Considering the Difference

Installation view of Gary-Ross Pastrana’s 99% at Silverlens, Gillman Barracks (Sg)

Gary Ross Pastrana’s 99% consists of two complementary components: a video documenting the process of selling a broken car for scrap, then using the earnings from roughly 99% of the parts to buy gold, which was then fashioned into an object, seen in the other component of the exhibition. Atop a pedestal at mo___, the golden object, no larger than the tip of my finger, is seen dangling from the 1% that is left of the car seen in the video. What Pastrana presents however is not commentary, but a narrative: a parable about the value assigned to objects which have lost their function, its subtlety eliminated in being re-imagined or reinterpreted within the space of the gallery.

Put simply, 99% forces the viewer to consider the difference between two different lumps of metal. Given the air of reverence, the quiet room, the shared pedestal – apparently, not much.

In another frequently cited parable, Marcel Duchamp took a porcelain urinal and called it Fountain (1917). A more conventional contribution can be found in a painting by Rene Magritte, telling us “This is a pipe.” Like most of Pastrana’s past work, 99% is a conceptual gesture – one that falls into neither the Dadaist or Surrealist categories, yet maintains their legacy by considering not only the distinction between objects and things of value, but through probing the difference between poetry and a practical joke.

The joke though is that there is no logic. Like most of the stuff we see in galleries and museums, Pastrana’s work appeals to aesthetic arguments. The work of a conceptual artist is no simple task, especially upon surveying how much is cynically passed off as “art” (or created for the sake of taking a jab at Art).

In the case of the aesthetic argument, consider the difficulty of using a visual medium to point out the immaterial. In attempts at reason, this is not a matter of validity, but of privilege or of coming to define reason as a product of logic – and not just any logic, it has to be scientific logic. Consider the difference again – the difference between art and science being less than we think.

Considering…I didn’t even really want to talk about 99%. I wanted to talk about shoes. No really, let’s just talk about shoes. Let’s talk about high heels! If we were to appeal to reason–to science!–high heels make absolutely no sense. There is no logical argument for wearing high heels. Looking at that statement however, I’m not saying wearing high heels is stupid, just that arguments for their necessity are stupid, precisely because–unless you live in 15th century Venice–they’re unnecessary.

The problem when it comes to aesthetic arguments though is that they have become so esoteric. Unnecessarily so, especially with the amount of unnecessary objects in our midst. When I say “I don’t like wearing high heels but I like the way they make my calves look. My high heels not only set me above the average height by about 8 inches, they have physically deformed my legs, and your average fashion magazine says it’s for the better.” this is not considered a valid argument, precisely because it appeals to aesthetics rather than logic–even if it is not without reason. While that is not the best example, it only serves to point out that the two require a different way of thinking. Unfortunately, even the act of “thinking” is automatically linked to logic.

This is not to consider the difference between aesthetics and scientific logic though, or gold and car parts, or high heels and flats and other things that give science a bad name. This is to point out the privilege granted to one and not the other that voids the immaterial of value, as if there is only one path to reason.

In which case, to hell with logic and the privilege it is automatically granted.


State of Nature/State of Exception

or Maintaining an Artificial Peace, pt. 2: notes for Sa Ngalan ng Batas (In the Name of the Law)

A series of oil on canvas works by Emmanuel Garibay, produced by the Center for Art, New Ventures, and Sustainable Development and hosted by The Jorge B. Vargas Museum and Filipiniana Research Center

Manny Garibay, Enforcer (2014)
Manny Garibay, Enforcer (2014)

Like magic, the term “sa ngalan ng batas (in the name of the law)” opens doors, ends arguments, strikes fear, and instills discipline. Once uttered, the name of law invokes the power of the institution: these proverbial walls that keep societies in line, distinguishing the citizen from the outsider. Ultimately, it separates the individual being from the participant in social life.

“No man is an island” –when the poet John Donne wrote these words, it was highly unlikely he was using them to refer to the tasks of administering peace and order that came with the formation of modern society, and yet peace and order are integral to coexistence, at a time wherein coexistence is non-negotiable.

Building on the realization that what is legal is not necessarily ethical, Garibay continues to pull at a thread that has consistently woven itself into his body of work, looking at icons, representation, and the stubborn role they play, for better or worse, in the fabric of society. In this series of oil on canvas works, Manny Garibay explores the limits of justice as both concept and system with a colourful cast of characters devoted to the bureaucracy of everyday life. Departing from the theory and jargon that have been used in discussing the law—from Aristotle to Agamben—only simple language is used in Sa Ngalan ng Batas.

With a catalogue of titles like “Enforcer”, “Kampante (Comfortable)”, “Lumang Larawan (Old Picture)”, and “Madasalin (Religious)”, he hints at the laymen’s terms that describe the small, seemingly harmless details which nonetheless complicate our realities as members of a just and democratic society. In the faces of these everyday people, we see how corruption can unfold in even the most banal tasks.

