Mnemonic Devices

Micaela Benedicto, Structures of Unremembering at the Blanc

The past is another country. Simultaneously foreign and familiar, the past is irreversible yet permanently irretrievable in its entirety. Despite the multiple technologies that allow us to document our experiences, what gets captured is a mere selection. If “without our memories we are nothing,” as suggested by Luis Bunuel, then what testament to the self can be given by an instagram feed or a facebook timeline? Memory, these platforms seem to suggest, is not only a curated space but a flattened one; unless our memories are given any coherence through creative acts, memory remains a place of loss.

Between sculpture and image, Micaela Benedicto’s current series of work draws from documents of a recent past, producing structures that are simultaneously traces, reflections, and impermeable layers anchored to pristine surfaces. Like any object placed behind glass and exhibited in the white cube, these structures critique the practice of how easy it is to accept objects on display as fact, even if they too are products of reconstruction.

Occupying a single room at the Blanc on Katipunan Ave., Structures of Unremembering does not deviate from the minimalist aesthetic of Benedicto’s past works – both as an artist and an architect. There’s little color and aside from the photogrammed images transferred to mirrored steel, she makes very little use of curves; yet it is in the layers impressed upon the work that a story unfolds making Structures of Unremembering more of a literary gesture than an architectural one. This recourse to narrative, or to fiction, not only reflects the malleability of the past but the ease with which our memories can betray us.

The only source of softness to the work are the photogrammed images which form a hazy, almost gauzy layer over the hard edges of the steel. In her attempt at structuring that space between remembering and forgetting, the definitive product is a series of angles signifying the tensions between irreversibility and an openness to perception. These structures not only give shape to prior form, but give it height or a level of monumentality. Acknowledging the futility of recollection, we thus find potential in reconstruction, shaping the present and pushing forward into a future.

“Why not invent the past?” This may seem like a stupid question, but it has raised ethical concerns about the well-meaning initiatives that have since grown into the complex of institutionalized myth and meaning making that is the museum. Benedicto’s work, with its reconstructed objects referring to the production of memories, does not resolve this ethical issue; however it does point out these acts of invention and reconstruction as both necessary betrayals and instruments of negotiating our inherently multi-faceted histories. In this case, the question is not whether reconstructing or inventing a past is ethical, but whether it even makes any difference once it becomes of use.

Structures of Unremembering runs at the Blanc Gallery, 145 Katipunan Ave., until Nov. 18, 2014. Here’s the event page.
Structures of Unremembering Micaela Benedicto invite_hi-res

Looking for Something

Marina Cruz and the Stuff of Former Lives

“Un Requerdo…from Lino” (2008-2011) Forgotten Portrait Series

Bricolage (or bric-a-brac, or simply, “stuff”) can be defined as both something as well as nothing – a double-bind that becomes the primary source of grappling with a thing’s meaning. That Marina Cruz wants you to look at things could pose a problem in an age where all people do is look at things. Our attempts to create typically result in a toss-up between trash and treasure. We browse through shops with the objective of consuming, demand upgrades on our existing possessions, and are entitled to the luxury of choice even when it comes to the simplest, most innocuous acts; all as a means of somehow extending an otherwise short existence.

There is a balance to be struck between accepting that things are what they are, and in realizing how objects can contribute to a sense of place, as well as a sense of self. “No ideas, but in things,” wrote William Carlos Williams in “Paterson” (1927), a line permeating Cruz’s work, through which it becomes possible to believe that there is a genuine value in the sentimental that would have easily been snuffed out by decades of living in an age of mechanical reproduction. With Cruz, these objects become inscribed with meaning, testifying to their passage from utility to obsolescence while capturing the growth of her clan from innocence to experience.

Like Williams, Cruz follows the same tenets of Imagism, maintaining her gaze on the forms and textures of the material world, particularly on the products of the domestic sphere. This is best presented in In the House of Memory (2012, credited as Marina Cruz-Garcia) which combines photorealistic prints and diptychs of the dresses juxtaposed with sepia-tinted oil portraits of Cruz’s mother and aunt, and flat renderings of the aftermath of a flood which had devastated their family home in Hagonoy, Bulacan.

