows a Philippine archipelago drained of all color, floating in a sea of red and rust-colored religious icons. While this could be seen as a jab at the Catholic Church for continuing to meddle in the political affairs of the only predominantly Christian country in Asia (the Philippines is still the only country, aside from the Vatican, where divorce remains illegal), the titular Occultas refers to folk Catholicism, seen in the rituals, traditions, and objects borne of native interpretations and accounts of Christ’s life in the vernacular.

The renderings of Christ that are foregrounded and magnified in Occultas are the same as those that appeared on amulets and garments worn by revolutionaries, who believed that such images would make them impervious to bullets. By composing such icons within a frame that also features the map and the flag—symbols inherited from above—Dayrit links an often-overlooked history of peasant resistance to the grand narrative of nation-building. The appearance of these religious icons also exposes the role of faith and folklore in struggles for sovereignty and dignity, linking it to the intimacy and softness of clothing and amulets – objects that sit close to the skin.

This tension between intimacy and intimidation is reiterated with the soft materials and labor-intensive methods that go into Dayrit’s massive embroidered tapestries. Insulae Indiae Orientalis (2016) references the antiquarian maps, rendered intricately and authoritatively to ensure that colonial knowledge about territory and citizenship would be handed down and consumed through the centuries. Yet, rather than show the Philippine islands in isolation, Dayrit situates it within the region to portray a larger archipelago, home to a seafaring society connected by an ocean that was only later divided by European colonizers. Texts appearing across the map are embroidered in a language that is closer to the original Malay than to contemporary Filipino, which borrows heavily from Spanish. Beneath what is now known as New Guinea is a note that, roughly translated, echoes Edward Said in pointing out that “the perspective in the cultural and political histories written in the West about the East have long stood as obstructions towards genuine understanding and respect.”

While Insulae uses a classical aesthetic to reclaim native voices and a reverence for indigenous history, Mapa de lo que ahora se conce como Las Islas Filipinas [Map of What is Now Known as the Philippines] (2016) combines print and embroidery to literally color in black-and-white narratives of empire and benevolent assimilation. With humorous disdain, Dayrit adds red eyes, captions, and brightly colored doodles to photographs found in textbook accounts of Philippine history. In another effort at portraying life on the ground, this time Dayrit counter-maps historical landmarks as sites of violence and injustice, referencing the familiar dictum from Walter Benjamin’s thesis on the concept of history: “There has never been a document of culture which is not simultaneously one of barbarism.”

I.C.E.

Javier and I are engaged to be married sometime in the not-so-distant future, which is not the most comfortable subject for someone who does not believe in marriage, but I need to get used to talking about it because here we are!

We have been together for almost two years, and the commitments we’ve made along the way (not including the commitment to our choice to be together for a very, very long time) have also meant turning into very different versions of ourselves from who we were when we first began dating in 2015. In other words, we’ve been growing up together. Prior to (and I hesitate to say this because of how much doubt it will end up casting on the final outcome, which is the current state of our relationship) hooking up with Javier, I had been in and out of often fruitless, often noncommittal relationships with not-so-random dudes. Many of these relationships only taught me that at any age, you could still be “a dude”, but some were also genuinely productive lessons on what I wanted out of a relationship.

In one of the more heartbreaking episodes, I remember asking one of these dudes, “Who is going to take care of you?” after a brief but particularly bleak period where he disappeared because he was sick. Like, actually sick and unable to move and too uncertain of where he stood with anyone in his life to actually ask for help. That same year, while enrolling myself in a bunch of career-enhancement things (because 2015 was kind of a mess, career-wise) and filling up Visa applications, I also had to fill in contact details of my closest relative or friend, in case something happened.

I think I had several very mild breakdowns in several bureaucratic agencies from overthinking the fact that the person–or rather, a person–I was spending most of my time with that year was not an emergency contact. I thought about those times when I didn’t hear from him whenever something serious (like internal bleeding) was happening. On my end, if he was called in, would he actually come to my rescue? Would I do the same?

I was living alone at the time, I hated my job, the only thing that really structured my days was caring for my cats and the possibility of being with someone I cared about; but there was something very crucial missing when it came to caring, and I felt it whenever I had to fill in some very basic surveys about who I was and who was looking out for me. When I asked him, “Who’s going to take care of you?” I was not referring to recent events, but to a future wherein we had to acknowledge our deteriorating bodies and our dwindling number of close relatives. And that was the beginning of the end of that.

