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An orgy of installations by Australian and Filipino artists is crawling up and down the UP Vargas Museum
EVER SINCE Conceptual Art pioneer Roberto Chabet reigned supreme at the University of the Philippines College of Fine Arts in the 1970s, his artistic offspring have been filling up the art galleries and museums of Metro Manila with industrial waste and detritus.

Forget harmony, color theory and line precision?the concept is all. In fact, the idea expressed by the finished product is itself the art.

It all goes back to Duchamp in the first quarter of the last century, but it took several decades before it became a global phenomenon. And it took someone like Chabet to aggressively push it in the country.

He championed young artists whose works had what he called ?a recentness, a turning away from the past and familiar modes of art-making.? This launched in the local art world the cult of idea over form, and opened a floodgate of creative expressions where anything went, which common gallery-goers found trashy, pretentious and essentially hollow.

This is, of course, also Environment Art as originated by Allen Kaprow in the ?60s, when he argued for ?the abandonment of craftsmanship and permanence in the fine arts,? and advocated the incorporation of perishable materials.

Championing this kind of art-making, as with auteurist cinema, is seen by those who abhor it as ?the classic highbrow gambit of elevating lowbrow art at the expense of middlebrow art.? The classically trained regard it as an easy way out for those who want to be called artists yet can hardly create, or have barely mastered line, color and composition.

Custodian of memory

For over 30 years Chabet ruled the UP College of Fine Arts so that Conceptual Art in the country is now inextricably linked to UP artists. It has come to a point that though the installations may be done by graduates from other schools they are still suspected of being products of UP.

It seems only right and proper then that the Conceptual Art exhibit ?Immemorial: Reaching Back Beyond Memory? should be mounted on the UP campus?as homage and homecoming, as it were, a return to where it started.

This is a collaborative exhibition of 11 installations curated by Steve Eland and Norberto Roldan, and presented by 24HR Art-Northern Territory Centre for Contemporary Art and Green Papaya Art Projects in cooperation with the Vargas Museum and the Australian Embassy in Manila. It runs until Dec. 2 in Jorge B. Vargas Museum and Filipiniana Research Center, Roxas Avenue, UP-Diliman, Quezon City.

Participating artists include five Australians?Simon Cooper, Julie Gough, Rhys Lee, Pip McManus and Simon Pericich; and seven Filipinos?Yason Banal, Enzo Camacho, Victor Balanon, Ferdz Valencia, Jed Escueta, Lyra Garcellano and Gary-Ross Pastrana.

As stated by Eland, the exhibit?s curatorial rationale ?seeks to investigate commonalities of peoples from diverse backgrounds and cultures, as they consider their ancestral histories and their present notions of cultural identity.?

Since an installation almost always encapsulates the artist?s outlooks, attitudes and associations, it can therefore be said to be roughly autobiographical, thus, to the common gallery-goer, cryptic. Chabet himself called his artworks ?creatures of memory,? and he was the ?custodian.?

Sensory stimulations

Closely following Kaprow?s prescription, the artists have created in their respective allotted area in the museum ?a three-dimensional space preprogrammed or mechanically energized in order to enclose the spectator and involve him in a multiplicity of sensory stimulations?visual, auditory, kinetic, tactile, and sometimes olfactory.?

Cooper?s ?Fictive Kinship? has incense sticks and tiny earthen bowls of rice wine, emanating a vinegary whiff and attracting insects.

Gough?s ?The Consequence of Chance? is a wondrous mélange of fragile and illusionary objects, sound work and shadow projection, hangings on walls and suspensions in midair, bits of paper and dry leaves scattered on the floor. It is an exemplar of Kaprow?s idea of ?chance and indeterminacy in aesthetic organization.? The artist says she is questioning here the workings of chance that brought at least 12 of her ancestors to Australia.

McManus? ?Reconnaissance? tries to fill up the absence of her father who was killed in combat during the Pacific War. Using his flying log book, cloth escape maps, family photos and archival footage as primary source material for her installation, she is trying to connect with him.

Says the artist: ?Delving into this realm of ancestral shadows has opened a small window onto an unimaginably intense and life-altering period for the father I never knew.?

The connection goes further, as the log book reveals the Aussie pilot took his most intense sorties in the Philippines, thus linking the two countries. The installation is dedicated to the memory of Flight Lt. Bruce White, and the 100,000 Filipino civilians who perished in the Battle of Manila.

Transcendent art

Garcellano?s ?Stilled Lives? II is a bitter memory, and an indictment of immigration laws. Sewing a world map and spreading it on felt cloth, the artist has positioned on it several branding irons for cattle. This is rich in allusions, among them the over 200,000 Filipino immigrants in the Down Under and, of course, Aussie prime beef (you connect the dots).

But Garcellano has added spaces between the countries? perimeters to suggest the dissolution of closed borders, thus creating ?some form of utopia.? This is how art transcends reality.

Banal and Camacho?s collaborative work, ?As a Testimonial of High Esteem and a Most Cordial and Pleasant Association,? gathers the museum?s collection of trophies and walking canes and places them helter-skelter on a long flimsy table.

The table is so constructed it slightly curves down in the middle, looking as if it might crash anytime from the weight of the trophies. The artists find here the correlation between triumph and downfall.

Pericich?s ?I Heart Everything!!!! Xept Stuffy * No?? is hysterical, the ultimate in anything-goes aesthetic. To the common gallery-goer it looks like glorified garbage, but it is, in fact, Pericich?s bonfire of the vanities.

The components are indescribable, jumbled as they are into a mound that the artist describes as his funeral pyre to consumerism. On the gallery floor, it is a vision teetering between hilarity and horror.

Cultural identity

The senses are whelmed by the orgy of installations, as these ?creatures of memory? are crawling up and down the Vargas Museum from the ground level to the basement to the third floor.

Eland, in his project brief, explicates the meaning of all this: ?Too often, cultural identity concentrates on the ?differences,? particularly in the current global political environment. Concepts of ?difference? can at times be an irrational construct. The exhibit aims to beak down these notions of ?difference? by transplanting ancestral investigations and common accounts into an exploratory visual language, invigorating discourse on cultural perspectives.

?We believe family stories of journeys, displacements, triumphs, interruptions and secrets transcend political boundaries as recognizable common threads. Throughout history people have migrated or dispersed by choice, force or need. This can have a significant influence on the understanding of cultural identity. As historical boundaries change, and political borders alter, one?s identity can be affected.?

This then is the universal that binds peoples?the geographic bridges, historical links, cultural connections and spiritual oneness of Australians and Filipinos in particular and the human race in general.