writings, projects and exhibitions of Clarissa Chikiamco

Monday, June 28, 2010

Third World biennial? (part 1)

The first part of my article on the Bagasbas Beach International Eco-Art Festival is out in today's Philippine Star. I'll post some pictures here soon.

Third World biennial?
by Clarissa Chikiamco

This article is not about the Havana Biennial but about a curious event which occurred in Daet, Camarines Norte last May 31 to June 6. The third edition of the Bagasbas Beach International Eco-Art Festival (BBIEAF) transpired unbeknownst to many in the Manila art scene as it represented the Philippines as a biennale themed with art, environment and sustainability. While the Havana Biennial became known as the Third World biennial in its focus on exhibiting artists from the Third World, this designation may be more appropriate for the BBIEAF as this particular edition makes apparent.

Curatorial Structure

In the arts, a biennial or biennale refers to mega-exhibitions held every two years that are showcases for current trends in contemporary art. It originated in Venice, which had its first biennale in 1895, and gained momentum in the latter half of the 20th century as biennales and triennales (held every three years) established itself around the globe, done in the shadow as well of another formidable and expansive exhibition of contemporary art, Documenta (established in 1955 and held every five years in Kassel, Germany). The curatorial models for biennales vary widely as, in the early decades of the phenomenon at the very least, each attempted to make itself distinctive in order to jockey for visibility and position in the international art scene. As with any biennale, an evaluation of the BBIEAF needs to begin then by examining its aims, themes and curatorial model, which define the criterions of perspective to view it by.

Founded by artist Dr. Joaquin Palencia, the BBIEAF places its core in the belief that art is a tool for human and community development, themed as previously mentioned with art, environment and sustainability. It has lofty but perhaps foolhardy ambitions — “to share a new vision with the rest of the world, to foster hope, to make life better, to integrate Life and Art, Technology, and the fervent hopes of a Community, a People, a Nation, a World.” This incontrovertibly gives cause to too elevating expectations, particularly for the poverty-stricken people of Daet who are the target beneficiaries of the BBIEAF and the reason for its founding. As such, the festival is modeled on artists working with the Daet communities on the installation art component of the festival which forms its centerpiece.

In this installation aspect, artists propose a large-scale work beforehand that is to be composed using bamboo and materials that are to be sourced from the community. Once approved, the selected artists come to Daet, each being assigned a community and immersing themselves there for two days, including an overnight stay. Subsequent to that, the main site of the festival occurs at the shore of Daet’s Bagasbas beach — a quiet, clean and public beach frequented mostly by the locals — where the installations are built with the help of members of the communities for five days prior to the formal opening. Previous editions of the festival stressed a more local flavor of artists while the current one was more international with six foreign artists and one Filipino in this division. These artists were Chak Chung Ho (Hong Kong SAR China), Stuart Frost (Norway/UK), Emmanuel Herbulot (France), Irma Lacorte (Philippines), Mia Orsag (Croatia), Tanya Preminger (Israel) and Matthew Slaats (USA).

Fettered by little time to prepare for this festival as news of the approved P500,000 grant from the National Commission of Culture and the Arts (NCCA) came only early this year, the BBIEAF organization committee rushed to put this up in only a few months’ time. They approved all the foreign artists that answered an open call for proposals which fit the following selection criteria: (1) the artist has to be from a faraway culture so the impact of the immersion is maximized; (2) there should be no duplication of countries of which the artists are from; (3) the work proposed should require a level of interaction from the community in its building and be realizable.

It was only after the foreign selections were done that former National Museum director Cora Alvina was brought in as the installation art curator and chose Lacorte to participate as well. The third BBIEAF also added two segments which were not present in the first two editions: video art, curated by Japanese experimental filmmaker and video artist Takahiko Iimura, and public art, curated by Benjamin Edward Hughes II. The addition of these segments testifies to the BBIEAF’s aspirations of a biennale-like status in its expansion. As will be discussed in the second part of the article next week, however, these added components, were completely superfluous, deviated from the festival’s vision and strained the organization committee’s efforts and resources.


With such proclamations of attempting to make life better particularly for the poor communities, the central question that is to be asked of BBIEAF is how? Indeed, in a country that has an overabundance of the impoverished, carrying out a possible solution through art is impressive and intriguing, particularly since art has to still gain significant traction here in its recognition as an important asset of the country’s milieu and a potential source in fueling economic engines.

