It’s easy to be distracted by how pretty the works of Catalina Africa are in The Etymology of Disaster (West Gallery, West Avenue, Quezon City). The work that welcomes you to the exhibit after all, is a collage of black and white photos of sunsets, reminiscent of and invoking romance, the kind that we all know off. The letters that spell “departure” in bold bright pink letters makes it seem like both sunsets and disasters are happy. This dynamic between the brightness and the darkness, though all romantic.
Our shadows in boxes
A non-descript shadow box with a bunch of brightly colored used and uneven candles seems happy from afar. Up close you’ll find that it is attached to a mirror, is bound by a chain, atop what looks to be a tiny skateboard. “Home Guide to Bullfighting” requires the spectator’s reflection, as her incomplete image disturbed by the candles attached to the mirror, necessarily invokes an amount of discomfort. The sadness comes from the realization that this might be about you, and the ways in which home is about a bullfight, is about being chained down, is about wanting to get away, candles as symbol of both hope and death.
“Maybe, Baby (Study for a Parfait)” is a shadowbox with a piece of shell against what looks like a chest x-ray result. The word “maybe” is spelled out on the shell, the last four letters in white ink, the yellow letter M hanging from the shell. The light and love in a piece of shell, something that’s cliché souvenir, which is always one of a kind, ties the rarity with the uncertainty of something being experienced again. The x-ray kills the romance, as it proves life at the same time that it fails to see its heart. Maybe, there is love here. Maybe there is heart. Maybe, baby, there’s romance.
Breaking it gently, subtly
Africa’s “Broken Pleases” is an enlarged photo of the beach, with brown sand, a dark sea and blue skies. Bright colored balloons fly against the sky, though not freely: the balloons are tied to a step ladder, the same color of the sand. The sky is alive, as are the balloons, and yet what is alive is held down by what’s on land. This is how things are broken, where what pleases is destroyed by what it has to live with: the sky against the darkness of the beach, the balloons against land.
This dynamic of being held down, is also in “Happy Camping II” – a triptych of photos of a wooden house set-up against the greenery of a park. The first image shows the facade of the house, the second is its other side which reveals it to be a one-dimensional structure, the third seems to show one of two panels used on the house. While there is no destruction here in the conventional sense, the slow revelation of what this house actually – to be just a piece of plywood, be further divided into smaller pieces of wood panels – invokes a strange sense of sadness at how true it could all still be.
No happy in the ending
The rendering of sunsets and moments and love in “The Etymology of Disaster” is a happy and romantic thing by itself – there is nothing here that’s sad or destructive. Until the bright pink letters that spell “departure” sinks in, and you realize what these sunsets actually are: they are endings. And with the notion of leaving, of separation, of impending absence, Africa is able to point out that there is no happiness in these endings, there are no happy endings.
Which is true as well for the romance with poverty that popular culture lives off of, the kind that allows for a brand like the defunct Wowowee, to invoke so many other images, including that of tragedy. In “Wowowee” Africa installs seven photos, one for each letter, each one rendered through colorful flowers and twigs, and set against the ground upon which too many died in the show’s stampede. The prettiness of the flowers and their bright colors, don’t do much for the sadness that happens with this ending.
It’s in “Happy Camping I” though, that the mind of Africa comes alive. A framed white piece of paper, written on which is an extended spider map in pencil. The map begins at the center with the word “LET’S” – obviously a reference to the invitation, “Let’s go camping!” What floored me was the thought process that went into this work, where that center branched out into six thoughts that interconnect at certain points, allowing for a set of activities that could/would happen in chronological order.
Camping here becomes analogous with doing whatever it is we want, beyond rules and parents and school and convention. Here, happiness is borne of this unimaginable freedom that would allow us to talk about “ordering someone to take off his pants, exhausting all possibilities, making a soundtrack for pissing, gambling our lives away, engaging in dangerous liaisons, starting a fire, smoking grass.”
Of course what is ultimately sad is the fact that while these are freedoms we hold dear, we cannot easily (if at all!) exercise these freedoms. And that, Africa teaches us, is where our romance with disaster lies.
note: all photos taken byme. the West Gallery site is down, but it’s at http://www.westgallery.org.