Over the weekend, Javier and I went on an Art Deco-themed tour of the Chinese Cemetery on the northern tip of Manila. For anyone who hasn’t been to the Chinese Cemetery, let it be known that there is nothing even remotely idyllic or peaceful about the landscape. On the surface, it’s a mess of concrete structures competing with each other over who can make the grandest statements about the families whose ancestors’ remains are housed inside. But it also gives you really strange insights about care and filial piety and ’til death do us part: fun things to think about while holding the hand of the man I’m planning to marry. Javier had an ear infection on that day, and just wasn’t feeling it with the tour and and the weather, but he soldiered on nonetheless. And me–being who I (currently) am–snapped at him for acting bored, snapped at him when he fell asleep in the car, and finally apologized only after I had something to eat (but I don’t think he heard me because of the situation his ear was in).

I know that I still have so much to learn about being with another person and building a life together (with our cats). I know I’ve always wanted to care for someone, but most of the time I still lack the patience to do so. There’s more to be said about knowing that someone is good for you, but I don’t think I should be the one to testify to this. And while getting married won’t fix who we already are, it will be another context to work within – same promise with a different bond? A different set of rules, perhaps?

When Javier applied for his first job, at a BPO near my neighborhood, he called to proudly tell me that he’d put my name down as his emergency contact. If something happened to him, I would be the first to know. We’ve already been living together for over a year and know very well what things are like when nothing happens – when we’re just going about our days and doing what needs to get done. Maybe marriage, at this rate, is really just a matter of confirming that we will be there for each other in case of an emergency.

 

 

Year-end Wishlist

My best friend recently posted a wishlist on her blog, which got me thinking about the things I want, and how this catalog of individual desires has changed over the years. I actually keep a “Stuff I want” folder on my bookmarks tab, but last I checked, all that’s in it are links to a dozen different Hario coffee drippers available on Lazada. A few months ago, I gave away my 3-cup stovetop moka because, a) we no longer have our own stove. I know. It makes me sad, too. Maybe the first thing on my wishlist will be a stove, followed by enough space for a stove. Anyway! b) I also realized I don’t drink as much coffee, or at least I don’t drink enough to justify a purchase as frivolous as a ceramic Hario V6 (I am not even going to open the tab to confirm the product code because it only makes me cry)–no matter how beautiful it is and even if it’s delivered door-to-door.

So reflecting further on this (because I wasn’t lying when I said my “Stuff I want” folder is actually 12 different Hario drippers: what do I really want?

1. OEM 5.5L Automatic Pet Feeder with Voice Message Recording and LCD Screen in Black

As most of you may know, I have spent the last 5 years steadily replacing whatever personality I have with that of “someone who likes cats,” confirmed by my consistently having anywhere between 5 and ten million cats.

Because I would like to work on some semblance of self-actualization by revisiting questions of “Who is Alice, anyway???” I figured I would need some help in taking care of my 20 bajillion cats (aside from the help of my beloved partner who I love). This is where technology comes in! Note that I am shelling out an additional hundred bucks just so I can get the black variant because the other one they have is white and shit brown and yuck. No.
No idea what the LCD screen is for, but my cats love screens, so there. Also I can record voice messages on this which spells out endless fun and I wants it.

2. Cat Care FLUTD prevention cat food

I know I was complaining earlier about how having cats overshadows my actual personality, but my favorite thing about Christmas is that I get to ask everyone in my family for cat food, which means I don’t have to spend on cat food for at least a few weeks. And that is super great.

This might be the part of the list where I have to revisit my BeautyMNL problem…

3. Everything in the V&M Naturals catalog

I got a bottle of the rosewater and aloe toner when it went on sale, and holy shit, that stuff really does make my pores happy. The packaging does not lie. Also, the package design is great – waterproof, does not look like shit after I haul it around in my grimy tote bag for a whole day. The only problem I have with it is that it smells a little funky (not because it actually smells funky, just because it’s not my thing).

I tried the cucumber and guava leaf variant they had at their store in Ayala on 30th some time ago and that one smelled nice. Too bad it’s never on sale and I don’t want to be hoarding toner since I only have one face–and even then, I still forget to do the ten-step cleansing program everyone is starting to swear by. Maybe I should just wish for the discipline to follow a ten-step cleansing program.