The manner in which the festival tries to realize this though ranges from the vague to the concrete but glaringly lacking measures. Discussion with the founder reveals that the festival intends for the communities to develop by unfastening the creative and innovative thinking of its members through the interaction with the artists and the problem-solving entailed in manifesting the artworks’ constructions. This thinking and the craft-making capacity involved are ideally to be applied by the community members to their own lives and livelihood — but only it seems through their own initiative. Nothing is provided to validate and carry this over in tangible fruition after the festival is over. While the sentiment that art swings open doors to creative thinking and is beneficial to anyone open to its possibilities is certainly agreeable, the indeterminate character of its real-world application was disappointing after much anticipation created by the festival.

These advantages also become negated by what is, it seems, the principal flaw of the BBIEAF — not paying the members of the community who help construct the artists’ works and expecting them to participate simply by volunteerism. The artist Lacorte shared that not even gasoline allowance was provided for her community team members to get to and from the working site and their residences and she related her troubled feelings as she witnessed one of her members fill up a precious 20 pesos of gas. While the participating community members were provided with meals like everyone else, taking them away from their homes without providing them with wages certainly would affect also their families who need their support, as Lacorte pointed out, in what is a hand-to-mouth existence. It does not seem like such a long leap to agree with her that the festival feels insensitive to the people they claim to be doing this for.

In terms of concrete returns, the Our Lady of Lourdes College Foundation, the host of the festival and the school owned by Dr. Palencia’s family, promised each participating community one scholarship for one of its members — the recipient, as indicated by Dr. Palencia in an interview, to be decided between the community. While the gift of education is certainly welcome, its benefiting one member of the community (and in effect, this person’s family) does not seem fair to the others’ time and effort in the project. Having the community also decide the recipient themselves also conjectures strong possibilities of creating rifts between them as people expectedly will jostle for the prize for their own family’s benefit.

The other way in which the BBIEAF attempted to deliver more definite returns to the communities was by providing them with free parallel seminars on livelihood, resource identification, product design and micro-financing. However, how far can these lessons go without more practical provisions for the beneficiaries to enable them?

Gratefully, there may be possible future financial benefit to some of the community participants though it is through artist, rather than festival, undertakings. Frost, who, like the other artists, has already returned home, is looking into sourcing raw materials from the community as well as commissioning work for his exhibitions overseas. He says, “For me I intend to stay in touch with the people from the community and work closely with (Imoy) the master carpenter. This collaboration I hope will not only benefit him and his family but also the community that he lives in.” He adds as well though that it “is obviously up to the individual artist in which way they want to approach such an opportunity.”

Reflecting on the festival, Slaats revealed a certain vulnerability the artists faced. “While the ideas of community development and support were there on paper, I am very curious as to the reality of long term sustainability or interaction coming out of the exhibition. The question of how does this dialogue continue was foremost on my mind the last few days of the exhibition and still is. How can I continue to support the community I worked with? While I’d love to continue the interaction, being on the other side of the world makes it difficult. I will just say that I’ve been inspired by these people and will forever be grateful for their hospitality and kindness.”

He made sure to point out though that these thoughts form a larger question raised by socially-based art practices. While true, the weight of these matters would probably not be so forceful if the artists knew that there was some mechanism managed or initiated by the festival to deliver concrete long-term benefits to the community from this specific interaction. After having done some creative training with the artists in the building of the works, it would have been rewarding if, for example, the community participants were to put this to practice in a practical arena for them, such as being hired in the making of furniture or handicrafts and really bridge this creativity thinking into sources of income. A tangible thing in place would sustain the benefits of the interaction long after the interaction is over.

Instead, though, the community development of the festival is afflicted by a pervasive uncertainty which causes an evident amount of pressure and anxiety on the artists who have developed strong emotional bonds with their communities. As the artists now reside back in their homes which indubitably have better and far more comfortable conditions, the concerns produced by the Third World-ness of this biennial must surely haunt them still.

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The analysis of the BBIEAF continues next week. E-mail the author at letterstolisa@gmail.com. Her art writings are at http://writelisawrite.blogspot.com.

Monday, June 14, 2010

"But I could do that!"

My article "But I could do that!" is out in Star today. You can click here for the direct link in Star or read it below.