Resolutely feminine, Cruz’s work engages the enduring legacy of representations that resulted from growing up in a system that both limits and complicates the space inhabited by women, as well as the roles they play. Through photorealistic paintings, prints, and installations, Cruz evokes a world of crafting, provincial life, hand-me-downs, and matrilineal clans, inscribing objects with a worth that surpasses the functional. Women are presented both as nurturers and disciplinarians, mothers and daughters; inhabitants of a world in which they are simultaneously the subjects and objects of their own lives. Although it must be noted that Cruz kept her maiden name.

Cruz’s skill as a storyteller is evident in her capacity to speak of the seemingly mundane in a language and voice that are simultaneously familiar and new. Explorations in the inner workings of the stuff of former lives offers a glimpse, however brief, into the inner life of Cruz’s personal and family ties – specifically between her mother and aunt, as shown in House of Memory, Un/fold (2009) and Inside Out (2012). It should be no surprise that the subject of fashion almost never comes up when talking to Cruz about clothing: looking at Cruz’s work feels more like going through the personal belongings of a stranger than browsing the racks, thus putting the viewer in an awkward position between reverence and disrespect. The only built-in obsolescence she is concerned with is that of memory, making the experience of viewing these old things refreshing as well as unsettling.

“You, your joys and your sorrows, your memories and your ambitions, your sense of personal identity and free will are in their associated molecules.” Echoing Francis Crick through personal histories, told in the lives of these everyday objects, Cruz’s work allows viewers to craft their own associations of and with these objects from what were once very intimate combinations of narrative and artefact. These allow us to observe the constant cycles of reanimation and demise that are ever-present in the lives of the things that make up our daily lives, thus highlighting the subtle shifts in the details of the relationships between people and their possessions. In exhibitions like Un/fold, Inside Out, and The Connective Thread (2011), Cruz layers fabric with various bits of evidence testifying to the life of the wearer, offering comfort that while the palpable absence of the body leaves matter inert, the aura may be eternal.

There is a weft of spirituality that runs through Cruz’s work. This manifests in her continuing fascination with spaces that somehow remain filled by former inhabitants, and in the invisible layers and stitches that still lay close to one’s skin even as time flies and distances grow. Space has the capacity to summon and contain, as well as to distance and separate. Clothing is a layer that identifies as well as protects the body, but clothing also becomes a medium for narratives about family and intimacy and the fictions we construct around collective life. This coexistence of materiality and spirituality is the contradiction inherent in Cruz’s fascination with inhabited objects: empty rooms, outgrown clothes, and unused furniture from which she sees another realm moving within.

Another theme that repeats itself in Cruz’s work is the nature of reflection, which literally entails looking at your self looking back. This is further explored in a self-portrait Cruz did of herself with a fictional doppelganger while on residency in Vermont, as well as in her paintings of her mother, Elisa, and her mother’s twin, Laura. As it is with her paintings of identical dresses, the work on twins extends the conversations on space and on the specific markers of an identity which is at once shared and divided. Twins mark the existence of identical bodies with remarkably different contents and means for understanding the ways of the world. “When you’re a twin, you share not only a face. You shared the womb, you shared a beginning” says Cruz of her fascination with her mother and aunt’s story.

Now 30, Cruz is now a mother, as well as a teacher. By homeschooling her two little boys, she has effectively turned herself into the subject of a story which has for so long remained central to her body of work. “We were the first to adopt in our family,” she shares, of what would become a long and winding ordeal into parenthood, wherein while waiting for the approval of their adoption papers, Cruz found herself pregnant with what in effect be their second child. “Since the gene skips a generation, I actually thought I could be having twins,” she shares with a smile.

Upon graduating from the UP College of Fine Arts, Cruz went on to mount her first few exhibitions while taking units for a Masters degree in Art Education. She then spent a year handling art classes for high school students at Miriam College, continuing a legacy of teaching that began with her grandmother. While Cruz only lasted for a year in that profession, preferring to produce her own art than to teach it, she continued her support of arts education as a partner and co-founder of the City School for the Visual Arts. This is a labor of love which she runs alongside fellow art educators and practitioners, one of whom is her husband, Rodel Tapaya. “When this place was blessed,” says Cruz of the City School, “the pastor said we have to touch it, so that it would not deteriorate.”

