The World We Live In (2010)

Kevin Power

The World We Live In (2010). by Kevin Power

What does it mean to be human in today’s world? What has stayed the same and what has changed? How has technology changed the answers we supply to such questions? And what does all this suggests about the future we will inhabit? - L.McCaffery

Things are moving very fast and we are being overtaken on all sides as art moves into the overcrowded and accident-prone global fast lane. Cornelius Castoriadis has talked about the “dilapidation of the West” and we have all seen evidences of what he means. Contemporary art has for a long time been profoundly self-conscious of its invested interests, its place in a system and it has, as we all know, never been so complicit with market forces. It provides products and, consequently and inevitably, the values of depth, quality, and the signs of an ethics of self-respect on the part of the artist fade, as Hollywood Westerns have it, into the sunset. Pierre Bourdieu has argued, “the field of cultural production should be understood as a site of struggle shaped by the double hierarchy of heteronymous and autonomous principles.” Nothing very unusual in that, except that Bourdieu identified heteronomy as the official, dominant and recognized practice of bourgeois art, and saw autonomy as art’s aspiration to total freedom from market laws and to its own internally focused legitimisation. Today’s debates in contrast are far more likely to treat heteronomy as politically orientated practices which explicitly challenge the social framework of capitalism and seek freedom from the market, even if not necessarily from contemporary institutions of bourgeois art such as Documenta. Many of these Philippine artists manifest an open cynicism towards the system, happily parasitical when they can be and relatively unperturbed when they are not. They are in a sense, to use a phrase that was applied to one of them for a show in Australia, ‘outside-insiders’, acutely and astutely aware of what is going on within the larger circles but also intensely reactive to the specifics of their own condition. They exploit the art system, its expectations and elitism, as targets for their irony, and they frequently appropriate art history as material to be sullied in the local streets. Most of them feel closely linked to their own popular culture as well as to a global underground culture that includes graffiti, comic, sci-fi., Punk, shopping-mall culture, the psychedelic, bad painting, grunge, ribald laughter, hip hop, the iconoclastic and the scatological. Many - but by no means all - are flippant, impertinent, cynical, urban, and informed: very much part of an infoscape culture; and others are concerned with a poetics of the conceptual; and all emerge scathed or unscathed from the hybrid splintered megalopolis of Manila.


David Griggs, New York London Paris Rome Manila City Jail, (Installed at the Freies Museum, Berlin, 2010).


Jacques Ranciere, the French philosopher, insists on heterogeneity, on the mutual permeability of art and life, and sets out a social concept of the aesthetic. His work inevitably has a large appeal since he asserts the life of art against its death, and he gives the aesthetic a central place, not just for the practice of art but also for our understanding of how social emancipation is formulated. He dismisses as being beside the point those who would seek to remove politics from art. This permeability of art and life lies close to the centre of the work of many of these artists, they claim a future for painting but seek to remove it from its marred histories, especially the dominant “international” and the official version of their own – and not not too long ago - introverted history of contemporary art. As far as Ranciere’s assertion regarding art and politics is concerned, they would say, I guess, “well, it all depends on what you mean by politics”. They have lived their own soap operas of politics and politicians, extravagant and sordid corruption, endless cupboards of shoes, cinema-noir plots, and popular film actors turned statesmen. Ideology becomes difficult to swallow but the presence of the social and a highly contaminated popular culture provide inflammable material for their ideas. Some of their work can be read as a turbulent affirmation of rejection – of art and society -, blasted out at us as an explosive energy of indifference and a joyous espousal of the immediate; some of them wander as an engagement with contemporary theory; and others with an exploration of their own subjectivity: in short, an eclectic bunch, through which campo proposes a kind of pulse taking of the Filipino situation.

Contemporary art can act as a poetic force with the ability to question and destabilise through works and attitudes the very notion of the political, social, cultural and artistic. If society is to change, then things have to be shaken up. Art obviously cannot be the active perpetrator of change but it has a privileged position for phrasing and rendering visible radical questions. These artists don’t want art to disappear into nothingness they want it to infuse everything. Ranciere affirms that art “promises a political accomplishment that it cannot satisfy”; the desire to fulfil the promise of a new life inevitably ends in disappointment. It would seem that to retain the promise of the aesthetic, advanced art “has to stress more and more the power of heteronomy that underpins its autonomy”. It is an option that should be seriously examined. Some of these Philippine artists challenge the status quo by ignoring it, by opting for other forms: grotesque frivolity, sex in your face, sheer accumulation of incident into the indigestible, but make no mistake about it these are stances to life, not merely postures but attitudes that babble, spit, laugh and fart. They produce an aggressive, busy, pungent brash painting with a kind of street-wise elegance, an offering from a generation that has upset the apple cart and removed decorum and hypocrisy from the social norms. This ebullient overflow is held in check or balanced by works that opt for the focused clarity, poetically conceived, conceptual act or a musing rooted in personal experience on the voguish themes of identity, family, and memory.

We have seen a pluralism of artistic media and modes within the field of art that range from the admission of documents to that of post-relational events. Yet, at the same time, it is also clear that the categorical borders of artistic activity have been both strengthened and shored up institutionally. Control of the game has become an obsessive preoccupation as art’s borders widen and the economic centres are displaced. Nobody wants to loose his place in the queue and the art world seems to have become populated by miniature dictators, effete euphoria, exhausted authority, and young women in professional seductive black administrative chic. It is not an attractive spectacle and art, I believe, sometimes pays the price for such associations. The majority of these artists embrace the edges: an allegoric content that empties things out and often self-conscious to an extreme. Many of them have been around; they are members of the grant, scholarship, residence, and prize generation: mobile and global, acute and astute.

Whatever the drawbacks of Bourriaud’s theory (the frequent inadequacy of the thesis to the artworks addressed, or the art to the thesis), he has propelled discussion. What annoys about the microtopias of Relational Aesthetics is not so much that they are little more than an arty party, but that even in ideal terms they fail to live up to the ambitions unleashed by their own promise. Art now both suffers and enjoys built-in obsolescence but the party at the top continues; the aim is to be there, whatever the price, including that paid by the works themselves. My reading of these Filipino artists is that they are always tuned for the next turn, that they holds on to very little and have a flexibility that will allow them to move wherever the current goes, to remain parasitical but never forgetting to open fire!

Giorgio Agamben talked of the community to come back in the 90s. It appeared then as utopic, almost akin to a practical politics. Claire Bishop sees Hirschorn and Sierra as moving in this direction since “the model of subjectivity that underpins their practice is not the fictitious whole subject of harmonious community but a divided subject of partial identifications open to constant flux.” I have no particular interest in defending the artists she selected but I feel that her point is a good one and many artists would share such a positioning. This divided subject is almost endemic to human life in the megalopolis where fragmentation is a constant and where extremes are an essential part of the social patchwork. Overt political concerns, as I have said, are not evidenced in the works of these Filipino artists but they are engaged - almost inevitably - in evidencing their own cultural dominants through an assertion of its visual hybridity, its sponge-like absorption of all, its syncretic blend of religions and fetishes, and its crass nouveau-riche excesses, its violent distinctions between “have” and “have not”: painting as colourful as a jeepney and lurid images from a subculture that serves as a metaphor of the general fragmentation.

For Bourriaud art’s community effect occurs in art space; he ignores the anti-consumerist aspect in non-gallery art deriving from conceptual art’s refusal of the object in the 60s, and he includes feminism, anti-racism and environmentalism in his denigration of what he calls lobby groups. It is an irritating presumption and these artists, like so many in our contemporary world, exist essentially within alternative spaces. They do not belong to any high profile lobby group but they represent a very sharp take on what is going on in a particularly hectic melting pot. They do not produce non-gallery art in the sense of the American conceptualists in the 60s but they produce an art that bubbles over with volubility, image invention, energy, tongue-in-cheek intelligence, and that clearly feels at home in alternative spaces.

In their work the project of changing the world has been discarded for the modest intention of inhabiting the world in a better way, with more pleasure, more laughter, yet paradoxically with a firm hold on ethical principles that are more and more necessary for the individual to survive within a splintered society. Bourriaud talks of a micro community of exiles united by a collective laughter, echoing the arguments of Bakhtin, and these Filipino artists may well go along with that but they interpret it differently from within a culture whose coordinates have very little to do with French cultural sophistication and that manifests its own traffic-jammed, peopled, time and language packed, visual and social diversity.

If the neoliberal economy is now is crisis what we might ask is the role of contemporary art? We have seen since the late eighties and through the nineties how art – together with museums, critics, and collectors – have played happy ball with a boom that none of us could possibly have believed, if we ever thought about it, would last. It finally exploded, as it obviously had to, in our faces since we all said that we had known all along that it had been an undeserved miracle. Art production started to look as if its exclusive desire was to be on sale or more precisely “sold” with a red dot stuck next to it. The artworld entered a frenzy of compiling lists, of artists “younger than Christ” (I am not sure but there may well have been a Philippine amongst them and if not, why not, since the whole thing was absurd enough to have been able to include anybody and a whole flushed choir of ridiculous callers of lists sung the names to all who would listen (and many have - and here I mean no disrespect to artists included in these easily forgettable but omnipresent charts). The dice were often loaded and the shopping list spewed over with hidden agendas. As Foucault said if you want to know how things work, analyse the power system promoting it!

The paradigm of postmodernism may well have run into the sand along with the thirty-year-old neoliberal boom that was its shadow. But we would be making a huge mistake to utter any sigh of relief, we still live in a world that operates within the logic of late capitalism. If you have any doubt about that, just listen to this infamous leak from Larry Gargosian to his staff: “If you would like to continue working for Gargosian I suggest you sell some art.” Like hustle baby! And in the late eighties and nineties many artists and most galleries would in all probability have agreed with him. A climate based on performance was constructed, just like any other enterprise. The popularity that such art enjoys among these audiences is, I suspect, once again an expression of its enormous ability to create value to a public incapable of determining value according to its own criteria. And I guess this same situation must be fairly acute in the Philippines – a context in which contemporary art has gained visibility, like it or not, through the global boom. To put it bluntly if art did not have a speculative value, it would hardly have been one of those creative industries whose growth in the late 1990s became a national priority and object of prestige in many countries as a means of situating themselves on the global map. The art world has always had numerous attractive modes of inclusion at its disposal that pull in the popular media: the more glamorous and wasteful the parties, the wealthier the collectors, the more eccentric the personalities, the more sudden the rise of the artist to riches and fame, the more outrageous the works, the more ecstatic the reporting in the press (Damien Hirst, Jeff Koons, Julian Schnabel, the Young Brits, the German Neo-expressionists, etc.) But finally that is a buzz the artist can live with, but the duration of the buzz is shorter and shorter and that today may not be a bad deal in a world overloaded with art production. Since the 1990s contemporariness has come to be firmly associated with the in-crowd. The term contemporary suggests being of your own time is all it takes to understand this art, for it, too, is a phenomenon of its time. Apollinaire talked of art capturing the spirit of its time but his sense of spirit was not the result of a market campaign or some kind of promotional label. Today anyone who can document his contemporariness and some kind of illusion of participation - and that means all of us - is supposedly welcome to the party. As we have seen over the last thirty years, this attempt at popularization implicit in the principle of contemporary art has worked out well. The dangers are evident enough: a medley of movers and shakers, of exhibition curators who don’t or can’t write, of gay hipness, of recently graduated women from Bard College or Shangri-La Tech, or wherever, of Biennale brokers, and of recycled verbiage. It is a problematic situation, a dazzling and capriciously sophisticated surface that can perhaps be countered through irreverent invective, imaginative ebullience, intellectual clarity, or perhaps through the sheer energy of alterity.

