Wednesday ∗ 25 Aug 2010

saved by salvatus! notes on the ateneo art awards 2010

a version of this was published in the Philippine Daily Inquirer, Arts and Books Section, August 23 2010.

Because Mark Salvatus and his work inspired by the Quezon Provincial Jail would be the most logical choice for the Ateneo Art Award 2010, to this critic who has seen most these artists’ exhibits when they came out in galleries and museums across the metro, and who does insist on relevance and resistance, and its possibilities in art.

Of the 12 short-listed artists with works in exhibition at the Shangri-la Plaza Mall’s Grand Atrium, Salvatus’ installation “Secret Garden” and painting “Do or Die” were the most outright political, speaking of the lives we’d rather forget about, the silence that is as noisy as our screams. The jail ain’t a pretty place, especially in the Philippines. The ugly ain’t the usual set of works that we see the Ateneo Art Awards (AAA) liking, and let’s not even begin about the political.

The argument would be of course, that everything is political. And looking at the manner in which this AAA exhibit exists can only be telling. In the context of this high-end mall, with mostly foreign shops, the second floor lobby filled with contemporary (and young) Pinoy art just seemed so out of place. Or maybe it was perfect.

The mall’s lobby as gallery

It may be said that the best thing about the AAA this year is that, one, it was in a public space and was therefore more accessible, and two, the representative works from artists were installed with more care than usual, given space limitations, given the fact that this could only be a recreation of the original exhibit.

For most of these works recreations were a failure: after all, how does one deal with Leslie De Chavez’s Buntong Hininga which cut across all of Silverlens, Slab and 20square (count three!) galleries in Makati? How can we even begin to enjoy Kawayan de Guia’s Katas ng Pilipinas, God Knows Hudas Not Play when all you’ve got is one jukebox and two paintings against such white walls?

Kiri Dalena’s The Present Disorder is the Order of the Future which happened in a very dark Mo_ in Bonifacio High Street, could only be reinstalled in a brightly lit happy mall by having what can only be described as a black cave, within which is but a fraction of Dalena’s original work. This one frankly seemed like a disservice.

It may be said that all this should already make the 2010 AAA a failure, but the question should really be: how else could this be done?  This also highlights one glaring imbalance in this year’s shortlist: Michelline Syjuco did not have an exhibit nominated, she had a work. One work which was originally installed at the Yuchengco Museum’s Draped in Silk: The Journey of the Manton de Manila, a tribute of sorts to the floor length shawl. In that context, Syjuco’s work was relevant and contemporary.

In the context of the rest of the nominees to AAA this year? It just seemed like someone was playing favorites.

The limits, possibilities, of mall spaces

After going through the works of the shortlisted this year, and remembering how these works looked in their original state, i.e., as installed in a gallery (or two or three), what does become obvious is the failure of an award giving body such as this to give justice to the works’ exhibition. But what are our other options? Should we only see videos of the original exhibits (which would mean having  12 different screens set-up here)? Should we all be required to go to these exhibits, but really, how many of us have the time/money/wherewithal to do that? Should we be given a sense of more representative works, maybe better contextualization by the write-ups?

Is it as easy as just choosing the more accessible works to appear to us first as we get off the elevator, i.e., how many people would’ve turned upon seeing Patricia Eustaquio’s works from Dear Sweet and Filthy World? No, let’s not talk about whether the ones turned off are the ones we want to have as market for our arts, because in a mall, they are necessarily our market here. Leeroy New’s works from Corpo Royale after all, attracts quite a crowd, with its bright colors and Baby Jesus, skulls and plasticity notwithstanding. The same goes for runner-up Pow Martinez’s abstract works from his West Gallery exhibit 1 Billion Years, though its bright and happy colors are quickly eaten alive by its, uh, abstraction.

It’s difficult not to get into some wishful thinking: imagine a whole mall, not just one lobby, being taken over by these works.  Yes, it would be a security nightmare, but I wonder about how crazy it would be to have the different exhibits, with more works this time, set-up in the mall’s different halls, up on some of its walls. Ah, the possibility!

The new in the Ateneo Arts Awards

Which would be that Salvatus even won, alongside overtly political, in-your-face works by De Chavez, and abstract works from Martinez. These are unexpected if one looks at the kinds of works artists have been winning the award for in the past; these are unexpected just because there is so much about this award that isn’t at all about the works. There’s how the artists defend it, there’s how they say what they have to say.

As the interviews of each shortlisted artist came on the big screen, Salvatus and I chatted by the merry-go-round (not an artwork, but a mall attraction) at the back of the venue, wondering about whether he’d win or not. He was sure he wasn’t going to get it, as was I, though we had different reasons. Mine was about his works’ content; his, was about how he spoke of this content.

That he won bodes of change doesn’t it, even when there’s still so many changes to make. The Ateneo Art Awards at least, has the wherewithal to keep at this, until they get it right.

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