Art That Turns

By Patrick D. Flores, Phd.
Member, PAA 2008 Panel of Judges


Scanning the forty winning works in the Philippine Art Awards 2008 makes us realize how the tide has turned in Philippine contemporary art.  This is not to raise false expectations about a possible sea change. It is simply to say that there are signs of emerging currents.

First, the idea of the “regions” that was quite persuasive in an earlier time has lost its power to explain the kind of art coming from outside of the capital of Manila. For a long while, Philippine art was regarded within the frame of the center, even as there were potent expressions at the fringes like Baguio, Bacolod, or Makiling.  The vast vicinity beyond this privileged terrain was surveyed as “provincial,” and that whatever interesting aesthetic came to light from the periphery was considered “regional.” But when the works from the different parts of the country are mingled in this exhibition, “origin” no longer becomes an index of quality; rather it becomes a metric of distinction, confirming the thought that the local is always equivalent.

Secondly, the art works respond to social issues in ways that overcome the directness, and at times the grimness, of a previous social realism. Artists are perturbed by what is terribly wrong with the world, and they are adequately vexed, righteously indignant. We observe how several pieces speak of the struggle between good and evil in apocalyptic terms, be it in the form of the deluge brought about by global warming, or stirring folklore that tells of nature being stolen, or a mesmerizing array of lipstick and bullets configuring the camouflage of the military industrial complex that is also the beauty offensive.

Thirdly, the entries demonstrate that medium is not exclusively about local color or novelty, but is both content and vessel of sense. We note how the mode of making art converses with the signification that is made manifest, like sun and soil that generate images of place; or the painstaking craft of embroidery that traces family history; or the ink of a ballpen that conjures an altar of ecological ruin. Even hyper-realism or expressionism, with the characteristic trompe l’oeil and edgy stroke, is harnessed to gesture toward a swarm of selves and others in morphing faces, an artist’s manifesto against a futile society, a homeless man egregiously bent inside a carton shelter oblivious to an unbelievably blissful day, a corpulent Venus in dusterrising from a turquoise sea and bearing the excess of consumption in her attire, deformed school children posing against a pile of broken chairs, and a Braille and a mat suggesting loss and recovery. Indeed, there is more to technique than just virtuosity.

Finally, while all this whirls inward and outward, while the planet is teetering on a breakdown, and humans come to terms with their finitude and failure, art performs the rituals of memory in varying registers: reliving the past through digital technology and holographic mediation; surfacing the violation of the body through torn toys shrouded by sheer, immaculate cloth; dispensing ink to form vortices in the universe of Pollock; reckoning current life through the grids and prisms and windows of intimate critique; and navigating the map of contemporary communication through networks of versatile codes and pixilated icons. Surely, certain perplexing dilemmas of inequity endure, but certain obsessions about identity and authenticity – and even nationalism or good art — have outlived their enchantments, too.

They say competitions can only breed imitation and winning formulae. PAA 2007-2008’s harvest cultures new strains of art.


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