A Filipino artist on the duty of photography

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"Monolith, Sibuyan Island" (archival pigment ink print on Hahnemule fine art paper; 30 x 45 in.) by Wawi Navarroza. Photo courtesy of SILVERLENS GALLERIES

Manila (CNN Philippines Life) — Imagine entering a small dim room. On the wall to your left is a large-scale photograph of a tropical shore. The sea is a cliché shade of crystalline. Palm trees sprout like weeds triumphant. On the wall perpendicular, in front of you, another picture: a giant block of marble on the shore. It is either welcoming you or denying you entry.

You’re in the introductory juncture of Wawi Navarroza’s “Medusa” at Silverlens Galleries. Take a stride to the left, into the main hall, and witness the exhibition open up like morning. The massive “Collecting Dust,” A and B, eat up the wall with ease. “Tabula Rasa,” Navarroza’s "David," takes prime spot at the center. “A Feast in the Forest,” a two-and-a-half meter marble table hosting a meal in the style of a Greco-Roman banquet, inspires curiosity and much engagement, with its 3D novelty and disengaged humor.

Three weeks into the exhibition, Navarroza is scheduled to do a walk-through with an audience of some 30 or so gallery goers. She is unruffled and eloquent. I talked to the artist an hour before; our conversation is appended below. Before our meeting, she advised me to read the exhibition notes written by Eva McGovern. “So you can have a better background about the critical aspect of the work, often missed by media, which I’m trying to help avoid,” she wrote in an e-mail. Some of my questions stem from the McGovern essay. The quoted passages are hers.

Navarroza the photographer is quick to distance herself from the tradition of reportage. Her choice to do so is not mere affectation. Her intent is easily discernible in the work. First, when it’s a component in figuration. “Perseus” shows a young marble worker in a classical stance, holding a chunk of marble as if it were a severed head. (Navarroza says this was happenstance, however.) Second, when it is stylistic flourish, an invisible signature on the surface. The epidermal haze on “The Ballad of the Marble Men” serves a task far beyond the documentation of a moment — literally suspending dust particles in the air forever — but more significantly, arguably, as commentary: a gossamer veil on the myth of marble.

The main hall of the "Medusa" exhibition at Silverlens. Photo courtesy of SILVERLENS GALLERIES

Amid the portraits of marble and men, installation and durational paintings, Navarroza espouses the lens of landscape. “The landscape I’m interested in is when you look at things, when you look at land, from where you’re standing: on your feet. Not the other view, not the postcard,” she says. Her landscapes, ironically or not, aren’t destinations. Perhaps they serve better as maps — drawn at times with calculated clarity (as in the two “Geographs”) or in code (like “Twelve Heads”). They can lead you somewhere, yes, but you’d have to know how to read them.

“Medusa” is a concise collection of masterfully crafted objects that indulge all the senses. The blinding light, the sound of saws, the touch and taste of dust, and the smell of the tropics, the sea, and sweat. Despite this ubiquitous physicality, it is strangely the ephemeral that subjugates. Perhaps it has to do with the “precarity of meaning” that Navarroza talks about; it seems to both confound and soothe the artist. But what gives? Meaning must either be core or conferred. For when the seeker attempts to look for it and finds none, he will either look harder or move on.

Below are edited excerpts from CNN Philippines Life’s interview with Navarroza.

One foreseeable arc in the life of an artwork is its acquisition, for instance, by a private patron of art. Considering that "Medusa" subsists on its being sewn by a narrative thread, what are your thoughts about an artwork being decontextualized from its origins of exhibition?

We’re looking at these specifically as images that are seen in the context of contemporary art. These are not media images. These are not other uses of photography. These are very specific. It’s an object. It hangs on a wall, and if it’s placed elsewhere, the context changes. I’m very aware of that, because context is very important in any reading of any artwork.

I don’t really have complete control over the reading of the work, and sometimes that generosity of meaning is what I’m interested in. When I’m presenting in a gallery, I want to present it as a platform where people can jump to different interpretations. It’s not given in a box that says, “This is the meaning,” and that’s the be-all and end-all of that. These are pieces for contemplation.

When I create something, I create it in a context that can be read through my intention. But the life of the artwork would evolve, the life of the artwork would change, depending on the time, depending on the place where it’s going to be seen.

