Why the international art world is paying attention to Martha Atienza’s video art

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Manila (CNN Philippines Life) — The word “bored” was banned by Martha Atienza’s mother while she and her siblings were growing up in their home in Bantayan Island, Cebu. Her mother insisted that she and her siblings go out and expand the capacities of their imagination.

“I remember my mom saying once, ‘You are not dirty enough — go back outside and play,’” Atienza shares. “My older brother is the inventor in the family. He built all sorts of things! He is four years older and our idol. We had an underground system connecting different rooms with different functions. We would be hidden underground where no grown-up could reach us. My mom used to pull us with the car dragging our home-built cars, wearing all sorts of devices to prevent the dirt from entering our mouths, noses, ears, and eyes.”

“My brother built a boat when he was 14, a real boat that flew over water,” Atienza recalls.

The subject of the sea has been a central part of Atienza’s work — her films and installations acting as inquiries into the relationship between man and the infinite waters. Her practice, which exists along the borders of social work, documentary, and community relations, has grown since 2009, the year she began joining artist residencies, unmindful of her work being largely classified as “social art,” owing to the fact that most of her installations are centered on her hometown and its community of fishermen and seafarers.

Martha Atienza's passion for the arts started when she was in high school. “We had a mini-exhibit so I slept at school and I was so obsessed with having the perfect exhibit, while other people just hang their stuff in an hour," she recalls. Photo by JL JAVIER

Atienza is one of the few contemporary Filipino artists who work primarily with video — a medium that doesn’t exactly lend itself to the lucrative gallery and auction circuit. It's what you might call a hard sell — which is how most anything that can't be nailed and hung on a wall might be classified. This is why she feels fortunate that her relationship with Silverlens Galleries has afforded her the kind of freedom to pursue her work without the baggage of having to sell.

“When I had that conversation with them they didn’t say, ‘Now you have to package your work’ or ‘Make something sellable’,” says Atienza. “They just said, ‘Continue what you do and we’ll figure how we can work with that.’”

Her installations are sprawling and complex: “Study in Reality No. 3,” which was shortlisted in this year’s Ateneo Art Awards, includes three plants with servo motors that simulate Atienza’s experience of a storm while in a garden shed; “Fair Isle 59°41’20.0”N 2°36’23.0”W” at this year’s Art Fair Philippines spans 70 screens depicting the slow roll of a sea crossing on a 63-minute loop; and “Endless Hours at Sea” is a three-installation work that approximates Atienza’s experience while inside a cargo ship.

Atienza with her brother on a riverboat in Netherlands. Photo courtesy of MARTHA ATIENZA

In high school, Atienza was encouraged by her mother to get an international education. Thus began her path away from her family’s ties with the sea — her Filipino father was one of the first seamen in Bantayan Island, Cebu; her Dutch mother worked for the Holland America Line; her grandfather was a lighthouse keeper; and her brothers and relatives are in the shipping industry. Getting the International Baccalaureate diploma meant taking on extracurricular activities, one of which was an art class. “I just signed in [the art class] for that practical reason [but] by the end of the two years it was the only thing that I was obsessed with,” recalls Atienza. “We had a mini-exhibit so I slept at school and I was so obsessed with having the perfect exhibit, while other people just hung their stuff in an hour.”

“When you do a cleaning job you’d think you can just think about your own personal projects while you’re cleaning, but actually you don’t,” Atienza says about her former day job as a cleaner. “You really think about the toilet bowl."

Atienza’s love affair with the arts grew from then on. But her father actually didn’t allow her to get into the arts. She got into De La Salle University Manila to study economics but that was short lived. She earned enough money from her brief stint as a model and used that to finance her art education in Holland. To sustain her work, she had to juggle a mix of odd jobs, which included a job that provided the best motivation for her: being a cleaner. “When you do a cleaning job you’d think you can just think about your own personal projects while you’re cleaning, but actually you don’t,” she says. “You really think about the toilet bowl.”

