There is no looking at Ronald Ventura’s work without having in the back of my head that $1.1M dollar record-breaking sale at the 2011 Sotheby’s auction. In 2012 it seems he’s also had a good run at art auctions such as the Christie’s auction in Hong Kong last last year, which shouldn’t be a surprise really. Between the interest in Southeast Asian art and 2011’s record-breaking sale, it would seem strange if Ventura were not to ride that wave.
It is a wave of course that might not go in the direction of home, at least as far as putting together an exhibit is concerned, and this might have been why “Watching the Watchmen” (at the Vargas Museum in December) ultimately interested me: why would you exhibit at home at this point? What for? Underappreciated as the arts are, no matter how critically and globally acclaimed, why care at all to engage with this nation on the level of one’s artmaking? In the same breath, what would nation get out of something it refuses to acknowledge as important?
For now it seems, what nation (or the sector of it that even remotely cares) can get is the hype that has come to surround Ventura’s work, given the fame that being record-breaker has afforded him. The question is not so much whether or not “Watching the Watchmen” lives up to the hype, as it is a question of how it navigates this space created by Ventura’s now globalized artmaking.
Larger-than-life-sized bul-ols fill the space of the first floor of the Vargas Museum, the glass windows of which allow for an interesting enough view from the outside: black, bald, big-bellied statues after all can only be a curious sight. You enter the space and find though that many of the bul-ols happen in pairs, always male and female, as they do play (to some extent) with color and girth, as well as size: a shelf on the second floor staircase landing is filled with small bul-ols, too.
The project seems simple enough: to reconfigure the bul-ol, the rice god that is familiar icon, that one that’s also tourist fascination and product, into something other than itself. Except that you have a sense of how in these reconfigurations, Ventura’s also working with making the bul-ol into what it exactly is, what it has become, in times that have changed, where its role can also only be put into question. We are distant from it after all, away from the agricultural context of its existence, far from the paganism that it represents.
That this is about faith still, that this is true still, for spaces that are now falling deeper into the recesses of our urban imaginations, can only weigh heavier on this exhibit: what is in our collective forgetting is here. Its success is dependent on our ability to engage in the task of making its meanings disappear.
But too it depends on us as audience, and our ability at intertextuality. That is, we need to be an audience that can acknowledge the absurdity in turning the bul-ol into Mickey Mouse, for example; or having it do the rock ‘n’ roll \m/ sign. There is also the bul-ol sitting and having a smoke, a pair with long noses ala Pinnochio, one who holds up a skull, a couple reenacting San Miguel slaying Lucifer.
There is no fighting with the creativity that is here, and it must be said that it was enjoyable going through the different bul-ols and finding the ones that are familiar. There is a playfulness here, and as such there is the possibility of fun, if you are so inclined.
Because the other extreme would point in the direction of taking offense at the kind of imagining that Ventura does here, where romancing the bul-ol can only be a form of orientalism – the kind borne of a predisposition to create for a Western audience. This extreme has everything to do with the fact that a local audience’s reaction to this work is dependent on a globalized sense of cultural icons i.e., Mickey Mouse. We can even go so far as saying that the emaciated reconfigurations of the bul-ol, the ones that look sad and scary and hungry, those are exactly the images of us that this global audience would expect to see.
It is in this extreme that you get a sinking feeling that none of this is about you, no matter its use of the bul-ol, or the reconfiguration that banks on your ability at identifying the playfulness. It is here that you are made to feel even more distant from this body of work than ever before, because you find that it is not quite yours, and neither is it about you. It is here that you begin to wonder how much stature and fame, and a particularly global one, can affect an artist’s creativity, his ability at doing justice to what’s here, in catering to an audience elsewhere.
It is here that the bul-ol as it appears in “Watching the Watchmen” gets embroiled in the question of romance, if not of selling what is uniquely and expectedly Filipino, to what can only be a global audience. This is the point when more questions must be asked of Ventura’s artmaking, by virtue of his place in the international art scene, the records he has taken home. Certainly these are questions that might be asked of every other Filipino artist who is like Ventura; right now though it is his work that’s gotten all the hype and media mileage, his answers are the ones we want to hear.
If these bul-ols are any indication, then it seems that while we might be in for some fun and creativity, we can also only get embroiled in the task of romancing aspects of our culture, to the point of forgetting what these mean. This is not unique to Ventura’s work of course, and neither is this by default a bad thing. It just seems that for this artist’s stature, we might expect a little more than a set of reconfigured bul-ols that point only to our own complicity in its forgetting.
Published by GMA News Online, January 25 2013.