The examination and presentation of the sacred and the banal, a central image and various personas, straightforward language and abstraction are all played out in The President’s Office and Back to Misunderstanding. The two exhibits are, in simple terms, geographically apart. The President’s Office was done by a group of artists while Back to Misunderstanding was a one-man show. These distinctions call to attention not only the idea of an “art center” – Vargas Museum being housed under a larger institution (that is, the University of the Philippines) while Mo Space is an art gallery sitting atop a home depot in the gentrified Bonfacio Global City. One employs muted colors to correspond with the quietude of the UP, while the other displays bold colors corresponding with the youth and vibe of BCG. Though visually contrasting, there are certain differences between the two that provide a space for seeing similarities or else, despite the issue of artistic autonomy (vis-à-vis the idea of one art center), that the exhibits appear to be reflections of each other.
In The President’s Office, the central image and persona is the president and his space. This does not necessarily refer to a specific person, but to a sort of amalgamation of all the presidents that have passed through this office. As seen in The Stockholders, the image of a president or a leader is not exclusive to the highest position. There are political personalities that have influenced or affected national affairs in remarkable (and horrifying) ways. The office as space was used to make meaning out of the central persona. It is interesting to point out that few of the objects used were not office-like but were still related to the nature of a president’s work – or what people perceive as the president’s role. There were chairs and platforms, but also campy additions of escape hatches. Renditions of the presidential seal with a crab shell where the state symbol is supposed to be. Hanging lamps which the viewer soon realizes depicts a sampaguita flower chain (like those sold by poor girls or old people in the streets). A broken grand piano filled with shredded money. A giant chess board with the president as pawn.
These objects and images are meant to symbolize the various roles of a president, various problems to resolve to the point of the president’s disintegration. Whether these images are meant to criticize (as most politically charged works are wont to do), one cannot be quite sure. On one hand, the exhibit mystifies its audience with its “muted” images, nothing is explicit yet one can almost sense ambivalence and animosity towards the subject matter. A turtle sculpture with a wizened man’s head stands at the threshold of a door. A piece called Palamuti ng May Sala is an extremely uncomfortable white bench. Upon close inspection this white bench turns out to be assembled from tiny models of informal settler’s houses – arranged haphazardly as the real thing. The president sits uncomfortably on this job, on the slum areas that “clutter” his supposedly splendid cities. The slums and its inhabitants crowd and eat-away at his space, his domain, his rule. If we take the primary object, the bench or the sala (living room) set as something for the middle-class and the elite, then it must say that we too share the discomfort and the annoyance of the president. But does this makes us in equal footing with our leader? In one of the first speeches the Presidnt Benigno Aquino gave, he called the citizens of the Philippines “my boss”. Juxtaposing the proclamation to the possible intended message of the exhibit, the gesture is not really of respect or acknowledgement of the power of the masses, but of plain transference of faults. By calling us his boss, he deflects responsibility – clever, but not quite. Who is at fault here? Sitting on that uncomfortable white bench somehow speaks of the problem of apathy-at-large.
Going back to the image of the office, it can be said that it is also seen, by-and-large, as a “sacred space”. But it is not sacred in the same manner that we, the Filipino people, see a temple or Mount Banahaw as sacred. The office is sacred in the manner that sacred places are believed to be untouchable places where strange and incomprehensible things take place. By creating The President’s Office, artists might have sought to break the spell of strangeness and mystique, of stateliness and cleanliness (which is next to godliness, they say). It is accessible to anyone who cares to come. It replaces the idea of the sacred as banal – the way a president might (through average play of words) transfer the responsibility from his shoulders onto that of another person.
In contrast, Back to Misunderstanding presented many ways and many sides to one concept which comes from one man, the artist Manuel Ocampo. The presentation of the theme on human relationships: person to person, person to death, person to life and urban ennui, took life’s pains and pleasures – love, sex, and pizza – into crazy depths of abstraction. It called to mind anecdotes of saint’s experiencing epiphanies or miracles, of beatniks or romantics (for want of a better term) “seeing the world as one” on shroom or opium laden orgies. And what could be more absurd than getting “art-high” atop a home depot in one of the most sanitized and unimaginative districts in Metro Manila?
It was also interesting to see webs of color and pattern that seemed to distract the viewer from what could be the essence of the body of work. Overwhelming color and imagery could remind the viewer of how people go through great lengths to attract attention. Even the wallflower painted on the far wall, colored so garishly, with neon colors and bold strokes, wants to be at the very center of your eye. Speaking of eye, an all-seeing eye on the palm of a hand had also been painted on the walls. If one can recall colonial Philippine symbolism and folk iconography, the “hand-eye” resembles the all-seeing eye. What does this suggest to the viewer? Does it mean that we are being scrutinized by a being that is removed from our reality, just as we might judge people from the ethereal realm of the World Wide Web? Does it “quietly” postulate the existence of super self-consciousness? That is, I am watching you watching me watching yourself while watching me.
We go from being mere observers of a person of higher stature in a space often unseen, to a space often visited with intimate images of the ‘you’ and ‘I’ and the ego. It must be that The President’s Office takes an ‘untruthful’ space and makes it look dignified and subdued (the only other entity to be able to do this is the mainstream media), while Back to Misunderstanding takes a beautiful aspect of life – things closest to us, essential as air or light – and makes it a “crazy quilt”. In these exhibits, objects, images, spaces, and personalities cannot be taken in at a mere glance, cannot be judged by mere surface value. They carry both intellectual and emotional baggage (if such, one can feel emotional about one’s History and country), and can be easily misunderstood – perhaps to their own credit.