"Twelve Heads, No. 6" (acrylic, oil, marble dust on canvas; 16 x 20 in.) by Wawi Navarroza. Photo courtesy of SILVERLENS GALLERIES

The “hero’s journey” is just one of the things that informs the work, it is not out of the book that this work was created. It’s just something that’s been sitting at the back of my head. I think I read the book when I was in college. There’s this thing in art that when you create something, it’s almost like this heroic thing. It’s not to extol the artist and put him on a pedestal. It’s just to remind us of the goal of humanity, which is to elevate things, to give meaning and render importance.

McGovern writes this about you: “Constantly shifting her interests between the minute and the monumental, she presents various dualities in her photo- and installation-based works to understand both her own, and humanity’s relationship to place and time.” What is your relationship with your subject — not necessarily the subjects you photograph, but the conceptual backbone of the project? Do you find it to be a struggle? A symbiosis?

Very specific to this exhibition is taking a look at marble. I would agree with you that the confrontation is very important. This has been two years in the making and it wasn’t easy. Yes, the word I can use is struggle — how do you resurrect this material, so familiar and so heavy, both literally and figuratively?

In art history, it’s heavy with association to monumental structures you see in major museums around the world, ancient Greco-Roman gods and goddesses, the grandiose, everything monumental. And now looking at it at an eye-to-eye level, everything in the Philippines, in a very tropical source, it’s far removed from that.

It’s a different reality from what we know of marble. So I wanted to confront that and bring it to the times, placing it in an island where it’s not Greece, it’s not Italy. In that sense alone it lends itself in a magical realism kind of way; the marble is imagined from a tropical light instead of the European narrative that’s already in place.

"The landscape I’m interested in is when you look at things, when you look at land, from where you’re standing: on your feet. Not the other view, not the postcard."

You mention magic realism, itself a kind of duality. Do you think this doubleness is just means or is it the end of art? And if not the end, what is?

I think it’s not the end definitely. It keeps us thinking, it keeps us moving, it keeps us questioning, it keeps us curious. In our conversations about art these days we all grapple with a certain sense of precariousness. In my work, and I see it in other artists’ works as well, this precarity of meaning, there’s this doubleness — not a duplicity that exists in two poles; it’s a doubleness that exists one on top of the other, like a layer. It’s very jarring when you’re contemplating something, [but] it is a good exercise to reexamine our existence. The doubleness is there because the uncanny is present in our lives. This is the way we make meaning. It is when we can try to understand this possibility for these two to exist side by side. And in my work, particularly this exhibition, it’s very subtle. The uncanny is not that obvious, it’s not loud, it’s not blatant. There’s that fine thread that’s snaking through the work that’s very sneaky — I use the word sneaky because it’s there. And if you don’t pay attention, and it’s viewer’s prerogative to interpret, then it might be lost.

In line with this reality of duality, I think it is about the Bali exhibition (“Merayakan Murni,” 2016) that you wrote that your work is becoming less and less about documentation, which gives me the sense that at one point it was, and maybe only less so now. As a photographer when did you reconcile what the duty of photography should be?

It’s like this long-term relationship that you just have to address, as you grow, deeper into the practice. I think I’m counting ten years since my first exhibit. I started out as very pictorialist, meaning dark room, everything has to be done in an analog way, everything has to have my stamp, everything has to be touched by the artist’s hand. I would cook my negative, shoot in infrared. As a young artist I wanted to prove that I can create. And then later on, which was also the time when digital was gaining precedence, there was a rift; I shot in color, I did the tableaus, I started doing the appropriation of Frida. I didn’t feel that it was separate, it’s still my visual language, but in terms of technique it was a jarring 180-degree turn. I left the darkroom with no sentimental things attached to it, but I think of it as being always there, I could go back to it.

