A Nation of Tensions

by Katrina Stuart Santiago

▶︎ We are at a point in nation when the burden weighs heavy on art and creativity to be relevant and current, where engaging fully with the socio-political affairs that dominate our daily lives is urgent demand as it can be white noise. The tendency for these times of bombardment is to churn out work as quickly as is deemed necessary: after all, when it is clear who or what the enemies are, creative work can be treated like an almost mechanical response. Here’s a print of Duterte as religious icon, print a hundred, and sell. Here’s an installation that pokes fun at the last dictator, do one more on this new one, (and another, and another), because one stands for the other.

This is not to critique this kind of artmaking, as it is to point out its value: in the age of quick shifts and troll discourse, there is leverage in quick fires and (un)expected punches. History might not judge this kind of artistic practice kindly; but the present’s urgencies might be reason enough to do these still.

One’s visceral response to Ang Liblib na Katuturan ng Obrang Walang Saysay by Jose Tence Ruiz takes from this state of affairs: a toilet here, a coffin there, decay across the room – politics and the state of the nation can but echo in this exhibit. Yet there is more here than an amalgamation of symbols and images that speak of darkness and toil. In fact, there is more here than what we might think we are being offered literally and easily on that proverbial silver platter: here is art that talks about nation. Do you get it?

Past imperfect

In the case of this exhibit, the answer is no, you probably don’t. One realizes soon enough, spending time in this space that is a bombardment of loud colors, strong imagery, an attack on the senses, that there is little here that is about picking an enemy and shooting from the hip. While the first impression might be borne of a sense of how familiar these image and symbols are, one finds that the only way to even begin to capture what Ruiz is trying to do here is to demand of oneself the openness to see how much larger the artist’s imagination, how much deeper his philosophical anchor, than what we have gotten used to seeing.

There is no easy assessment of nation here. Instead it is a complex multi-layered discussion about where we’ve come from, where we are, and where we’re going – if we’re moving at all.

The dominant anchor is this exhibit’s sense of the past, where there is decadence and arrogance in large swimming pools and monoliths of hotels and structures (“‘Di Ka Nagsabi: Swimming Party Pala”, “The Ultimate Resort: The Grey Rainbow Motel”), which are now being revealed for its own kind of violence, its vestiges not just about literal decay but the oppression these edifices stood for, the ones it silenced, the brutality these enabled. “Kupit Sa Mandurugas: Chicks Katarungan” references both global and local female personae, and moors itself upon old school Pinoy komiks illustrations, but with mangled bodies, the disfiguration also a necessary violence upon the stereotypes these inhabit.

That these paintings all speak of a viciousness, if not actually capture a kind of ruthlessness, is of course part of the point that is being made about what forms our past. And what it reveals about us in the present.

Present extensions

It is no coincidence that the overriding concept here is one of decay. If at all it is the most straightforward statement this exhibit makes.

But Ruiz is not one to make a half-assed attempt at portraying degeneration. He could’ve easily decided upon aged, vintage, found objects; could’ve even just “aged” the objects himself – many-an-artist have chosen these more expeditious ways of making a point. But if it isn’t clear yet, Ruiz is not any of these artists, and in this exhibit he reveals one of the reasons why.

The more powerful works here are the ones that do not merely portray decay. These are decaying, as they are being exhibited, as they were in Ruiz’s backyard, his studio, for months, maybe even years. That kind of patience in itself is extraordinary. The fact of actual decomposition is a layer that is critical to the final works, if not this whole exhibit, a statement in itself on the many things we lose in the acts of art borne of urgency. It is of course speaking of putrefaction to be something we must face, and hold, and accept, so we might speak constructively of the present.

“Hi-Ho” is a playground defaced by its own deterioration, now nothing more than tangled chains and pulleys, precariously hanging swing seats, all rusty and dirty and unsafe. It is like an endless maze of steps and swings, one that is not so much about moving from one point to the next, as it is about being limited to the same messy map, that leads nowhere, and within which movement is a performance of hard work that leads to nothing. “Qurrente” works with the same premise but this time with found objects, all tarnished and unusable, like the hands that used these implements. “Sa Pula” is a slab of styrofore that’s been left to decay for years, and is now in its most natural form of decomposition: dirty and filled with holes, also emitting a stench that is difficult to miss. Broken glass, old screwdrivers, form parts of the other works here, where the degeneration of materials is precisely what this present is about, our presence in relation to it – our reactions, our dismay, our disgust – part of the exhibit, too.

Future tense

The popsicle as symbol of childhood and all that it stands for, is another dominant image across this exhibit: from the popsicle heart on top of the decaying styrofore, to the popsicle tongue atop the rusty materials of Qurrente; from the screw drivers stabbed into a popsicle torso, to the tiny coffin popsicle atop a rusty wheelbarrow filled with broken mirrors. What Ruiz turns on its head here is nothing more than our own experience of this piece of our childhood, asking us finally: what are you licking exactly?

Questions such as this are intrinsic upon the experience of Ang Liblib na Katuturan ng Obrang Walang Saysay, and the answers are hard to come by. The premise of the political is something it takes seriously, yet it is something it refuses to deliver expectedly. The fact of nation and its crises is what it talks about, but the enemies are not clear here, and neither are the protagonists. This is at the heart of the kind of tension offered in this exhibit: you are not mere spectator here, as you are playing an undefined role in this national decay, that is so deeply rooted in our history, that seems almost woven into the fabric of our continued becoming.

That there are more questions here – difficult and complex, philosophical and political – than answers, is precisely the point. Ruiz is forcing us to do as he did and practice some patience, take stock, and rethink. This can only be infinitely valuable at a time when what has been normalized is the almost thoughtless spewing of art and opinion. It of course presumes that we can rise to the occasion. ***

Katrina Stuart Santiago is an arts and culture critic writing at katrinasantiago.com. This piece was previously published in Art+ Magazine, December 2017.