A version of this was published in the Philippine Daily Inquirer, April 19 2010, in the Arts and Books section.
There was nothing exciting about the façade of the space where “The Death of Death (is alive and kicking”) (SM Art Center, 4th FL, SM Megamall) was being exhibited. On one side was a black tarp with the list of participating artists, on the other was a cartoon-like rendition of a skull. Between the dark colors and skull, this told me not to expect much, which directly contradicts curator Igan D’ Bayan’s “non-curatorial statement.” I began reading the note after I had slept on this exhibit longer than I would any other, still not finding some crux from which to begin analysis. The curatorial note, while no god, might give me a sense of the project’s notions of itself, a good starting point for understanding the exhibit. Of course sometimes, as with “The Death of Death”, the curatorial note fails as well.
No limitations equal clichés
There were too many skulls for one thing, and this wouldn’t have been a problem if these renderings didn’t look like things we’ve seen in popular culture before. Kiko Escora’s “Bungi” was funny with its hot pink background and its rendering of a skull with missing teeth, but it’s something we’ve seen in the local comedy films before. D’ Bayan’s “Armageddon Boogie”, the steel installation that greets you when you enter the space, also looks like something you’ve seen and killed in video games before.
The same artist’s “Romansa Satanista Espeysal (The Cartimar Crucifixion)” is a promising image of an inverted crucifixion of a skeletal figure with an animal head in red briefs, though it barely allows for anything other than a superficial re-doing of Jesus Christ’s crucifixion and eternal life. The skull by the gallery’s entrance was Keka Rodriguez’s “All The Colors Fade And Mock the Dreams that Never Wilt”, which is nothing but a set of pictures taken at the exhibit’s opening used as puzzle pieces to create a skull. Enough said.
D’Bayans’ non-curatorial note says that the goal here was parody and paradox. Oh but the skulls! They were nothing but cliché.
The good in the strange and yucky
The smaller and non-descript works were more interesting reassessments of the death of death here. Raena Abella’s “6 Days” diptych, two images that render the death of a pig six days apart, point to the dead body, dying once more in decay. It was yucky, but at least well-thought out. Isa Lorenzo’s three photograms meanwhile, were interesting in their reconfiguration oficonic images using the reverse darkroom process for developing photographs. This process produced strangely familiar images of bright white figures, placed within the black space in particularly strange ways: the figure of a pin-up girl floats above a building, what looks like a bust is overlapped with so many others until it is unfamiliar, a real face is on top of what looks like a hammer of sorts. “Pin-up”, “Icon I” and “Icon II” resonate in its recreation of familiar iconic images into stark unknowable objectified subjects to be appreciated, kept, even as they die upon creation.
Kawayan de Guia’s diptych “Check Point” played around with the idea of contending with one’s dishonesties once we are faced with death and dying. The checkpoint as a real creation of paranoia and insecurity breeds guilt that’s uncertain, a sense that we are being blamed for something. Death in de Guia’s work happens within these same concepts and constraints that exist within the checkpoint, owing to what we know about death. What is certain is that it is an order to stop, so that we may be checked before we cross that line from one space to another, which just might be imagined as well.
Imagination meanwhile is what Gary Ross Pastrana’s installation requires. “Study for an Invitation” is a tiny cake slice with a candle on top covered with gun metal powder. It is an interesting take on the idea of celebration and happiness and sweetness, an absolutely dumbfounding piece of work that allows for the notion of death as dark and violent, but also something that’s as satisfying as that last piece of cake on your plate.
Getting lost in the many
But many works get lost in this non-show that the non-curatorial note talks about. MM Yu’s “Common Oddities”, an installation of various pictures of the city and its absurd objects/signs took up a whole wall, which would’ve been enthralling if there wasn’t another wall of small images in Mark Dungaw Tandoyog’s “Pleasure First Before Death.” Lourd de Vera’s sound installation would’ve been given justice had it not co-existed so closely with the sounds from the installation by Wire Tuazon. And Khavn dela Cruz’s installation of a room in the aftermath of love? You could go to this exhibit and miss it altogether.
Yes, the non-curatorial note points out that the messiness could be the point, but it’s unfair to the spectator and artists that there is a difficulty with actually moving through the space. It’s unfair because it’s too much. A diverse set of contradictory artworks is fine. But in “The Death of Death” the diversity didn’t make sense at all, failing as it did to come back to a center, one that isn’t just about notions of death. You’d step out of this exhibit realizing that death is a lot like love. In the wrong hands, it can be nothing but cliché.