In a post-truth age, the case for political art

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Manila (CNN Philippines Life) — Political art in the Philippines dates back to 1821 when Esteban Pichay Villanueva was commissioned by the Spanish government to create “The Basi Revolt,” a series of propaganda art made to discourage people to rebel. From that point in history, the sentiment of political art expanded from subservient to nationalistic as seen in the works of Juan Luna’s “Spoliarium” during the propaganda movement — a time when Filipinos called for equal opportunities among the Spanish.

The sentiment of art continued to evolve after political unrest broke during the Marcos regime, resulting in the birth of the social realists. In the ‘70s and ‘80s, artist collectives were established because artists felt a sense of responsibility to create art that mobilized people into action. The common denominator of these political art movements was rooted in the people’s dissatisfaction with the government and their struggle to achieve radical change.

Art collectives have also raised awareness toward the individual works of its members at that time. Antipas Delotavo's “Itak sa Puso ni Mang Juan” (1978) paints a picture of a slouched man walking past a Coca-cola advertisement, its iconic letter “C” curled in a manner that looks like a bolo about to pierce through the man’s heart — a piece that points out the negative effects of commercialization in a third world country. The reach of political art is also diverse, in that it has also encouraged artists to tackle policies involving labor, such as Neil Doloricon's "Welga" (1985) that captures the sentiments of labor groups during the Marcos regime.

In a post-EDSA period, changes in leadership have affected the order of significance of political issues. This is also felt in the art landscape encouraging young artists to explore themes, such as identity, which Dexter Fernandez’s Garapata project explores. Garapata uses the image of a tick that he likens to the resilient spirit of the Filipino people.

This year, Art Fair Philippines commissioned social realists to be part of the "Projects" section, which featured exhibitions that invite dialogue and interaction. These exhibitions provide commentary on social issues, hopefully as a way to spark discourse among viewers. In this ambivalent period in our political scene, the art fair is an interesting venue to look at how social criticism may be infused through art works to start ideas and get the conversation going.

Jose Tence Ruiz, a social realist who was part of the Kaisahan Social Realist group formed in 1976, uses customized electric chairs to illustrate the disparity of social classes in the country, ranging from the very poor to the elite classes. Photo by CZAR KRISTOFF

At the center of the fair’s 6th floor sprawl is Jose Tence Ruiz’s distinctive work. The Art Fair invited Tence Ruiz to create a lounge for guests to sit on. Langue, which means "tongue" in French, refers to the central artwork — a sculpture titled “Tongue in a mood” — which looks like a Pinipig Crunch ice cream bar.

Tence Ruiz is a social realist who was part of the Kaisahan Social Realist group formed in 1976. He started out as an editorial illustrator and transitioned to being an artist whose works are grounded on current events and societal critique.

“The whole idea is to have a lounge … That's what it intends to be,” he tells The Philippine Star in an interview. “We have lots of red carpet. It's all red-carpeted with pillows and then the Pinipig Crunch is surrounded by electric chairs you can sit on. They're [comfortable]. They range from looking like electric chairs to becoming like thrones. It's the whole range of experiences sa Pilipinas. From being very poor to being the ruler, eventually you will be judged and you are surrounding the big tongue. ‘Yung mga tao, they like to lap up the tongue.”

The installation shows the parallelism between the “power of charisma” and the “persuasive orator,” and how they are able to influence the majority. The sculpture echoes the themes of Tence Ruiz’s past work, a triptych which shows an officer holding an ice cream cone, with tongue-like appendages instead of a head.

Surrounding “Tongue in a mood” are electric chairs — a timely symbol in light of the apparent revival of the death penalty in the Philippines. The electric chairs are upholstered in red velvet, with some more cushioned than others, and a few appearing to be throne-like. “There is some kind of a red carpet, a red bishop, if you ever went through the Holy Week ceremonies, there's also the Nazareno, all the saints shrouded in velvet until Easter Sunday … If I wanted to use a material that speaks of the Philippine experience, I think velvet would come in,” Tence Ruiz explains.