Creature Feature

Photos by Kevin Cayuca; Published in Contemporary Art Philippines, June-July 2012

If not for the careful execution of each piece that comes out of his studio, Leeroy New could be considered a professional dabbler. At 26, he has worked on both large and small-scale commissions from production houses, networks, theatre troupes, and private collectors, while entertaining a steady stream of collaborations and independent projects. The themes tackled in New’s portfolio range from religious iconography to consumerism. Most often, New is credited for large-scale sculptures using industrial materials and found objects, but by the time this gets published he will have branched out even further, by directing photo shoots for the maiden issue of RPA Style, an online magazine, and creating the centrepiece for this year’s Milagrosa festival in Ilocos Norte. Thus, while New has found both a niche and an aesthetic, he has managed to elude actual specialization—at least in the traditional sense.

Having studied at both the Philippine High School for the Arts and the University of the Philippines College of Fine Arts, New began his career by looking into opportunities and alternatives for exhibition outside of the gallery and museum. “To inflict experience or to affect, to impose or disrupt a routine, to create a disruption of public space,” was the ethos, and this only accelerated the evolution of his aesthetic, which could at times be interpreted as dependent on spectacle and scale. “The idea for my practice is that I open up these contexts, and then see what happens,” says New. As a result, this taste for deterritorialized and unbounded exhibition spaces—moving from galleries to gardens, and from storefronts to the runways of high fashion—allowed him to transition seamlessly between disciplines. “I guess in the very large spectrum of my practice, the art scene still absorbs me,” he shares, “But I’ve had criticisms where there’s confusion with my practice.”

While it’s easy to identify New’s work, it’s difficult to associate him with any existing movement or scene, raising questions as to whether these criticisms reflect more on New, or on the art scene itself, and thus sparking tired (yet inconclusive) debates on what survival in the local art market depends on. “It hasn’t been easy,” New admits, but for obvious reasons, the fluidity of his practice has served him well by allowing him to expand his sphere of influence while incorporating more fields and industries into his work. “I got into this without any consideration of marketability,” he says of the lack of opportunity for fine art sculptors. “It’s a challenge making work that people can’t put in their living rooms.”

Aside from drawing commentary on size and spectacle, another word often used to describe New’s work is “grotesque”, thus making his recent foray into fashion—the bastion of the beautiful—a curious one. The word comes to mind when looking at elements borrowed from Science fiction in shows like Corpo Royale (2010), or Psychopomp (2011), or the façade he created for Sputnik Comics in Cubao Expo. But just as Sci-Fi offers a better vision of the future through a lens that deliberately distorts, New’s work with the biomorphic (what he refers to as “this blobject phenomenon”) serves as a strong reminder of our own mortality – a layer of truth added through hyperbole. This concept is most clearly represented in New’s collaborations* with fashion designer Kermit Tesoro for Philippine Fashion Week (and on Lady Gaga’s now infamous “Marry the Night” cover), which played on perversions of the ideal, sending the industry’s perfectly proportioned figures down the runway clothed in bumps, marrow, and pustules made of latex, silicon, and fiberglass. By using otherworldly forms and playing on the un-pretty, New was able to render the human figure unnervingly organic.

The sculptural aspect of New’s “garments” forces one to ask: Is there a place for the unwearable in the fashion world? To this, New clarifies that his work with Tesoro only continues his goal of creating disruptions in physical space, in which questions of clothing and what people wear are integral branches. “Fashion is still a public sphere. The concept of what is wearable is still a public sphere,” he says. By definition, the survival of the fashion cycle depends on diffusion into broader markets, precisely through wearability; all the while maintaining integrity by catering to a very select niche. This balance of a sacred inner sanctum of devotees and early adopters with an endless supply of followers and laggards only complicates the question of private and public space that New raises with his own creations. “I’m not concerned with the commercial aspect of fashion,” he says, “My concern is conceptual, particularly the explorations of materials and technique. Like who would buy a silicone dress for everyday use?”

Aside from exploring materials and technique, New’s treatment of the human body as a canvas only affirms existing fears about where high fashion stands in relation to the female figure. The entry of sculptural pieces turns the runway into a pissing contest for fetishism and spectacle, where rubber, silicon, and fiber glass take center stage, shifting the attention from the bodies they are meant to dress. Despite the market for fashion being dominated by women, fashion undeniably makes it possible to deny the existence of the feminine form in its natural configurations. These result in images that are not only ethereal or escapist, but border on misogynistic, possibly even perpetuating the inherently patriarchal institutions supported by the fashion system.

