The good news is that because of the pandemic, Art Fair Philippines (AFP) has gone virtual. After all, the show must go on. The bad news is that it has gone unabashedly speculative, taking the art market further into the speculative market. Art is no longer a “thing of beauty” and “a joy forever,” but a financial instrument.
Perhaps to further push the envelope, AFP, which runs virtually until May 15, has not only gone virtual; it has also gone crypto. In focusing its 2021 edition on digital art, it has mounted “Metaverse, the NFT 101 Showcase,” a survey of nonfungible tokens (NFT) along the Ethereum blockchain, a cryptocurrency like bitcoin and dogecoin. NFT is anything digital (not necessarily drawings and visual arts), but it has become lately celebrated because Jack Dorsey, the billionaire owner of Twitter, recently put up his first very Tweet in March 2006 for sale as an NFT. So it’s much like the digital version of memorabilia by the rich and infamous, like the Beatles’ first peruke or a rare photo of Madonna’s very first dirty finger.
But it’s made the most impact on the art world where it’s becoming the digital version of fine art collecting. In fact, Christie’s, its nose forever on the scent of something big, only recently auctioned off an image by the American Beeple—a digital collage—for $69 million.
While digital art is much like printmaking that is reproducible through copies and reproductions, NFT, as the name more than implies, is nonfungible; it’s supposed to be unique and not replaceable. NFTs are both digital certificates of authenticity and trading instruments. Even if it looks as generic as Beeple’s digital collage that could have been made by any distracted kindergarten student, by virtue of it being called NFT, it becomes not only art, but also currency. Big currency.
Like everything else in the capital market, NFT is the product of a marketing roadshow. “Metaverse,” in fact, is “presented by” one of the country’s biggest banks, according to the press announcement, and “cocurated” by AFP, Tropical Futures Institute, “a multidisciplinary think tank and studio” based in Cebu, and Narra Art Gallery, a Filipino digital art gallery. A side exhibit of digital art is “presented” by a telecoms giant.
The show has all the makings of a marketer’s gimmickry. “Metaverse” sounds cool but is really illiterate. Obviously the neologism is a portmanteau of “metaphysics” and “universe.” But “verse” simply means “spoken word or phrase,” as in “poetic verses.” Obviously the organizers are using the word because it comes from “universe.” But the Latin etymology is really “universum”—“uni” is one, “versus” is “turned,” and sum, “all things”: “all things are turned into one.”
But granted that digital art is a “Metaverse,” creating worlds beyond our own world, it seems quite a contrast for art lovers to be viewing digital works that are in fact commodities, subject to giddy speculative trading and smart moneymaking schemes, and showing fantasy worlds (for digital art conjures mainly utopian or dystopian visions) at a time when the all-too glaring and deadly reality of the COVID-19 pandemic is staring them right in the face. It could be that “Metaverse” may provide Filipinos with visions of other worlds where there’s no novel coronavirus and health and happiness are aplenty, but that’s small comfort for them who, aside from trying to evade the virus stalking them relentlessly, have to catch the community pantry before it closes lest they starve, or have to wait in line forever for the remotest salvation of a vaccine.
Thankfully there’s enough art of the authentic kind in AFP 2021, and while they’re up for sale, too, they fulfill the exacting requirements of art, not cozying up to the dictation or speculation of the bourses and markets.
León Gallery’s “Elemental: Geometric Abstract Art” features the works of abstract masters Nena Saguil, Fernando Zobel, Lee Aguinaldo, Jose Joya, Florencio Concepcion, Romulo Olazo, Lao Lianben, Norberto Carating and others. Included in the show are the very interesting works of Josef Albers (1888-1976), the German color theorist and art educator, and Carlos Cruz-Diez (1923-2019), the Paris-based Venezuelan artistic innovator.
Veteran Crucible Gallery shows its stash of late Arturo Luz abstracts, while Altro Mondo Arte Contemporanea shows a new series of Justin Nuyda’s entrancing “Mindscapes.” Galerie Roberto displays Anton del Castillo’s paintings showing his signature figures in gas masks, but the more interesting pieces may be the stark white resin sculptures of the same iconography but in very intriguing poses.
Canvas Gallery has opened up its collection of art illustrations in its children’s publications, especially those that won its Romeo Forbes Children’s Short Story Writing Competition. The works are by no means adolescent or lightweight: They are by Elmer Borlongan, Jehu Bitancor, Dante Lerma. “Each artwork … contains the seeds for countless stories,” the exhibit notes say. “It is up to the viewer to unlock those that are most relevant and genuine.”
The same tack may have been taken by Metro Gallery in “Versus,” which sets off works by different artists in its stable (Adrian Evangelista, Pancho Francisco, Dino Gabito, Josue Mangrobang Jr., Omar Whoop Ramos and Crystal Tranquilino), all trying to “throw light on the hidden corners of [the pandemic]—from the confinement of the domestic space to the interior state of the individual, places where some of the most fitful wars are waged.”Ding Gerrous, Esquillo
Fun to watch is Paris-based Filipino photographer Ding Gerrous demonstrating the archaic ambrotype process of developing photographs. Since from France came the daguerreotype (the invention by Louis Jacques Mandé Daguerre), the first commercially successful photographic process, the demo should be an opportunity for a descent back to the romantic beginnings of photography.
Equally romantic is the virtual tour of Alfredo Esquillo’s studio. With his sepia-toned images from the Philippines’ past somehow approximating Gerrous’ vintage photographic process , the tour of his Eskinita Art Farm in Batangas promises to be both a reliving and a recasting of history. Along with Ventura and Borlongan, Esquillo is Philippine contemporary art’s most trenchant artistic voice. And a tour of his atelier in pastoral setting should afford his collectors and admirers a glimpse into his highly fascinating creative process.
The German Arndt Art Agency is one of the international art firms exhibiting in AFP 2021, and it provides fairgoers once more with generous glimpses of the exciting Southeast Asian art scene, including the latest works from 2011 Signature Art Prize champion Rodel Tapaya.
It’s always a delight to see regional art galleries participating in AFP or ManilART, so the presence of Orange Gallery, however virtual, is an opportunity for Metro Manilans to witness the unique visions of artists far from the center, such as the very engaging Charlie Co.
The virtual mode may also be very kind to those who haven’t been to Avellana Art Gallery in Pasay City, which, because it’s an art center off the beaten track, may have dampened the enthusiasm of art lovers. The virtual tour shows how art and setting are fully complementary and even interactive. Avellana is an art installation, art garden and design showcase all rolled into one.
Despite the caveat on its focus on NFTs, AFP 2021 should be credited for seeming to restrain the excitement over NFT by mounting with ArtReview the forum, “NFT: A New Revolution or the Emperor’s New Clothes?” The topic is a practice in self-reflexivity (a proper use of “meta” in “Metaverse), although the either-or formulation may trumpet in left-handed fashion NFT as art’s new frontier: Even if the emperor is found to have no clothes, after all, he continues to wear the crown, so NFT still wins. Whether cryptocurrency or crypto-art, is there a difference? Both are driven by speculative, acquisitive instincts. Both are means of cashing in. —CONTRIBUTED INQ