Chabet: A Collective Memory

Written by Ringo Bunoan, April 2011.

Early installation by Roberto Chabet in Luz Gallery, c. 1970s. Photograph by Nat Gutierrez

A lot of the misconceptions about Roberto Chabet’s work, and Filipino conceptual art especially from the 1970s stem from this fact: many of the works no longer exist and were never documented.  We only know about them through stories. We have a rich oral history, but unfortunately, many of these stories remain within small circles, those who are privileged enough to hear, or perhaps a better term would be those curious enough to listen.

Chabet, though he is widely known and highly respected in the Philippines, is almost like a secret to the outside world. Very little has been written about him, no book has ever been published on his work, and the To Be Continued exhibition, which was just held last January in Singapore was his first exhibition outside Manila. This can come off as a shock to many people, for how can somebody like Chabet be overlooked by history? But art history is like that, it is not a democratic field. History is always shaped by the agendas or frameworks of those who are writing. And for Chabet, he simply did not fit in.

Roberto Chabet, Mountain Landscape with Rainbow (China Collage series), 1982-1985. Collection of Joy Dayrit

View of Roberto Chabet’s 'Psychopathology of Everyday Life' at Finale Art Gallery, SM Megamall, March 1997. Courtesy of Roberto Chabet

Poster for Roberto Chabet’s exhibition, Alegria Gallery, 1981

Untitled work by Roberto Chabet. Collection of Daisy Langenegger

Perhaps it is because Chabet’s works go against common notions or definitions of Philippine art. They have always been seen as Western, elitist and too cerebral for many. Resistant to any form of institutionalization, he doesn’t give any public statements, turns down interviews, and prefers his works to stand alone without any explanations. This ‘refusal to speak’ has led to further confusion, and has even been interpreted as a form of snobbery or arrogance. Though I see it more as strategic way of distancing oneself from the operations of the art world, which always finds a way to co-opt alternative practices.

The art market, which completely dominates the scene in Manila is another factor. No one really bought Chabet’s works, because Filipino collectors only buy paintings, in the most traditional sense. Chabet’s works have been described as anti-museum because they are not collectible. As with a lot of conceptual artists, he often uses materials, which are makeshift and ephemeral, they were never meant to be permanent. He has always said that art is for the moment, after it becomes memory. But ‘memory is sometimes hard to remember’. And this is another challenge, because how do we really archive something that is so fleeting and temporary?

Nilo Ilarde and Roberto Chabet in the UP College of Fine Arts., c. 1980s. Photograph by Soler Santos

Chabet, 1996

Roberto Chabet taking a photograph of the exhibition I Have Nothing to Paint and Im Painting It in MO_Space, 2007. Photograph by Ringo Bunoan

When I started working for Asia Art Archive in 2007, I knew then that I had to start with Chabet. I still remember that day when we had lunch with Joy Dayrit. It was the starting point of all my research. Joy passed on to me 9 albums of photographs of Chabet’s exhibitions and those he curated, and a folder of his writings. I knew right away how precious they were, for they were the pictures and words that were missing from our books on Philippine art history.

Within a year, we were able to gather over 8000 documents and digitized them, and made copies for AAA and the Lopez Memorial Museum. Many of the materials came from Chabet, but many were also sourced from his friends, students, galleries he worked with, collectors, museums, and other institutions. They included photographs, slides, clippings, notes about his works, letters, and material about the numerous exhibitions he curated of other artists.

Selected material from The Chabet Archive. Photograph by Ringo Bunoan

5 Painters. Jolico Quadra, The Manila Chronicle, July 15, 1967. Courtesy of the Lopez Memorial Museum

Press release of the first Shop 6 exhibition, The Times Journal. April 16, 1974.

A few months after we launched The Chabet Archive in 2009, a massive typhoon hit Manila. I said during the launch that it was just the beginning. And true enough, a few days after the waters subsided I went to Chabet’s house and saw thousands more of works, documents, and books, which were washed up by the flood. Chabet was ready to lose everything at that time; he thought it would be a resonant exit. He likes the idea of spending his last years quietly, just enjoying himself, by himself. But I betrayed him. Without his asking, I went there everyday for weeks trying to save what I could. Still unfinished, our partial inventory has registered already over 12,000 items.

Archiving Roberto Chabet, Vargas Museum, Manila, 2009.

Archiving Roberto Chabet, 2009.

Invitation to Inventory, Cubicle Art Gallery, 2004

Invitation to Inventory, Cubicle Art Gallery, 2004

Archiving is a dynamic process, not just a systematic method of listing and shelving objects.  Beneath the veneer of structure, order and repetition, are cracks that can offer a re-reading of the subject. When I started reconstructing his unrealized works for the Archiving Roberto Chabet exhibition, I was really driven by this curiosity to see what they would look like, and what it is like to actually experience them. For the To Be Continued exhibition, nearly all of the works, except for one, were reconstructions, based on existing documentation and memories of Chabet and those who saw the ‘original’ works and/or participated in their creation. Re-making them is a kind of restoration, a way of filling in the gaps.  

It is also an alternative way of writing history based on a collective memoir and plurality of voices. But equally important is that is a continuation of a dialogue with him and his works. An artwork is never really finished as much as an archive is never really complete.

