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Last night, I was at Vinyl for a press dinner with Tara McPherson, and because their anniversary deserves one last bit of celebratory writing, I dredged up this piece from the Philippine Online Chronicles. You can follow the link or read below, because I have added a new prologue and epilogue.
Author’s note: This article was originally published in the Philippine Online Chronicles in August 2010, just after Tara McPherson visited the gallery. The article was not updated to reflect the visit; the intent was to come up with a feature that read more like a New Yorker essay.
The Disney/Pixar film Toy Story 2 featured as its villain of sorts the kind of toy collector who purchases toys that are no longer available. Such villainy, if one could call it that, can simply be explained by one aspect of the law of supply and demand—the less there is of something, the more valuable it could be. It is of course nothing evil of itself; that is the way the market works.
I leave it to more competent colleagues at POC to talk about the vagaries of the art market when it comes to the kind of art that hangs at galleries both large and small. Today, I will focus on one form of art that sits on the boundaries of art and commerce. Like our toy collector, what is at stake for those who enjoy it is something playful. But it is something that evokes less of Sheriff Woody Pride than something I would find at Manila Contemporary, for instance.
The world of “urban vinyl” is new to many, except of course those in the know. “People walk into our store, curious about what it is about, and are excited about it.” Gaby de la Merced, who is perhaps better known for racing cars and appearing on soaps, describes how people react to her “passion project,” VinylonVinyl Urban. One of the first places to open at the much-hyped Collective on Malugay Street in Makati, the store is a cross between art gallery and toy shop, and it is not surprising.
One of the items on display is a set of works by designer toy pioneer Michael Lau. In 2004, the New York Times Magazine ran a feature on Lau and the early days of the designer toy scene in Hong Kong. It described how Lau’s 1999 “Gardeners” collection, where he turned old G.I. Joe toys into “skateboarders, surfers and snowboarders,” launched a trend that spread throughout Hong Kong, and spread like wildfire to the West. The trend came to be known as “urban vinyl,” as Lau’s genius was to incorporate vinyl into the figurines he made. Like all designer toys, urban vinyl toys come in limited quantities and tend to sell quickly.
De la Merced is an early adopter, getting into the designer toy/urban vinyl toy scene in 2002, and she recalls when a store called FreshManila was the only place in town where one could get them. Her enthusiasm for the scene is infectious and sincere. Her advocacy, so to speak, is to make it more widely known in the country. One aspect of this is to build interest within the local contemporary art community. “When we got back here [from the San Diego Comic Convention], we realized that there was so much talent here, especially when it comes to lowbrow contemporary art,” she says, “and we just wanted to bridge the gap, especially in terms of accessibility.” One obstacle is the expense: a vinyl mold, I was told, goes for around a hundred thousand pesos. Her goal is to build a community of contemporary artists working within the vinyl scene and to help launch their work on the international stage. It may perhaps be the second wave, but it is too soon to tell. One pioneer here is the overseas-based Filipino team behind Rotobox toys, whose work appears on two store shelves.
VinylonVinyl is named not only for its line-up of vinyl toys, but also for its selection of vinyl records. One of the store’s future projects is to set up a school for dance DJs to preserve the art of using vinyl records in their work. Vinyl’s proximity to B-Side, notable for hosting DJs most evenings, is obviously no accident. The revival in vinyl records is itself something of note. Even newer musical works now have vinyl editions, something almost unthinkable at the turn of the century.
De la Merced clarifies that the scene encompasses more than the toys, although that is what draws the attention of visitors, something I witnessed on the night of the interview. In fact, the store has a small collection of drawings and prints from local and overseas artists, including Tara McPherson and Katwo Puertollano. She notes that a lot of those who are in the vinyl industry are themselves artists. “Their paintings are in the Museum of Modern Art in New York; some of them are well known all over the place; some are graffiti artists.” She emphasizes that with the vinyl scene, one “follows the artist that makes the toy.” One of her partners, Saj Jestry, adds that these artists have seen vinyl toys as another medium, and “it has become [for them] another collector’s item, apart from traditional [forms of contemporary] art works.”
It is noteworthy that part of the purpose of the store’s raison d’etre is to encourage people to explore this form of art, not just as artists but as collectors and connoisseurs. More affordable toys as a starter for a collection (the cheapest small toys, zipper pulls, go for PHP 200) are available on the counter. A tall figurine I saw on my first visit which has since gone costs USD 3000 when purchased straight from the artist, but a similar figure has been offered online for USD 8000.
Like all trends, the risks are there of possible oversaturation and eventual dwindling interest. Michael Lau, the pioneer, has himself withdrawn from offering his work in public, and de la Merced tells me that he nowadays notifies a limited number of people if he has new work available, and sells them at secluded locations. Part of the reason, I surmise, can be found in the Times piece cited earlier; it is his unhappiness with the way the art has become too commercialized in the quest to make money. “He is a prophet appalled by his disciples,” the Times noted in 2004. Oversaturation in the local scene may raise the same kinds of art and commerce questions that plagued Hong Kong’s scene, but there is a benefit to being up-front about the commercial and aesthetic aspects of the craft that are more subtly expressed in other art contexts.
At this point, it is difficult to isolate the text from its context; Vinyl’s location at the Malugay Collective situates it in the effort to create a counterpart “arts/alternative culture scene” in Metro Manila’s southern half to the more well-established northern one. While waiting in vain for VinylonVinyl to reopen (after replacing its air conditioner), I had a chance to speak with some of the owners of the other shops one quiet Thursday afternoon. One of them (who owns a shoe store therein) told me that they were not out to compete with Cubao X, contrary to the hype. I think there is merit for saying so. It is somehow out of the way; one can commute to it but it would require some walking (or taking a cab). It draws a crowd which seems to be different from the one up north; I noted the contrasts in the wardrobes visitors were sporting, especially those of the female ones, that Friday evening when I spoke with the owners of VinylonVinyl. It has only one gallery at the moment (Outerspace).
One question I put to de la Merced had to do with collaborative work with other galleries. This is a question that goes to the heart of why it is still too early to say whether one is competing with the other; its isolation does put it at a distance from the kind of scene whose energy it can draw. Yet, as one leaves Malugay and heads down Pasong Tamo towards the Fort, the other site for the emerging southern scene, one can find a number of art spaces where the kind of people VinylonVinyl could work with often see their work appear. It is a challenge for the store, and indeed for the Collective, to tap into the creative potential which the contemporary art scene could offer. But it is a challenge that they have to take very gingerly, lest they risk the integrity which places like Vinyl are slowly but surely trying to build.
Epilogue: Since then, Outerspace has been replaced by the Office of Culture and Design art space and the Kanto space joined the trio just last October. Fresh Manila evolved into the complementary, not competing, Secret Fresh space.
Collaborations have indeed happened but in unanticipated fronts—the Vinyl+Splash and Cinemangarap events in December 2011 are notable recent examples. Thus I am convinced that Vinyl is meeting that challenge by making very good calls so far. And this year ought to be a very good year for them. – RA