But a lot has happened since. It was “My Navel is Buried in the Sea” (2012) — a three-channel video installation that “captures the significance and mystery of the sea to the millions of Filipinos who derive their living from it, particularly giving shape to a reality which is rarely seen” — that put Atienza in the radar of the local art world, earning her an Ateneo Art Award which came with studio residencies in New York, Liverpool, Melbourne, and Singapore. In 2015, she was one of the winners of the Cultural Center of the Philippines’ 13 Artists Awards. The project was made for and by the fishing and seafaring community of her hometown in Bantayan Island.

Just recently, her work for the Singapore Biennale, an updated version of “Endless Hours at Sea” — which began in 2010 and has already been exhibited at the CCP and the Ateneo Art Gallery before its current form at the Singapore Art Museum — was shortlisted for the Asian edition of the Benesse Prize, an award that was handed out at the Venice Biennale in the last ten years. The winner will be announced at the closing of the Singapore Biennale in February 2017 during Singapore Art Week. If Atienza takes home the prize, she will be in leagues with previous Benesse Prize recipients such as Olafur Eliasson, Anri Sala, and Cai Guo-Qiang.

"Endless Hours at Sea" is a three-installation work that explores "the tempestuous emotional and psychological relationship humankind has with water." Photo from the SINGAPORE ART MUSEUM

“Endless Hours at Sea” is, in some ways, a contained universe of its own. The sound and light installation exists in a dark room where the biggest glimpse of the outside world is the sea — constantly in the state of creation as waves upon waves lash against the bodies that attempt to tread its mighty waters. Another projection shows a porthole, bobbing up and down as the ship it belongs to struggles to keep with the motion of the sea — the sky bleak and unforgiving. And the only signs of human existence in this sunless seascape are the sounds of machinery and clanging of tools and metal inside the ship.

The state of being nowhere pervades “Endless.” It conjures the images of seafarers — majority of which, around the world, are Filipinos, numbering up to 400,000 on board different vessels — their families watching them leave out to sea, plying the routes of historic men who once sought to conquer and understand the world. Recorded from four oceanic journeys inside cargo vessels, “Endless” initially was Atienza’s attempt to connect with her family’s maritime roots. Their journeys, specifically her brother and her cousin, form parts of her work, “Gilubong ang Akon Pusod sa Dagat (My Navel is Buried in the Sea), of which “Endless” is a byproduct.

“‘Endless’ was happening in my cabin. And the other projects were happening outside. In the evening, when everybody was done with their work schedules, I would go in my cabin and look at what I have, and obsess with vibrations,” she says. “I brought a projector in my travels and [I was] just watching my cups move … it was like my obsession that I was allowed to have, because it was my own.”

Weeks after the opening of the Singapore Art Biennale, CNN Philippines Life caught up with Atienza in Bantayan Island through a Skype interview. Here, at length, she talks about the involvement of her community in her art and the impact of film as a tool to empower self-consciousness.

Experiencing creative freedom at a young age — that your mom won’t let you inside the house until you’ve played yourselves out — how did that influence your work as a professional artist?

I very much learned to follow my own intuition and go for something that is important to me, even though the art world won’t accept it, or it’s not seen as art. It gave me that kind of freedom to say, “Fuck it. I believe in it and for me it’s art. I’m going to do it no matter if a museum or a gallery or whoever wouldn’t accept it.” Not to say fuck you to all those things, but it’s just something that I need to do.

For me art is … it’s just me. There’s no separation na it’s work and I have my own personal stuff. It’s all one thing so I guess [there’s] the freedom … [to] make choices and just go for it. A lot of times, especially when you really had art schooling, you’re always taught about certain rules so it also just stops you from just going for things. There are so much rules, that you tend to not do things because that’s not contemporary or whatever.

But how important was art school in developing your perspective as an artist?

