Interview with Gary-Ross Pastrana

AAA's Enoch Cheng spoke with Filipino artist Gary Ross Pastrana about deconstruction, his use of unfamiliar media to the audience, his day job, and relations with other artists. The artist's work is conceptual installations and collage. He was the recipient of the '13 Artists Awards' in the Philippines. He also ran Future Prospects, an artist-run space in the Philippines.


Enoch Cheng: Your work is often poetic, in the sense that you deconstruct the materiality of an object and transform it into something else. I am thinking of Set Fire to Free where you burned part of a ladder and turned the coals into a bird, which you then placed on the broken ladder. Also, in Two Rings you melted rings and turned them into a sword-shaped object, which completely changed the original use and appearance of the objects. What is the urge behind such deconstruction, if not destruction, in the first place?

Gary-Ross Pastrana: It is interesting that you were able to see the connection between these two works, which were made five years apart. With Set Fire To Free, I wanted to explore how an object can still retain its wholeness or thing-ness even if it’s already broken and no longer functions as it was designed to. A ladder can also have a symbolic meaning to other people – it may signify a desire to elevate oneself to a higher state or level – but I'm more interested with how these connotations are also affected by the changes that objects go through. I transformed the other half of the ladder into a bird by burning it down and crudely shaping the ashes into the form of a bird with the aid of some cardboard and glue. Somehow it is important for me that objects or materials undergo a certain process that can alter them physically.

With Two Rings, I was interested in finding out where the personal value and sentimentality with certain jewellery really resides. I originally wanted to use all of my mother’s jewellery, melt it all together and make a series of around nine transformations. As expected, my mother didn't agree, but as a compromise she let me have two rings. I was trying to find out what is it about jewellery (and other material things) that makes it so hard to let go. Is it the memories associated with them? Is it their specific form? Or their material value – 24 carat, rare diamonds? My argument is that since they will all be returned to their “original” form, it shouldn’t really matter if the material (gold) undergoes a series of changes. Similarly, very little will be lost in the process, if the concern is their material value. But then, if it’s their emotional attachment with the memories associated with these objects (maybe given by different loved ones or marking important stages in their lives) then doesn’t the act of melting them all together, and making each individual piece a part of every piece, make them more meaningful?

EC: Elsewhere, your work seems to convey an absurd way of looking at daily objects. In Kite you took a piece of paper in the shape of a dog bone and put a chopstick through it, and in Door, you made a door-like hole in the side of a blank billboard. Is your sense of humour naturally born, or are you so frustrated with reality that you need to find the humour in situations?
GP: Both of the works that you mentioned were made during a residency in Bangkok in 2004. I went there without any plans for the works that I would make for the exhibition at the end of my stay. For some reason, I became interested in the idea of day-to-day living and became more aware of things such as the house and my immediate surroundings. My daily routine and needs inevitably led me to grocery stores, food carts, bookshops and street vendors around Bangkok, which for me could easily be mistaken for Manila except for the language and street and advertising signs around the city. It was like being a stranger in an eerily familiar place. The things that I encountered in these places, such as the barbeque stick, clothespins and plate, were of course very common but still had minor details that made them different from the ones that we have here in Manila. I think the body of work that I produced during this time reflected this feeling, and maybe the humour that you perceived is part of how I tried to make of sense of it all.

EC: I know you are going to do another residency at the Bangkok University Art Gallery soon. What do you expect this time when you return?
GP: I'm really exited about this residency. As you know I have a day job here in Manila that takes up most of my time. So I usually only get to work on my personal art projects a week or two before a show, which is not ideal. These residencies allow me to focus my whole attention to developing new concepts that normally lead to new bodies of work. That’s why I'm really thankful that I get invited to exhibitions with residency programs from time to time.

EC: I would like to ask about this job. Your own artwork is raw, organic and handmade, which is very different from your day job as a designer overseeing mass production. Do you think they inform each other?

GP: I also sometimes ask myself this question. The things that we make for other people are often very industrial-oriented in terms of materials and process, which demand the labour of a lot of skilled workers. These things cost a lot to produce. With my work, I usually choose the simplest means and normally I like working on them by myself (unless it is inherent in the idea that they be made by other people). I've always worked in this manner, even before I got into design and manufacturing. Why I continue to work this way, even if I now have the means of creating larger and more complex pieces, I can only guess. Maybe it’s because I still value having a sense of control and the immediacy of making things with my own hands. 

EC: What about your works that are process-oriented and require a lot of patience or labour? In And So the Dead Tongue Spoke you dug a large hole by hand, and then transported the removed soil to the gallery. Sustaining Symmetry involved the laying out of various grains and seeds in a precise manner and then destroying it by releasing hundreds of birds into the space. One gets the sense that this is very meditative. Is this process important to you?
GP: Both works were done around 2000-01, when I was in my final year in art school. At that time I was reading a lot about Eastern philosophy, psychology and the like. In retrospect, I think these works were somehow my way of posing a question or testing the validity of what I was reading. The exercise in impermanence or non-attachment associated with the ritualistic construction (and the subsequent dismantling) of sand mandalas by monks became the focus of Sustaining Symmetry. I sort of wanted to undergo the same ‘ritual’ but I also wanted the destruction to be less deliberate and have some kind of other useful purpose. That's why I decided to use different grains and just let the birds consume the seeds and destroy the form or pattern that I created, indiscriminately.

With And So the Dead Tongue Spoke I was interested with how archaeology and psychoanalysis seem to be preoccupied with things or events that happened in the past (whether personally or collectively) when trying to define present human conditions. In psychoanalysis, traumatic incidents that happened in one’s childhood that may have been blocked from one’s memory are “dug up” and brought to the surface, in an effort to address psychological problems or complexes currently experienced by patients. In the same way, lost cities and civilizations are continuously being unearthed and analyzed by archaeologists all over the world in effort to fully understand who we really are.

