The arts weekend officially began for me earlier in the week with a visit to both the Ayala Museum and the Alliance Francaise. The Ayala Museum hosted the launch of a book by artist Sym Mendoza, and the Alliance, one of the best spaces for viewing the diversity of Philippine art, opened an exhibit by artists Marina Cruz and Rodel Tapaya, ongoing till 16 December 2010. The event at the Museum displayed both Mendoza’s earlier impressionist work in the Amorsolo tradition and his later shift to cubism.
The Alliance exhibit was, however, more revealing of what I see as a return to the exploration of portraiture as a legitimate craft and idea. I found this particularly refreshing in the wake of the tendency in contemporary art to adopt wholesale the canonization of theory as determinant of aesthetics. There is something to be said for theoretical discussions of art and aesthetics, but as Tom Wolfe prophetically observed in the 1970s, the movement toward art theory has made art itself utterly incomprehensible and inaccessible. Now I am willing to use the critical apparatuses of theory and thought to make sense of the world, but, from a theoretical standpoint, I would sometimes view these as the kind of prejudices Hans-Georg Gadamer identified as hindering our capacity to make sense of what we encounter. Part of my task as a writer on art, then, is to ask whether we have an obligation to “dumb down”–or whether our theoretical obsessions are as much a condescension that is a disservice to thinking people as any act of “dumbing down.”
I am reminded here of Graham Ward’s words on postmodern thought, words of caution for us all:
“…there is no doubt that the favored language of postmodernity…and the move toward soft understandings of the subject as agent and of power as diffuse are at best not going to be effective resistors to laissez-faire capitalism and at worst foster a culture in which such capitalism can have its greatest impact. Furthermore, postmodernism’s championing of the kitsch, the surface, the cited, and the performed is hardly going to stem the tsunami of the reified and the commodified. The society of the spectacle and the culture of the spectator and the spectacular legitimate domination by media and the aestheticization of politics. Endless critique in the name of a quasi-transcedental is a critique from an angry dog without teeth.” (The Politics of Discipleship, Graham Ward, published by Baker Academic, p. 75, emphasis mine)
Speaking of the society of the spectacle, and jumping ahead in my chronology, Sunday night saw my first encounter with performance art and the possibilities of electronic music. The final event of Fete de la WSK took place at the Victoria Court Suites, in the themed suite that resembles, in its living space, a certain office in Washington, DC. I was invited by members of the performance art ensemble Innovative Noise Collective, who opened the show with a silent performance inside the suite’s substantial bathroom (your correspondent can confirm that fact). To a soundtrack that reminded me of what happens when a sound check goes bad for the entirety thereof, the performers respectively sewed lips and read from The Society of the Spectacle, sat in a jacuzzi with flowing sudsy water, pulled out slogans on paper (including my favorite, “Atheism is a non-prophet organization,” which may very well be a description of the Filipino Freethinkers), and enjoyed coffee, cigarettes, Coke, and food. It took me a while to figure out what was going on—but I later realized that it was a parody of contemporary society and the culture of consumption and how prophetic voices are silenced. Given of course what Ward said, I was not surprised that The Society of the Spectacle was the book they chose.
The second act was a duet by Juan Miguel Sobrepena and Tad Ermitano (apologies for the lack of accents), in which the former did the sound, and Ermitano played around with visuals from Lyle Sacris films. (Incidentally, Sacris is part-owner of one of my favorite Cubao X establishments, Sputnik.) I found this entertaining, partly because I started getting used to electronic music by this time, and partly because the thing was done so well. What was notable was that Sobrepena decided to treat this in a structure highly reminiscent of symphonies and concerti, with movements that varied at each turn, and Ermitano’s dab hand at video distortion made the images move along in time to the music.
The final act was a disappointment. I heard a lot of good things about the Sipat Lawin ensemble, but this was not one of their better nights. To a soundtrack I was unable to hear as my phone went on the blink, the group first went on an enactment of what seemed to be an off-cut from The Vagina Monologues, then a farcical scene involving an over-acting police officer and an inexplicable ending. It just did not work.
Now as for the Fete itself, I sense it is still going through birthing pains. Having plenty of gigs (eight, if I counted correctly) while bringing in foreign artists in the field is a high-concept deal that requires loads of support. From what I have seen of Sunday, this meant that in some cases, because of the need to spread limited resources out, the results were not really as interesting as expected. The performance art and theater ensembles were shortchanged as a result.
How could these limitations be overcome? The tragedy is that we will have to answer these questions using art and commerce issues, well-trod territory I refuse to explore, but one possible answer from Nina Terol-Zialcita came to my attention Friday: it is just that our society refuses to support art and artists. I can’t merely blame the philistinism and puritanism encouraged by the churches (yes, even by the Romans, who have otherwise been backers of great art), or the elitism of the art market, or the obsession of critics and artists alike with disengagement from the public. While I think the Fete is implicated in these problems, I also believe that they do deserve support from more open-minded folk who are willing to engage in the difficult but ultimately rewarding work of educating the public and opening up the art community.
Tomorrow, the final part of my discussion, along with some bad phone photos, leaps back to Saturday with a look at pen and ink and an acoustic evening.