Scenes from a hat

I have not written for this blog in an awfully long time, mainly because I have been concerned with other things in both my personal and professional life—not to mention a drop in morale for reasons which only a few close friends are aware about.

However, the excuses would not suffice. So it falls to me to come up with something… perhaps a few stories. Scenes, perhaps, plucked from the proverbial hat.

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I am listening to Duster’s first album, Sweetheart Snackbar. It was an album I purchased back when I was still teaching English to Europeans, and I bought it in Eastwood. Duster was a band put together by Raymond Marasigan of Sandwich, among others, and its lead musician was someone I knew an awfully long time.

My first memory of Katwo Puertollano, nee Librando, was in my first stint in college debate. It was nearly 11 years ago, when the first Worlds tournament in Asia was staged in Manila. She was helping out with the tabulations, as were a small group of high school debaters. I think it was a pre-tournament adjudication seminar where we first met. I barely remember exactly what happened then—time and a lot of other things intervened—but I never forgot her since.

I remember telling her bandmate, Ristalle Bautista, recently about the time she joined a supergroup Coca-Cola put together to record a new jingle. In the summer of 2008, the supergroup’s jingle was playing all over the land, especially in a taxi in Baguio one May afternoon. I heard the jingle, and after about a chorus or two, I smiled and told the taxi driver, “I know the singer on this one.”

I find it embarrassing to be basking in reflected glory.

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Reflected glory. It reminds me of one of the Church Fathers, Irenaeus of Lyons, who began a long work on heresy by saying that God’s glory is human beings fully alive. So what does being fully alive mean? I suspect that the answer is not very easy to articulate. Perhaps that is why I am glad that I am trying to make sense of art.

One of my favorite ways of understanding art, and something I have written about elsewhere, has to do with the notion of narrative. There are stories behind art, I think, and any other attempt to suggest otherwise, such as the attempt to thematize or, dare I say, conceptualize, is secondary. (I would have said “useless” but I know a lot of acquaintances will take issue with this.)

I’ve learned over the past few months of observing and listening to people in the arts that stories matter in how passions can be articulated and made into tangible things. A very good example would be two works in the latest Pablo Fort exhibit, “You Are Not Here.” It is a clever concept, but the story behind it is even more interesting. All of the artists, I was told, all had their debut exhibits at Pablo’s Cubao branch, in the middle of the Cubao Expo precinct. A debut exhibit suggesting that we were transplanted in that sense is touted as something about being displaced.

Katwo is now married to a fellow graphic designer and visual artist, Nico Puertollano, and they have had a show or two at Pablo Cubao. Her story behind her work, “Kiss With a Fist,” is how she is coping with the physical challenges of being in her late twenties–and how that narrative shapes, and is shaped by, a phenomenological/existentialist understanding of one’s body. (Big word alert!) It is set against the larger story of how media is affecting body image and subsequently complicating female lives. But it is also a story, in her case, of her practice as a visual artist vis-a-vis her being a graphic designer.

On the other hand, her husband Nico finally showed a work which had a long history behind it. Made as an extra-curricular project during his time at the School of Visual Arts in New York City, “Figures in Space” reflects the experience of being a mature student in inner-city New York. His story focuses on his encounters with art (cubism, he acknowledges, was a fascination at that time) and the built environment, both its latent and hidden manifestations. But it is, like his wife’s work, a meditation on the body, but this time with a conscious focus on figures and shapes.

Given that these two run one of the up-and-coming design houses in town, the works they chose to represent being displaced had to do with, ultimately, the story of something that, no matter how hard plastic surgeons try to re-arrange, is in itself difficult to design.

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Of course, the story of embodiment, the experience of living with one’s body, is what guides and is guided by the craft of furniture. I visited Manila Collective that same night, after the visit to Pablo Fort, where an exhibit of furniture-as-art is taking place. It requires a second visit for me to think about it some more, but my first impressions on an opening night sometimes do not necessarily dwell on the art.

It has to do with pancakes. More specifically, what to call certain small pancakes topped with sour cream and fish roe. And of course, what to drink with it.

There is a two-syllable, five-letter word for those pancakes. They are blinis. They were good. But of course, I have to ask why it is so hard for the waiting staff to call them blinis. I find it insulting to anyone’s intelligence, especially given the crowd in attendance at those kinds of events, that one could not be bothered with the proper foreign name for those sorts of things. I, for one, would have found it most impressive that Manila Contemporary has blinis to serve at an opening, along with the risotto balls and the pork loin canapes, and that they have precisely the right drink to serve with those pancakes.

That drink, of course, is vodka, and it goes great in a tonic. Too bad I forgot to ask for what Douglas Adams in The Restaurant at the End of the Universe calls a drink whose name exists everywhere. Jynnan tonnix anyone?

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I suddenly remember the old saying–can’t recall exactly who said it–about God being a circle whose center is nowhere but whose circumference is everywhere. This brings me back to a query which Katwo asked me earlier that evening, which was whether I was considering ordained ministry.

I can honestly say that any answer I have for that question at the moment will be torn up, revised, perhaps restated in a vaguer way next time I get asked that query. Like some parts of our stories, they can be open to restatement.

As Ludwig Wittgenstein sharply reminds us at the end of the Tractatus, there are just some things that cannot be described or inscribed in language. However, I can say that narrative plays around with that. The stories of being called and responding are less about “making a point” about what constitutes vocation but about the ineffable experience of gaining oneself back in the experience of losing it. Yes, it is thematizable; yes, there is a point to be made, but more than that, it is a story that has been told too often that we decide to abstract the point to oblivion.

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