I was really lucky because I went to a kind of old-hippy-ideal system [in AKI Academy of Art and Design in the Netherlands], where we weren’t allowed to talk about money, or selling work. The system was like [a] mentorship so your teachers were there just to talk to you about your process. And so I think, [especially] when I compare [it with] a lot of people I talk to, it’s a very unique art school in that sense. It has changed now. That system doesn’t work, I guess. But I was lucky enough to have that kind of 70s ideology put in me. It screwed me for the first ten years that I was practicing because I couldn’t sustain at all. It’s only now that I get the recognition that maybe I can start living from this.

A screenshot from "Gilubong ang Akon Pusod sa Dagat (My Navel is Buried in the Sea)," a three-video installation meditating on the relationship of the Filipino to the sea and how we derive our living from it. Photo courtesy of MARTHA ATIENZA

What made you feel that you were overlooked when you were starting out?

I felt in 2010 that I was jammed into the “social art” corner because of my projects with my community in Bantayan Island. I felt that no one was interested because of this, that my work was not considered “contemporary.” But there will always be moments when it feels like your work is not understood. That is part of being an artist. And this is the exciting part of simply following your gut and doing what you feel you need to do. I became an artist to be free, and so it is very important in my practice that it liberates me.

But now you’re getting recognized. You’re even shortlisted for the Asian edition of the Benesse Art Prize. What do you think changed?

I don’t know. I thought about that … I guess hopefully the attitude towards art has changed. The funny thing is that at the same time this change also happened in the West so it’s very hard to judge if it’s something that we really decided for ourselves here, or it’s something we saw outside and accepted. I can’t really give an answer to that, but I’m very happy with what’s happening, because for example Nathalie Dagmang, she won the Ateneo Art Award and she got it [by] doing it with her community in Marikina. I got to talk to her before she graduated. It’s so nice to see that these kind of works are possible. A few years ago would’ve been more difficult, I think.

How critical are you about your work? How do you know when something is finished or if it needs a bit more time?

I think it’s just never finished. Actually, I see all the works as not finished. I don’t know if you noticed but my projects are like two years. How I see it is that when you exhibit, you stop in your process and you share it with others, and then you just keep on going.

Martha Atienza is one of the few contemporary Filipino artists who work primarily with video — a medium that doesn’t exactly lend itself to the lucrative gallery and auction circuit. It’s what you might call a hard sell. Photo by JL JAVIER

It’s like you’re showing a work in progress....

Yes, again to me it feels like, “Okay, now it’s time to share what I’m doing and talk to people about it.” And then I would just go back and continue with it. That’s how it feels like, it is endless and it keeps going. I still hope that I will find the time to still get on ships. When I arrived in Bantayan, I’ve been here for three weeks, I’ve been sitting down with my neighbors, the fishermen, like making plans to get on boats. So it just keeps going but different things will come out of it again. But I always feel like it’s still part of that work. Or like “Anito” which is the Ati-atihan festival. I film it every year and then that work just kind of become like an archive. For me it’s just more interesting that way.

You involve your community when you make these films. What do people ask you when you’re in the process? Was there some kind of education or awareness involved, telling them that yours is an art project and not the conventional kind of film?

“My Navel” was almost a two-year project so it started when I went on ships. International ships first, and I followed mostly guys that I grew up with here in Bantayan. I also filmed my brother, actually, in the first ship that I went on. It was just very simple. Just visit everyone’s family at home, and then share images from sea, the work that they do and the guys will explain to their wives and the families. From there on, [it’s] just realizing that it’s so important [to talk] about it. My dad was a seafarer and he never talked about his experiences at sea.

Then it just got bigger and bigger at some point actually, we started having barangay talks and [it] actually turned into social work. Like "Oprah," where — okay — let’s take it to the next level. Now we can talk about serious issues. So that took years.

I became an artist to be free, and so it is very important in my practice that it liberates me.

What kind of discussions do the films open up in the community?

You can talk about issues like what it means to have an OFW parent, growing up without a parent at home. In the beginning no one really wanted to talk about serious things, that’s why it took so long. Once we dealt with those issues all of a sudden people were like, “There shouldn’t be illegal fishing anymore.” “We have a problem with the environment. Let’s do something about that.” So we’re still continuing.

