In-Flight (Another Country) / 2006 / installation drawings


No Country for Natives

Alfredo Juan and Isabel Aquilizan work together as a couple, parents and artists. Though they pursue individual creative vocations, their collaborations dwell on their everyday life within a family of five children. The duty of raising them and the intimacy of ensuring their well-being have come to inflect their work with collective habits, or habits of collection – and also of belonging. In the Philippine setting, where filial ties are extensive and households are global, the Aquilizan brood cannot be solitary; it is but part of a community of kin that weaves in and out of the dwelling. Through the years, the home as an abode gathers testimonies of passage: of clothes and toys outgrown, furniture stacked in storage, and other possessions strewn along paths.

Many of Alfredo and Isabel’s projects demonstrate this instinct of collecting as well as the techniques of exposition. They have stayed overnight in a museum and marked its precinct with traces of their residence. They have sought out mementoes from relatives in Australia; shoes, toothbrushes and garbage in Japan; blankets and dreams in Korea; and identification photographs of youth and domestic items in the Philippines. But as home is not singular, so is it not sedentary. Its members wander off and return. When Alfredo studied in the United Kingdom, for instance, he missed Isabel and the children terribly, especially their newborn eldest daughter, whom he had to leave behind. Drawing on this melancholic experience, he imagined the possibilities of travel and reunion by buying a second-hand baby sweater every day for 30 days, shaping them into female genitalia, installing them in his studio, and christening the ritual Amihan, the girl’s name and the vernacular for northern wind; he also built a dreamboat out of a mattress.

In the Biennale of Sydney in 2006, the artists extended their, Be-longing series, which consists of work done in Brisbane in 1999 (where they brought together keepsakes from Filipinos), and in Havana in 2000 (where they solicited souvenirs what Cubans would take with them if they were to live elsewhere). They focus on boxes laden with the personal effects from their homeland that they feel they would need if their plans to emigrate to Australia did not miscarry. This may well be a farewell scene in which the wrenching process of migration becomes poignant. It is caught between the anticipation of a beginning and an unsettling of origin or address – between expectation and alienation. Here migrants as agents are, on the one hand, disembodied in the site of exile, replaced by their property; but, on the other, are also active senders of memorabilia from their dis-locale, suspended in the act of disposing and dispossessing. Used and usable things for strange climates and native necessities are shipped and sorted out: winter gear, threadbare shirts, worn out books, cherished pieces of previous art. Amid this freight is a precious maquette of their old house, cast by the harsh tropical light of a quaint country.

To look forward to leaving is to give up; it is at once exasperation and sacrifice in the face of a patrimony in pieces, which is mended by hospitality, haunted by belongings. The practice of Alfredo Juan and Isabel Aquilizan indexes the habit of keeping and investing things with sentiment. It is a disposition shaped by varying desires: as a matter of necessity for a family and as a matter of contingency for artists seeking the intimate contexts of a collective, whether kin or nation, the mass or the global. It is further deepened by their experience as Filipino migrants in Australia and their commissions of installations across the world.

The installation Reworking in Progress roots itself in the sustained practice of the artists in collaborating with other makers of material culture, be they jeepney (local public transport) artisans, students with their identification pictures, dreamers with their blankets, migrants with their possessions, even soap and bathers, among others. This sharing of things between persons leads them at a certain level to dematerialize the fetish for these objects, the status that they have achieved as commodity, instrument, expenditure, or even “identity.” The dematerialization, however, does not reduce the goods as pure concepts, shorn of their materialities; neither does it flatten the relations of exchange across processes of reciprocity nor ease the burden of attachment to property. The exchange rather transforms the things into some kind of a productive spectacle of recollection that is leavened with critical nostalgia for sentiment (as in devotion to craft) and also for renewal (as in belief in cultural memory and beauty in the gradations of red and blue and white among toothbrushes). It is at once, therefore, wrenching and wistful.

In this particular conjuncture, the artists converse with the copious art of Antonio Calma, someone who bears the stigma of being labeled a “Mabini” artist, a term assigned to painters who cater to propensities for souvenirs among tourists or to taste deemed low-brow, kitsch, nouveau riche. The term comes from the street on which they ply their trade, the same vicinity to which some conservative painters in 1955 relocated their works after walking out of a competition in the annual salon that according to them had favored modernism. Mabini, therefore, serves as a sign of both decline and sufferance, a persisting salon des refuses contemporaneous with modernity; it is also incidentally the red-light district in old Manila. Calma is the Aquilizans’ contemporary in the art world; but he only makes sense in Mabini while the Aquilizans are supposed to be global artists, traded in biennales and art fairs. And there lies the tension, the exposure.