View of Roberto Chabet’s To Be Continued, ICA Singapore, 2011. Photograph by At Maculangan

View of Roberto Chabet’s To Be Continued, ICA Singapore, 2011. Photograph by At Maculangan

View of Ringo Bunoan’s Archiving Roberto Chabet, Jorge B. Vargas Museum, 2009. Photograph by Ringo Bunoan

View of Roberto Chabet’s To Be Continued, ICA Singapore, 2011. Photograph by At Maculangan

Students of Roberto Chabet during the opening of the To Be Continued exhibition. Photograph by At Maculangan

 

 

About Roberto Chabet

Roberto Chabet is widely acknowledged as the father of Philippine conceptual art and arguably the most influential contemporary Filipino artist, curator and teacher in Manila. He is known for his experimental works, ranging from paintings, drawings, collages, sculptures, and installations made out of mostly ordinary and found material. Breaking away from the rigid formalisms of Modernism, Chabet insists on a more inclusive approach to art, a search for the sublime not just in abstract ideas but also in the immediacy of the quotidian and the commonplace. In his works, abstraction and the everyday collide, creating spaces for new meanings.

Chabet was born in 1937 and passed away in 2013 in Manila. He graduated with a degree in Architecture from the University of Sto. Tomas in 1961, the year he also had his first solo exhibition. He is the founding Museum Director of The Cultural Center of the Philippines (CCP) where he initiated the Thirteen Artist Award in 1970, an award that supports young artists whose works show “recentness and a turning away from the past”. It remains the most prestigious recognition to be given by a national institution to young Filipino visual artists. After his brief tenure at the CCP, Chabet led the seminal alternative artist group Shop 6, and taught for over thirty years at the University of the Philippines College of Fine Arts and at key artist-run spaces in Manila. Since the 70s, Chabet has been curating landmark exhibitions of vanguard works by young and emerging Filipino artists. He is the recipient of the JD Rockefeller III Fund Grant (1967- 1968), the Republic Cultural Heritage Award (1972), the Araw ng Maynila Award for the Visual Arts (1972), and the CCP Centennial Award of Honors for the Arts (1998).

In 2009, Asia Art Archive in Hong Kong and the Lopez Memorial Museum in the Philippines co-launched TheChabet Archive, a milestone research and digitization project covering fifty years of the artist’s work, that provides the inspiration for the Chabet: 50 Years series of exhibitions.

About the author

Ringo Bunoan is an artist, curator and researcher based in Manila, Philippines. She received her BFA in Art History from the University of the Philippines in 1997, and taught in the UP College of Fine Arts from 1997 – 1998. From 1999 – 2004, she led Big Sky Mind, an independent artist-run space that supported progressive works by contemporary visual artists, filmmakers, writers, and musicians. Her works have been shown in galleries, museums and alternative art spaces in Manila, across Asia and the Pacific and USA. In 2003, she received the Thirteen Artist Award from the Cultural Center of the Philippines and in 2007 the Silverlens Foundation Completion Grant. Since 2007, she has been working as the Researcher for the Philippines for Asia Art Archive in Hong Kong and initiated special research projects on artist-run spaces in Manila and Roberto Chabet. She recently co-founded King Kong Art Projects Unlimited in Manila.

About Roberto Chabet: Fifty Years

Chabet: 50 Years is a series of exhibitions throughout 2011 – 2012 in various venues in Singapore, Hong Kong and Manila in celebration of Roberto Chabet’s fifty years of pioneering conceptual work as an artist, curator and teacher. The project is organized by King Kong Art Projects Unlimited, an independent art initiative founded by artists Ringo Bunoan, Nilo Ilarde, Mawen Ong, Soler Santos, and MM Yu.   For more information, visit www.kingkongartprojects.org.

 

Exhibitions:

To Be Continued
/ ICA, Lasalle Singapore
13 Jan – 11 Feb 2011

Complete & Unabridged, I
/ ICA, Lasalle Singapore
17 Feb – 26 Mar 2011

Complete & Unabridged, II
/ Osage Kwun Tong, Hong Kong
4 Mar – 9 May 2011

Intermediate Geography
/ Osage Soho, Hong Kong
5 Mar – 9 May 2011

Ziggurat
/ West Gallery
29 Mar – 23 Apr 2011

Onethingafteranother
/ Finale Art File
6 – 28 Apr 2011

Box Painting
/ Mag:net Gallery
5 – 28 May 2011

Shop 6: 101 Objects
/ Mo_space
4 June – 3 July 2011

Sitting Standing Lying
/ Corredor Gallery
7 July – 5 Aug 2011

I Miss the 20th Century
/ Manila Contemporary
20 Aug – 11 Sep 2011

Works on paper
/ Galleria Duemila
3 – 27 Sep 2011

Roberto Chabet: Bread
/ Mo_space
17 Sep – 16 Oct 2011

Windows to Conversations: Chabet, Lee & Zobel
/ Ateneo Art Gallery
6 Oct 2011 – 28 Jan 2012

Tabo
/ Lopez Memorial Museum
10 Nov 2011 – 14 April 2012

Night and Day
/ Paseo Gallery
1 – 11 Dec 2011

To Be Continued
/ Cultural Center of the Philippines
19 Jan – 31 March 2012

For more information about Roberto Chabet: Fifty Years, please log on to http://www.kingkongartprojects.org/

 

Roberto Chabet. Painting by Elaine Navas