I had a lot of young people working with us in the first project and they had no idea what it really was about. They were just helping [us] document, I was just teaching them how to use the camera. Now they kind of understood and they were going with the philosophy [that] “The camera is a powerful tool and I can use it to tackle issues.” That whole process itself for me is the most interesting part. I can analyze myself through it, like how I use the camera and what that means. But then, I also realize that I can give this to other people and they make their own thing out of it.

What was the effect on them seeing themselves, their loved ones onscreen, telling their stories?

A lot of their families had no idea that fishermen and international seafarers have such dangerous work. For example, I remember a father of one of the international seafarers. He saw how big these ships [are] and he just started crying. Because the boats here aren’t big. He had no idea about even just the size and what this means. It was overwhelming.

The guys, when they send images home, it’s when they get out of port for two hours and they [take] really nice touristy of photos [where] they’re so happy. Then they [those back home] [see] images like [those] hanging from cranes or hanging from ropes. Also even the compressor divers here, I remember one of the wives saying, “Oh, is that what the plastic hose is for? For breathing?” Can you imagine? You didn’t even know that. That’s your husband.

It was also very sad because a lot of the women were like, “Yeah, go watch this. Watch your father work so that you won’t follow in his footsteps.” Which is saying a lot about people not wanting to be fishermen anymore because the sea is so damaged. That’s very sad for me because I think it’s also good to talk about [how] everybody wants to work abroad but what does that really mean? And what is success? What is development? One of the moms was saying, “You know, I always tell my daughters that go to college [to] marry a foreigner.” And then it’s just like, “Wait, can we talk about that for a minute? Do you realize what you’re saying?”

Martha Atienza's "Endless Hours at Sea" is part of the Singapore Biennale showcase and earned her a spot in the Asian edition of the Benesse Art Prize. Photo from the SINGAPORE ART MUSEUM

How do you think art — or your art at least — contributes to helping the situation of the people you work with?

I would like to say a lot but ... I mean it’s a mission, right? But it’s a lot of responsibility and I think that the projects are lifelong because it’s really difficult to achieve. For example, the women that we work with [in “For Us”], it’s just a small group now but they, out of all the years that we’ve been working together, actually changed a lot in the sense [that] before, they were even too shy to even talk, and before they felt like they were just housewives and they had no opinion about anything. Now when you talk with them, when somebody comes here, an NGO or whoever faces them, they are so powerful and they have their opinion. They know exactly what they’re talking about.

In that sense, I can really be proud and I can say that the people that have been involved in the projects, their way of thinking … they’re so much more conscious of themselves. I think when you have taken the time to actually analyze your own situation and then realize the type of control you have over your situation, that’s very powerful already. But when it comes to creating an income that’s something the people themselves have to do. You can only give the knowledge, and you can give the tools but the actual action, you can’t force it. The group of women we worked with, they now have their little businesses at home. The most important thing is that they are united and they are working together. They discuss problems together like emotional baggage. It’s still in progress. I mean we’re still seeing where it will go and if you can bring this kind of change. The whole idea was that we start something, people learn, they will share the knowledge and hopefully start working together. If you really want to earn money then you should work together.

Especially in a tightly knit community like ours.

Yes, you need to. That’s why you create a co-op and savings. Actually through the process I learned about this because I don’t know anything. I’m not a business woman. That’s also something that I had to admit to them … Last year, before the first artwork that I showed were … I actually had to talk to everyone and say, “Look, I need to step out and you guys need to take over for yourselves because I can’t have the responsibility of you being sustainable if I can’t even sustain myself.” Actually after that honest conversation that we all had, they continued and they did their own businesses … When I stepped out they’ve been really good. And I’ve been good. Now that I came back, I’m thinking of planning to talk about those things. What changed? What happened to me? What happened to you guys? Then how do we move forward?