Every economic crisis is also a crisis of confidence: our trust in values, both economic and symbolic, is profoundly shaken. We are a disturbed society, uncertain as to our direction, insecure in our beliefs. Contemporary art often affirms obsolete values – for instance that of the artist whose commercial success can be equated with artistic significance. An immense number of collectors have been burnt and they are left dancing on a brittle and cheaply polished floor. They will probably continue with their dance but they would do well to wise up. We need the clear diction these artists propose, sometimes a poetic incision, sometimes a visual metaphor, and sometimes a viciously twisted sneer, a belly laugh, a dead dog, or the sheer exuberance of being caught up in a city that appears both far from real and at the same time hyper-real, as on top of us as Blade Runner. That success in the market is not indicative of artistic value has always been an open secret, and if it was forgotten, that forgetting was possible only in times of a general intoxication with economic success. This work carries a grittier grain; it gets under the skin or leaves a residue in the mind.

Value, according to Marx, is a social relation; that is to say, precarious and subject to ongoing negotiation. All value, including the value implied by contemporary art is fundamentally disputable and dubitable. It is a matter of demand and when the system of demand is closed and essentially national it is not necessarily educated: education has never been necessary for purchase, not even visual sensibility, just cash, baby. These works have a music of their time; discordant, eye-catching, ironic. We are seeing, once again, that the close semantic link value boasts - its false and fragile aura - to contemporary art can prove especially fatal in times of crisis when the intangible collapses. For when the present shows its fleeting, changeful, and unpredictable countenance then the fear becomes especially acute that an art invested in it may lose its value (the behaviour of the stock exchange and the banks only heightens this sense of vulnerability and the noise of crashing castles). It comes then as no surprise then that capital is seeking refuge in seemingly lasting values such as old art or classic modernism or that the auction rooms no longer establish value but simply reflect fear. The only works that still inspire confidence are those classified as masterworks. We all know that this is a dubious category that hints at the presence of intrinsic value (according to whom?) that in our global world is no longer an easy concept to sustain. Yet, this belief remains the central illusion of the art market, now massively uncertain as to how it should act in a situation where supply indefinitely outruns demand. These Philippine artists opt for a carnavalesque vitality and a calculated poetry, happy to watch from what were once sidelines but are now part of the web. Many of the paintings are full of torrid heat, dark undertones, indulgence, painterly fluidity, surreal characters who have been brought up, as the artists themselves, on adult comics: horror, heavy metal, sado-maso, or you name it. Manila is a city full of things that make you wonder what is happening on our planet – like a stage full of Papa Noel or Virgin Maria teenage prostitutes or stalls selling everything from voodoo to quack medicine surrounding the cathedral perimeter. Manila has invented its own garish blends of absurdity and some way down the line we’ll need a sceptical pursuit of the truth to work things out!


M.m. Yu, Religiouse Mess


It hardly needs saying that there is no longer a sole focus on the international dominant and that we need to break with the commonplace tendency whereby the Euro-US is the normative model that is simply writ global. Looking at this work we all immediately recognizable that it comes from a massively contaminated source; it is a characteristic megalopolis language but different in its particulars (and it should be noted that the vast majority of these sprawling immensities are not in Europe or the States). Euro-America is now simply one more player in the pack and any economically strong player (India, China, the Arab world, and the momentarily forgotten Russia) is likely, given the time, to be able to determine trends and impose criteria, whereas Europe with its blind and cartographic logic is floundering in what seems like a flag waving ceremony for the formerly affluent.

Contemporary art is now a complex and heterogeneous field. Much of it takes place in extra-institutional spaces - ranging from the internet, a bakery in Austin, an outdoor market in Istanbul, the Tijuana frontier, the outer circle of Bejing´s ring-roads, or an alternative space in Metro Manila. What, I believe, we are witnessing is a radical shift in arts relationship to itself and the world at large, a shift that distinguishes the present moment from anything that came before. And the present economic crisis may well make this shift even more radical; in other words, if contemporary art does not attain a critical radicality, it will slacken to supermarket status, with selling lines, bargain basement strategies, deceptive offers, and a mass of unsalable rubbish that will not even occupy shelf space after the end of the first week.

Contemporary art, like the subject or social being today, refuses to coalesce around a single narrative or to stake out a single position. It is plural, multiple, diverse, and doubt-ridden. Social and political relations as a whole have succumbed to complexity, heterogeneity, and disaggregation. Art travels the same track. The stability of social relations and the coherence of political community have become increasingly difficult to sustain. Yet this isn’t necessarily a bad thing should we be willing to construct viable platforms for the discussion of such complexity. Thus what should these Philippine artists talk about and to whom are they talking? Who should make the effort in this conversation? The one who is talking all the time on one of the rare occasions he is being listened to? Philippines has its issues: prostitution, immigration, deforestation, poverty? But they all seem politically correct and these artists are not into concessions. They talk about life-styles, chaotic energy, exhilarating and hilarious urban nightmares, the overwhelming presence of the city, and autobiographical concerns?

We have to consider the global as a field of potential cultural and economic heterogenesis, as Arjun Appadurai argues, peopled by “imaginary landscapes” inflected by “the historical, linguistic, and political situatedness of different sorts of actors: nation states, multinationals, diasporic communities, as well as subnational grouping and movements.” This composite field includes “ethnoscapes,” composed of circulating people, including refugees, tourists, and expatriates; “technoscapes” of emergent communications models and high speed travel systems; “financescapes” of deterritorialized global capital and interlinking markets; “mediascapes” that network new global (counter)-public spheres; and “ideoscapes” of state and non-state ideologies and discursive constructions. It seems to sum up an agenda for these artists from Manila who seem capable of situating themselves within any of these scapes and of inventing alternatives.

We are left then with the following question - how to affirm global contemporary art as a critical site of multiplicity, of geographical expansiveness and historical depth, whilst also remaining aware of the economic forces of homogenization? What are the relationships of the geopolitical to the context of contemporary art? Money is the only lure for the establishment of what is evidently an artificial centre. More, how can we commit to avoid the cultural imperialism of judging practices according to foreign criteria (mine in this particular instance since I have had no day to day contact with these artists), yet equally resist the multicultural colonialism of respecting the other by disavowing the problematizing act of criticism altogether and falling into market friendly judgements? What is the relationship between contemporary art and its context? Is visibility simply dependent on potential or established economic power, such as the BRIC group of countries? Or on geopolitical tensions, such as Cuba? Or is there a relationship between the art produced and the circumstances that lead to a visibility for their production? We need to rethink, re-narrate globalization as an aesthetic, political project - to invoke the terms of Jacques Ranciere - that challenges the forces of economic, social, and political inequality by reorganizing alternate systems of a more just visibility on a global scale. In an age when politics has become aestheticized like never before, critical and creative art finds an urgent role in the reinvention of imaginative alternatives and different forms of life. Art has to declare its commitment and in no way do I mean to imply by that a return to “political” art but rather the re-defining of a politics of art.


Bastards of Misrepresentation at the Freies Museum, Berlin, 2010


It is certainly true that current artistic practice is extremely heterogeneous and difficult to grasp. Yet, there are a series of critical terms that perhaps can help us elaborate possible critical approaches. I am thinking of Giorgio Agamben’s homo sacer, or bare life, and state of exception; of Jean Luc Nancy’s inoperative community; of Jacques Ranciere’s partition of the sensible; of Negri and Hardt’s multitude and Etienne Balibar’s transnational citizenship. These concepts are employed because they have an explanatory power in relation to the emergence of new forms political power and modes of subjectivization under globalization. This suggests that globalization functions as something more than simply a general reference or a historical determinant, it also triggers a radical reconsideration of the possibility of paradigmatic models of theory and practice that will both elucidate and offer historical and critical judgements. These thinkers attempt to extend the leftist political and critical project in a way that makes it viable again. These critical pointings seem to me to offer a certain area of access to these works since, at root, they seem, for the most part, to centre on the emergence of new subjectivities that stem in a large part from megalopolis living, loaded with a disbelief in hierarchic givens.

It is possible that globalization marks a new moment in history; in other words, our culture is consequently globalist and new. The quantative growth of new media has led to a reinvention of our concepts of communication, information, community, property, space, and even the concept of the subject itself. As a network, the Worldwide Web provides the means for a virtually direct and diversified interactivity, the flexible and advanced distribution of information and greater possibilities for the integration of art, technology and social life. These are the fruits and problems of advanced postmodern societies and they have created new problems that we are trying to cope with as they happen to and within us.


M.m. Yu, Mango Galore, 2007


These artists are hackers at the system, they belong to the worst cyber punk horror story of all: the enemy within. Where Bourriaud feels that the avant-garde has re-emerged in the form of what he has termed relational aesthetics practised by artists who make work out of social interactions – work that engages and is made out of social communities - ; these artists see it as irrelevant to their situation and are intent on speaking for themselves. More relevant would be Ranciere’s position that detects a shift in focus where the avant-garde is no longer concerned with rupture but with aesthetically anticipating the future by actualizing “sensible forms and material structures for a life to come”. Its task is to make the transformations taking place in the world intelligible and prepare communities for the future.

The world as we know it is dismantling itself before our eyes. So we have to ask ourselves what new arrangements of power are coming into being as the system, built on first, second, third, and fourth World divisions, implodes? Now that the post 1989 juggernaut of one hyperpower, unchecked neo-liberalism, historical self-realization, and global distribution of ever-expanding production and consumption tips over the precipice, what lies in the abyss it has created? Above all how do we, in these circumstances, connect the dots between world-picturing and place-making, the two essential parameters of our being? One of art’s tasks is to imagine and explore, perhaps by constructing metaphorical models for these circumstances.

The inequity being peoples, classes, and individuals is now so accelerated that it threatens both the desires for domination entertained by states, ideologies, and religions, and the persistent dreams of liberation that continue to inspire individuals and peoples. We are all willy-nilly immersed in an infoscape - or more precisely a spectacle, an image economy, a regime of representation – capable of the instant and thoroughly mediated communication of all information of any image anywhere. Yet, as we all know, these representations are always partial and always interested. The Philippine imago mundi is a hotchpotch constantly spilling over, hybrid by definition, and often peopled by human replicants (we all know they are everywhere; they stifle the art-world).

