EXHIBITIONS / THE INVERTED TELESCOPE

ABOUT THE EXHIBITION

“The West exports the concept of culture all over the world.”

                                                            ~Kwame Anthony Appiah

 CONFESSION #…ON APPROPRIATION, ADAPTATION, AND CO-OPTATION

 Question:What does it mean to curate one’s first simultaneous exhibition in a commercial art gallery and in a government cultural institution after producing a barter art project called Markets of Resistance?

Response:Confronting a gamut of contradictionsbetween the practice of artversus the business of art; exchange of ideas and cultural experiences versus monetary exchange; and challenges of working with and in public and private spaces.

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The Inverted Telescopeexhibition is inspired by what I interpret to be transnationalist experiences of people—Filipino artists, in this context, who left their homelands to either study, visit, or live in western countries and were inspired and/or influenced by these cultures, art practices, and mindsets. The phrase is coined by the late Benedict Anderson in his introduction of The Spectre of Comparisons:Nationalism, Southeast Asia, and The World. This exhibition is dedicated to his spirit.

“There is a dizzying moment early in the narrative when the young mestizo hero, recently returned to the colonial Manila of the 1880s from a long sojourn in Europe, looks out of his carriage window at this municipal botanical gardens and finds that he too is, so to speak, at the end of an inverted telescope. These gardens are shadowed automatically—Rizal says maquinalmente—and inescapably by images of their sister gardens in Europe. He can no longer matter-of-factly experience them, but sees them simultaneously close up and from afar.”

                 ~ Benedict Anderson The Spectre of Comparisons:  Nationalism, Southeast Asia, and The World                                  

“The sight of the botanical garden drove away his gay reminiscences: the devil of comparisons placed him before the botanical gardens of Europe, in the countries where much effort and much gold are needed to make a leaf bloom or a bud open; and even more, to those of the colonies, rich and well-tended, and all open to the public. Ibarra removed his gaze, looked right, and there saw old Manila, still surrounded by its walls and moats, like an anemic young woman in a dress from her grandmother’s best times.”

~ Jose Rizal Noli Me Tangere (translator- Soledad Lacson-Locsin)

 Modern and contemporary artists in all genres have engaged in artistic practices of appropriation, co-optation, and adaptation consciously and unconsciously, responsibly and irresponsibly since the days of Marcel Duchamp when he first exhibited ready-made pieces Bicycle Wheel (1913) and Fountain (1917). Fast forward to the late 1960s and 1970s when American Conceptual artist, John Baldessari and Roberto Chabet, the father of Conceptual Art in the Philippines, introduced and inspired their respective countries to rethink what constitutes art and (post)modernist practices.

Baldessari and Chabet have influenced generations of students and artists who are now in a phase of what art critics have called “Post Appropriation”. Each of these conceptshas different connotations depending on the practitioner’s knowledge and/or perception of self, identity politics, Western and Eastern art history, multiple modernities, contemporary art practices, indigeneity, and heritage—and of course, their own objectives for producing a piece of work.

As the group exhibitions curator, I asked the six artists and one artist’s collective what the concepts/cultural practices of “appropriation”, “adaptation”, and “co-optation” mean to them with the caveat that context is of utmost importance. How do they respond when some Western critics still believe that there is no such thing as “Asian Contemporary Art”? That their art is “derivative of Western Art”? Or that Appropriation Art is passé. These debates persist. Addressing these issues today are inherent within these selected artists’ bodies of work.

One of the challenges posed to these artists was not to thinkso much about the definitions of the words and what they represent historically within Western art practices, but to use their organic creative processes to explore how they interpret them, their possible readings, and to create another way of exploring them in a Filipinized context. We all agreed that these terms and practices resonate in a different way in the Philippines—in society in general, and in art practices more specifically, especially when critiqued in post-colonial and post-appropriation contexts from a Filipino perspective.

REWIND

This conversation with myself as a multidisciplinary artist and occasional curator about the origins of artistic modern/contemporary practices and critical debates surrounding the concepts and practices of appropriation, adaptation, and co-optation began in 1985—a pivotal year of change for me.

I had just graduated from California Institute of the Arts (CalArts)—an art school that encouraged us to nurture our concepts and the use of materials to suit them, create across disciplines, familiarize ourselves with the “isms” and “posts” from the Classics to Postmodernism, and grow a tough critical skin.A goodconcept, self-reflection, perseverance, contextual-ization of your work, and as few meltdowns as possible guaranteed an undergraduate student like me entrance into the cutthroat art world. The only problem was I did not know what kind of artist I wanted to be and in what arena I wanted to create in.

 So I went in search of answers that over the decades I have come to live. I hopped on a plane to my immigrant parents’ homeland for five months.The Marcos era was waning—its impact ubiquitous in every sector of society.The mixture of engaging with activists, journalists, residents of Smokey Mountain, inmates on death row in Muntinlupa Prison, Cardinal Sin,and members of the diverse Manila art and cultural scene was my first conscious encounter with experiencing life through Anderson’s and Rizal’s inverted telescope—being in one’s body experiencinga series of upside down déjà vusthat in fact, were really not.

When I returned to New York with eyeswideopen, I consulted with fellow artists and former mentors if they thought I could proposeexhibiting the works made by the Filipino artists I had met—Agnes Arellano, Marcel Antonio, Danilo Dalena, Edgar “Egay” Fernandez, Renato Habulan, Julie Lluch, Jon Red, and Jose Tence “Bogie” Ruiz, to name a few. They frowned upon the idea. “Who would be interested in seeing works created by Filipinos? Did they even have a culture given their history of Spanish and American colonialism? Are there genuinemovements of modern or contemporary art there?”

My disappointment with their ignorant and arrogant irresponsiveness was one that I could not fully understand until I acknowledged my own youthful art-brat responses to some of the artworks that I had seen which I, too, thought were derivative of the West or co-opted without much thought. Multiculturalism was only a faint bleep on the international art world radar. Artists of color were very much in the margins.

In retrospect, I realized, as a female person/artist/curator of color, that I was pigeon-holed and had to behave and create accordingly—from race, ethnic, gender, class, religious, and sexual preference positions—basically living and thinking from an insider/outsider perspective. I was not to go outside of the tidy, stifling identity-box or allowed to go through the western historical movements and schools of art because these practices had “all been done before”. I was not being “original” or “authentic”. My work could be interpreted as co-opting, mis/appropriating and flat out copying western practices despite the fact that I too, was a westerner perceived as a perpetual foreigner.

The irony is that this Western myopic art criticism debatecan also be construed as an inverted telescope experience. The difference is—who is looking and interpreting what one sees? Who is influencing/adapting/appropriating/co-opting whom?

 

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