Neil Roberts

Roberts, Neil,

"An uncertain relation" (part 2)

Art Monthly Australia, Article, # 47, March 1992. pp. 11 – 13

Neil Roberts

Part two from the Philippines

1: Contemporary art in Manila (and given the perpetual relativity of the centralist debate, I hesitate to extrapolate on what the states and concerns of art making in the many provinces of the Philippines might be), seems to be facing a sort of crisis. Crisis is probably too strong a word. Volcanic eruptions and metropolitan flooding and majority poverty are crises – dilemmas about the nature of art really only exist as a necessary but, sometimes ludicrous counterpoint to harsher realities.

Nevertheless, art is worried. The Marcoses stripped more than billions from this country in their 20 year reign – the possibility of their favour worked as an antidote to adventure and risk in the arts, an exceedingly comfortable and profitable Holy Grail for some and a prohibition on artistic growth for most. Someone here said to me that a generation was lost to the Marcos ideals, a generation of skills and ambition in all aspects of civic life was diverted to the government’s ends, and those who remain now to rebuild the country are not the best of their era. Only when the next generation is ready to serve, they say, will the Philippines be able tot choose from a true sample of its talents.

Within the arts, the problem is more one of identity. In a curious parallel to our own rumblings in Australia, Filipinos are asking themselves about the constitution of the national artistic identity. Years of abundant and dictatorial patronage seemed to give a veneer of purposefulness to many artforms, or at least to the chosen ones within those forms, and the effect of that patronage and something of its veneer seems to have trickled through to those less implicated in this obvious relationship between the State (embodied in the hyperreality that continues to Imelda Marcos) and its artists.

That same veneer though seems to have kept a deeper looking at bay, a questioning now visible through various cracks in the neat and pleasant surface of much in the art world here. For example, there is an emerging bias towards indigenous materials as national motif, sometimes to the point of cliché, at least to the detriment of a more searching look beyond bamboo and fibres. There are debates about the virtues and dangers of international style, focused especially on the activities of a University of the Philippines lecturer, Robert Chepat, and his circle of students and recent graduates, and their strong, somewhat cynical, art-referential exhibitions. There is a regionalist position represented in the objectives and work of the Baguio Arts Guild, only a few hundred kilometres north of Manila geographically but operating from a different map in many other respects. Artists like Alan Rivera expound a fledgling Asian-Pacific identity; he bears no grudges when he sees his years of frustrated talk actualised in events like ARX and the proposed Asian Art Triennial in Australia, events he would have loved to have initiated in his own poverty-stricken country, and never could.

Now, with many cultural institutions in a sort of economic holding pattern, a lot of artists are finding themselves unavoidably subject to the dictates of the market. Art-Lab, without doubt the most experimental, perhaps the only, artist-run space in Manila, tries to subsidize its activities through an aggressive marketing strategy and an almost split-screen preoccupation with challenging traditional artistic notions whilst appearing respectable enough to attract buyers of nice paintings. Jean-Marie Syjuco paints soft pastel-coloured acrylic dreamscapes when she is not developing and performing her difficult shamanistic rituals. It’s a necessary form of artistic schizophrenia that has an easier acceptance here, where the circumstantial dictates are just unavoidable, than it would in Australia where our compromises take different forms.

Yet it must also be said that the period seems full of optimism too. It’s as if the difficulties and questions are part of a new and exciting groundswell. Artists are beginning to collaborate across artforms in a way that has not happened for some years, painters and musicians working with choreographers and performance artists, or interacting in open-ended gallery projects like ‘Art-in-Progress: The Cocoon’ at Kanlungan Ng Sining Gallery last August. Media writers, who work mostly for the many daily newspapers, express a great dissatisfaction with editorial expectations and readership, and have begun to reject, it seems, the common position of ‘reviews’ as thinly-veiled publicity and promotion and adopt instead a more critical stance. Some say the possibility of a symbiosis between the artists and writers has the potential to inject an energy and rigour back into the arts in a way that was evident in the 60s and early 70s.

Of course, a lot will depend on the outcome of the elections this April and the subsequent government’s attitude to, and support for, the arts (assuming that a stable government can be formed from the current hub-hub of slight candidates). One of the best galleries in Makati, obliged to move premises soon, opted instead to close down until the vote is in. If, inconceivable as it may seem, April’s worst-case scenario becomes a reality (Imelda returns from exile with the withered remains of her husband to do ballot-box battle with the widow she helped to create, and a forgetful, disillusioned people elect her as their next false hope), the gallery may decide to stay closed and the artists of Manila may again be divided in their aspirations.

2: Each fortnight since I arrived two months ago for my residency with Art-Lab, I’ve been taking my picture in one of those automatic photo-booths that abound in Manila (this city that lives by Xerox and I.D.). It’s a way of noting the passing of my time here and catching, theoretically, the changes wrought in my face by the experience, but change is not much in evidence. It’s still the same face mostly, uneasily stern and caught staring into the mirror for the green light.

At one booth in a more remote suburb one week, the two girls attending the machine giggled as they lowered the seat as far as it would go, which was still not far enough (even automatic technology here is serviced by people – every petrol pump is operated, every far collected, every button is pushed on your behalf). There was no black back-cloth in this booth, and I was wearing a plain white tee-shirt. The notion of photographic equipment adjusted to register brown skin tones as the norm was not one that had occurred to me before this, but when the photos appeared in the slot I was visible only as a pair of eyes in a ghostly visage.

Everyone gathered around to see what the girls were so embarrassed about, and as they all chattered and laughed and gaped at me, it was obvious what they were saying: white background, white tee-shirt, white man. What’s there to photograph?

3: One of the questions I asked myself coming to Manila was: what relevance an aesthetic arte povera in the city that spawned Smokey Mountain (Smokey Mountain is the leitmotif of film-makers doing social documentaries on the Philippines. The dumping site for most of Metro Manila’s rubbish, it’s name referring to the clouds of stinking methane given off by the decomposing garbage; it is also the home and livelihood of a community of scavengers currently numbering around 20,000. Some residents have lived there for over 30 years and at least 40 per cent of the total population are children under 18)?

I’ve come to realise it’s a contradiction neither I nor art generally in Manila can reconcile, but it does have tangents of connection that are strange and delightful. Seeking to find an old shovel for use in my exhibition, I was unable to resort to my normal junk stores or rural dumps. Instead, I bought a new one at a hardware store, of the style I was hoping to find, and took it to a construction site nearby to arrange a swap. I had a friend with me to explain my intent, but even that was not enough. The building work was called to a halt, the engineer summoned from the upper levels, and for half an hour my shovel was inspected suspiciously for flaws, deceptions, tricks or ploys. New for old is not a common offer, especially from a foreigner. Finally, I had the presence of mind to produce the receipt from the hardware store, and proof of purchase became my authenticity, if not my explanation. I left with handshakes and laughter all round, and with a beautiful worn-out shovel in hand.