MINDING THE GAPS
Researchers making fledgling attempts to acquaint themselves with Philippine contemporary art will very quickly realise their biggest initial challenge has to do with contending with a dispersed body of uneven documentation, critical scholarship on Philippine modernism not having come into its own until the nascent years of post-WW II writing visibly flourished in the decade of the 70s onward. Without totally discounting early attempts at comprehensive surveys such as Winfield Scott Smith’s editorship of the 1958 volume The Art of the Philippines
and Dominador Castañeda’s 1964 tome Art in the Philippines
, along with later, more thematised works such as Alice Coseteng’s Philippine Modern Art and its Critics
(1973), I cite this difficulty in locating the contours of Philippine contemporary art through its sparse literature and near inaccessibility of primary and secondary references to further contextualise the relative paucity of writing amidst the volatile grounds upon which modernist and contemporary practice and discourse are feebly anchored. This state of affairs is further complicated by the rise of diasporic art practices birthed beyond the country’s political borders even as these find their way into the global artworld under heuristic labels unreflective of Philippine nuance (i.e. expatriate work coming under categories determined by host/second-third cultures rather than country of origin such as in the case of Manuel Ocampo while he was then based in the United States of America/Europe, or in regard to the work of Honolulu-born, Visayas-reared, but now US-based Paul Pfeiffer, as well as Lani Maestro who is currently more generally associated with two countries of long-term residence—Canada and France). These are, of course, problems unevenly shared but undeniably common across the charged nomenclature of Asian studies, and this is further complicated by market mechanisms put in place to buoy transactions of art coming out of the region through a knowledge infrastructure that occasionally conscripts the same set of scholars and specialists who could be writing for less-compromised publications if these were at all sustainable to produce amidst a situation of weak cultural institutions vis-à-vis comparatively strong commercial interests.
This skewed flexing of verbal muscle is seen in expectedly lavishly packaged, often under-researched tomes delivering conflicted accounts overtly authored by dealers and collectors themselves. And since precisely these are the materials that get much more efficiently circulated and strategically ‘placed’, these easily become the de facto introductory if not only literature on art from the Philippines that potentially lull public/s into thinking that this is indeed what accurately constitutes the field. Given the present state of affairs, researchers have no recourse but to actively work inter-textually lest they succumb to facile, either-or renderings of the narratives of Philippine art: conservative-modern, social realist-conceptual, etc. Another stark problematique for instance that results from this data dearth is that artists actively producing work during non-market boom periods or those doing work that does not adhere to prevailing critical nor commercial trends are effectively off-radar unless the rare confluence comes to pass: that of crusading publisher/s encountering scrupulous researchers intent on writing about previously unexplored or understudied practices or what may have already been dismissed as inconsequential or uncharacteristic of this country’s art. Such failings are of course also a function of the dynamics between artists, art historian-researcher-curators, market and state players, but moreso of the extent to which the critical infrastructure is mature and enabled enough to stand as foil to purely instrumentalist agents. Yet the dramatic lag time between the circulation of critical texts vis-à-vis the quick churn of promotional materials will presumably be a long-standing challenge for the serious researcher, not just of contemporary Philippine art but of contemporary art in general since it is essentially a ‘moving target’, the locus of which remains highly contested among those savvy enough to trade upon the exchange value of gained validation within this domain. Needless to say, the abovementioned convergence of obstacles demonstrates how the dilemma can become acute and compounded, leading to the daunting question: if and when one is able to get access to material, how does one develop the smarts to sieve spin from earnest writing/reportage/critique? This is one of the tactical considerations for including in this shortlist a sizeable amount of writing on Philippine art from elsewhere, as perhaps, a modest strategy to round out country-generated critical literature and to conscript a polyphony of voices to produce multiple as opposed to tunnel-vision views. That being said, we note how the global art trade has made physical sites of operation mean less and less, and that publishing as a capital-intensive industry works against the idea that writing can be wholly inoculated from self-investment. Yet some redress continues to be in sight—given the simultaneous possibilities and problems present in the democratising thrust of web 2.0++ and online publishing, on top of increased capacities of artists to self-organise, produce, and manage their own archives, knowledge streams have the potential to broaden with cross-checks becoming predictably more possible. None of this, however, takes the load off scholars and reputable critics in playing catch-up with the increasingly expanding research arena. What this simply underscores is that productive narratives are more likely to be crafted from triangulated sources.
Asia Art Archive’s indexed entries on Philippine art to date constitute approximately 4,000
items and it must be noted at the outset that, particularly in relation to the segment of the collection that is online, this is predominantly made up of materials coming out of the Roberto Chabet Archive
, an AAA Special Collection that effectively overshadows accounts of other streams of Philippine art either directly opposed or unaligned with this influential conceptualist’s curatorial and artistic-pedagogic practice. Having articulated this, and rather than belabouring the question of whether the contemporary ought to be associated with a break with, or should be instead construed as mere continuum of, the modern, this overview takes the position that overt references to and traces of critical appreciation of the problematiques of engaging with a global/internationalist practice help define a workable period of study. Taking a cue for instance from earlier Filipino critics themselves such as the late Leonidas Benesa, we posit that post-WWII accounts through to current writing on Philippine art constitute a productive delineation. While this in effect still dodges the issue of when and how contemporaneity operates as a problematically time-based indicator, the marked-off period hopefully presents a manageable scope of material for the entry-level student of Philippine art to grapple with.