That New identifies Alexander McQueen as an influence should come as no surprise, for the same undercurrents of misogyny prevailed in McQueen’s Savage Beauty—the posthumous exhibit at New York’s Metropolitan Museum which drew over 600,000 visitors. However, the savage aspect of McQueen’s work was also its greatest contribution to the discourse: replacing the conventions in which women appeared as ornaments, with images of their capacity to disrupt, distort, and eventually shatter the existing notions of beauty as a mere decorative element. New’s work on the other hand magnifies the organic, making it easier to see how even femininity only adds up to being made of the same things as everyone else.

“I guess the only way is to create something that people can connect with,” says New of the challenges of his design work in relation not only to his manipulation of biomorphic forms, but of marketability. Design has allowed him to branch into problem-solving territory, heightening his sense of what people will actually connect with and want to see, and furthering the overlap between New’s work as a sculptor and his sensibilities as a designer. “There’s always a problem-solving component to manipulating materials,” he says, “I don’t differentiate between the titles of designer and sculptor. Art, for me, is utilitarian.”

This definition of art as “utilitarian” only heightens the confusion regarding where New stands amidst the art and design professions. What is design after all in the absence of functionality, and what becomes of art when it isn’t useless?  And yet, despite a seemingly tenuous position in the local art scene, New’s extensive portfolio and the cohesion of his aesthetic testify not only to the clarity of his vision, but to a strong sense of direction. By utilitarian, New identifies art as a means to challenge himself. And it is through what others would call dabbling that he is able to further the discussions on what art is really for, all the while building a career that remains constantly in flux.

*CORRECTION: In this case, the term collaboration is used very loosely. Both the Marry the Night cover and PFW work were identified by New as a two-man show. Sorry about that.

This House is Open but You’ll Have to See It My Way

Louie Cordero at Open House, The 3rd Singapore Biennale

Search for Louie Cordero online and you won’t find a lot of pictures of Cordero himself; instead, you will be inundated with choice cuts from a body of work done over the span of nearly ten years, with a range running from the sequential to the sculptural. Setting aside a prolific career, Cordero is personable without the persona. He laughs easily and speaks in what could be described as a warm deadpan. He has most of his epiphanies while biking, and his favorite color is yellow ochre, because not only is it “the color of s**t, right?”, but a transition towards sepia: setting the tone for nostalgia and sentimentality for a fading past, which figures into Cordero’s work just as heavily as the scatological humor and fluorescent hues for which he’s known.

From his studio in Cubao, Quezon City (a former comic book publishing house) he has done album covers for The Sleepyheads and Radioactive Sago Project. He is also behind Nardong Tae (Nardo the S**t), a series of four photocopied comic books (with a fifth one on the way) about an anthropomorphic turd fighting for justice in a world submerged in the metaphorical crapper. Locally, Cordero identifies his audience as “young, daming bata,” the types who would find humor in his work before anything else; but one can just as easily enter the Cordero canon through, in his words the “very regal” gallery setting, with shows such as Sacred Bones (2010) and Absolute Horror (2008). “The reason why I work and I still do what I’m doing is because,” after a pause, “I don’t know what I’m doing.” He continues with a laugh, “But I don’t need to explain myself in a literary or academic form, because this comes off to me as a more interesting way to show what I want to do and say what I have to say.”
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Target Practice

We Are Not Aimless and “This Often Misunderstood Art Form”

“Eto. Tae siya,” was the sparse and laconic explanation given by Apol Sta. Maria when asked to describe his contribution to We Are Not Aimless, an exhibit launched at Manila Contemporary on the 22nd of January. Curated by Zeus Bascon, We Are Not Aimless gathered 27 names that were already established in the creative industries, a crew composed of graphic designers, art directors, comic book artists, and children’s book illustrators to contribute visual distillations of their ideas on illustration as artistic practice.

“One of the biggest challenges I faced as a curator was defending the need for this type of show,” says Bascon, a board member of Ilustrador ng Kabataan who ventured into soft sculpture for this exhibition, “but I couldn’t even come up with a concrete definition of illustration”. Pieces such as Mica Cabildo’s crocheted works, and toys by Isabel Roxas and Abi Goy, only add to the ambiguity of defining both the products and practice of illustration. By presenting a collection that was about as organized a Surrealist parlor game, Bascon and co. made it difficult for the exhibition to guide the viewer towards a singular narrative that would redefine illustration, which was already described in the notes as an “often misunderstood art form”, and assert its place in the canon of Contemporary Art. In this chaos, one is more likely to find a defense of aimlessness, rather than a contradiction to it.
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