Patrick D. Flores
In the many iterations of Gaston Damag’s practice, the artistrevisits the scene of the supposedly primitive in the context of the supposedly contemporary, taking on the subjectivity of an agent of a living tradition: he is of the primitive and of the contemporary and is not a mere native informant or an anthropologist from the metropole. It is always a tricky and nearly impossible encounter to the degree that it stands – teeters or perhaps trembles — on the verge of either the production of fetish or the staking out of that hospitable ground in which the primitive and the contemporary lose, respectively,their privileged past and their thrilling future so that a sense of the present could finally find its domain. The primitive here pertains mainly to the carved bulul, the rice granary deity of communities in the Cordillera region of Northern Philippine that gains potency only when animated in ritual; the contemporary, on the other hand, references the museum space and its effects of value formation in art history that is to a significant extent an art market history as well.
In many ways, the trajectory into this scene leaves traces of the exotic, which in an earlier formulation had actually signified the “incomprehensible”: that unfamiliar things escape the human ability to conjure “meanings” on and off them. It is in this context that the encounter might be generatively “impossible”: the fact that the possibility is intimated as foreclosed betrays the effort, the persistent activity to anticipate it, even to insist on its necessity. In other words, to make it imminent, still to come, because it must.
In the current exhibition of Damag we sortie into yet another intractable scene. It is one that discloses a state of disappearing and at the same time a condition of an afterlife. The artist, being an attentive observer of the image and also a trickster in the field of simulations, transforms what used to be the remains of asite-specific process of a waxbululbeing made to melt under the glare of light into a determinate object, something akin to sculpture, the risk and uncertainty of the subjection to the elements arrested, the compromised substance petrified like a piece in a collection, its erstwhile tumescence regained. As a consequence, it now becomes prone to consumption, thus complicating Damag’s process of staging an authentic, literal, graphic degeneration and simultaneously restoring the armature, anatomy of objectification.
This state of disappearing is related to another situation, one that speaks of an afterlife of the artifact the moment it is possessed by the heritage industry and the museum complex. It becomes a name, a title of a work, a thing to be quantified, conserved, insured, surveiled, and displayed. But the bulul in this instance is absent, its presence condensed in the inscription of its contrived appellation or nomenclature on a surface that serves as plate of identification. This is a typical museological device to account for the bulul that has become ethnographic, aesthetic, and economic and is suited to be parlayed, exchanged, examined, auctioned, sequestered, engraved as caption, and so on.There is, however, a performative aspect to this objectification: the temptation of the beholder to touch the inscribed words and to see the image of the self in the act of touching. This reminds us of Maya Lin’s memorial to the fallen of the Vietnam War in which a minimal monument becomes politically incendiary in its poetic silence, the absence of ideological sound. As Lin puts it: “The wall dematerializes as a form and allows the names to become the object, a pure and reflective surface that would allow visitors the chance to see themselves within the names…a space we cannot enter and from which the names separate us, an interface between the world of the living and the world of the dead.”
Finally, in this scenario of the exhibition of Damag, there is a strong investment in the problem of absence and presence, in the stature of sculpture and the degradation of artifact, and in the ability of the post-colonial contemporary art to mediate the legacies of minimalism. In this light, the Philippine artist, who lives and works in Paris and is not a stranger to how Europe has represented the ethnic museologically in its salons of culture, returns the gesture, or reciprocates the orientalist gaze, not by choreographing another dance of originality or ethnographic verisimilitude but by appropriating the minimalist idiom of the belabored canon of western modernism. He cites as material and trope the transformed roof of the Ifugao house by way of the industrial material of the galvanized iron, casts the gap brought about by the corrugation, and pulls out, as it were, a sculpture from this procedure. Like some found object or everyday ornament or apparatus, it merely leans on the wall of the exhibition site as if to index sculpture’s “expanded field” or, better to believe, the post-colony’s political stance: the all-important inclination to let go of the anxiety of repetition and the burden of recognition.And at last: to turn the mimicry of the modern into its metabolism; the critique of the institution into its remastery; and the error of translation into the essence of equivalence, nothing less than the possession of an afterlife.