4. This dress in about a dozen different colors

I’m aware that red is not always my color, but the fact that I was somehow able to work shit out with this dress says something about the cut. I got this dress for about 35 pesos at a thrift store on Mabini, and if not for the fear of wearing it out ’til it falls apart, I would wear it every day (Maybe).

I never wear things every day, but if I had enough copies of this dress, that could change. Imagine not having to worry on a daily basis about the silhouette of a thing on your body? That would be me, if I had ten million copies of this dress. That’s also probably how my boyfriend works his life out, since he wears the exact same thing every day, and now that I’m in my 30s, I just want to narrow my options down to color and print. That said, I wish I had time and money and space to just have several of these made. Also, look at that picture. Happy holidays, friends!

5. The shoes on this little girl

I remember my sister’s sneakers used to have dinosaur feet imprints on the soles and I was always jealous of that. When coverage of The Women’s March peaked, this photo began circulating again, and I’ve been obsessed with the shoes since then.

(Another thing I’ve been obsessing over are these Crocs that look like actual croc feet, but that might be pushing it too far.)

I guess at this age, we can better judge what we truly love and are truly comfortable in by the things we wear out. I wore out my Vans in less than a year, which shows how much fun I had in them, but also shows that it’s about time to replace them. I wrote a long rant in these pages some time back about the pitfalls and perils of buying shoes as *a lady* because nothing seems comfy enough to actually get you far. That sort of changed this year as my feet and my back adjusted to sneakers, and now I know how indispensable Vans slip-ons are. I also began to accept that I might have to retire my heels and even my cowboy boots, now that every step in them is beginning to feel like torture (or maybe it’s just because they’re getting old). Which brings me to…

6. Puma Whirlwinds in TAXICAB YELLOW!!! AAAAAAHHHH!!!

Okay, so I don’t really need these ones, but I’ll be placing them here as the thing I originally wanted and would like to keep looking at.

I had to go to Hong Kong a couple of weeks ago for a conference-slash-workshop, and had my eye on these bright yellow Puma Whirlwinds. I try not to spend too much on shoes because (again) I tend to beat the shit out of them, so as much as possible I try not to spend on anything that isn’t marked down. Just as I was beginning to accept that I would batter my Vans while walking from gallery to gallery in HK, I biked past a banner advertising a Puma sale just a few blocks away from where I was.

The problem with these stupid sales, especially for local retailers, is that they tend to only carry broken sizes (either really tiny or really huge) and even then, the men’s sizes only go down to 39, which is the equivalent of a 10 or 11 for women. I knew the Whirlwinds I wanted would not be here, but I tried my luck anyway for something similar. Of course all the more muted colors were in the men’s section, while the ladies had to settle for pink or purple variants, but I did find these FLUORESCENT YELLOW YES THIS HAS TO BE IN CAPS TX-3s, which are still the best thing I ever bought since I did not anticipate that we would be hiking up and down a hill in Hong Kong, once we left the city and camped out in Lamma Island.

Anyway, still coveting the yellow Whirlwinds, but I guess one pair of yellow sneakers is enough. I’m also really enjoying how it took freelancing and massive spaces for hanging art to really begin appreciating sneakers.

7. Floating shelving to fix our bulky wardrobe situation

We have a massive wardrobe and chest of drawers in our apartment, all of which (including the apartment) were inherited from my mom. I guess in a house, they don’t seem like a big deal, but as I mentioned earlier, we don’t even have space for a stove, let alone a proper dining table, and for something so huge, neither piece seems able to store much or do so very efficiently.

Photo from Gravity Home. Not the exact kind of shelving I want, but you get the idea.It’s a fairly minor renovation job to recycle all the wood and fixtures from these two pieces (the drawers and the wardrobe that is) into floating shelving and a bench, but it still takes time and costs money and would mean enlisting the skills of a talented carpenter since the grain on the wood is lovely and we would want to salvage as much of it as we can. Maybe if we can fix this we would actually have enough storage space for a…

8. Hario VDD-02B Drip Decanter


I keep needing to be reminded of how impractical it would be to get one of these when I already have a press, a coffee maker, and several Vietnamese phins.

Still, it’s called a “wishlist” for a reason.