As we all know, what we now have is art as spectacle that makes the artist and what he does press-worthy. I am thinking, of course, of artists such as Koons and Hirst, who grab attention, prevail for a time, and then come to an end. This same phenomenon is seen in the field of architecture through Calatrava. What we also have is an art that emerges from the processes of decolonization within what were second, third and fourth worlds. This transnational turn has generated a plethora of art shaped by local, national, anti-colonial, and independent values. It has enormous international currency and markets. It circulates through the biennials and through travelling exhibitions that promote the art of a country or region. It has led to the emergence of a string of new area-specific markets and it has proved to be an ideal venue for postcolonial critique. We can all recognize the importance of asking about identity, nationality, selfhood, and otherness, as each of these whirls through volatile transition. It is an urgent necessity - at times liberating at times debilitating - for artists who are activated by the transnational turn. Their work tends to be dominated in its tone by doubt-filled gestures, equivocal objects, bemused paradoxes, tentative projections, diffident proposals, or wishful anticipations. Having said that it is also true that many artists across the world are returning to or have remained within a smaller and more particular focus related to the exploration of subjective concerns, scrupulously avoiding the thematic issues that often characterize the international circuit.


Romeo Lee photographed by M.m. Yu


This is, of course, the context for these artists who have in all probability also been influenced by expanded cinema and net art, giving rise to new forms of interactivity. We are, in all probability, living a paradigm shift in slow motion matching the changing world and the emerging processes of geopolitical and economic power. Contemporary art of today is the art of the Global South and Global East! Young artists are showing hopeful signs of being less interested in the fading power structures and style of struggle that dominates the circuit and showing more concern for the interactive potentialities of various material media, virtual communicative networks, and open ended modes of tangible connectivity. Working collectively in small groups, in loose associations, or individually, these artists seek to arrest the immediate, to grasp the changing nature of time, place, media, and mood today. They make visible our sense that these fundamental familiar constituents of being are becoming, each day, steadily stranger.

Given the shift that has occurred after the global financial collapse, I believe we are entering a period which may suggest the end, not of one but of two concurrent eras: the end of an excessive art market, and the end of the tenets of globalization as a means of understanding the field of contemporary art. I may well be wrong on the second point since it has provided an opening of the field that should not, and probably cannot, be halted. Yet, as Marta Rosler points out, the global exhibitions serve as grand collectors and translators of subjectivities under the latest phase of globalization: “The structure of these global exhibitions follows the logic of the market.” The means of selection have been institutionalized. “Artists are commonly put forward by other interested parties, such as powerful galleries and curators, whose investment is often linked to prospective sales.”[1] It is a remark that seems to me to be very true and one might even go a step further and say that the most peripheral global exhibitions work as exploratory arms of the Western art market, unearthing and cultivating an endless supply of new goods for distribution. They have created a new shopping space. Other critics, however, such as Enwezor describe these events in more positive terms, seeing them as “the true sites of enlightened debate on what contemporary art means today, a position thoroughly abdicated by museums.”[2] I take his point but it is also clear that this elite club of VIPS who assemble for these debates are a very mixed bag, just as are all other operative sets that litter the rich gardens of the art world.

I feel very drawn what Enwezor calls an off centre structure for the contemporary. Not that I believe that such a system can be imposed but simply one has the sense that it is happening and that it provides some kind of promise that art can become once again relevant and interesting. These Filipino artists function within such a system. The off-center is structured by the simultaneous existence of multiple centres (New Delhi, Shanghai, Bejing, Istanbul etc.). In this way, rather than decentering the universal or relocating the centre of contemporary art as a firm and established reference (Paris, New York), the off center allows for the emergence of multiplicity, the breakdown of cultural or locational hierarchies, and the absence of a singular locus. In a sense, off-centered zones of production, distribution, and reception of contemporary art articulate a dispersal of the universal, a refusal of the monolithic, a rebellion against the monocultural. This may sound like a cry from the margins but it is in fact the voice of the majority. More interesting work is appearing in Latin America than that which appears in Europe. The explanation is I believe simple enough; they have more compelling reasons for the making! The objective of the off-centre is to propose a new alignment - one that could succinctly capture firstly the emergence of multiple cultural fields that overspill into diverse areas of thinking and practice, and secondly a reconceptualization of the structures of legitimization that follow in their wake.

If there is anything that marks the path of the altermodern, it would be the provincialities of contemporary art practice today – that is, the degree to which these practices, however globalized they may appear, are also informed by specific epistemological models and aesthetic conditions. When we fully understand Modernism as a local practice, as a series of local manifestations, linked by certain levels of information yet radically different and answering to specific needs, we will begin to see the legacy it has left us to exploit more fully. When we begin to understand postmodernism as a radical signalling of difference, centred around a series of major theoretical platforms that are constantly splintering but that can be explored in more detail as part of an infinite sequence, then, perhaps, we will also be able to understand humanity, in its endlessly splintered communities, in a more positive and effective fashion.


Jayson Oliveria, (Painting Detail), 2010


We have lived an occasionally diverting but essentially vulgar, loud-mouthed, and popularized period of contemporary art. It has been short lived and perhaps now in the midst of our contemporary crisis, we can get back to art as a critical reflective tool, to a recovery of quality at numerous levels, but above all at the level of ideas and the making. To allow and collectively call for an art that could play an essential role in how we come to understand a complex world rather than serve as yet another nervous tension, flickering and exploding like a fireworks display at its edges.

Art should help us grapple with our contemporaneity; inhabit the present tense. It has lived too long in recent years as a simulacrum of itself. As a society we are frustrated, increasingly intolerant (even if essentially impotent before them) of lies, and art has itself often been one of them. In many parts of the world art has reassumed its role of telling stories that need to be told. Today, the real must be fictionalized in order to be thought. The real is so mind boggling that it is easier to comprehend by analogy.


Now let me look briefly at the artists in the show. I see five obvious areas where their focuses often overlap: megalopolis living with its incessant production of subcultures; the issue of what can art now do and what is its relationship to the western modernist dominant that has itself been a major part of their education and against which they playfully and ironically react in their attempts to situate themselves in the more ample embrace of the postmodern; a conceptual play, sometimes with art history and sometimes with the simple logic of an imaginative idea; a consistent questioning of the possibilities of contemporary art within their own context, how to insert it within a larger international context, with what kind of strategic positioning, and how to shape its presence within their own culture with its complex cultural weavings and its embrace of global culture.

1. Lena Cobangbang sees Romeo Lee’s work as acid ironic counter to prevailing tendencies in the small incestuous Manila art world where everybody knows everybody, much like they do all over, and opening parties turn into acts of self promotion for those endowed with ability to prattle their way through them. Lee has his own tailor-made personae, he’s always around and dressed in official underground artist clothing. He remains the “outsider-insider”, to quote again the blurb from a recent group show at Inflight in Australia. She notes in a language - equally to the point - that raps out both climate and pose: “In fact, the said show was his first ever outing out of the country after decades of plumbing and tweaking and flicking paints in the wherewithal of his 2nd hand emporium amassed by constant deals with some regulars from Recto, Cubao, Bambang, Quiapo, Pier, Cainta – mounting to roomfuls of clothes, hats, cds, dvds, vhs, players, 8 tracks, 4 tracks, vinyls, Bose speakers, custom made creepers, levis with the dust and musty sweat of such labor.”[3]


Romeo Lee's installation at the Freies Museum, Berlin, 2010


She ironically captures the mood and tone of the Manila under/over ground: “All these accrued junk is the total meltdown of a city’s history or even that of a generation, his storied worldliness mixed into the pot of yet to be conceived newbies whom he now inducts into his own world, with other rockstars, other art stars, other co-called luminaries, his own celebrityhood, into, inevitably, his own myth.” Lee is, in short, the impresario of his own life: hectic activity in every direction – music, painting, and fashion. Cobangbang continues in a text whose language seems tailor made to what it describes: “dressing and looking perennially unique, rock-a-billy style in a rasta wig – 4 times in a night even, and especially if there’s a smashing gig to be performed with his band, the Brown Briefs.” Well, that’s hybrid enough; yet, at the same time, it is both accurate and global: “He paints the way he is – loose, incorrigible, deprecating, gross-out, simple, libidinal, full-bodied, peanut-buttery like crap but yummy, excessive, fast on the draw, hokey and bawdy, improvisational – all the things you’d find here are but the stuff of some trippy excursion into his own brain or a much caricatured burlesque of the whole history of social realist painting of the Pinoy kind. Here are the precariously balanced shanties but inhabited by a snot-nosed fatso who’s so focused with clipping her toenails she doesn’t seem to mind the turd just beside her or the stray cat who just happens to smell her farting. Or the simplistic but ironic depiction of want and contentment where a beached fat matron naps beside bits and bones, her hair being combed by a faggish cactus while being disgustedly gazed upon by a couple of beach-combers, the cowboy riding away in the background, not caring at all. Or a given phrase or symbol will be run down to excremental cliché like his painting of a deliriously smiling figure who seem to have been smacked on crack and crucified to a cross brandishing a banner of 2008 , rats running all over it having come from its dark hideous parts. Some figures are recurring elements – mother earth with her hydrocephalic baby, the fat girls, the witch-like matrons with pubic overgrowth, the rasta-hatted dog, his portrait which he even superimposed on a Christ-plaque bearing the maxim : “You guys can wear your hair any length you like. Just tell them I said so. – Jesus”. Nothing misses his irreverent opportunism. All becomes a killing joke and you’d laugh, really can’t bear but laugh if you’re part of his world. Tragedy and pathos, indeed, is not for the victims who cannot ever get the punch-line. Romeo may have realized this early on when he chose to be photographed in front of a burning store that’s just near their house in Camarines Sur instead of alarming relatives and kin of this impending destruction of their property.”[4]

It’s like a rubbish dump come alive in garish colours with its pests, plagues, and occult nightmares, festered by scavengers both human and animal. Who are these people? The young mini skirted girls who wander the countryside seeking a breath of fresh air after what may well have been a night of lethargic dancing on a stage in one of the prostitution joints, or the street-tattered angel with wings whose tongue is hanging lasciviously out of her mouth as if on the way back from an orgy, or the woman happily passing time in her own bush under an umbrella in the summer rain, they all gather together with appropriations from Goya, Munch, the classic figure of the reclining nude, or a Buddha fatso! They are all pushed through the mill of spewed out colour. It’s a world peopled by cavorting misfits whom we all know are out there, prone to consumerism, excess, depravity and general carnage; victims and predators, grotesque exaggerations and caricatures as an answer to the gross hedonism of the mass, all pushed together in a world that is messy, disorganized, crowded and clamouring.


Romeo Lee1
Romeo Lee, (at the Freies Museum, Berlin), 2010


The majority of these artists have lived the overlap of high tech and underground pop, the décor of the off-limit clubs that litter Gibson’s Neuromancer. It is what Bruce Sterling calls a new kind of integration: “This integration has become a crucial source of cultural energy, see it in the hacker underground, in the jarring street tech of hip hop and scratch music; in the Synethisizer rock of London and Tokyo.”[5] This phenomenon and its dynamic have a global range and cyberpunk is its literary incarnation. Lee proposes Manila’s own version of a new alliance that has become globally evident: an integration of technology and the eighties counterculture: an unholy alliance of the technical world and the world of organized dissent. What Sterling defines as “the underground world of pop visionary fluidity, and street level anarchy.”[6]

Well, Manila is full of that! Yet, in the case of these artists, although there is a clear anti-establishment feeling and an overflow of anarchical energy, there is no organized dissent. There is a cultivated awareness that counter cultural art often fails to resist being transformed into a self-annihilating simulation of itself for mass consumption. Hipness is an attitude and cyberpunk meta-hip can easily become a mode, internationally present through the writings of Baudrillard and Delueze and with hyperreal icons of the human simulacrum infiltrating reality via figures such as Michael Jackson and Reagan, or Joseph Estrada and Ferdinand Bongbong Marcos.