The image I gave to Star to use is Lee Aguinaldo's Explosion No. 141 in the Ateneo Art Gallery collection. As many of you who regularly read me know, I'm cocurating an exhibition on Lee for Ateneo later this year. While I did not discuss Lee in my article, I felt it was appropriate to submit this image of his Pollock-influenced work. In the course of my talking about my work for the exhibition and on Lee, I have heard people (more often than usual) say, "But I could do that!" This article is a response to that. Indeed, the article is addressed to these people in particular, an audience I have to acknowledge I don't normally address in my writings on art because they're unlikely to read it in the first place (though I think my articles are often approachable enough to those without that much knowledge in the arts). However, in the offshoot I may capture some renegade non-art people into reading the article, I thought it would be worth writing as the effort to champion the cause of modern and contemporary art, though small, is worth it... Who knows - perhaps at least one person's perception may change?

I also have to mention here that not all modern and contemporary works are equal... Quality varies. Reading and regularly going to exhibitions and art talks both here and abroad will help refine one's eye and mind to start discerning quality. I did not mention this in the article because I felt it was going to confuse the audience I'm trying to address here but if one of those in this audience made it as far as visiting my blog then he/she should know - quality varies. It will be frustrating trying to understand why one work or one artist is valued more than others but it is important not to be discouraged. It is also important to look at museums who take a lead in this as arbiters of quality. I will - for the record - mention that not all museums are equal either... but I'll stop here.

"But I could do that!"

Many say this when encountering modern and contemporary art forms, whether for the first time or not. Framed papers pure white? Paintings of pure abstraction? Scattered everyday objects around the room? “But I could do that!” Said often in quick reflex, it is accompanied by attitudes which can range from confusion to good humor and to, unfortunately, the maliciously arrogant.

Certainly, I believe those who say this need to give pause. There is a necessity likewise, however, to understand where such quick assumptions come from. “But I could do that!” stems from a preconceived widely-held idea of art, mainly art as craft that gives value to creating images as they are seen in reality. It demands of art not only that it be figurative but that it be technically skillful — what separates the artist from the ordinary person. The medium commonly affixed to this idea is oil painting though it gives room to works using graphite as well.

There is some merit to this idea. Before the artist became artist, he was at first craftsman. It was during the Renaissance which prized the idea of the individual as genius that the artist attained high stature, though his virtuosity remained an essential part of his repertoire, a reason for his celebrity. When many think “art,” they think of the Renaissance idea of art, including its penchant for oil painting when its usage became popular.

While the idea of artist as celebrity remains popular today, much has changed in the time since the Renaissance, particularly in the last 150 years. The invention of photography, for example, freed artists from simply having to reproduce images as seen in nature. World War I and II had a huge impact on the art world — the Dada movement, one of the most singularly important sources of contemporary art, rising from the disillusionment of war after the first; the value given to modern art after its crucifixion during the second. Artists also questioned long-held ideas of art and attempted to subvert the institution. Performance, installation and video, coming to prominence in the 1970s, were part of the challenge to art as commodity. Conceptual art endeavored to resist the fetishization of art as object and placed eminence on art as idea. Multiculturalism and gender studies contested the idea of artist as the straight white Western male. The times also are simply different — the methods in capturing the dynamism and complexity of contemporary life are also in this age equally dynamic and complex.

This article, however, is not meant to be a lesson in art history. To begin appreciating modern and contemporary art, knowledge of art history is surprisingly not requisite. Indeed, the ones sometimes who have been actually quite receptive to appreciating contemporary art are those without any art background at all and therefore, with no preconceived idea of art. While helping out C3, an independent art space in Melbourne, Australia, I personally observed visiting preschool children happily engaging with the teacher’s questions on the art on show. The artist Christina Quisumbing Ramilo, who interacts and works with construction workers in her pieces and through her collaborative group Martinez Art Projects, recalled during an interview that the workers are interested and approach her about the work she does and that they encounter while helping in installation. Another artist, Lyle Buencamino, reiterated this to me as well in his experience with gallery hands.

While suggestions such as talking to the artists and the curators, looking up previous works of the artists, going to exhibitions regularly, reading the exhibition notes and delving into art books are helpful in furthering one’s grasp of modern and contemporary art, the real foremost condition to initiate its comprehension and appreciation is simply having an open mind. And with this, I would also add letting go of the idea that art should be beautiful — a pursuit, as Hitler internationally and the Marcos years locally have taught us, that in its narrowness and rigidity can be rimmed with danger.

