It seems too easy, really. On one July 4, Kawayan de Guia found himself in America, and felt removed from what was a major celebration in the land of milk and honey. On this day, he decides to take a 30-kilometer walk on non-descript Route 66, which may be part of his personal history of walking, yes, but to a spectator who needs no personal history, could really be about so many other things.
Which is really what works for Bored on the 4th of July (Ateneo Art Gallery, Ateneo de Manila University) an exhibit borne of de Guia’s New York Art Residency Grant. An installation of photos that de Guia took on this walk of purported boredom, what was striking to begin with about this exhibit was the fact that it really is just a bunch of photos. The current propensity for capturing images of moments and keeping memories, with social networking sites and the internet’s enterprise of sharing and developing relationships through these swiftly changing images, this is exciting as it is possibly boring. For really, when I can put an album online of my own walk through an unfamiliar street in an alien city, wouldn’t my own captured images necessarily be as important, if not more so, than someone else’s?
Capitalism as the tie that b(l)inds
But uniqueness isn’t really what de Guia banks on here. In fact, what he depends on is a certain unity with the spectator, in the way that capitalism must be the same for all of us, with the materialism it encourages pervading our lives. Here though, de Guia doesn’t give us the conventional product, nor does he merely depend on that which is consumable. Here, he banks on the words stuck in our heads.
The photos, as taken on one man’s walk through the unknown seem to be a search for things that are all at once familiar and strange. At the exhibit though these photos are necessarily reinvented, not just by their mere existence together, but because de Guia himself imagines them to be more than they are, reinventing them the way capitalism creates the illusion of more (so much more!) in everything that it sells. The difference of course is that in de Guia’s hands, there is cognitive dissonance.
The photo of a dead frog is interposed with a McDonald’s logo above it, and the slogan “I’m lovin’ it” beneath it; old decrepit mailboxes standing together are bound by the Nokia label “Connecting people”; an image of an empty land with a tractor and two vats labeled “country waste” and “Wild”, respectively, are seen as with the Panasonic slogan “ideas for life”; a self-portrait taken against the sun covers the eyes with the slogan “Human energy” and the forehead’s slapped with a logo of Chevron; an image of Wal-mart has the slogan (of a real volunteer group that helps fight depression) “Helping to Defeat Depression”.
It is in this way that the exhibit remained surprising: while it’s possible to pass through it in one go, it’s difficult not to be taken aback by how unknown it seems. de Guia banks on the possibility of all these images and words ringing a bell. But of course when it does, the realization is about how capitalism works: it makes us believe that since these are part of our psyche that we must take it in our hands and make it ours. That we must be consumed by capital, even as we are under the illusion that we are the ones who consume it. That after all, is the way in which capitalism blinds us.
Welcome to the dark side
What can only be more powerful here are the photos themselves, over and above the labels they hold, as these do speak about the choices that de Guia himself made. A good comfortable walk through the main gallery is really going through images that are overwhelmingly real: some too stark for comfort (dead animals, abandoned spaces), others too eerie (closed doors, empty roads, old signs), some just unknowable (facades of homes and stores, signs that don’t make sense but are familiar). These are the vestiges of the capitalist enterprise, the forgotten, the left behind, the ignored. Here lies the sadness and violence in this exhibit. Even when it is tongue-in-cheek and witty, it is all the time borne of an emptiness.
Worth mentioning then is the manner in which the photos were installed. Hanging from the ceiling on white and translucent strings, lit by bright bulbs, against the stark white of the gallery, there is something friendly about this exhibit at first glance. And yet, going through it is like a walk on the dark side, it almost becomes a welcome that one overstays in, a bright happy place that reminds us of how horrid the world has become, of how we have become America’s ideology of consumption and materialism.
Given the strength of these images all installed together, and the evils that it does end up highlighting, it helps that the photos of the walk are divided into two sections of the main gallery, spread across opposite corners, providing the much needed relief from these images that are in-your-face here. It is everything and tiring, after all. At the same time that it can only be so alienating: you are not in these photos, in fact, no person is. And yet it is you, isn’t it?
Seeing no (capitalist) evil
In the smaller space of the gallery, de Guia tacked onto the walls images of individuals with eyes closed in the interstices of commercial establishments. Men and women, random and famous (rock god Joey “Pepe” Smith, poet Frank Cimatu, de Guia himself), are shown in the midst of restaurants and groceries, clothes and knick-knacks and xerox machines, the palengke and portraits for sale.
But the simplicity of this contrast between capital and the resistance to it is endearing at most. In truth, capital disallows us, from closing our eyes. Capitalism and materialism is in our everyday lives, it is in our mere existence, our speech and sight, within earshot, within reach, is in everything we even imagine of ourselves. Freedom from capital is only possible with real active revolt, and one man’s walk on the blind and dark side, and our walk with him in this gallery, can only open our eyes so much. The bright wings installed on one wall can allow us to imagine flight, yes, but it can also only make us see death as freedom.
Meanwhile, capitalism has tied us down to one notion of freedom. Getting things for free is the greatest thing here, yes? and yet all that proves is that we want want want. Capital need not be about what’s bought, but about what we think is important: to consume, to acquire, in order to become. As a photo of free stuff being given away has been labeled by de Guia: “It gets you every time.”