2. The comic-related style of some of these works shows a self-mutilating refusal to trust anything that has brought about the present world; it grinds all through the mill of the grotesque and the images snarl back, power chords to deafness, closely related to the literature of horror comics and splash and splatter films, exploiting both the violation of the body and the body threatened from within by disease. Whatever it is that now serves as the regulator of experience – ego, self, spirit - no longer accepts any experience as worth more than any other. The only standard is thrill and raucous humour.

Robert Langenegger’s work can also be related to this underground spirit but his strategies are more closely linked to the art world, to the art historical canon, to the work of political allegorists, such as Goya and Daumier, and with allusions to contemporary figures like Crumb whose work unconsciously reflects the absurd surrealistic context of Filipino life. It’s dark and disturbing gothic painting, littered with comic perversity where one of the Three Kings appears involved in a blowjob and Adam and Eve make it out with the animals in the tropical garden of Eden. The imagination wanders luridly at its will in social or allegorical Bakhtinian critique: a gargantuan feast where the diners seem to get through the last dogs on the island; the sorry Extinction of the Unicorn with forlorn eyes in a kind of tsunami; My Lab are you feeling creative tonight with evident overtones of Ocampo’s work and its chopped off heads moving along a conveyor belt before falling into stewing pot where some kind of ungendered figure empties liquid from body parts into pot, or a clerk in his office chain smokes and reads what may well be novels, watching the clock tick by and allowing the papers that should be signed for the day to blow all over place.


Robert Langenenner, (at the Freies Museum, Berlin), 2010


Indeed the blurb on Crumb’s autobiography might well apply to Langenegger and to others in the show who offer insights into 20th century popular culture that are hilarious, challenging, and acidly satirical: “He casts an (include cartoonists and illustrators Norman Rockwell, Chester Gould, Harvey Kurtzman, and Hogarth, Bosch, Rubens, Gillray, Goya, Daumier, Grosz, Hopper, Marsh, Dix) unblinking eye onto the underbelly of modern life, an urban nightmare of human weakness, lust, terror and cruelty, all seen through the comic lens of his satire.”[7] All wrapped in the outlandish and the grotesque.

They know they are living in a commercial commodity culture where everything has been brought and sold. Middle class Filipinos have also grown up, like Crumb, on a movie set (read Jessica Hagedorn’s Dogeaters if you have any doubts!) The conscious values that are pushed are only part of the picture. The medium itself plays a much bigger part that anyone ever realized. They pass much of their time amidst the creation of illusion. “We are surrounded by illusion, but professionally created fairy tales. We barely have contact with the real world.”[8]

Langenegger’s work is conducive to a hip prose that hones in on the way it taps in on the chaos of contemporary life: “(he) exposes the instability of everyday life as we upset the intricate balance of nature. He is the one who exposes your weaknesses and insecurities you conveniently hid in your subconscious. Noxious leaded gasoline emissions from phased out two-stroke motorcycle engines have taken its toll on the artists young mind as he struggles to explore what went wrong in the world. The result is a regurgitated mix of half assed ideas whose origins were too overwhelming to summarize and fully execute without suffering extreme anxiety and paranoia. Langenegger’s coping mechanisms were purposely de-activated so that he could ponder on the filth of society. Just like a vicious cocktail of designer drugs no prevailing feeling manifests as you digest his art. Different people have different body chemistries so you just have to choose your poison so to speak.”[9]

3. Jucar Raquepo also looks at the fairground extravaganza of contemporary life. His work is packed to overflowing with popular icons and fantasy, an endless mixture of images, incidents and sources that correspond to the hectic nervous system of daily life - on one side kitsch, cartoons, and graffiti; and on the other, art history and graphics. It is the Jeepney aesthetic mixed with the baroque ornamental indulgences of the Filipino Catholic Church. His commentaries are aimed, as with a number of these artists, at the legacies and contortions of contemporary art, at the miseries of political ambition, and at the blatant stupidities of consumer living. It seems to have led him progressively towards ironically perverse but disturbingly sick mutations.

High and low contemporary art (2009) seems like a parody of the art world where dogs turn up at a card playing party. High and Low picks up directly, or indirectly, on the MOMA´s 1991 mega-show on the relations between modern art and popular culture. MOMA here simply recognized what had already been a part of daily living in Manila, as in any other megalopolis. It needed no legitimization. Varnedoe and Gopnik tell us that graffiti is “whimsical ad political, amused and angry, witty and obscene, often tending towards the palimpsest and made up of elements of imagery, writing, and simple marking.”[10] Well, for sure, none of us would dispute that. More to the point is the fact that Moma put no graffiti street work or tagger pieces in the show (in other words they made Leonardo de Vinci into a graffiti artist but refused all street artists legitimisation in the institutional sanctity of the museum). In any event, as far a Raquepo is concerned, all of this is his daily bread, what is served up on the street and on the screen, and his reactions include those mentioned above but also many others including cynicism, compulsive embrace, and a long drawn out smirk at the flatulent stupidity of it all.


Jucar Raquepo photographed by M.m. Yu


Ironic commentary in this same vibrant punchy come-at-you style marks most of these works: Zombie art alive and kicking appears as a parodic tribute to Michael Jackson, an extraordinary dancer who never touched earth and clearly qualified for mutant status as king of some part of the urban spread in a cyberpunk novel; and Corruption with its card-playing pack of dogs, referring to Filipino politics or figures in the art world in general. Just recently Benigno Aquino won the elections with two campaign statements that leave us perturbed, although not surprised, in a country where political corruption is almost a norm: firstly, that Justice is more a hope than a reality; and secondly, that he will not rob. Well, I guess we are all glad that he cleared up those points and we can go ahead and vote for him! He also threw into the stock pile of election promises - so as to leave things beyond doubt that we were dealing with Mr.Clean - that he would not name family member to high office. Amidst all this potential euphoria it is also worth recalling that Jejomar Binay, mayor of the financial district, may well be doube dealing and trying his tricks at Raquepo’s card-table. In the Philippines one votes for the presidential and vice-presidential candidate separately. Binay was not on Acquino’s ticket who had called for a tandem with Manuel Mar Roxas from his own Liberal Party. Roxas, however, lost and Binay, along with his other attributes, is the right hand of the corrupt Estrada. Things will not be easy. The opposition is also full of pearls who may well complete the table of players: Imelda Marcos whose rapaciousness knows no limits; Imee, her younger daughter, now governor of Ilocos; Ferdinand Bongbong who intends to stand for president in 2016; and Gloria Arroyo who is faced with corruption charges that, according to Aquino, will be followed up in a film that never ends. No wonder the tradition of political cartooning has such a hold on the imagination of a number of these artists!


Jucar Raquepo, (Installation shot at the Freies Museum, Berlin), 2010.


4. Argie Bandoy, whose solo exhibitions include the enticing Mucous Humor, The Strange Feel of Guts and Gory, The Simple Beginning of Chaos, Seasoning the Obese, From Wilderness to Nowhere, adds another key element to this astute putrefactual world of interrogation, dismissal, laughter, and irreverent play. He brings the street literally into the work as a collage element and debunking presence. His target is to ironize the modernist tradition that has been imposed upon them as a dominant referent, like it or not, just as the American way of life has also heavily invaded Filipino attitudes, life-styles, and dreams. It is a matter of dogma over any engrained relevance to context; the dominant is always there as a model, even if questioned, as in Bandoy’s work through tongue-in-cheek friendly, yet also acid, commentaries. Appropriation has, of course, been around for a long time, yet these are more street-style, cliché appropriations that spill out all over the place: Salvo, Pat Steer, Polke, bad painting, gestural scrawl, and neo-geo: a hip irreverence along with that endlessly proven capacity of the East to copy brand names, cheaper and sometimes better!



Argie Bandoy Painting


Postmodernism has made it clear that the task, in Craig Owens’ words, is “to problematize the activity of reference” [11]. I think it could be argued that in the Philippines the referents come problematized, making the reception of these images different from that of their original context. Contemporary art certainly steals types and images in an appropriation that is seen as critical, but may well simply be an act of indifferent vandalization. Certainly I suspect Bandoy is critical of a culture in which images are commodities and of an aesthetic practice that holds to an art of originality as a prime source of value. Yet, he is also aware that this game has been played out and his acts are as much libidinal desecration as postmodernist critique. As far as he is concerned, these languages are reduced to sign codes, no different from any other abstraction, once the authorial/authority offering of Western art is returned to the street. The works are assembled with aesthetic taste but not with belief, and the taste has to get by and please, all transcendental reverberations are dubious extras that come somewhat guaranteed given the code he is playing with but presented with incredulous disbelief! He knows his critique cannot displace these forms; it indicts them as mythological or as equal in status to the collage element introduced in the work. In a certain sense he stresses the need to think and represent otherwise but, at more fundamental level, he seems to ask what is it that contemporary art can represent that we might possibly give credit to? What chance does painting, supposedly static and neutral, have to question and interrogate when fundamentally it is re-forming and re-presenting itself? Indeed, these plunderers of the temple are fully aware that they themselves are caught in the trap of using it. Painting has been seen as problematic for years and, despite its announced decease, it remains as alive as ever! It brings in the intimacy of hand and a sense of time, and somewhere still in our psyches we need these things. Admittedly, as Hal Foster says, the purloined image is now the law. Augie also asks, although not as major preoccupation, what is it that can abstraction now do, beyond laughing at itself as a duplicitous code. Can painting still somehow resist complete absorption in the consumerist program of mass spectacle culture?


Argie Bandoy, (Installation shot at the Freies Museum, Berlin), 2010


It’s easy enough to pick up references to Schnabel’s bombastic rhetoric in Forget party lets’s Paint (2008), to his mock Masonic overtones in Haunted Dear (2008), and Fakers makes us think both of Schnabel’s strategic plundering as a means of asserting his own genius and of his inclusion of the word “Fakirs” in one of his exotically oriented pieces, but more amply to the language of gestural abstraction that simply continues endlessly exercising itself with, more or less, known and guaranteed results; to geometric abstraction in Cavern (2004) where the points don’t quite meet, frustrating logical expectations of the language; to the overwriting with words and letters in Sadomasochistic (2008) - a tic that has plagued us for the last twenty years, here put down as a homage to the misspent youth of Aubrey Beardsley but probably a comment on his own; to Malevich in Calvary (2005) or to any other transcendental user of the cross, such as Tapies or O’Keefe; to the incorporation of found objects in Crackity (2005); maybe even to Ocampo in In Seasoning the obese, (2007); to Richter or Knobel in The colour of the night (2008) and in the untitled cosmological abstraction from 2008 that seems to be a simulacrum of something that even it cannot remember the origin!