Ruiz uses the customized electric chairs to illustrate the disparity of social classes in the country, ranging from the very poor to the elite classes. However serious their crimes may be, the powerful and influential can always get away with nothing more than the proverbial slap on the wrist. The poor are most vulnerable to arrests, imprisonment, and the death penalty.

Velvet (left) is a key material in Jose Tence Ruiz's artwork. (Right) A shot of Tence Ruiz's workshop. Photos by CZAR KRISTOFF

Mark Justiniani, Elmer Borlongan, and Emmanuel Garibay actively made political art at the height of the post-Marcos era, working together in art collectives such as Salingpusa, Abay (Artista ng Bayan), and Sanggawa.

“'Yung background [nung art] namin noon mas direct, dahil ‘yung lalagyan niya kasi sa mga rallies iba, kasi we did work for the art scene. It is more aggressive … Very different gaya ng sa Sanggawa, the intent was to make editorial works so they were really intended to be direct. ‘Pag nakita sa diyaryo mas diretso ‘yung mensahe,” says Justiniani. The three artists have not collaborated for the past 20 years, until now.

Gigo Alampay, the executive director of Center for Art New Ventures and Sustainable Development (CANVAS), invited Justiniani, Borlongan, and Garibay to conceive a mural for the art fair. The three-paneled, 8 x 24 feet mural titled "Tagadagat" took five days to conceptualize and finish.

“Tagadagat" might seem to have a political slant given the social realist backgrounds of the three artists, but politics takes a backseat in lieu of opening it up to the viewer’s interpretation. "I think the era [of] political agenda has passed, [including having] this urgency to prescribe to your viewers how to see things," says Garibay. “Nag-i-invite din kami ng questions and we acknowledge that there are different opinions,” says Justiniani.

The work combines several archetypal figures within the Filipino context — the businessman holding a sickle and palay, the Makapili, aswang and a pregnant woman, a Communist, and a priest, among others — all in the same boat. At the center of the mural is a two-faced head, with a third eye in the middle. A man and a woman paddle the boat from opposite ends, both going in opposite directions. This leaves the viewer to ponder which direction the boat is going, or if the boat is moving at all. The ambiguity is heightened by the gloomy color scheme, which appears to be the underside of the Philippine flag.

Mark Justiniani and Elmer Borlongan (two of the artists who created "Tagadagat") actively made political art at the height of the post-Marcos era. Photos by PATRICK DIOKNO

"I think the era [of] political agenda has passed, [including having] this urgency to prescribe to your viewers how to see things," says Emmanuel Garibay of "Tagadagat"'s apparent political slant. Photo by JL JAVIER

“'Yung idea na there seems to be a journey on water … We’re going for something ethereal with the atmosphere so it’s like taking you into another world. What you see is a projection of who we are,” explains Garibay.

For Borlongan, the imagery evokes on the archipelagic nature of the country, a place where culture and history occur in almost any corner, waiting to be found and examined. “Lahat nung pangyayari sa atin naipon sa paligid ng mga dagat, kaya sa pag-uusap namin ‘yung naging title naming 'Tagadagat' pumasok sa isip namin, na gawing basis ‘yung image ng Manunggul Jar, symbol ng voyage papunta sa afterlife.”

Justiniani adds, “We identify ourselves with islands. [We] belong to the sea, ‘yung identity [na] hindi nakaangkla sa island,“ he says. “Interestingly 'pag baliktarin mo 'yung word na ‘tagdagat’, ‘tagadagat’ pa rin so parang ambigram siya. So whether papunta ka rito o papunta ka rito ganun pa rin … parang ganun 'yung tone ng work, parang in limbo.”

Apart from the mural, Justiniani contributed an installation, which was placed between the Ayala Museum and M Café. Titled “Settlement,” it resembles a shanty, with three works inside that are a continuation of Justiniani’s Infinity series from last year’s fair. The installation and mural share a few common characters like the Malacañang palace chair from the Aguinaldo hall, the aswang, and the pregnant woman.

Justiniani, Borlongan, and Garibay are busy with their individual practices so there’s no guarantee of a collaboration happening again anytime soon, which makes their Art Fair Philippines showing all the more special.

