Transits of Meaning

BY JOSEPHINE ROQUE

     For the exhibition, “Almost There,” shown in the U.P. Vargas Museum from March 2 to May 6 the words gnarly and crooked cannot help but enter your head as you spot two bonsai trees by the entrance under duress from metal implements, as if they were tortured would-be beauties in a work called “Bonsai No. 41” by Shen Shaomin which examines the process of bonsai making where desired form dictates material. The metal implements used are kept glass-encased and solemn. The viewer has no access by touch, that power belongs to the artist. There are gloves to use to rifle through the pages of a bonsai making book. The bonsais are presented in their in-betweenness where their form is not yet realized; the clamps there to keep their shape while they endure time for form to appear. This is how the exhibit chooses to render its welcome.

     “Almost There” benefits from the the vision of curators, Patrick Flores of the Vargas Museum and Che Kyongfa of the Museum of Contemporary Art Tokyo with co-curators Ayos Purwoaji Surip Mawardi of Ciputra University, Indonesia, Lisa Ito-Tapang of University of the Philippines and Lyno Vuth of the Sa Sa Art Project in Cambodia. Curators are the deciders of the work and with the long list for this exhibition, one wonders if too many cooks can spoil the stew but the show in its entirety was coherent. Manila was the third stop of this Japan Foundation Asia Center project which will be heading to Bangkok next.

     To say, almost there, is to talk about movement and space in the midst of going from Point A to Point B. It hints of borders and undefined pockets of being to pass through to end a journey. The gap between leaving and arriving become interesting states where one can navigate meanings taken from memory, struggle and most of all, loss. One does not move into spaces without leaving something behind. In “Solar: A Meltdown,” Hoi Rui An delivers a performance lecture filmed in the Bamboo Theater (also part of the exhibit) and projected on the museum wall that delves into the colonial female, the colonial wife and teacher pushed by circumstances to deal with the exotic, the other. He intersperses these investigations with his own experience of encountering these colonial mistresses in movies and even a toy shop during one of his travels. There on the wall of the Vargas Museum is a solar-powered toy of Queen Elizabeth in her trademark pose reserved for royal subjugation: one hand waving primly and another with a handbag in tow. A colonial symbol miniaturized and capable of absorbing the sun. The colonizer might have left Asia but their ghosts still linger, hovering. Would it have been better had it not happened? How do you deal with conflicting feelings of the colonized looking back at its past as it moves forward?

     On the same floor is An-My Le's “Small Wars” where the viewer is encouraged to get a copy of a her photographs printed like a newspaper with the definition of small wars taken from the U.S. Marine manual on the front cover. The meaning of small wars is clinical, detached and even defensive, meant to serve the interests of the ones who defined it. Peek inside and you to see the photos of a performance of the Vietnam War held in the United States, a loss by the colonizers defined as 'small.' This is where the politics of memory lie, where the losing side tries to change the particulars of the past in service of present agenda. The aggressor warrants it as justified and another nation's suffering is labeled as 'small' when there is nothing ever small about war. Instead of history being a catalyst for change, it is mired to cover and obscure.

     Nearby on the same floor is Winner Jumalon's painting “No Te Vayas,” which is expansive, covering a whole wall of the museum. The title translates to, 'don't go.' The painting is a navigation Jumalon's bilingual memory of his past in Zamboanga and like the slippery quality of memories, it is a chaos of scenes unleashed by the artist without the burden of a narrative or plot. What we see are scenes of a making, the creator looking back at the life that has made him. The plotlessness releases it from particularity that threatens to speak only to the artist but tries to reach beyond this crush of experience. Can memory be a place that is almost there as well? The act of looking back as a position of movement, of also moving forward? When do we acknowledge arrival?

     The other works featured in the exhibition try to answer these as well but what we are given are elastic definitions of marking time and space. To be almost there is to leave, to be almost there is to let go, but also to be almost there is to find hope.

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