6.The incorporation of found objects and sculptural elements to upset the painting surface can also be seen in Jayson Oliveria’s work. He takes an elegant look at the discourse on the end of art and at the obsolescence of style in a language that is seductive, decorative, and perhaps even consciously decadent. The series of Ungenerosity of Spirits comes with heavy ironic echoes of Polke’s Society of Animals and his work in general: the German swastika, the multitude of stylistic devices, and the casual incorporation of the bottle opener whose frustrated lack of function gives rise to the title. As in Polke the figurative details, such as the dromedary crossing the desert, lie hidden amidst loose and painterly abstraction where a whiplash black line can gather in images of a bird, a light-bulb, a tie, and a pig! We try, or not, to fathom out the narrative sequence, knowing that if you bring nouns together it will be there anyway! Ungenerosity of Spirits, 5 ironically declares “dead people’s things for sale”, clearly referring to the exhausting and inexhaustible field of art history.



Jayson Oliveria Painting


What concepts does Jayson shuffle with his offhanded elegance? Possibly the subversion of meaning, although he does not challenge our established methods of access! Like Polke his work does not force us to relinquish the security of deductive reasoning, rather simply by employing the strategy of saying little he offers no alternative rationale that would allow us to construct any rigid theory. The upside down snail in No.3 seems like a homage to Baselitz, an automatically drawn figure that liberates him to the pleasure of painting, or is a recall of the snail in Polke’s Alice in Wonderland? Does it matter? Oliveria has no pretensions and thus he can go ahead!

In Polke’s work The Spirits that strengthen us (1988 the spirits are invisible) - as opposed to those of Oliveria that can be found in the nearest bar - based on an Indian proverb, on alchemical powers, and stand as a postmodern irony on modernist genius since, for Polke, process itself is important and leads to its own discoveries. Oliveria may go along with this in part, but at root he composes clever convincing, compositions with linguistic givens. It is a strategy that Jonathan Lasker also exploits with very different results!


Jayson Oliveria's exhibition, Existential But Still Acceptable, Manila, 2009. Photo by M.m. Yu


There is one more point to add to all of this. The death of painting was declared way back at beginning of eighties. Sherrie Levine spoke of “the uneasy death of modernism”; whereas Oliveria knows it hasn’t died, that the millenarian feeling of closure has not occurred. Those endless diagnoses of death have to be seen as discursive perspectives rather than facts: of ideology (Lyotard); of industrial society (Bell); of the real (Baudrillard); of authorship (Barthes); of man (Foucault). There was no single paradigm of the apocalyptic yet modernism itself could not have functioned, especially abstract painting, without an apocalyptic myth. I think we now see that photography and mass production were seen as the causes of the end but thirty years later they have failed to produce it. Industrial production may have banished the hand but painting categorically rejects the assertion and Oliveria’s works, as he himself well knows, are one more spin on the wheel!

7. David Griggs is perhaps the most head on artist in the show in the sense that his themes are the megalopolis underworld: poverty and the excluded, prostitution, corrupt politics, gang tattooing and freak shows in what appears as a Filipino version of that classic American underground film!

The series in the show, Donkey Root[12] (photos and paintings of the same image), begins in a massive slum, outside of Manila, these peripheral cancers are always at a distance, a landfill with the minimal hygiene and appropriately known as Smokey Mountain, probably on account of the burning mass of rubbish, and continues following some of its inhabitants to where they have been forcibly resettled, with the consequent problems for transport to work, should they be lucky enough to have any. It is an important series – socially, economically, politically in the local context but also symbolically for a situation common across the world, common and more to the point increasing in the general move downwards.

The painting of the kids with ghoul masks and severed arms is from a Halloween party, although it might as easily be read as a desire not to be recognized by the police. It is a graphic reading of how to try and have a ball in the midst of it all and of the global underworld, of the figures that thrive around the drug or prostitution trades so rife in Manila. These are kids who have few possibilities in life and may well swell the ranks of the street gangs with a quick route to pseudo fame, wealth, and death as bit players in a larger plot. Yet such moments of cheap glory are worth it all in a life that otherwise promised nothing. Griggs lines them up as they are: the promiscuity of police and street power; the security ironically there to protect local government investment and not so much the impoverished possessions of the poor; the macho gesturing of adolescents who wait their turn in the corridors of petty crime; or full gang status, pushed forwards in an empty rhetoric before the glamour of the photographic register.

Donkey Root is the result of Griggs’ relationship with a local gang in Manila called Bahala. “What was remarkable was that the gang seemingly only operated inside the Manila prison. While inside, being in the Bahala Gang was a way for inmates to have security and keep a sense of community while serving out their sentence. However, after incarceration and returning back to society, members would no longer be part of the gang they associated with inside the prison - all lines of separation disappeared.

One of the key aspects of this gang life was the branding that members undertook while in prison. Virtually all members would be heavily tattooed with Bahala imagery when inside. Some of the images concentrated on famous Walt Disney cartoon characters, with Bugs Bunny and Tweety Bird being the most common. These permanent markings became instantly recognisable on the streets and remained as a memory of gang life. Even after people had returned home to family, friends and the that gives the work a specific emotional charge:c”hanged.”[13]


David Griggs photograph used for the flyer of Bastards of Misrepresentation, 2010


This area, in fact, became a place that was controlled by local gangs who worked with the existing community to rebuild their homes. Griggs produced a video of this operation and during filming he was often asked for a cigarette and usually for a particular brand that corresponded to people’s sense of who they were: “While the Bahala preferred to smoke HOPE menthol, a local brand, older men and women asked for Camel.”[14] And then, of course, for a light, thus giving rise to the title of the series, ‘Donkey Root’. One cigarette lit another and gave rise to social interaction and a sense of sharing.

Griggs had the works painted by a billboard painter in Manila.At one evel he challenges the idea of authorship but more to the point, and fully justifying his decision, is the following explanation that gives the works an explicit emotional charge: “The installation of these paintings is a loose reference towards the huge constructed advertising billboards that tower around the city of Manila. After heavy typhoons, these same billboards were used as roofing for the very slums they engulfed. These works comment upon the influence of large-scale advertising and its ability to force us to take notice of a product, regardless of its use or reuse.’[15]

Griggs makes us think of the world Mike Davis depicts in Planet of Slums that traces the growing inequality between rich and poor, slum housing as the global norm, lack of water, of sewage systems, of lavatories, the end of the idea of a permanent job, and an overwhelming presence of pollution and disease. This is a story that is already happening and the Philippines have known it in a particularly sordid fashion with a 5% economic growth under Arroyo that only the rich knew about! Yet, at the same time, he makes me think of the post-punk aesthetic that runs through the show, of Blade Runner and Gibson’s Neuromancer where money runs in the clean living super apartments above the city and where the city itself is polyglot, dark, violent and lawless: a scum bag locus where civic order has broken down.

Developing an image of the city in an age of visual saturation is a problem, precisely because physical awareness of the physical space of the city is disappearing or dematerializing. This is not truer in L.A. than in Manila, it’s just different. Paul Virilio says that every city is over-exposed and its physical sense of space decomposed as our eyes are constantly bombarded with ephemeral and interchangeable images. Visions that move along the constant space of flows called the informational city. Gibson’s Neuromancer is inflated with an account of a city that no longer has an imageable form or definable boundary. Manila may, or may not, be at this point but Griggs knows that where it is going!

8. MM Yu is also caught up in the alternate energy charge of Metro Manila with its artist run spaces where she gathers together images of the debris, of what might be seen metaphorically as fecund cultural trash but at root is the literal evidence of rubbish that gets piled up in any free wind blown corner or against any erected barrier. Her eye focuses telling details where the trash reveals the disposable make-up of Manila through pages of a newspaper, photos, adverts, labels or whatever. They come together as an urban patchwork, sullied but alive: images of popular movie stars such as Yoda; urban swamps; razor wire; Catholic icons; posters from the last campaign to oust another corrupt politician; a discarded photo of a happy Filipino family. It is a compendium of what has been thrown away without thinking, both a collective and an individual portrait.


M.m. Yu, rgb, 2009


She works in series, gathering and accumulating the evidence. The city is a form of magic realism, bloated with its own bewildering codes, and as in Blade Runner the mute buildings of the financial district dominate and soar free of the chaos of teeming streets, alleyways, and polyglot living. In Standstill the photos serve as visual traces of the past: fragments taken in different places and at different times. The contexts remain undetermined but the images are linked through a poetry of the commonplace, of wayward details: a boat parked out on some waste ground; a claw from earth removing machine; bright clothes hung out on a line strung across a street with an equally violent coloured passing red car; a blue umbrella; a washstand with balloons after a party. There are no humans, simply signs of their presence. The series stands, as she herself says, as “random snippets of time”.


Install shot from M.m. Yu's exhibition in (Manila), 2009


She has also done another series on another twentieth century plague: mass tourism, photographing the tourist spots complete with tourists and documenting the catered for and tour-organized search for the exotic, holidays en masse with more or less the same people in the same places across the world. If this series has a social impulse then her series on chance encounters that she herself makes on her travels is more like a graphing of her own sensibility and her belief in the heightened meaning of the ordinary. Thoughts collected, recollected consists of thirty spiral bound black notebooks containing the artist’s photos loosely arranged according to theme, subject, feeling, and thought. It is a compendium, an archive that documents the essence of a poetic vision that centres on ordinary people, discarded objects, and simple epiphanies: the unemphatic realities of city streets.

9. Seeing is a great deal more than believing these days. You can buy a photograph of you house taken from an orbiting satellite or have your internal organs magnetically imaged. If that special moment didn’t come out quite right in your photo, you can digitally manipulate it on your computer. Visual culture is not just a part of our everyday life; it is our everyday life. Lena Cobangbang probably knows that the queues are longer for the virtual reality New York Ride at the Empire State Building than for the fists to the observation platforms. In other words, many people are not too worried about reality and even find it something to avoid. She is a multifaceted artist, vocalist in indie band, photographer, involved in independent filmmaking, and founder member of Water an artist collective. I mention these details because they seem to situate her within the frantic activity of city living. Everything somehow comes together because it always does. We have all learnt to live with the principle of uncertainty. The series of twelve prints that constitute Overland encourage the incongruous to come together as they do in the city: “the first series was more didactic and literal in trying to replicate scenes of disasters from collected newspaper clippings, while the second series was about the idea of stasis and utopian states. Yet for this series, these landscapes, although obviously set-up to look like as either other-wordly realms or picturesque tableaus, they are intruded by their absurd seriousness in being these “perfect” views.”[16]


Lena Cobangbang, crater valley plateau proposition 1, 2009


Yet these photos are not so much surreal games as covert narratives that relate back to her own memories or something that stayed in her mind from a film and that have been brought together in the hope that they may not say too much but leave us with a question that we don’t necessarily have even to answer. Cobangbang is according to those who know her obsessive compulsive and seems not only to make that way but also probably shop that way. Shopping is one of the favourite pastimes of urban life and in Manila it is a full-time sport: the rich fly to Hong Kong of Tokyo to shop, the middle class hang out in the shopping mall and even if you don’t have any money you can simply look and enjoy the air conditioning; the rest buy in the street markets, stalls on the pavements, small shops bung full of theoretically useless objects that Cobangbang recycles, fantasises with, suffers bouts of sickly nostalgia, constructs a story, plays with, pulls together, interrogates us with, questions limits. Are these objects she has around her, things tat pile up in any home, or did she buy them out there on the street? She photographs minor gone wrong narratives, sometimes imprisoning one within another. There is a plaster object that looks like melting ice cream or a kid’s version of the cordillera, that teachers in primary school love doing as manual classes. Did she find this somewhere like a Claes Oldenburg stall or did she have it at home from her own childhood or some other member of the family? It also looks like a volcanic island in the sea and in that case may qualify as “overland”. These small photos have to worked out in detail, as she herself says about these kitsch mountain ranes that somehow get caught between Romanticism and Tourism via kitsch:, “Plotting out or planning these tableaus actually took some time – browsing for pegs, sketching plans, shopping for appropriate materials or ingredients…. How I’ve arranged these however, have taken a more organic and random route, as it had been quite difficult to control, particularly the flow of the simulated lava and the modelling of the mountain peaks to how they looked like in the pegs. It’s become at the end, an approximation of a hokey Ab-ex painting process.”[17]These animals wandering overland, or trees growing in lord knows what kind of surface seems like a bottled version of planetary exploration and Cobangabang had indeed been looking at the craters shown on the Life magazine website that still appear massively alien.