We have before us Calma’s art, though the market instinct that governs its normal presentation is overcome when the objects (in terms of image and form) themselves are hidden, stacked up into a column or a pile of canvases, cut up and reframed, hung in the manner of a kunsthalle or a schaulager, their allure neutralized, recast as minimal sculpture or ready-made conceptualist art that is totemic or muralist in pretension, but still retaining the signature of a fragmented, miniaturized Calma. He has become some kind of a co-author of contemporary art that has by turns mutated into abstract, impressionist, informel, brut, nouveau realist, and so on. Indeed, the arrangement betrays the level of production through which this kind of art assumes standing and the sheer volume of output it is able to yield in present everyday life, from dusk till dawn, so to speak, and with such versatility as it is discerned in this set up. For his part, Aqulizan somehow lifts the opprobrium off Calma’s métier, styling himself as a worker in the atelier who overcomes the customs of the guild and redeems a fellow painter from the habitus that may parallel Amorsolo’s own in a certain sense. Either way, both lose the valence of their stature, except that the Aquilizans recover a distinction under the aegis of institutional critique and self-reflexivity. What happens to Calma is vaguer and more difficult to track, which is why this provocation is indispensable because it is at once so disturbing and so beautiful, with Mabini art finally becoming contemporary and museum-worthy though slaughtered, so to speak, at the altar of art. It is only through this slaughter that it achieves an aesthetic quality meaningful in the legitimate art world, but a slaughter nevertheless that denies it of its own tradition on the street where it lives.

And so, the objects of Calma are displaced: occluded and violated, their images made virtual, projected on a monitor, a spectral reference of sunrises and sunsets, landscapes that are appropriated in a postmodern, autocritical maneuver. They are denied of their capital as paintings for sale and reinvested with the labor of loss in a moment of contemplation in the era of contemporary art. This turns into an installation, brought about by the shift of modality from wallbound painting to environment or “theater of memory,” reminding us of the last work of the couple in Manila before they emigrated to Brisbane, Australia. They collapsed the remains of their entire studio, dense stuff of artistic lives, into blocks of compressed objects, crammed into metal frames and appearing like, again, minimal sculpture spread out across the floor, with maximal content, a surplus of belongings. In another incarnation, these were placed on top of each other to form a monolith; in a similar undertaking, homecoming boxes form a gargantuan cube as if a monument to migration that is peripatetic, unsettled: Singapore, Adelaide, Sydney, Linz, Jerusalem, and Osaka.

More than anything else, this project initiates reflection on the state of modernity in Philippine art by way of revisiting the discourse of Mabini, a site of struggle between the establishment and the modernist vanguard, and now locus of reconsideration and regeneration in the very bazaar of global contemporary art. The question thus begs: Is this all ethically possible? How can a consenting Calma reassert his agency as a practicing Mabini artist, regardless how derided the title has become and how inconsequential his practice ranks in contemporary art? In other words, just how does he figure? As the artist Kawayan de Guia acutely observes, as the afternoon light of a balmy afternoon filters through the glass panels of the Vargas, it breaks into shafts and scatters across the facets of Mabini paintings, the entire ambience becoming enchantingly Amorsolesque. Calma is atmosphere.

This is a problematique, or even an aporia, worth pondering. And the moment of convergence is the Vargas Museum where Stock takes place, a homecoming exhibition where the Aquilizans take stock not only of the traces of their things but of the collection itself, as well as its very ethic and aesthetic, at the Vargas. It is interesting to note that the objects here are varied: art, coins, stamps, archives, books, photographs, memorabilia. They were largely amassed at the time when the Philippines was, as it were, learning at the knee of the Americans during the Commonwealth phase and when it was occupied by the Japanese during the Pacific War. Vargas was Executive Secretary to Philippine Commonwealth President Manuel Quezon and was Mayor of Manila when the Japanese ruled the country. He was tried for collaborating after the war but was eventually exonerated.

Another intriguing angle to pursue is the fact that Vargas was an important patron to Fernando Amorsolo, the country’s first National Artist and luminary of the academic/conservative school from which Mabini art partly descended. Nation building, war, and the formation of art history and the art market condense in a collection, very much in the same way that the frenzy of the global congeal in collecting. The Aquilizans cross crucial intervals here.