Elsewhere in the art fair, various projects also tackle issues that invite various degrees of political discourse such as Mark Valenzuela’s “New Folk Heroes,” which is a series of installations that makes use of images of the male genitalia built from ceramic. Tattooed on them are images of male figurations pertaining to their roles in society. It essentially serves as a call to review how Filipinos subscribe to patriarchy.

Maria Jeona Zoleta presents work rooted in post-feminism disguised in cutesy-bubblegum pop aesthetics that creates a light-hearted approach on ineffable themes. Her work asks audiences to think about how the topic of sexuality can be candidly talked about. Agnes Arellano’s "Project Pleiades" reviews feminism through the mythological lens of the divine, connecting with the audience using spiritual contemplation.

For a fair dominated by paintings and sculptures, WSK, a group of sound artists, presents "All Watched Over by Machines of Loving Grace." The concept of this exhibition takes inspiration from Jose Maceda's 100 cassette tapes: an orchestration of sounds recorded from 100 participants who defied the Marcos regime. Instead of replicating the use of randomly recorded sounds, the exhibit uses the infamous "Marcos-Beams tape," an audio recording of American actress Dovie Beams and former president Ferdinand Marcos' love-making session, which was similarly used against Marcos by being played in rallies.

While the work may seem controversial or off-putting, the intention is to invite a response — any kind of it. “They might hate it, which is totally fine, basta may reaction. Just to provoke. Offer something different, make them think, angry, pissed, any reaction. But hopefully they smile and laugh,” says the installation’s curator Erwin Romulo in an interview with Rogue.

"Forced Farts, Cartoon Pain and Daddy Issues or Accident by Voodoo while I Masturbate Underwater with My Adult Baby Diaper Rash until Hell Freezes Over is a Freak Show," by Maria Jeona Zoleta. Photo by JL JAVIER

Political themes and social commentary in art are not new to Art Fair Philippines. In 2015, Tin-aw's "Manufacturer's Advice: Content May Vary" presented a grocery store-like booth selling cans wrapped with small artworks by participating artists. Many artworks were political and satirical in nature, while challenging the notion of an “art market.”

Considering the commercial nature of the fair, political artworks would benefit from the crowd it draws. “Siguro ... maganda rin 'yung venue sa art fair,” says Borlongan. “Mas maraming makakakita, kaya mas open naman din kami sa mga avenues, kung saan mo pwedeng ipakita 'yung work mo, to give your statement, kung ano 'yung message ng trabaho.”

Given the less-than-ideal space the art fair provides for deep thought, with the crowds and the overwhelming amount of stimuli, it’s still a bold move on the part of the organizers to commission bold and vocal installations that make statements and ask questions. At the very least, it becomes a space that doesn’t just address the commercial aspect of art — a fair and consistent criticism of art fairs as a whole — but also broaches what might be taboo topics, giving the viewer even just a moment where a spark of action can instigate contemplation or even resistance.

The strongest political statement was made by Kiri Dalena through her Erased Slogans series (at the 1335Mabini booth). In her work, archival photographs collected in the tumultuous time before Martial Law show images of protest. Dalena digitally altered the photographs to erase the slogans. It looks back at our tradition of protest and questions why we are not protesting now.

But the question today, it seems, may not be why we fail to protest — but how to start, or where to place one’s convictions in a political landscape that’s increasingly becoming convoluted with misinformation and propaganda. How do you make a stand? Does art help you make it?

It’s a dilemma echoed by Justiniani and Borlongan, whose earlier pieces were more “agitated” and “aggressive.” Now, Borlongan says, they work with the benefit of introspection, of having matured with time. But maturity does not necessarily mean clarity. “Tagadagat” shows nuanced restraint as experienced by its artists, and the desire to ask more probing, difficult questions, while capitalizing on its own ambiguity. If anything, the artwork — as with many in the Art Fair — is only the beginning of a longer, more arduous process of questioning.

“‘Nung dati parang mas malinaw kung sino yung kakampi mo, kung sino yung kalaban mo,” says Borlongan. “Pero ‘yung ngayon parang ... kanino ka ba mas papanig?”