Lena Cobangbang, (from her "Overland Series"), 2009


Her miniature scenes recall the scenes one might find under paperweights but objects are more kitsch and the encounters more bizarre: a duck swimming in what looks like a pudding with an ornamental tree growing out of it set against a hard sky; a wolf or dog larger than the tree barking at nothing. Yet at root she seems to be testing the limits of contemporary art, not so much to find out what they are but rather fully aware that there are few criteria and no consensus as to its definition. She made have decided to go “overland” rather than fly, digressions are always more interesting than simple journey from a to b but she has found herself in very strange places and never left the city.

The fracturing of ordinary narrative continuity has been a standard component of Dadaism and Surrealism for nearly a century. Whether it is done mechanically, as when Burroughs scissors specimens of prose and reassembles the snippets, or the writer relies solely on Errata, the muse of disassociation, the result can often seem to have the jolt of genuine poetry. But only for a while – a paragraph or a page in the case of literature, For any longer stretch (time in terms of art) there must be some kind of narrative armature to sustain interest and to be a foil for surreal ornaments, a semblance of a story, but a really dumb story by way of signalling to those readers too hip to read a story that they are actually in the presence of raw transgressions. Cobangbang uses gag situations, slapstick comedy to see where they will lead her. It’s like you have to start somewhere! Just as she uses food to create effects and also to see what happens: “The only material that’s still food related though is the use of flour in simulating snowy terrain, and vinegar and baking soda to effect the explosions of a volcano. The use of such chemicals is rather more akin to elementary science fair projects - tried and tested to never fail yet the results are always unpredictable depending on the proportions used.”[18]

Cobangbang shares the reserves about the possibilities of painting as a medium yet, at the same time, a fascination with it. She argues that it is a matter of space and a question that some things go better in one medium than in the other, but one suspects there may be other discursive elements lurking in the shadows: “painting persists and won’t be deemed ever anachronistic. It is as though painting has this begrudging self-loathing in being that and yet that’s the very same thing which fuels that self-loathing, like it wallows in its luxurious sodden shithole for a throne. And its usually large scale/format amplifies its very need to be a spectacle, to be this big picture that just grabs at you and pulls you in yet will eventually reject you when you don’t get it, it will vomit you out leaving you all the more baffled, or betrayed even by your expectations of it. But you don’t and cannot really expect something of it, you shouldn’t anyway because if you do, you’ll end up really disappointed. And I guess a lot of artists drink because they’re always disappointed by their paintings, disappointed because their expectation of it is either more than they’ve originally imagined it to be, or they were detoured to a more difficult spatial or visual dilemma. It’s actually very much a Sisyphusian task but we’re rolling rocks on a skewed plane, not on a real mountain. It only appears to be that mountain because of perspective drawn and quartered canvas.”[19]

It hardly needs saying that Overland can also be read as an ironic reading of planetary ecological disaster – something that the Filipinos know intimately and miserably in ters of their own magnificent forests!

10. Manuel Ocampo has curated the show according to his own aesthetic vision and, consequently, it clearly makes sense that he should be part of it. He is a soft-spoken intelligent guy who has always had a cynical view of the art world and an equally raw and scatological view of humanity. Mat Gleason back in the Nineties said of his work in Caligula, the outspoken, no holes barred, champion of underdogs, and much in favour of Ocampo’s work, noted in a prose close to that of Cobangbang’s: “he seduces with creepiness of the all too familiar, unwanted but unavoidable, more like a hemorrhoid on the brain’s ass or constipation of the conscience”. [20] Fred Dewey in a long review of his Track 16 show in 1997 in the same magazine makes it clear that Ocampo was one of the bête noirs of the L.A. scene, loved and loathed. Collectors who were putting a lot of money into his stuff found themselves up against somebody who did not care. They read him wrong! Ocampo is a sensitive guy who simply does not like the art world, if you think about it for a few seconds, it hardly comes as a surprise: “Ocampo seemed to have miraculously grown in a strange and different world, a place that offered a vantage on mass society and its increasingly ravenous consumptive processes. By growing up in the East and not the West, preserving his own grounding in the outside, and as a youth making fake icons for a priest and icon seller, taking cartoon classes, and observing his journalist parents, Ocampo … may have come face-to face with the devastation of his own imagination and thinking at the hands first of the Spanish and then the American empire.” [21] Yeah, alien colonizers from some other planet who automatically talk of money rather than art, art dealers who could just as easily have been part of the cocaine trade. I am not sure that Ocampo wanted to address the common world as Dewey suggests but he was making work of riveting images and questioning art’s status and the potential of painting as a medium. He was already raising postcolonial critique; he was part of it, he comes from outside and knew that the outside would be a pulse for what was and is to come (hence the show), and doing it from L.A., U.S.A, an imperial power that was not a colonial power in the historical sense but had nevertheless colonized the Philippines. He threw it back in their faces with scatological extras that also close to a comic world that so much a part of American culture. In short, the postcolonial enters Ocampo’s work through osmosis that is what he has and what he knows, he was not being politically correct and this gave his work an edge that nobody else had and, should you doubt it, just look at the images! Ocampo has a fertile and febrile imagination, things pour in and out.


Manuel Ocampo, Photo by M.m. Yu


Ocampo had had a training in comic drawing and his shift in style can perhaps be explained from two perspectives: firstly he recognized that the catholic sado-maso had little more to say; and secondly, that this kaleidoscopic accumulation of images gave him a new freedom closer to the way things ran through and associated in his mind, the unconscious, formal suggestions, loose knots that were never tied, a new kind of narration. I’m not sure how close he is to cyborg comic books but he is always on the rim of what’s happening. Cyborgs appear as controller, bio-tech integrator, and genetic cyborg. These comics also expose some of the psychological reactions that these characters evoke in us, ranging from deep ambivalence towards violence and killing issues of lost humanity and, finally, to new conceptions of the nature of evil.

Ocampo was part of the notorious and ground-breaking Helter Skelter. It was a magnificent show that gave us Jim Shaw, Pettibon, and Lynn Foulkes (who had been tucked away in a cupboard for being difficult but is a great artist). Ocampo was o.k. with the setting but he was not so career orientated, as say Mike Kelley, and might have felt just as at home with the Chicano graffiti artists who were operating at the same time but were, perhaps, too politically correct as far as he was concerned.

Wolverton in Mad and Robert Crumb both saw pop culture as a slick dispiriting fraud and for Ocampo the metaphor of the rat-fink is also an appropriate sewage metaphor. He also feels that the future of the counterculture lies in urban squalor and the fundamentally impotent. For Crumb this presented a problem since he was torn between the Delta and Chicago blues and some undefined apocalyptic dream of social revolution, whereas for Ocampo the upheaval taking place in his own culture may be within a privileged culturally hip minority, neither victim to nor product of an insatiable consumerism.


Installation shot from Manuel Ocampo's exhibition, Monuments to the Institutional Critique of Myself, Manila, 2011


He is a major artist, doing what he likes without glancing over his shoulder too much and whose work needs new critical approaches if it is to be dealt with adequately, separate from the postcolonial and the comic, skewing in closer to the confabulations, digressions, and caprices of the mind.


11. Tan’s work is a constant play with conceptual ideas: simple propositions or the endless and complex tensions of the realities proposed by the photographic image and by painting, following through a kind of diabolic logic where the photographic image gets painted, or painting is executed on the photographic image, or the photographic image is incorporated as collage, or finally in a Baudrillardian punning on the idea of mirror image and simulacrum perversely painting on top of the mirror in Mirror Painting (2002) where he uses a video camera as paintbrush, applying daubs of paint on the mirrors according to the order of the oil tubes in the paint box.

At one level it is the issue of the copy of the copy that has been with us to the point of becoming redundant since the eighties both in terms of our visual experience of art essentially through reproduced images in books or catalogues without adequate reference to scale or colour and in terms of the massive commercialization of any saleable image. Tan sees no end to the situation and seems acutely aware that reality is simply a construct and that to “hold on” to images that are literally moving in time is an act of nostalgic ambition. In other words, his play with these critically foregrounded ideas is a poetic fascination with trying to say what the world is, to bring it under the gaze through the two mediums that have most pretended to do so. He makes the question of representation into an issue, reproducing a work of Thomas Demand or one of Sugimoto’s theatres where light the grand revealer of colour becomes pigment. He takes representation to its literal and logical conclusion in The End (1998) that is simply a painting of a stanchion-post that has been copied from the actual post in front of it.


Gerry Tan1
Gerardo Tan, This is Not Sugimoto's Drive-in Theatre


Time intrigues him and what it falsely collects as memory or status. His favorite metaphor is “dust” that he turns into a literal statement. Dust is where we all end and also what collects on any surface as a pathetic, choking, particle invaded reminder of time. Dust In Your Eyes, 1997 where a year’s accumulation of dust was collected from the artist’s unused studio, scattered in a glass sheet and coated with fixative. Thatisthisisthat (2002) and Thisisthatisthis, (2002) collect dust from two paintings with the help of an art restorer: in the first case from “Tampuhan” by Juan Luna, a Filipino artist where the dust is applied to a small canvas and then framed and lit; and in the second from a work, “The Grand Molo”, by Canaletto where the dust is preserved in a glass cup and lit. The idea of making a work with what’s left over is, of course, nothing new. One thinks of Rauschenberg’s erased De Kooning, of Tom Phillips accumulations of what was left from his rubber while drawing, of Yishai Jusidman’s incorporation of paint drippings on the canvas extended on the floor into the work, and many others. Yet what Tan adds to this - and it occurs as a significant variation characteristic of pieces where he exploits what otherwise might appear as well trodden concepts – is a levelising juxtaposition between East and West and an ironic staging of the destiny of art as history.