Most authors of traditional art historical texts do indeed identify the ominous schism between conservatives and modernists which broke out prior to the second World War as constituting a seminal break with classicism and a turning against an aesthetic predilection for romanticised pastoralism. Archival newspaper accounts in Philippine libraries recount how these animosities picked up steam after post-war reconstruction began to ebb and attempts at normalcy again re-occupied the minds of artists and critics living and working through this period. Key physical and social sites in which this schism played out are the Art Association of the Philippines and the Philippine Art Gallery (PAG), two artist-initiated formations not so accidentally headed by two women artist-managers, Purita Kalaw Ledesma and Lyd Arguilla respectively. Thus the accounts on the Art Association of the Philippines’ beginnings as articulated in Kalaw Ledema’s book The Struggle for Philippine Art
and her post-mortem rendering of the Philippine Art Gallery’s story in The Biggest Little Room
are logical introductory texts for readers wishing to get a grasp of the dynamics between artists, writer-gallerist-critics, the publics of art, and the birthing of cultural institutions under the Marcoses who continue to hold the distinction of having presided over the longest-running post-war Philippine government. Apart from state institutions such as the Cultural Center of the Philippines (CCP) and government-commissioned art for civil buildings (e.g. the Philippine International Convention Center and the Heart Center for Asia), the exhibition/art circulation infrastructure which took shape under the Marcoses dramatically broadened and invariably took a more privatised character. With the waning of the PAG in the mid-60s, newer commercial galleries became variably party to gentrification efforts that shifted converging points around art from Manila to Makati, and onwards to the greater Metropolitan Manila area. It was these galleries which became the core of a respectably-sized art market kick-started by state patronage from the 70s onward. Over time, counterpoints to this latter consumerist mainstream could be perceived in the experimental art practice hosted in spaces such as Shop 6/Sining Kamalig and Pinaglabanan Gallery as well as in then still underground work of social-realists shuttered out of the state infrastructure during martial law, this latter body of work being best documented within the writing of Alice Guillermo. The inclusion of a category of institution-based literature in the Shortlist invokes the charged landscape of production as recounted through competing as well as parallel counter-narratives of Philippine art woven within physical cores of activity, whether state-sanctioned or artist-initiated (thus the suggested combing through texts from the CCP, Pinaglabanan Gallery, the Aquino-instituted National Commission for Culture and the Arts, and broader regional interests represented by the Fukuoka Asian Art Museum).
In light of post-EDSA I distancing from the ‘high art’ frame associated with the Marcoses and the re-emergence of social realist-cultural workers exhibiting as well as administering mainstream venues for art, the 80s-mid 90s became the stage for converging global developments similarly present in other post-colonial nations in Asia. An inward impetus became increasingly apparent in the initial efforts to constitute an Asia-Pacific exchange circuit through institutions such as the Queensland Art Gallery’s Asia-Pacific Triennale and the Fukuoka Asian Art Museum’s Asian Art Shows with a palpable skew in the selections toward art that mined and foraged across indigenous and folk expression to assert specificity, or a claim to a degree of difference amidst the homogenising tendencies of transnational politico-socio-cultural forces. It is in this sub-context that looking at Philippine art as it was put across the above mentioned international platforms becomes pertinent, thus the inclusion in this Shortlist of publications produced from Australia and Japan along with those from institutions such as The Japan Foundation, ASEAN, The Asia Society, ARX and later on, the Singapore Art Museum. The Shortlist thus is premised on the assertion that it was this nascent discourse generated from within a region essentially constituting itself which continues to influence the tug and pull toward a notion of rootedness amidst a desire to access the pregnant possibilities of the new and unfamiliar that comes from being open to change and a distancing from the known. This perhaps creative anxiety continues to be patent, albeit in visibly much more individuated and arguably dystopic modes in the explorations of Filipino artists to date.
It has been this ambivalence toward lineage and the perceived privileged stature of a nebulous avant-garde which informs much of the work of artists from the late 90s through the present, the erratically attenuated polarities between conceptualist and social realist work further nuanced by the rise of artist-initiated projects and spaces, and with younger generations of artists training their energies toward a cosmopolitanism unshackled of easy identitarian ticks and patronising didacticism. It is this perceptibly unstable scape, consisting of a much more complex alignment of artworld agents than was the case at the end of WWII Philippines, which makes it incumbent upon the researcher to mentally map a ‘pre-history’ of the contemporaneity that current Philippine art aspires to, lest one emerges with a perilously superficial view of what confounds and drives artists to do what they do today as they inescapably participate in re-writing narratives of a continuing past, and openly contested present.
The Nation and Its Localities: General Reference/Survey Texts (The Philippines in Context)
Roots: Questions of Identity, Tradition, and Aesthetics
Modernism/s and Contemporaneity
Art and Political/Social Engagement
Elsewhere / In Diaspora