It is in “Abugasya”, the picture of the average law student buried in the language of the legal system, that we find primary clues to the complications which Garibay has so often portrayed in his work as a social realist and activist, drawing from his education in both theology and sociology. In “Abugasya”, Garibay not only paints a picture of a man enslaved by doctrine, but portrays that very moment where words fail us, in a reminder that just and democratic are not descriptive characteristics of a republic, but remain normative in their failure to find an anchor in the common good. Through an almost mundane representation of the scholar working late into the night, we are confronted with the difficulties of enforcing a text without a unifying ideology linking what is good and what is just; where the view from one person’s window remains another’s life on the ground—and the seeming impossibility of reconciling the two.

Garibay’s law student hints at a tendency to let the books blind us to realities that are often right outside our doors. It is precisely this phrase, “in the name of the law”, that turns individuals and entire communities into subjects of a system that puts the citizen—as conscript or clerk—before the human being. In his ruminations on the force of law, Jacques Derrida (whose weapon of choice was also language) writes of the law as a text. Here we find both its greatest weakness and greatest potential: if text rests on a foundation of language, then it has been constructed. And what has been constructed can just as well be deconstructed.

Manny Garibay, Abugasya (2014)
Manny Garibay, Abugasya (2014)

“[T]he fact that the law is deconstructible is not bad news. We may even see in this a stroke of luck for politics, for all historical progress,” Derrida continues, in a statement that wields infinite potential for those able to manipulate language. This is good news for writers, preachers, and of course, lawyers, but Garibay uses another medium to frame and construct his arguments. Sa Ngalan ng Batas is not an exhibition that uses language as a weapon, but as its subject, showing how common people have turned to and made instruments of the word, the text, or the book, thus evoking the poet Paul Valéry’s description of language as “the god gone astray in the flesh.”

This confusion between the sacred and secular compromises the role of ideology, allowing words to lose their weight and language to become a mere instrument for drawing societies inward through promises of justice or salvation. Here, Garibay draws parallels between the legal system and religious congregations, not only in their use of doctrine, but in their contemporary conflicts when it comes to how sacred institutions coexist with modernity.

The other conflict Garibay hints at in this series is one of authorization, where the term “enforcement” is itself rooted in force, and the problems we encounter when we come face-to face with those tasked with not only interpreting, but enforcing these texts that govern the actions of all. This is most evident in his triptych of mug shots, distinguishing between common and high profile criminals, and how the punishment for their sins is reflected in their faces. These faces show that the differences between having committed a crime and a sin are not found in the act itself, but from the people who commit them.

The very definition of “force” may be contradicted by the vacant and vapid everymen that populate his work, yet in the hollowness of their expressions we see another kind of violence, the kind that arises from decades of apathy and indifference. Here, Garibay depicts the nameless personas that have grown all too familiar – the law student burning the midnight oil, the traffic enforcer coasting along a chaotic cityscape, the newspaper reading everyman, precariously perched on an edge he himself cannot see. It is precisely by voiding his subjects of a specific identity that Garibay is able to construct an environment built not of spaces and places, but of faces.

Or rather, of icons: this may be the outcome of an inherently patriarchal belief systems used throughout history as instruments of colonization, Sa Ngalan ng Batas illustrates a symbolic order predicated on the persona, their only unifying thread being the compromise of individuality. This remains the most common invocation of ideology—or lack thereof—in the country’s political system: see it in the campaign posters, in the billboards, and in the stained glass windows that populate the routines and rituals of everyday life in the Philippines, proving that monolithic ideas are not only expressed by tyrants or large monuments.

Echoes of this order are found in Garibay’s images where the faceless intersect with the familiar, their only unifying thread being the compromise of subjectivity, in the Foucauldian sense. What comes to light instead is the idea of the Homo Sacer, or “bare life”, an idea introduced by Giorgio Agamben, who writes “We have seen the sense in which law begins to coincide with life once it has become the pure form of law, law’s mere being in force without significance. But insofar as law is maintained as pure form in a state of virtual exception, it lets bare life…subsist before it.”

Manny Garibay, Triptych (2014)
Manny Garibay, Triptych (2014)

“How do the powerless use the instruments of the powerful?” asks Garibay. The question in turn is reflected in the characters who, in their familiarity, are easily reduced to caricature. The same sentiments can be found in Raoul Vaneigem’s Revolution of Everyday Life, an exploration of the channelling of mass hypnosis and state control through the seemingly harmless facts of day-to-day living—the news, our entertainment, our dwellings, and the things we are conditioned to “need”—where he declares: “The man of survival is man ground up by the machinery of hierarchical power, caught in a mass of interferences, a tangle of oppressive techniques whose rationalization only awaits the patient programming of programmed minds.” While Garibay uses a conventional, almost conservative, medium to treat a shameful subject, perhaps what should be most disturbing is the fact of their familiarity, and the patient programming that has turned the subjects of these pictures into the status quo: a system of self-interest resulting in an unstable foundation.

Sa Ngalan ng Batas: Reflections on Philippine Law, Culture, and Society, a solo exhibition of oil on canvas paintings by Emmanuel Garibay, will run on the 3rd floor of the Vargas Museum from October 4 until November 4, 2014.

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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