by Katrina Stuart Santiago
▶︎ Kalye Kolektib’s Salu-Salo Espesyal happens alongside a larger exhibit within the same gallery and at least three other exhibits on the same floor of Makati Cinema Square. It is small by any standard, with all the works save for one installed on a standard size, nondescript dining table. It would’ve been easy to miss, probably easier to presume that it was nothing more than a backroom exhibit: the dining table was filled with works, but so was every nook and cranny of the tiny space.
There was nothing about this space that felt deliberate, and it was easy to see that the curation had either gone overboard, or did not exist at all.
Thankfully, most of the nine works that were actually part of this exhibit were powerful enough individually, and collectively worked towards the vision of discussing violence and unrest, at a time when it is what we face every day.
At the head of the table is Ivy Floresca’s “Intimations of Anonymity,” a woman’s head served on a cake platter, cut on top to reveal brains covered in hand over hand over hand, a statement on these times when even how we think is being controlled, when thinking freely can mean being threatened, if not killed. Cut right beneath the nose, with eyes closed, what alarms is the sense that this is a not the head of a corpse, as it is of a real live person who might simply be in peaceful slumber – a statement about too many of us.
On the opposite end of the table is “Kombulsyon Espesyal” by Alfredo Esquillo, a seemingly simple representation of a human body being eaten by a piranha, on a bed of blood and grime, on a large serving plate. It is a simple enough statement about the present predatory state of affairs, where we witness a rising body count of nameless, faceless victims. Up close though it becomes even more grotesque: the human body being eaten is half-piranha, the piranha’s head is half-human with blank white eyes, as if to say we are both predator and prey, as if to point out that when we decide to be unseeing, we are nothing but complicit.
The pièce de resistance is at the center of the table, a double-sided lechon, both sides of which stand for the pigs in our realpolitik. By Rai Cruz, one side of “Buy One Take One” reveals the animal’s skeleton as machine, made up of gears and cogs that work effortlessly towards a crazed, evil grin. The other side portrays the pig to be made up of various other dangerous animals – two raptors, a serpent, a tail for a horn, monster eyes – a reminder of the real beasts in our midst.
On the rest of this table are smaller works gathered in bowls and plates. A breaded gun with a cup of rice bullets, a used bandage pastry roll served with a bloody knife (Kirby Roxas). A plate of doggie bones formed from lace, presented on a gold-lined bowl atop a filigreed tray, because we the people are nothing more than dogs to be tamed, controlled (Arvi Fetalvero). A plate of raw eggs, showing an almost developed chick in liquid form, a reminder of what could become, but also of what it is not – regardless, a carnage (Ioannis Sicuya). On the table and a bench nearby, bottles with human mouths, looking up to the skies, as if waiting for manna from heaven, even as they could be screaming in agony (Robert Besana).
The overall effect of this table on the spectator is first amusement: the bright colors, the whimsical details, the defamiliarization of food, is reason enough for that kind of visceral delight. On opening night, people crowded into that tiny space, taking photos, going up-close to capture details. It is the kind of scrutiny borne solely of fascination, and one wonders how powerful that is, when what we feed is amusement, which can so easily be trumped by the next cool thing.
Undoubtedly this kind of reaction had to do with the way in which Salu-Salo Espesyal was curated. Had this table been installed by itself in that tiny space, with dark walls, dim lights and not much else, it would’ve allowed for a layer of foreboding, it would’ve lent the collection of works more potency, if not more force.
Yet despite the crowded space and bright lights, the amount of power this exhibit holds is already in its decision to be relevant: few have discussed the current state of nation, and certainly not in a way that might be palatable because interesting and familiar. At the very least, it allows for a discussion to be started about the state of normalized violence, and the role art and creativity can play in its undoing.
At most, Salu-Salo Espesyal forces upon us the question of whether or not being force-fed brutality, and being told that it is correct and just – is this actually making us believe that cruelty and bloodshed is a matter of acquired taste?
If the answer is yes, then we missed the point of this exhibit entirely. ***
Katrina Stuart Santiago is an arts and culture critic writing at katrinasantiago.com. This piece was previously published in Art+ Magazine, September 2017.