Time leads Tan by a poetic extension to Sartre’s néant and Beckett’s absurdity, to nothingness and emptiness. Where Beckett reduces all to the negative, to a prone figure lying in his bed surrounded by his life wrapped up in packages that he refuses to open, Tan suggests we are all Doing Time (2004), filling the invisible with nothing. In this piece the visitors to the gallery were instructed to log in and out on a bundy clock. The time spent by each visitor was converted into length and materialized in red, yellow and blue poles. It is a neat transformation of something into an unexpected something else that is a constant in his work: an effective tongue in cheek calling of attention. Similarly in Scanning The Mall (2003) nine artists were invited to take photos of the empty gallery in a mall. The films were printed in an hour at a photoshop and the resulting 468 photos and the 20minute video of the event were installed in the gallery. Here the work is the anguished néant!

He also turns to works by other artists, offering an alternative reading or openly contradicting the apparent absoluteness of their statements, such as Baldessari’s remark : “ It is hard to put a painting in a mailbox” which Tan refutes tongue-in-cheek by painting a trompe l’oleil postage stamp on an envelope that’s sent out to an exhibition venue in California.”[22]

Tan argues that trompe l’oeil effects or photorealism are not so intended as an effort to trump photography’s capacity to (re) produce life-like facsimiles of actual things as to make the illusion of representation palpable. He asks if photorealism that deals in “the sheen of surface technique’ would be ale to survive in its own right without its photographic source? In This Is Not Gregor Schneider’s Room Tam has made successive copies from a photograph of Gregor Schneider’s Tot House Ur, enlarging the copy and printing it on canvas, and then overpainting it with the same image, The two images blend but one is not more original than the other.

In a series of paintings from 2007 and 2008 Tan takes up the classic postmodern issues of originality, style, appropriation. Like a Burrough’s cut-up the images come from various sources, but essentially it seems like an assemblage of the paraphernalia of the art world, catalogues, magazine illustrations, invitations that have been digitally scanned and projected. One of them is ironically titled Nothing comes from Nothing (2008) that seems to refer to the ways in which images are endlessly copied and churned out with changes of scale and registers of colour so that we slowly lose sight of any sense of an original. The copy is what we know and the copy has been reduced to an empty simulacrum. The images slide and slip together elegantly but in kaleidoscopic disarray. Individually they function promotionally and together they have a competency than allows them to sustain the hope that they may survive in a world saturated by images and choked to death by their endless copying.

12. Poklong Anading is an experimental and conceptual video artist whose work has the seductive quirky clarity of Prince’s or Ruscha’s early work. I am specifically thinking of Line Drawing (1998) about which he has the following to say: “I created this video by drawing lines on the wall while walking across it, with one hand holding the pencil and other hand aiming the video camera at the pencil’s edge as it leaves its trail of lines. The length of each shot was determined by the length of my walk, from one end of the wall to the other. I walked back and forth continuously while recording (sharpening the pencil off camera when it became too blunt) until the pencil was worn down.”[23] It is a work that has the charm of the useless, the poetry of perseverance and human error, and the obsessive radical simplicity of Sol Lewitt.

Like other artists in this show he parodies certain tenets of modernist and postmodernist practice: Cageian or Warhollian repetition; the collapse of time; the Duchampian found object, now ironically termed the Pound object (1999) that was a headache to pick up and re-site: “This piece started as a whim which later required the strength of more than ten people to accomplish. When I was still a student a the College of fine Arts at the Univ. of the Philippines I was confronted daily by the eyesore of a large sewage pipe made of cement, lying useless in the parking lot behind our artist studio classrooms. I decided then as if complicate and problematize the idea of easily “finding” something as the material for one’s art - to designate this tube as a found object for an exhibition to be held at our studio. After an eight hour struggle with the help of my artist colleagues, we carried and erected the tube.”[24]


Poklong Ananding, die map für gudbuys, Exhibition in Graz, 2011


So things are sharp, simple and cool, like the Anonymity: Champion Ice Cream (2005) where logically the salesman is eliminated from the video by the bulb used to light his stand, converting him into one more anonymous seller in the city; or Ocular (2009) that includes the people in the exhibition space, projected onto or into scenes from what European cities.

Poklong Anading’s Random faults & root cause questions visual comprehension, we make associations, connections, narrative and conceptual possibilities, and what Paul de Mann calls misreadings that are in a sense temporary and temporal holds. These things talk to each through contiguity, sometimes by desire or by chance. They have a hidden map in which we occasionally locate ourselves.

He creates sharp, ambiguous situations: ludic and perplexing, seductive and interrogative, delicate and self-sufficient. These are small presences with an after-taste, such as U- turn that consists of a neo-light in a paint can; Serrated Telegraph where wooden frames are piled up on top of each other, from large to small, to form the infinite box with a small video screen showing an empty milk box that is shaking from a draught from the window and accidentally hitting the side of a porcelain bowl; handstuck where he collects used soaps and makes a mould of a ball and a hand based on the image of Sto. Nino with the earth in the palm of his hand; or Source and Trouble where he separates the adhesive from the print of a sticker to create a mountain-like pile. In other words a simple events leads to the unexpected, revealing the inherent poetry of things and the way new meanings lie hidden in the old. The soap is fashioned int an image that symbolically represent the cleansing of sin from the earth but should we actually use the soap it will itself disappear again into nothing. He does not want us to forget that the simple is rich in connotations, that what seems senseless has meaning, and all carries a potential for renewal.

13. Pow Martinez makes the kind of music the characters of Sterling’s cyberpunk novels carry around in their heads: the sounds of experimental computer music. His multimedia sound installations exploit the sensations of chaos and breakdown that typify the presence of sub-cultures in the megalopolis and correspond to its dynamics of collision and fragmentation: cacophony, dissonance atonality, noise, indeterminacy and repetition. It’s the endless buzz of urban living, the hiss of t.v. static, the experimental distortion of various types of acoustically or electronically generated noise and of randomly produced electronic signals. He uses all he can put his hands on both the advances of technology and the potential of non-traditional musical instruments and objects: a toy keyboard, guitar effects, knob tweaking, uncooked macaroni being scrambled, electric drills, manipulated recordings, static, hiss and burn, feedback, live machine sounds, custom noise software, non-musical vocal elements. He knows it is not easy to get these sounds across to a listener in what is a predominantly visual culture and this has perhaps led him to present his work in other forms, setting them up as installations, such as Lines to circle with its music stands, speakers, printed fabric, and wood. There is a beauty in chaos : a seductive pull.

He says that when he started out with Ria Muñoz in Nasal Police he was listening to “works of experimental artists like Merzbow, Ikue Mori, John Zorn, John Cage, Ornette Coleman and electronic musicians like Aphex Twin, Squarepusher, and Kraftwerk.”[25] The increasing availability of sound sources through technology made it easier to capture sound ideas and concepts. He uses what he finds and the emphasis is on producing new sounds.


Pow Martinez, 2010


He must surely have listened to Zorn’s Spillane and read the liner notes where Zorn states: “you’ve got to realize that speed is taking over the world. Look at the kids growing up with computers and video games – which are ten times faster than the pinball machines we use to play. There’s an essential something that young musicians have something you can lose touch with as you get older. I love bands like Husker Du, Metallica, Black Flag, Die kreuzen. Speed bands, thrash bands … it’s a whole new way of thinking, of living. And we’ve got to keep up with it.[26]

Martinez opts for an inclusive process where the more sound information you have available the better. He starts at any point and then expands and explores creating his music from the sounds that exist and structure his world. Chaos theory has taught him that chaos has its own order, different from our own but functioning.

Whether we like it or not, the era of the composer as autonomous musical mind has just about come to an end (it’s the same argument we’ve so frequently heard regarding painting, but there again has it?). So the question becomes what does a composer do. Zorn says forget cohesion but every note must always have a function, just as Cage chose to work with rhythmic structures. Time became uppermost as a definition of music declared Robert Ashley and this was something they learnt from Cage and something tat matters to Martinez.

It hardly needs saying that Martinez has been heavily impacted by the American composers of late fifties onwards, as well as of course his own electronic sound scene. One thinks of Cages radical positioning in the mid fifties: “A sound dos not view itself as thought, as ought, as needing anther sound for its elucidation, as etc.; it has no time for any consideration – it is occupied with the performance of its characteristics: before it has died away it must have made perfectly exact its frequency, it loudness, its length, its overtone structure, the precise morphology of these and of itself.“[27] And the equally pertinent remark by Morton Feldman from this same period: “Only by unfixing the elements traditionally used to construct a piece of music could he sounds exist in themselves – not as symbols, or memories which were memories of other music to begin with.”[28]


Pow Martinez, from his Hyperblast Abomination show. Mag:net, Manila, 2010


The portraits look like people who may well have been at his concerts or inhabit the same freaky planet: fetishistic, expressionist figures who all seem eager to declare war on humanity. They can be seen as primitive mythologies or Dubuffet mixed with a fairground version of de Kooning that have been adopted by an aboriginal tribe as a totem, splattered with orifices and blotches of pigment.

14. Maria Cruz proposes an inner landscape made up of dreams and snatches of life: a bustling street market of the imagination, mixtures of tagalot and English, phrases hurled out at you in brash colour on a monochromatic ground, sometimes clouds, sometimes landscape, sometimes colour. They are like dream clouds, seen from the city, floating overhead and onwards, recalling perhaps the monochromatic tradition but even more the explosive energies of popular culture. The phrases seem to come perhaps from her own biography or from the religious hotch-potch that knits together Filipino belief: “Plz save us”, “Therapy”; as ironic ideological commentary “Do Asians make better politicians …”, (lord knows, the generalized loss of ideology seems to have led to a collapse into mediocrity and corruption; as enigmatic epigrammatic phrases, “There is enough genius in their hatred”; and as ambiguous throw-away poetry, “like a mountain”. They are all hung out to dry, open-ended, not Jenny Holzer, not Barbara Kruger, no agenda. Yet, they come in fact from personal adverts, newspapers, protest campaigns, and even a poem by Bukowski that she found on Google. They are dripped out expressionistically, emotionally charged.

