a version of this was published in the Philippine Daily Inquirer, Arts and Books Section, March 15 2010.
I almost balked at the sight of the U.P. Vargas Museum from afar. I was there for the retrospective exhibit of Alfredo Juan and Isabel Aquilizan, but was unprepared for the fanfare of a book launch and a grand re-opening. Once inside the museum though, I realized I would’ve regretted not seeing this retrospective in the context of precisely this moment: when the University of the Philippines administration (with no less than the President and Chancellor present) celebrates the presence of, and a book on, a politician’s contributions to the University. In the midst of the heat (closed windows, bright lights, no air conditioning), and talks of how much the politician donated for the museum’s renovation, the Aquilizans’ works seemed to be in the most perfect space, my spectatorship in the most perfect moment.
Here, in the midst of a celebration obviously spent on, within state education that has come to disenfranchised poor students, the Aquilizans’ retrospective exhibit Stock became more powerful. The opening night of the whole museum, its anti-thesis; the exhibit, a response to the party itself.
Identity and the State U
Because while the Aquilizans’ installations talk about the usual migrant concerns of keeping memory and wanting to remember, finding identity and redefining it, these works also question precisely the materialism(s) of the world, our own found need to accumulate and consume in order to find our identities, and how we limit people to identities they might not want.
This dynamic between the material and the human, the things we hold in our hands and the identities we create, is what makes this exhibit more interesting in the context of the museum. The U.P. Vargas Museum is the University’s pride, and that night it was up for show: look at us, here is the art we have, we are the best there is, we are fine.
But as the Aquilizans’ works prove, we are farthest from being fine. There is nothing stable about the identities we keep, because it can only be forced into constantly changing, redefined by our loyalties and betrayals, and what it is we disregard. It’s everything and violent, everything and sad.
What we lose in migration
Are people, we are reminded by the Aquilizans: we lose people. We celebrate OFWs, yes, but there’s much sadness in this act of migration. In Belonging: Terminal, the balikbayan box is used to mold random and accumulated objects into cubes. That these objects make up a home, are about people’s memories, what it is they hold dear, is what makes these boxes the saddest of things.
Last Thing (Artist’s Studio) would take the box to the extreme, showing how much may be accumulated, and how important the artists’ identity remains. Still working with the form of the cube and objects from an artist’s studio, this is a floor to ceiling work that reminds us that there are things that need to be kept, lest identity is lost.
Identification and forgetting
In other works, the Aquilizans highlight the problematique of identity even more. In Fade, they point to the first instance of losing identity in migration: getting and using passports. This installation is made up of blown-up versions of a couple’s passport pictures, but here their faces fade into the background and what’s revealed are passport numbers across where their eyes would be. That institutions, including the State itself, would only relegate us to our I.D. numbers is a sad thing in itself.
Which is also what installations Specimen and Future Tense work with. The latter is a huge canvas filled with I.D. pictures of unknown people, across age and gender, black and white and colored, against red white blue backgrounds. Smiling or frowning, looking straight into the camera, the identification is clear: this is but a requirement, a photo that needs to be taken, always towards the notion of a future. Getting into school, finding a job, moving away – all these require of us “official images” that render us as “real” people.
Specimen meanwhile, questions this realness. A series of frames filled with I.D. pictures placed upside down, there is no identification possible here as each picture is tacked onto the frame with a black pushpin right smack on each face. Here, it seems as if we are all irrelevant, that identifying us is an end in itself, that the moment of identification renders us as mere specimens to be disposed of after being tested. We are all irrelevant after all.
The value of community identity
But the works of the Aquilizans cut across personal and familial identities to those of whole communities. The used toothbrush installations are a paean to things we use without thinking, a reminder of the fact that this kind of consumption goes nowhere. These are necessary accumulations, not at all about memory or remembering, but about identifying us as communities. Among these installations, (including Red and Blue and White Collection) it is only in Presences and Absences that we are reminded of how these are about people, though they themselves might not know it.
One major work on community identity is Wings. Made up of the uniform rubber slippers worn by tenants of the Singapore Correctional Facility, the Aquilizans create three larger-than-life angel wings. This of course speaks of an institutionalized community identity, measured by what is worn versus faces or numbers. This entrapment though is rendered by the Aquilizans with the possibility of flight, the possibility of freedom.
Freedom with identity
It is here that the Aquilizans’ dialogue with other artists’ works become infinitely interesting: they seem to have a notion of freedom that is rare for many artists. It is a freedom that’s exercised with much thinking, and a sense of responsibility. It isn’t a mere up-yours to the artists before them, or a looking-down-on the ones who are “not worthy” by artistic standards. Landscape Painting, Painting Landscape IV and 100 Paintings, deal with frame upon frame of standard images of nation and Filipino-ness.
The former is made up of a stock image of the Mayon Volcano landscape, filled with various-sized frames that allow for new images, highlighting the strangest of things: the tip of the volcano versus the rest of it, the butt of a farmer versus his whole body, tree trunks versus the tree itself. 100 Paintings meanwhile is made up of standard(ized) paintings of nation, rendered in various frames installed on one huge wall. It is overwhelming as it is seemingly normal: these are images we can identify with, ones we don’t think twice about.
And then there is Target, a set of small paintings installed one after the other on wood, each with a target right in the middle. It is disconcerting in its reconfiguration of the stock image, even more so in its use of a target, as if it is meant to be shot, ready to be killed or wounded, in the act itself of existence.
It is in this sense though, that this work’s assertion is all-encompassing, responding to the notions of identity that we are made to imagine we create for ourselves through materialism and consumerism, and which institutions create of us, as we stay or move away, decide to keep or let go. As the Aquilizans show there are many things that inform the creation of identity, and we will continue to find ourselves in the things we do and hold and speak and see. In the end though, institutions render us all possible to destroy, if not render us as mere numbers. We seem to be nothing really, but willing targets. And that is the violence, and sadness, of identity.