AUTO RETRATO, ACRYLIC ON SAWDUST ON WOOD CARVING, 36 CM.C X 57.5 CM.H, 2008
by Patrick D. Flores
On the back of a flagellant is an image of Christ. Both figure and subject bleed because blood drips from the torn flesh of the penitent that is at the same time an imitation of the sacred Passion of both the historical and Biblical Christ. It is an image within an image, skin being the surface of the inscription that is in itself part of larger figure. The body here is another image, hewn from a fragment of a guava tree, layered with saw dust, and then shaped into a human being. Indeed, the image is devotional, belonging to a cult of belief: the believer is within the picture himself and the image addresses a kindred soul, he or she who prays before it or considers it potent and living. Finally, that this image within an image is placed in a bell jar or cloche, which simulates a transparent dome and may well be a celestial reference, completes the formation of a microcosm in which image, imagist, and imaginary come together as a faithful that is expectant of an afterlife. This craft of crystal is at once banal and aspirational.
Roberto Feleo’s series of vitrines takes us to hothouses of faith. They are practically experiments of science and religion, natural history and spirituality, domesticity and the public sphere. The bell jar is a controlled environment where flora is placed and observed. As decoration, it encases objects set apart as either delicate or rare, or recovered from foreign, exotic places, reminiscent of the cabinet of curiosities. It can also be a glass altar. Two examples might help:
In the Peranakan Museum in Singapore, we find the gelai tutup, an ornamental fixture that young Nonyas from Penang made for the wedding chamber of the Peranakan rite. Inside it is a finely wrought “metallic wire and gauze in an arrangement of animals, flowers, fruits, and foliage. Of note are the monkey and the pig, which possibly symbolized the Chinese horoscopes of the bride and the bridegroom.” It is said that this tradition of bell jar crafts could be traced to the British during the colonial era in Malaya; in Victorian England, these cloches were used to shield booms and plants from erratic temperatures, the elements, and infestation. But it would later morph into a practice of “bringing the great outdoors in the home…along with stuffed birds, flowers, and faux blooms.” In the Paulino Que collection in Manila, a large vitrine chronicles religious tales.
In the painting of the Filipino artist Simon Flores of the Quiason Family in the nineteenth century, we see a similar object, named as verina, a term not found in Spanish dictionaries, and most probably is a deviation from vitrina or glass case. The critic identifies its contents as “wax flower and grapes” and situates it in the larger theater of an ascendant middle-class lifestyle, indexed by the accoutrements of the stone house: curtains, globed lamps, false Greek columns, and the translucent Sunday finery of the family. In another work of Flores, the glass case contains Marian statuary.
Feleo relates that these vitrines in this exhibition house episodes of the Philippine Passion, refracted from telling, and not merely grand, moments in history. This is part of a more extensive syntax in his oeuvre involving the sapin (layer), the tau tao (ancestral figure), and the spirit boats. They may be construed as vessels or crucibles that suffer the energies of historical transformation and struggle with the tensions of containment. Inherent in the glass case is the discourse of control; but also immanent here is the life force, the liminal dynamic that links the earthly plane to a supernatural field. In Feleo’s crystal universe, a history transpires, one that cannot be reduced to historical time, which moves along a sequence of origin and progress, but rather one that eludes linear logic and could be grasped as allegorical time or fantasy time or mythic time.
In this scheme, he summons personas of authority, like the mestizo comprador functionary whose legs are propped up on stilts but whose feet are firmly grounded. Then there are the Spanish soldiers, with plumage and tongues of fire over their heads, and deceitful friars with their military insignias, Mickey Mouse hats, and Pinocchio noses.
This narrative of power is critiqued by pieces that reference instances of violence and intimations of revolution. We are initiated into the world of the sniper Bonifacio Mariano, guerilla hitman of an American general; or a scene of Filipino spies during the Japanese interlude; and vignettes of the Basi Revolt of 1807, reworked in a fourteen-panel opus by Esteban Villanueva. Feleo has had deep reflections on this seminal rebellion incited by claims over sugarcane wine. In this present project, we are again made to revisit the personae of this tumult, the leaders who were decapitated and the Vigan visionary Villanueva whose likeness is imagined here together with his exemplars.
To further inflect this mythological sequence, Feleo probes the very ways in which art or culture mediates history, transforming it from the “context” that is said to define destiny to an articulation of translation, a labor or an effort to make sense of “time and the other.” Thus, we are prompted to carefully look into tableaux about the artist’s neighbor, a marine engineer and model maker, conversing with the Manunggul boatman Maguayen and the Marinduque centurion Longino who make pleas for Christ’s body; or the precious life of the barber-healer Godofredo Mijares from Jaro in Iloilo; and, surely, Christ figures like the flagellant and a very peculiar headless incarnation that is completed or restored by the image of a fire made of termite dung; this is the flame conferred on beheaded Ifugao warriors when they die. All these mediations may be discerned in how the artist converts icons into eccentric, idiosyncratic, and hybrid artifacts of a post-colonial pantheon.
Feleo takes to the vitrine as a device that enables him to refer to the bricolage of Philippine culture. In fact, in his initial forays, he appropriated a planter or a terrarium of sorts to contrive a bell jar or cloche. For him, the vitrine is mixed media, given to improvisation and accretion, such as engraving that sometimes embellishes the glass. It is also exhibitionary and so in a way mimics the dioramic experience, a museological stratagem that speaks of everyday life and depicts the ethnographic. Finally, it recodes the mythological, provides a platform for its appearance and in certain instances veneration. A related form would be the urna, another version of the altar that is richly festooned with polychrome carving around the niche. In this current suite, the urna is the stage on which Spanish and American imperialism plays out.
In many ways then, the vitrine is a glass world picture, virtually a cosmos where forces contend and transcendence becomes apparent. Here, image transcends its supposedly religious function. The eminent art historian Hans Belting says that it would be a “mistake to see images…only as objects of religious contemplation, since they were constantly used for very tangible purposes, from the repulsion of evil to healing and the defense of the realm. The authority they acquired through such functions enabled them to become the focus of a society’s aspirations (whether that society was a town or an entire empire) and to symbolize the ideal community envisaged by that society.”
It is uncanny that Belting would braid image with community, because the equally esteemed historian of Southeast Asia Reynaldo Ileto discusses a post-colonial community in relation to social movements founded on charismatic figures and images. For while the colonial annals would regard these millenarian ruptures as “disturbances” and “aberrations, their perpetrators reduced to the status of dacoits or fanatics often led by crazed monks, popes, and prophets,” alternative theories have been advanced toward a more robust understanding of their interventions: “Instead of merely classifying peasant movements and reducing them to techniques for coping with the hardships of life, we might ask how they were informed by thought: their shapes of the future, notions of community, and perceptions of change and leadership.”
What may be salient in sensing Feleo’s toil is the notion of possession at many levels. There is the allure of property, of things consecrated. Then there is the aspect of curiosity that is intricately related to the “antique” sourced from stores that fetishize its ancient vintage. Then the sense of wonder as images alight with grimness, or with whimsy, as in the phallic pieces called Magellan or plastic toy soldiers that serve as sea on which the vessel of the hereafter sails. In this process, we are inevitably brought back to what we had ruminated at the outset: the devotional image as a manifestation of a cult of belief. And nothing could more sharply and poignantly evoke this sentiment than the artist’s self-portrait itself, limning him as an orant subject before his priestess. Again: an image within an image that is no longer art.