The works are made as quick, sharp registers, as if in haste to get things out there while she feels them. The separate pieces almost form an installation, a street fair where the outside - through bottle-tops or a column covered with advertising - comes in. The bottle tops function decoratively, like pattern painting or op art, but they are also a popular recycling of the zero nothing that is all around us. It is a collage barrage where language, sharp colour, objects, and even portraits can all come together in an inclusive field where each thing has to win its place. She is engaged in cross-over culture, working from Berlin and looking both ways. Migration, frontiers, and cultural crossings are all profoundly inscribed in the itineraries of a large part of contemporary thought. As Edward Said points out migration and exile speak of a form of discontinuous being, a dispute with the place of origin. Consequently they have become a powerful and even enriching theme in contemporary culture. The exiled knows that everything is provisional; crossing frontiers smashes the limits of thought and experience. Cruz’s work is therefore a reflection of and on the social and on how we negotiate difference, the nuances between the same and not quite the same, caught in the image of the coca-cola in the sari shop. As Anna Gibbs points out her version of consumerism is third world, neighbour stores (Rosalina’s Store 2009, Jose & Pozo Negro 2010) where the “handmade, recycled, cobbled together, multi-purpose” come together: literally a meeting point between the global and the local, defining what we now know as the glocal (the use of batik is an assertion of difference): “these signs translate the global into the local via a process of making do in which the manufactured is imitated by the handmade – but they also do the opposite, translating the local into the global so that, if the global seems to colonise the local, the local also effects a subtle subversion of the global – what some corporations might see as an undermining of the brand.” [29] Gibbs also calls attention to Cruz’s use of a poem by Bukowski, ‘The Genius of the Crowd’ that Cruz adapts to her own purposes, insisting that the popular often unconsciously, instinctively, and out of sheer necessity resists complete assimilation: “Cruz excerpts from Bukowski a series of similes – like a tiger; like a mountain, like hemlock, and so on – ‘like’ indicating similar, but not the same. The idea of difference inserts itself slyly into the scene and opens new possibilities in it. Bukowsky’s poem speaks of the evil genius of the crowd, brilliant at doing the opposite of what it says, wanting only sameness, and afraid of art which needs solitude and which produces both a critical distance and a critical difference.”[30]

15. Bea Camacho’s essential themes are isolation, security, shelter; erasure and absence; and the body and architecture. And, by extension, perhaps identity, although she is fully aware that it is an over signalled issue in the postcolonial critique of the late eighties. The key to identity is visibility but a cultural identity once established immediately becomes questionable and slips dangerously towards a stereotype that satisfies nobody. One thinks of Gayatri Spivak’s assertion that the subaltern can answer back that quickly crashed into a counter argument that the nature of subalternity is not to have a voice. American literature from seventies onwards has been through the search for identity of all its ethic ingredients, Afroamerican, Chicano, Hispano, AsianAmerican, Indian. They have all written their stories, initially positively to gain self-respect, but once these positive identities were established they fitted nobody and the second wave of writers tended to ironize and debunk these politically correct constructions.

Identity is, of course, a construction but it is also often constructed by circumstances, both individual and national. It is here that Bea’s work finds its hold. She is part of the Filipino diaspora – a privileged part - in the sense that her exile has to do with education and these stories however common are very different according to one’s position in the social scale. It is her experience and that the many women from her country have gone to work abroad in domestic service. It has become part of a collective story and it has often been dramatic in terms of its consequences – sexual abuse exploitation, minimum wages - yet the earnings of these women, as in many other parts of the world, have been a major part of the country’s economy. In the Philippines this contribution is officially recognized on their return with a separate entrance through customs into the country and a band to play them homecoming songs as they finally come out into the airport.

Identities are now composable in so far as the constraints of the real world and real world body are overcome in the artificial domain. Yet identity itself remains a shifting, combinatory figure, a musical phrase in each and every one of us. Identity is an ever present, rhizomatic figure, a solo and improvisation on the energies that unfold in the world. Memory is, of course, part of it. So much of the sense of our selves revolves around it. It is the skin stretched over the world across which desire, emotions and expression flow. Such themes are invariably the subjects of many Fillipino writers living in the States.[31]

Bea’s work is thus both personal, psychological, dealing with scars and loneliness of separation from home, the return to fetus condition, the weaving of self into a cocoon that both protects her and affirms her separate condition, keeps her warm but leaves her further alone. It is the metaphor of cocoon or shell that she has to acquire for herself to deal with new and possibly hostile circumstances. The use of crochet has feminist overtones. The red seems like a clarion call and the white in a later piece fuses her into the context and protects her by making her even more invisible. There is admittedly a lot of traffic in this lane but she uses it to deal with specific and particular circumstances, as I have said both individual and part of a collective story.

On this occasion she intends to crochet herself into the fabricated environment. The performance will last approximately 10-11 hours without breaks for food or water. It will take place before the opening and will be documented on the video for the show. The carpet and crocheted yarn will be left in situ in the gallery. Joselina Cruz notes in a sensitive piece on her work: “Many of Camacho’s works deal with loss, I would even suggest, an initial desire for the loss of self. Her strategy however is not to arrive at forgetting, but of entreating this specific space of loss and mining meaning and memory from within it. Strangely deriving shape and tangibility from an apparent desire to empty. The word efface suggests the physical act of erasure, but it also means to act inconspicuously, that is in a sense, to lose oneself while in the presence of others. To be present, but also to be diffused, to be in the background. Her works, are there, but there is no longing for attention. There is a demand on the audience to engage with the bits of confidences shared by the artist, but also with the emotional weight that each work imposes. The body of work by Camacho takes on several tenets that are interesting to ponder: repetition, disappearance and loss, action and the act of documentation, the public and the private. But all are made available to us through the route of Camacho’s personal introspection. Camacho’s action of crocheting her cocoon are produced by tiny movements close to the body, almost invisible. The conceptual notion of repetition posits that when something is repeated enough times, the object or image disappears, lost in the sheer amount of repeating forms. Here Camacho’s repetitive gesture, brings on the masking of the maker herself. The image lost, erased, made hidden, effaced. The repeated gesture wraps her, removing details from the surface. In a sense, she too loses herself within the details.”[32]


Bea Camacho, (Install shot at the Freies Museum, Berlin), 2010


The exhilaration of virtual existence and experience comes from the sense of transcendence and liberation from the material and embodied world. Cultural conditions now make physicality seem a better state to be from than to inhabit. In the accommodating reality of cyberspace, the self is reconstituted as fluid and polymorphous entity, identity can be selected and discarded almost a will, as in a game or a fiction. This however is not her concern (although it may well be an awareness that pushes through much of the punk orientated painting) since she is concerned with the existential experience of self in a foreign or alien context, especially in one where uprootings have taken place. There is a consistent attempt to call attention to her own solitude and also an effort to make community especially family, to share things together, to recuperate what has been lost or at least to live it partially and as a game or fiction. There is a moving series that deals with memory that recalls Renno’s work on historic figures who gradually fade in memory, leaving behind a mere trace of their initial drama. Bea’s work deals with the recall of family and how these also fade with time and if, as is often the case, photos are involved then the beholder knows that time has changed the person to a point that may even be beyond recognition, things fade even more when expectations are loaded in upon them, what we are desperately trying to recall finally escapes us and the image in the mind’s eye loses sharpness, loses more and more detail, and finally disappears. The Portrait Series (2007) consists of seemingly, blank paper, literally the trace of all that’s left after passing photographs of her family through a copier until the image disappears. Process in her work is emotional, it both hurts and recalls. In The Distance Between My Brother and I (2007), she knits the distance of 8,430 miles and 20 hours, the time its takes to travel and close the gap between her and her brother. A sense of loss pervades all. Bea’s is a vulnerable world, moved by a sensibility of loss, by the inexorable movement of time and her own struggle to find a place where she feels comfortable, art of the architecture she calls it where even her own image is lost within it. White on white, light on light.

16. Gaston Damag might seem like the oddman-out but in fact he acutely poses a growing urban phenomenon. He works with ethnographic symbols from Cordillera region in Northern Philippines, wooded idols of the ancient Ifugao rice god, Bul-ul, along with diverse Western industrial materials, such as steel, glass, and neon-lighting. This confrontation between materials, between what was originally hand carved and what is the result of an industrial process becomes a metaphor for addressing the ways a non-western ethnic culture can navigate a cultural perspective dominated by the West. His phallic, primitive figures are schematic, as if partially formed by an industrial process or as if elemental energies or elemental forms that can survive all manipulation. They remind me of Leger’s figures and, in their installation setting, they appear like immigrant workers caught up in the scaffolding on a building site, thus accruing all the social reverberations associated with employment/unemployment, integration or separation (desired or imposed), immigration, identity and culture.

This is a show built on the interrogative, to question seems one of the best things we have left! As far as life in the megalopolis is concerned we are either witnessing the promise of an apocalyptic entrance onto a new evolutionary synthesis of the human and the machine, or an all-encompassing hallucination in which the motives and true affects cannot be known. The cracks in the known systems are now immense. Art, it hardly needs saying is one of them and these artists happily stick their fingers into them.

[1] Rosler, M., ‘Global Tendencies and Globalism and the Large Scale Exhibition’, Artforum 42, No3, Nov 2003, p.154

[2] Enwezor, O., ibid., p.163

[3] Cobangbang, L., inflight blurb for group show, God Captured like fossilized dung, march 2007.

[4] Ibid.

[5] Sterling, B., introduction to Mirrorshades anthology , Arbor Nose, NY, 1984 px.

[6] Ibid.

[7] Crumb, R and Poplaski,P., The R.Crumb Handbook, M.Q.P., London, 2005

[8] ibid. p.56

[9] e-mail correspondence

[10] Gopnik, A., High and Low, MOMA,N Y., 1991, p.77

[11] Owens, C., “The Allegorical Impulse”, October, p.80

[12] n.b.slang taken from an area (Dundas Valley) in Sydney where I grew up, it means (let me light my cigarette from the end of your cigarette) or (give us a donkey root will ya) quoted from Griggs,D., e-mail correspondence.

[13] Griggs, D., e-mail correspondence.

[14] Ibid.

[15] ID.

[16] Cobangbang, L., Obrist interviews Lena Cobangbang on CRATER VALLEY PLATEAU, e-mail correspondence.

[17] Ibid.

[18] Ibid.

[19] id.

[20] Most Art Sucks, Smart Art Press, L.A., 1998, p.141.

[21] Dewey, F, in Most Art sucks, op.cit,p 129.

[22] Id.

[23] Artist statement

[24] ibid,

[25] unpublished interview with Lena Cobangbang, electronic mail.

[26] Zorn J Spilane, Ektra/Nonesuch, 1987

[27] Cage,J., in Experimental Music, Nyman, M., Schirmer Books, N.Y., 1974, p.41

[28] ibid.

[29] Gibbs, A., e-mail correspondence

[30] ibid. Cruz’s video, ‘Poetry’, also uses lines from Bukowski’s poem recited by twelve artists in a Last Super situation but where the repetitions generates shifts in the meaning.

[31] See Contemporary Fiction by Filipinos in America, ed. C. Brainard, Anvil, Pasig City, Philippines, 1997.

[32] Cruz,J., “Efface:The Grand Gesture”, e-mail correspondence

This article was written for the exhibition “Bastards of Misrepresentation: Doing Time On Filipino Time” which ran from 22 October to 21 November 2023 at Freies Museum, Berlin. Photos by MM Yu.

About the author

Kevin Power (1944-2013) curated exhibits on Julian Schnabel (in Carmen, Sevilla), Contemporary Mexican Art (Reina Sofia, Madrid), Politicas de La Diferencia (Malba, Buenos Aires and Museum of Contemporary Art, Recife, Brazil), Puerto Rico: Los 90 (Instituto de America, Granada), While Cuba Waits (Track 16, Los Angeles), among many others. He has also authored articles and books such as New Cuban Art: A Critical Anthology; Polke's Post Modern Strategies; Una lmagen Americana; Una Poetica Activa, and Geometria y Vision. He held the chair of American Literature at the University de Alicante and the former director of the Museum of Contemporary Art, Reina Sofia, Madrid.


Original Author: 
Kevin Power