A detail from "A Feast in the Forest" (solid marble tabletop, stools, and objects) by Wawi Navarroza. Photo courtesy of SILVERLENS GALLERIES

But where I place myself as a photographer, whether as a documentary, doing socially-aware kind of photography, I would separate the intent from the practice. When I say documentary, reportage, you’re trying to illustrate something that happened somewhere. With mine it doesn’t fit that purpose because I work in a fact-and-fiction kind of way. In that sense it’s not documentary per se. The very act of pressing the shutter, technically it’s still documentary, but my intent is not to illustrate, but to interpret. My intent is to activate the imagination and marry it with image making. Although as a working photographer I can still do all that. It’s not about abandoning all the other capabilities of photography, because I want to separate this kind of photography as art. At the end of the day, photography is such a contemporary tool, it’s very malleable. It’s been growing and developing in leaps and bounds, we can’t even follow the technology with new cameras sprouting everyday. But I’m still confident that authorship will be the one that separates everything, the unique take of the artist or photographer to combine different images and make it their own.

I’d like to pick up on what you mentioned about socially-aware photography. In your 2007-2008 pictures at the Ateneo Art Gallery, you express disgust toward humanity’s indifference to the crises of climate change and global warming. Was this something you were thinking about still in “Medusa”?

Thank you for asking that. I want to highlight that it’s not an either-or thing when I say that I’m not a documentarian per se. A lot of people mistake that this is all up in the head, that it’s just art for art’s sake. But exhibitions like this are very powerful, and putting together an exhibit like this, it does not exist in a vacuum. It is also informed by something happening around it, the social realities that it was born from. When I make an exhibition I abstract reality, whether it’s the social, or the environmental, which is now prevalent in my work. I like to look at landscape and our place in it. Those are the things that I’m very concerned with. And my take is that if we pay attention to these materials that come from land, which is part of our natural history, if we’re talking about planetary time here, the shaping of stone, the shaping of our mountains and seas, the more we know about it the less we are removed from it. The easier it will become to address bigger issues like climate change and deforestation. Those are the things that people might only care about conceptually but cannot relate to in a literal way.

"Perseus" (archival pigment on ink on Hahnemuhle fine art paper, mounted on acrylic support, framed; 60 x 48 in.) by Wawi Navarroza. Photo courtesy of SILVERLENS GALLERIES

So through my art I try to reflect that by presenting something that can be digested, like the plants for “Hunt & Gather, Terraria” (2013). I use the plants as an indicator, as a disarming way to introduce urbanity or the way we live with the ecosystem. Also, bigger things also like immigration, things that belong or don’t belong, things that get displaced. Those things are running through my work, although I always trust the intelligence of the viewer that they can find it in the work even if I don’t tell them right off the bat that this is surrounded by it also.

You mentioned your Frida pictures. She’s a female artist. In relation to this, I’d like to talk about “The Ballad of the Marble Men,” which McGovern describes as “a classical mis en scene of men at work.” I’m curious to know if you had a consciousness of approaching this specifically as a female artist?

For “Medusa,” yes, there’s like a masculine energy about it, the stone, the hard edges, the weight of it, the male body. The title is “Medusa.” So in a way I want to remind people that there’s still also this gaze that is on top of the work that is ever present. When I present the maleness here, it is also a dialogue with the material, which is coming from a mountain, which is regarded as a female force. The subtle things that are female, like the light — I always think of the light as an important player in this body of work. These are heavy materials but the way I shot them, there’s this lightness. Thank you for bringing that up because it’s very obvious that these are men. Is this trying to isolate the female and the male? I think now it’s unavoidable. But there are also certain things that are taken from how it really goes. Like in a marble workshop, you only see men there, operating the machines. But it doesn’t mean that they’re excluding the women, they’re just not in the picture.

"The very act of pressing the shutter, technically it’s still documentary, but my intent is not to illustrate, but to interpret. My intent is to activate the imagination and marry it with image making."

Again, from McGovern: “By allowing these marble slabs to literally become a tabula rasa, we enter into a vision of epic proportions.” Fault me for not being immediately able to wrap my mind around the idea of photographing a blank slate, because the conventions of photography is about looking for something to photograph, the subject in portraiture. How do you photograph the idea of scratch?

I’ve always been interested in defining through absence. In photography, we think that we should be informed by that which is within the frame, although much of the meaning is also what’s taken out of the frame. In terms of choosing a blank slab, the rest is there to be filled by the viewer. If you present it as something aesthetically mysterious, then that’s the entry point. Let’s say, like land that’s not filled with flowers, it’s just a flat land. I like that space to reassess what we demand of photography.


“Medusa” is on view at Silverlens until June 3. Silverlens is located at Lapanday Center, 2263 Don Chino Roces Avenue Extension, Makati.