by Patrick D. Flores
The artist revisits the figure dwelling in the object, making sure it does not harden into alienated matter. The object itself, the ubiquitous carved image of deity or bulul in the ethnic imagination, has already been captured as “culture,” after all. The latter is a condition that is by its nature a corruption, and so disabuses any notion of the authentic or the pristine. In the exceptional space of the museum, instrument of this capture in the history of the institution, Gaston Damag does not merely represent the object and appropriate its signifying potency. Rather, he renders it spirited. For the bulul finally figures in a state of play, loses its aura, and suffers the projections of varied interests onto it: heritage, souvenir, art.
At the heart of this civilizational and institutional critique is a reflection on modernism. In terms of procedure, Damag first isolates the bulul as object. He carves out a certain autonomy for it by situating it within rational schemas like the grid, or predictable patterns so that shape or texture could surface as aspects of beautiful, but and because reified, form. Alongside the bulul are other indices of ethnicity that are likewise recast as formal figurations, like knives and pestles, assembled with precision and perspicacity.
The primitive and the modern complicate each other in this design: totem and colonnade contain the idol, which in an earlier project is caught up in a semantic web of identifications: “innocent, iconoclast, impasse, impostor.” And we may add: industrial. The bulul is mingled with galvanized iron, cathected to steel cable and incandescent bulbs, hemmed in by glass, held in a vise by a machine. Such a mixture of the supposedly indigenous and the manufactured may be a delineation of the artist himself: Ifugao by lineage, resident of Paris, critic of museums, exhibitor of art in galleries, Filipino artist.
In many ways, Damag diminishes the bulul so that it could transcend its reductions and restores its complicities by corrupting it. In previous forays, he would harness the energy of light to either liquefy its waxen carapace; or invest it with a grotesque mischief and a surplus of eroticism; or altogether cut it up into pieces like ordinary wood. In other words, Damag persists to productively corrupt the object. And so, we finally ask: What does it mean to corrupt an obsession like the bulul? It is to threaten its supposed purity and to make it susceptible to a temptation: the lure of the foreign is as irresistible as the necessity of the native. To corrupt it is to:
First, tend its nature, to refine it, to call it culture.
Second, it is to decline it in the sense of declension in linguistics, that is, to inflect a word in relation to number, case, and gender; but also in the sense of decadence, which had originally meant “to decline,” meaning to expend, or, if we wish to extenuate the turning of the earth as the turning of the trope through which to contemplate it as well, to decline may also signify, specifically in an exceptionally inclement country, tropical decay and ruination and not always representational resilience that oftentimes coalesces into identity.
And third, it is to transmit this object – this animate, formative, intimating, and performative object — from locus to locus, agent to agent, from vernaculus (or a slave who has nothing) to virus (or poison which every thing possesses).
By putting the ethnic object under erasure through the very devices of modernism itself, Damag, at last, animates it, true to the spirit of the bulul, which is actually inert unless otherwise infused in ritual. Here in the museum, the artist performs his own ceremony of re-ordaining such a thing in an event in which the erstwhile revered and defiled object ceases to be sadly singular or merely a repetition. In the fullness of museum and contemporary time, it becomes an improvisation, an idiosyncrasy, a changeling. Thus, the title “Ifugao Red,” formed in the mouth and spat out as saliva, tinged by the tones of betel, dripping on canvas like color field, and, why not, offering a more sanguine equivalent to the sublime Yves Klein blue in modernism’s rarefied racial spectrum.