Neil Roberts

Roberts, Neil,

"An Uncertain Relation: an artist's letter from Manila"

ed: Townsend, Peter, Art Monthly Australia, Article, # 44, October 1991.

Neil Roberts

Neil Roberts writes from the Philippines, where, from July to September, he was Artist-in-Residence at ART-LAB in Metro Manila. ART-LAB is the workshop/gallery of Cesare and Jean-Marie Sysuco, two leaders of contemporary Filipino performance and installation art.

*The ART-LAB residency has been funded by the Visual Arts and Crafts Board of the Australia Council and assisted by the Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade.

There’ll be no sweat-stains left on this page when it reaches you, but they are as much evidence of my state here as the words I write. The gritty dust that still settles on every surface will be gone too, but right now it rasps under the heel of my hand and faintly irritates my nose. During the Mt Pinatubo eruption two weeks ago, as I twiddled my thumbs in an extended Sydney limbo, the city disappeared under thin layers of fine white ash. Perhaps if I was writing this on the Mac upstairs, I would find that the ash had infiltrated some sort of computer cyberspace, and a volcanic virus would distort the intention of my words or lose my meanings in dusty silicon clouds.

As it is, the humidity and an intense sensory overload are my only explanations for any confusion. (Aside: The characteristic Filipino resilience in adversity is obvious in the media debate about how to capitalise on the ash disaster – suggestions range from exporting it to Hong Kong for souvenir production to melting it into glass ware (it has a deadly 70% silica content).)

I’ve yet to begin working within ART-LAB itself. The gallery is still groaning under the most crowded group installation exhibition I’ve ever seen. It’s like the city itself – pieces bleed into each other without clear demarcation, like the shops and stalls and the choking traffic weaving fluid lanes on every street, and the whole space is caught in a vast entangling net of jute and papier maché. Manila and its people seem to relinquish any notion of ‘personal space’ and giving way is both a strength of character and a necessity.

Except for the fashionable success of a form of decorative abstraction in painting, minimal art does not seem to be especially common or well-received here, and I wonder how my spare aesthetic and slight interference with objects will be taken. I’ve even been told that current Filipino installation is ‘Maximal art’. That’s a new one for the journals. There are other cultural imperatives surfacing too: the lauding of ‘indigenous materials’ – originally descriptive of the use of bamboo, just, coconuts etc. by certain provincial artists, it now encompasses a broader range of artists and media, like Cesare’s sad assemblages of religious amulets and witchcraft talismans in nostalgic caskets or cases – and a desire for me to try to understand something of the Filipino psyche and beliefs.

So I spent a day last week with an artist here, Jóse Legaspi, walking in a sprawling cemetery the size of central Queanbeyan. The rich build small elaborate houses for tombs, often two stories, with gardens and toilets and tables and chairs for the family to spend time with their relatives. Some even employ other families to live in the tombs and maintain them against the desperate squatters who will take over any abandoned graves. Jo-jo has slowly befriended a family there and with their safe passage has been able to make papier maché casts of life-size angels and saints and grand portals for his installations. He purchased a bag of bones recently (about $6 for a whole skeleton), but Cesare was most uneasy about exhibiting them.

We talked about death and the haunted, of memorials and a certain relentless necessity in the image of worn, wet washing hung across an ornate crypt. And we gagged at a stinking coffin lying inside the wrought-iron gate of a tomb, its holes plugged with bloodied cotton wadding, a body exhumed for autopsy and not yet returned to rest, we were told. I’m sure Jo-jo will regurgitate that putrid smell from the back of his throat for Jean-Marie’s performance work we are helping to design a few weeks from now. Not much can be avoided here.