Vital Signs of Art in thePhilippines

by Patrick D. Flores


Perhaps it is the sensitive response of artists to a layered history that has shaped the robust condition of contemporary art in thePhilippinesin the present. It is an ecology of art making not confined to the capital city ofManilaand its greater metropolis. It is network of efforts across the cities and islands in the archipelago and beyond, and the various intersections in which artists of varied persuasions find common ground. And this network is not only sustained by artists, but a generation of writers, curators, and other workers in the field who have pursued the ideals of both activism and the avant-garde. A shift has been calibrated from the late nineties to the last fifteen years.

The response can be interpreted broadly in terms of three contexts. First is the internationalism in the sixties and the seventies and how artists were prompted to converse with the turns in western modernism and its fascination with the reflexivity of the artistic gesture, or the very conceptual basis of making art and presenting it as art within an art world. The other is the critique of the institution of modernism in the country, its assimilation into an authoritarian government that co-opted culture in its spectacles of identity and development. And third is the instinctive, interdisciplinary engagement of artists from different backgrounds with an exceptionally dense social reality, largely mingling media and talents to render the said reality compelling and open to the intuition of others.

While this history is robust, it is observed that the country has not been able to transcend the constraints of colonialism and its lasting legacies in how government is run, and how it has repeatedly betrayed its people, as we speak. It is said that Filipinos have “short memory” and have a habit of easily forgetting the experiences of the past. Artists in thePhilippineshave dwelled on this predicament of memory. Alfredo Aquilizan, for instance, references the distance between Europe andPhilippinesby way of sweaters formed in the shape of vaginas, or, collaborating with his wife Isabel, to gather found slippers and contrive them into a gargantuan wing. Their son Miguel has also taken to this impulse of collecting and bricolage as a way to make sense of the collective through his miniature taxidermy projects, complicating nature and culture, scale and detail, rarity and fetish, possession and the residues of the body.

An aspect of this short memory is the range of illusions generated by a society immersed in media and mythology. Mark Justiniani has initiated works on the trickery of sight and the complexities of vision, playing with repetition and depth. Vermont Coronel, for his part, indexes the city through delicate and intricate silhouettes, consisting of stenciled images and stencil cutouts overlapping each other, that become palimpsests of memory and survival. While Kiko Escora sketches out large black and white paintings of the citizens of the streets under the half-light of the urban scene.

The tension between a long history and a short memory can be discerned as well in language. It is in this alternation between the narrative of time and the process of remembering that the art prevails. It is casually observed that Filipinos forget easily and negotiate the crimes of history in the register of the melodrama, always with heartfelt song and surely with laughter in the end. This thought causes us to pause and reflect on the notion of historical trauma that has gripped thePhilippinesover time, brought about by wrenching schemes like conquest, war, and military rule – to say nothing yet of festive revolutions of bystanders and miracle believers. The displacement of the ecology of a life world because of three successive imperialisms, the countless bodies slaughtered during the Philippine-American war, the repression of rights during Martial Law. How could such trauma easily find passage through the consciousness of the Filipino and how could the Filipino just let it go?

There are no straight answers to this tough question. It might be that there are potent mediations of these sources of trauma. There is belief, and then there is belief in beauty regardless of the guile and grisliness that attend them through and through. There is likewise generosity towards the frailty of those incommensurate others and the mercy of gods to monsters. It is interesting to note that in the vernacular in some southern islands in the country, the word balos speaks of at once retribution and reciprocity. This dynamic of “short memory” in the end is most constructively grasped in light of the modern idea of a “long history,” the instinct of a people to be in time, to translate the worldly in double-speak, and to claim entitlement to a world that has refused it and to a world to which it aspires. Short memory, moreover, is cognate of “quick-change,” of improvisation and making do, thus the need to think about the interval between violence and grief and mourning and remembering. And here, the Sanskrit-derived word antala is critical. It is the gap, the (mean)time of waiting or samantala; it is of the moment, or being momentary, indeed, (con)temporary or pansamantala. It is stealing an opening, seizing an opportunity; it is taking advantage or pananamantala. This earnestness and wistfulness, this Philippine patience and passion, is the basis of the bated breath of sufferance, the inspiration to last another day in thePhilippines.