A look at tenderness

By Katrina Stuart Santiago

▶︎ In this time and place of suffering and want, that is made even more stark by an art scene primarily driven by market forces and millions of pesos in investments and excess, one is hard put to place art critique in its proper place. There is little reason to want to “assist” in the selling of art that finds its way into the mainstream galleries, for example, if one is to imagine that this is what a review of an exhibit might do. In fact, given the crises of nation, one is hard put to even defend the time one spends writing about art and artmaking that is disengaged from the state of the nation, in so much as it refuses to even imagine that nation exists, in so much that it imagine that it exists in a vacuum.

The realization of this state of affairs is in the deliberate act of traveling across the city, from Mandaluyong to Quezon City, to an old building that houses the Bureau of Internal Revenue, on the fifth floor of which is an art and theater space, with rickety floors, old furniture, an aged musty smell, a space that has seen better days as something other than art space.

Here was Tender Buttons (curated by Lena Cobangbang), an exhibit inspired by Gertrude Stein’s work from 1914, where food, rooms, objects seem to have been randomly selected, defamiliarized to build an uncanny, sometimes painful, universe.

In 2019, in this unexpected art space, with works by 10 artists, it is surprisingly reason for discomfiture.

Because where one expected finesse and melancholia, maybe even anger and violence — standard tropes we use to speak of womanhood across cultures and texts now strangely homogenized to an extent, even within the arts — there was none of that here. Instead here were narratives that we wouldn’t equate with tenderness, not literally. Neither were any of these simply about turning the concept on its head.

Try the grotesque. Where the diversity of the installations by Paola Germar, Tin Garcia, and Golda King are ones to make you uncomfortable, reconfiguring body parts, concepts, as they do into defamiliarized objects, hanging on a wall, put in a bag, presented as a confusing amalgamation of material. Fingers turned fucks, a tongue in a cup. Your heart, your intestines. Here, have an unborn chick, and eat it. Above you a skeleton whose body has been skewed and spread, ribs contorted, arms and feet bound, forming a chandelier, a smile on her face.

A lesser exhibit would want to balance the bizarre and outrageous with the what might be considered as “normal,” but this is why this exhibit warrants a review: it is no lesser exhibit for refusing this balance. Instead it opts, given the little space it had, to magnify on the idea of tenderness, where one is reminded for example, that the way to tenderizing meat is to hit it with a mallet. Or one is allowed to imagine tenderness where it does not exist.

An installation on the floor reveals clothes seemingly laid out on a bed, a set of mixed-and-matched clothes, an unopened pack of stockings, neon green pants for a child, some red animal print for an adult, a baby’s tank top paired with adult floral bottoms. This is Jeona Zoleta’s “Channel 69,” a seemingly undone — really an absent — mother-and-child, the mess still surprisingly reminding of that specific tenderness. Above it hangs Zoleta’s “Fruit of the Loom” an installation of cloth scraps that form a webbed figure looking over the bodiless mother-and-child, which can equally be about eeriness as it is about affection.

Paintings by different artists surround this installation, building an uncanny room, one filled with random paintings, some of which up-close speak of a gentleness just as peculiar. King’s “It’s Better This Way” is a woman facing away from the spectator, as if in conversation with another person whose face (if at all) blends into the backdrop of soft grays, the moment captured possibly unnerving, even as it is captures a confident solitude. What Isobel Francisco’s “A Bunch of Random Things” captures meanwhile is a seeming melancholia, one that surprisingly cuts across a disparate set of objects — a hanger, vegetables, high heels, a bottle of soda, dumbbells — all familiar to a specific female experience, all a form of violence. Yet as a set of nine small paintings, cloaked in bright happy colors, the portents it holds can easily be transformed into an act of self-determination.

On a nearby wall is the work of Galaxie Maria, a triptych and a set of nine works, that create a wall of objects that would be difficult to capture otherwise. “Obsidian” is three paintings that depict the texture, but more importantly the magnitude, of this distinct process of solidification, one that is devoid of control, that is beyond manipulation. But it is “How To Start A Fire,” the set of smaller works in charcoal, oil, and bone, that might be the more powerful work on this wall. A series that speaks of fire-starting to be about writing, what resonates is how the process is revealed to be one that has no choice but to keep repeating. A seemingly harmless set of objects lending itself to repetitive pyromania.

Lala Gallardo’s “Heirloom Series” speaks of the same kind of play and violence, where the object at hand are scissors, rendered alive by its interaction with female bodies. Splayed in mimicry as with open blades, struggling against its handles to take control, holding it open, a head — or three — at risk of dismemberment. The fake gold leaf hair, a tongue hanging out of a mouth, the feeble smiles, allow for an amount of humor, even as it could, on the surface, register as whimsy. The objects as much about the objectified, as much about this struggle, as much about a violence.

When you enter the limited space for Tender Buttons, there is an empty seat, on which hangs a motorcycle jacket, emblazoned with GSTEIN Poetry Club, an armband of art critic, a patchwork project of a smiley face, a devil, a colored hexagram, some animal print, the words “holy mother of art.” The object is the jacket as it is the chair as it is the book that’s left there. As it is you, who might understand this as an invitation to sit and watch this exhibit unfold: objects and creatures, women and being, narratives and voices.

I do not (need to) sit.***

Katrina Stuart Santiago is an arts and culture critic, essayist, and teacher.