Art as documentary
Art Fair Philippines 2017 is on until the end of the week in a Makati car park that has been temporarily enclosed, air-conditioned, and dolled up to exhibit the best of Philippine contemporary art. By and large it is a trade fair, with many of the lowest-priced works on display well beyond the lifetime earnings of Pinoys below the poverty line. It is quite sad when art becomes unreachable, and perhaps irrelevant to the majority of the people it is supposed to inspire.
To balance this growing notion of Philippine art being the toys of those with a large disposable income, some spaces are devoted to commentary on current social issues. In the center of the main, the first floor of the four-floor fair, Jose Tence Ruiz created an installation in blood-red to remind well-heeled art patrons of the extrajudicial killings that continue every day beyond Forbes Park and other gated communities. Padded oversized armchairs with thick leather belts and large brass buckles and pins are not a backdrop for BDSM porn, but a grim reminder of the Bilibid electric chair known to those born before the millennial generation.
It is a reminder of the death penalty that this administration wants restored to instill fear among the people. I think I was the only one brave enough to take the artist’s unspoken invitation to sit on one of the chairs and feel the discomfort and fear that should inspire more people to speak up on EJKs, an issue more pressing than Ferdinand Marcos’ burial in the Libingan ng mga Bayani. Look at the numbers: The body count in the 20 years of Marcos rule was about 3,000, compared to the more than 7,000 under the Duterte administration that has not even crossed the one-year mark of a six-year term.
Marcos is a ghost that continues to haunt contemporary times, and artists use their art in a process that is both a remembering and an exorcism. The booth curated by Erwin Romulo sends all sorts of creepy and screeching sounds throughout the hall, interrupting the million-peso sales of
adjoining booths that may be driven to complain to the organizers about the “noise.” But then all this is political memory. There are spools of audio tape inside the booth, on reels and cassettes that seem Jurassic to millennials who know only of compact discs, thumb drives, mp3 and mp4.
There is an installation made from a frame of glass jalousies painted white. When open it reveals a black-and-white vintage photo of the young Imelda Marcos in her signature terno and umbrella. When the jalousies noisily slam shut for a split-second, they cover Imelda with a grainy image of Marcos’ mistress Dovie Beams, a still from the forgotten 1968 film “Maharlika.” As a historian, I find that the most intriguing part of the installation is hearing a snippet of the fabled audio recording of one tryst that has all the sound effects, including a creaking bed. Then we hear a snippet of Marcos crooning in bed, serenading Beams with the traditional Ilocano song “Pamulinawen.” It has been suggested that the tape is fake, that it was black propaganda against Marcos when he was seeking a second term in 1969. Beams first played the tape at a press conference before she left Manila, and I have yet to hear the complete tape and validate whether it is indeed Marcos himself singing not just “Pamulinawen” but also “Acercate mas” (sung in English as “Get closer to me”).
This booth alone is worth the price of admission to the Art Fair, and should generate not just a revisiting of history but a discussion as well of revisionist history and alternative facts.
If you do not want to be disturbed by art, there is a lot more that is comforting. Works by auction superstar artists, both dead and alive, can be found everywhere: Ronald Ventura, BenCab, Elmer Borlongan, Fernando Zobel, Jose Joya, and everyone else down the price and familiarity scale are on view. So you can choose what part of the Art Fair you want to see—art that makes you momentarily forget the ills of the present world, or art that speaks to wealth and power in the hope of social change.
I don’t choose one type of art over the other. I just hope that artists, whether they sell or not, continue to speak to us and document our times for the next generations.
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