These filiations come together at the museum, which recovers the possibility of the uncanny – at last. It is at this crossing where we re-encounter the Aquilizans beyond Manila/Brisbane. Their continuing project Another Country speaks to this promise. When they come back to the Philippines, they see another country in the same vein that they have seen another one in Australia. This return – and return of the look – has spun many initiations besides the re-acquaintance with the history of painting itself in the Philippines through the Mabini excursus, which in one occasion was presented in Vilnius in Lithuania amid a heated room fit for the tropics; when the public came to view it, they instinctively took off their cloak as if to bask in the painting of sun.

Also, the Aquilizans would further dismantle/reassemble the jeepney, with the help of silversmiths and metal workers, that they retooled for Venice in 2003, appropriating the front part and isolating its details to reveal unexpected visages as it were, complete with blinking lights and plateresque flourishes. They call these components “grills,” which include logos of car brands like Toyota or Mercedes. The bits and pieces are mixed and matched to form robotic miens and around them are inscribed stray words, some mundane, others ribald. If they have interpreted the history of the jeepney as a wartime vehicle trudging on within a continuum of imperialism, stripping it down to its stainless sheen and preparing it as ground for texts from the Bible that allude to Manichaean struggles, here they anthropomorphize the automobile to imply the human impulses inhering in its facture, from the homely adornment that ensures well being within the local moral world to their own affect of estrangement from nation. Corollarily, they think of phrases picked up from the streets that have suddenly sounded baffling, infused with nuance that only strangers, and not natives, could intuit. They call this “congregation,” a take perhaps from the term of Alfonso Ossorio’s quirky and baroque assemblages, Plethora, which is suffused as well with sundry works of yore.

Their work for the recent Asia-Pacific Triennial in Brisbane partakes of this disposition: collected palm-size airplanes made by a multitude of anonymous hands form a stunning heap of craft and vessel and invite more to make the mountain. In Tasmania, they poached on the archives, selected stories and objects, and asked students to construct another layer of tales, indeed, mythologies. This is akin to the collation of translucent slippers of prisoners in Singapore (spinning from well-worn slippers of villagers in a Philippine peninsula), homecoming boxes in Beijing in front of blurred blown-up passport photographs, and sometime soon, a reprise of the baby sweaters suite, this time with the clothes sourced from erstwhile American colonial hill station Baguio. They had parasitic projects, too, in Australia: magnifying lenses planted around certain artifacts like a 1954 Holden car, or places like a leprosarium, a fort, a quarantine facility. This sleuthing and stalking of the Aquilizans, this toil as bricoleurs, is an inquiry into the politics of settlement and residence. There has been talk of late about the altermodern and the post-nomadic in contemporary art theory, with Nicholas Bourriaud speaking of interconnectedness in an “archipelagic” conception of history, a more total scenario that is a heterochrony. We are told that rather than in a state of dispersal, we are in a world of proximities, a shift away from the postmodernist, neoliberal diffusion, or even, radical particularity. The latter may seem to have foreclosed in the long duration the chance of translation, hospitality, friendship, sympathy in favor of an exploited multiculturalism and identity politics.

The Philippines has known this condition of inclination and disclosure quite intimately long before these phrases have gained currency in the imaginarium of theory, with the country’s legion living out extensities in the sadness and serendipities of leaving. Filipinos have emerged beyond the diaspora to claim pieces of the world wherever they are, investing in its means of making, and recalling their home in the premises of those who had once taken it away from them and resent their current presence, discriminating their meagerness in borders breached by the huddled. The Aquilizans refunction art as some kind of fiction of belongingness as well as of art. Jacques Rancière has said that “art does not do politics by reaching the real. It does it by inventing fictions that challenge the existing distribution of the real and the fictional. Making fictions…means undoing and rearticulating the connections between signs and images, images and times, or signs and space that frame the existing sense of reality. Fiction invents new communities of sense: that is to say, new trajectories between what can be seen, what can be said, and what can be done.” This present discourse on art demands from artists the commitment to concepts of community, common-ness, consent, communication, and “conflictual consensus.” The art of Alfredo and Isabel Aquilizan compels us to discern how far it could go in forging an interventive, activist, participative public that it enlists in the making of art and to which it addresses its fictions. It takes risks in leaving and losing. As Rancière continues: “Critical art thrived on this continuous border crossing, this two-way process of prosaicization of the poetical and the poeticization of the prosaic.” However way their art drifts, they can no longer be put in place because they have ceased to be mere migrants, residents, and citizens. They have become finally foreigners.

By: Patrick D. Flores