With my work, I went with the basic story/idea of: a man digging the ground in search for a lost and unnamed mythical mountain. He continues to dig and search for it until he’s made a large enough crater that is then filled with rainwater that subsequently engulfs him. What he doesn’t realize is that the soil that he has dug up has actually formed into the mountain that he was searching for. I illustrated this story through a series of photographs that I compiled into an album. The first photo was annotated with the Latin translation of “Searching for the mountain…” and the final photo with “I found the sea”.

I would just like to add that I was still very young when I made these works and I have since made my thinking and working process less complex and less labour intensive. I still value the patience and meditative aspect of working though, but it is no longer my main priority.

EC: You, like many artists in the Philippines, studied under Roberto Chabet. And you are now part of the younger generation of contemporary artists. How do you think your time is different from Chabet’s? And what have you retained, if anything, from him?

GP: First of all, I would like to say that studying under him made me realize that I really wanted to be artist, that it was something worth pursuing. Looking back, I really didn’t know what I was getting into when I went to art school. I just knew that I liked to draw but I also knew that I wasn’t exceptionally good at it and I also liked to make things, but not in the traditional sense like carving or casting. Unlike other places, concept-based art was not something that you would easily come across as a teenage student here in Manila. For the first two years I was somehow lost between professors expecting us to paint like Michelangelo, or make socially relevant posters that would win awards from telephone companies, banks and other institutions. In his class though, I was able to apply my skills and explore my other interests in the process of making art that I actually like. I’m very thankful for this and I believe I’m still benefiting from being his student. 

To answer your question, I honestly know very little from their time, except for the few stories that he sometimes shared in class. Although sometimes when I come across photographs from past shows during the early days at Cultural Center of the Philippines and the like, I get a sense that some of the things that we are doing now has been explored by people before. Sometimes this may lead to self-doubt, but it can also make one realize how he may be part of a continuing tradition.

EC: You have also worked with different artists such as Nona Garcia, Paul Pfeiffer and your contemporaries, either in collaboration or to help realize their projects. How do you like working with others and for others?

GP: First, with others collaboratively: Sometimes an idea comes up within a conversation with other artists that is really a product of that particular discussion – you can no longer identify from whom the idea originally came from. Other times, one would arrive at an idea that somehow intersects interestingly with another artist’s work or concerns. I think these instances are the common reasons for artistic collaboration. Personally, I really enjoy this aspect of art-making because working with another artist usually informs your own practice and could add a new dimension to one’s work.

For others: As you know, for the past four to five years I've been working for a small scale manufacturing company which specializes in prototyping design objects and sculptural art pieces by our country’s leading architects, designers and artists. I can say that I really enjoy the challenges that we face and need to solve and overcome with every project. With artists, they normally come to us with a basic idea (it might be a vague shape, a concept or a particular function) of what they want to do, so I help them with some technical input/information, maybe help them figure out the best process and materials to be used and where we can source them. In turn, we learn about these materials and processes from working with architects and designers, who are more knowledgeable with technical matters. Also, I generally just like puzzles and working for, or helping others usually involves a great deal of problem solving. Sometimes I get myself involved just for the sake of having the chance to come up with a solution.

EC: Can you tell us about co-running the art space Future Prospects? And what did this space set out to accomplish?

GP: I guess the most modest reason for putting up Future Prospects was to fill the void created when Surrounded by Water (SBW) and Big Sky Mind (BSM) closed down. Our generation really benefited from having these artist-run spaces around when we were still young and having regular shows with established galleries was nearly impossible. With SBW and BSM, we were allowed to do what we liked without the pressure of selling, and we wanted the younger generation of artists to experience this freedom as well. To help us pay for the space, we asked for our artist friends to donate works which we raffled off to patrons. We were able to keep the space running for two years. Some highlights from those two years include three to four shows with international artists, Sir Chabet’s series of eight-week art seminars which culminated in two students’ exhibitions, and artist talks with US-based artists like Gina Osterloh, Paul Pfeiffer and Jennifer Wofford. 

EC: Some of your works can be unfamiliar or unusual to some people, especially when they visit a gallery space only to see, for example, flicking shadows in Medium of the Moment or a melting ice in Hour Glass? Could you share some of the positive and negative feedback you have received?

GP: I once participated in a show in Hong Kong where I exhibited some of the small objects that I usually do (including a photo of Hour Glass). One day there was a tour of young school children in the gallery and they seemed to take an immediate liking to my works. I found this really fascinating because I was actually worried that my works might be too alien for them, but I guess they were able to connect with the immediacy of the materials that I used and my way of making, which is very basic and handmade – to a point maybe almost naive or child-like. Negative feedback usually pertains to how my works are un-collectable because the materials are impermanent, ordinary and not interior friendly.

EC: Compared with your installations, both large and small, your collage work seems to be more popular with collectors. How do you feel about this?

GP: Yes, that's true. Also it’s interesting to note that only after the collages were shown internationally (Pulse Art Fair 2009-10) that they gained some kind of following. I actually started the series in 1999 and had my first show of collages in 2003 at Green Papaya. Out of the 420 pieces that I showed, I only sold ten, to a single buyer! So it’s actually a surprise for me that some people in the United States are really interested in my collage work. Hopefully, others will start getting interested with my other, more concept-based works in the near future. 


Special thanks to Ringo Bunoan and Elizabeth Snow for their assistance to make this interview possible.



Enoch CHENG, 鄭得恩

Sun, 1 Aug 2010

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