Around Town: Manila, Philippines
February in Manila, where Art Fair Philippines has taken place since 2013, is becoming increasingly attractive as a gathering place for those interested in art from Southeast Asia. Last year, Bellas Artes Projects (BAP), a non-profit foundation in Bataan initiated in 2013 by patron Jam Acuzar, opened a Manila branch, the Bellas Artes Outpost, in the Makati area of the city. In February, a touching show by the late American artist Bruce Conner, curated by Diana Campbell Betancourt, opened across both spaces. Titled ‘Out of Body’ (in reference to an experience the artist had aged eleven), the exhibition includes a number of works on paper, made under aliases after Conner officially retired from the art world in 1999. There are also lithographs – among them a grey, mandala-like composition, San Francisco Dancers’ Workshop Poster (1974), which reminded me of the mystical shapes painted by Swedish spiritualist Hilma af Klint: circles and triangles concealing spiritual energy. In one of the most arresting films on display, the young songstress Toni Basil dances to her 1966 single Breakaway. Masterfully edited by Conner in black and white, the camera follows Basil in a provocative, sexy and psychedelic dance. A second part of the exhibition, in Bataan, includes the 36-minute film Crossroads(1976), assembled from archival footage of the July 25, 1946 Operation Crossroads Baker nuclear weapons test conducted at Bikini Atoll. Projected on a large screen in an unfinished church-to-be, the repetitive blasts and mushroom clouds on the boat-covered waters play to the viewers’ nervous strain and sense of wonder at once, underlining mankind’s ability to both destroy and create.
In an interview released on YouTube by LA MOCA on the occasion of Conner’s 2016 retrospective at the museum, Basil remembers that, at their first meeting, the artist was dancing holding a briefcase. As he dropped it, hundreds of marbles scattered across the floor. An echo of Conner’s action was present in ‘The ’70s: Objects, Photographs, and Documents’ in the new space of Manila’s Ateneo Art Gallery. Drawing from the archives of the Cultural Center of the Philippines (CCP), the exhibition, curated by Ringo Bunoan, included several recreations, notably of Fernando Modesto’s Dyolens (Marbles, 1974). The work originally consisted of a row of 1,000 marbles on the floor of the CCP Main Gallery, waiting to be kicked and played around with by visitors. Here, the playful spirit was still present despite the fact that the marbles – 5,000, I was told – were already dispersed and glued down. Also on show were stunning black and white portraits by Nathaniel Gutierrez and an interactive Paper Press by Yola Johnson. Johnson first showed this work in 1973, when she invited viewers to pull and mark the paper, emphasizing process-based practices. Linking two of the three exhibition rooms, Sky Horizons (1973/2015), by Roberto Chabet, comprises several white wooden frames with strips of rubber tyre stretched between them, evoking flying birds or clouds. This well-paced exhibition illuminatingly connected a group of artists who chose to stand apart from the social realism prevalent in the Philippines at the time.
But in the art world, as in life, there is room for messier endeavours. The first Manila Biennale, was willed into existence by performance artist Carlos Celdran (and friends) in only nine months. Titled ‘Open City’, the month-long event took place inside Intramuros, Manila’s old walled city, which dates back to the Spanish colonial period and was nearly destroyed during one of the bloodiest battles of World War II, in 1945, when almost 100,000 civilians were killed by Japanese troops. Amongst notable pieces were Turf Wars (2018) by Lena Cobangbang: a patch of landscaped grass in Fort Santiago, loosely mapping the disputed Spratly Islands. Parallel (2018), by the anonymous Philippino artist Kolown, comprised a series of signs relating absurd anecdotes passing for historical facts, such as the use of pulverized bricks from Intramuros in 1644 by the Spaniards to treat acne. Just as with fake news, the reactions to them ranged from gullible credence, to annoyance, to amusement.
Also on show, at the Jesuit Mission House, Mm Yu’s In Transit (2008–15), a video showing still lifes of the belongings of Manila’s homeless, succeeded in leaving us with a lingering feeling of uneasiness for being voyeurs on a poverty tour of sorts. In Plaza de Roma, Red Slide (2012), by Latvian artist Aigars Bikse, resembled a Soviet-era wounded hero statue – in pink – and doubled as a slide for kids, pointing at totalitarian regimes’ thirst for young blood.
Finally worth mentioning, is ‘ChaCha Town’ at the artist-run gallery MO_Space, a collaborative painting show by Louie Cordero and Kawayan de Guia. In the early 2000s, both artists travelled to Japan for a show but, when the organizer ran away with the money, they were left to struggle for themselves. Created by the pair working alternatively on shared canvases for four months, the resulting paintings are fun, raw and unrestrained: words that chime with the best of the local art scene.