Admittedly, appreciating it can be daunting because of the way much art is presented — cold white walls, strange specialist language, everyone else seeming to understand and, moreover, expecting the uninitiated to understand. To this I would say, it is essential for those who work in and with different kinds of art spaces to meet others halfway and be just as open to guiding in its appreciation. This, however, must be distinguished from spoon-feeding. Appreciation of modern and contemporary art will always remain elusive without some thinking of one’s own.

Let me recount as well two responses to this “But I could do that!” kind of thinking that I deem quite satisfactory.

The first response I heard over a decade ago, when I was the organizational head of my high school art club. Our moderator, the artist Pepper Roxas, had whipped out a book that I remember to be on Jackson Pollock and was showing it to us. “People say when they see this kind of work, ‘But I could do that,’” she said. “But the thing is…you didn’t.”

The second response I gathered from the director of the modern art museum the Ateneo Art Gallery, Ramon Lerma, while interviewing him for a different article a few days ago. He said, “Two things, I often challenge people when they come to a gallery and I hear comments like that — ‘Really? Let’s see you try.’ That’s number one. Number two, even if they attempt to, I ask them — ‘Would you be willing to spend the rest of your life just doing that? And stake your very identity on doing what you belittle as something trivial or facile?’”

There is a depth to modern and contemporary art so terrifying that it seems infinitely easier to dismiss it, to brand it elitist, to presume one knows better. Yet, for those who dare to take its ride — to open their thoughts, to open their minds, to let something change them in ways little and profound — the effort can admittedly be dizzying but so, too, can be its rewards.

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The author may be e-mailed at letterstolisa@gmail.com. Her art writings can be found at http://writelisawrite.blogspot.com.

Wednesday, June 9, 2010

Article pending

No article to post at the moment but I do have an article pending to be printed in Philippine Star. This article addresses the "But I could do that!" response of many people when encountering modern and contemporary art. As those who read my last post know, I was considering writing about it and I finally decided it was the right time.

My next article for Star will be on the Bagasbas Beach International Eco-Art Festival which took place in Daet, Camarines Norte, last 31 May to 6 June 2010. I was there from 2-5 June and while I will reserve my commentary on the festival at the moment, I will deviate from art a little to say that the beach was really great and it is worth visiting on weekdays if you are looking for a calm, relaxing vacation to get away from people. It is a bit of a hassle to get there - 10 hours by bus/car or 1 hour by plane followed by 2 hours by car/van. But the reward is a clean, long stretch of a beach with very fine sand (so much so it managed to get inside my watch), waters that are refreshing but not cold and most importantly a quietness that is difficult to find in other beaches that have already become well-known tourist spots. It's a public beach and you'll often find locals there swimming, surfing and doing other water sports (there are waves and the current is supposedly quite strong) but they aren't many and they seem to be just as happy in quietly enjoying the beach. I enjoy Boracay like many other Filipinos but I completely appreciated being able to unclutter my mind for a few days even as I was working on some things (writing about art) while there. I stayed at the beachfront place called Catherine's, which just opened last March. If you are considering going and have some questions, email me and I would be happy to reply.

Last month, I finished wrapping up an exhibition write-up for Costantino Zicarelli's exhibition at Art Informal, We are the kids your parents warned you about, which was held last March to April 2010. I had an initial write-up that was published in an exhibition brochure at the time of the exhibition but after discussing with the artist, I did some revisions to both our satisfaction. I understand he plans to make a proper catalogue for this exhibition and you'll be able to buy it directly from him.

Currently I am working on the exhibition write-up for Mark Salvatus' exhibition at Drawing Room at the end of the month. That + the BBIEAF article + more work on the Lee Aguinaldo show is going to take up most of my time for June. Things seem to look like they are only going to get busier from here - I will also be gone for a month from August to September on an art-related matter. I'll post more about this soon.

I would like to thank those of you who have reached out to talk to me via email or through other online means. I enjoy receiving your emails whether it is meant to be encouraging or to further discuss points I raise in my articles (or even just about art in general). They've come at a very critical point for me and I very much appreciate it.