Roberts, Neil, "The Space Between" (with Stephanie Radok), Art Link Asia Issue, Volume 13, Nos. 3 & 4, 1993/94|
Until 1989 I had never been anywhere in Asia or thought about it as part of my future practice. Now I have been involved in two significant projects in the Philippines, all the ARX events, hosted a Filipina artist at Constantinople, my artist-run gallery in Queanbeyan, and recently co-ordinated a colour photocopy exhibition for the new Australia Centre in Manila.
In 1991 I spent 3 months in the Philippines as artist-in-residence at ART-LAB, probably the only artist-run alternative gallery in Manila.
I first visited the Philippines with the theatre/performance Canberra-based group People Next Door who part-hosted a visit from the Filipino left-wing cultural theatre group PETA in 1986. In 1989 as a reciprocal gesture the Performing Arts Board and the Department of Foreign Affairs funded a month-long visit by People Next Door, with whom I travelled as designer and visual artist. We toured Manila and three distant regional centres conducting performances, workshops, interactions and solidarity nights. It was intense, exhausting work and that intensity and the leftist political bias of our hosts gave me a grasp of the Filipino situation and ways of operating.
The other formative influence on my 1991 residency was the ARX event in Perth. In 1989 I was selected to participate and to collaborate with Filipino Cesare Syjuco.
These connections and experiences led to an open invitation to return to Manila anytime and undertake a project at the Art-LAB gallery run by Cesare and his wife Jean Marie, a leading Filipina performance artist.
In late June 1991, delayed by the volcanic fallout from Mount Pinatubo I arrived in Manila. Not realizing how significant it would become I decided to travel without any art materials except for a bundle of thin glass rods wrapped in bitumen paper, both of which have a recurring place in my material vocabulary. Otherwise I was empty-handed preferring to make work with what I could find and learn from my surroundings.
I was looking for an exhibition structure to encompass my thoughts on the cultural problems between the two countries as well as allow me to address certain personal issues in the foreground of my life at the time. So the exhibition already had a title Addressing the Wounds and an image, that of a body being transferred between two hospital beds which I saw as sites of two wounded cultures. I also wanted to read the famous Filipino revolutionary novel of the 1890s by Joe Rizal, Noli Me Tangere, (which I first learnt about from Foreign Affairs briefing information in 1989). The phrase in Latin for Touch Me Not and it occurs in the Bible after Mary Magdalene begs the newly-arisen Christ not to continue his Ascension. His response means basically: don’t hold me back, I’m not yet where I have to be. Rizal used the phrase to address Spanish rule of the Philippines. (Around 1898 the Americans pretended to defeat the Spaniards in a mock battle for supposed Filipino independence. In fact behind the walls of the ancient fort money changed hands and America virtually bought the country they claimed to be liberating. It is said that the Philippines is such a weird place because it spent 300 years in a Spanish convent and 100 years in Hollywood.)
In Rizal’s novel I found the structural basis I needed in the description of the three voices of Father Damaso, one of the characters in the book - Ab Irato (in ager), Ex Ore (from the mouth) and In Corde (from the heart). ART-LAB has three primary walls and I decided to use each wall to display images and objects relative to these three voices. An Australian friend of mine, Nola Anderson, a visual arts/crafts writer living in Manila, wrote some notes for my show and contextualised the work within the history of Western sculpture and assemblage in about 300 words, which was no mean feat.
The Filipino art world is dominated by decorative painting, often illustrative or pseudo-impressionistic, and by commercial galleries. The galleries and the objects they show are generally very conservative – either formal pedestal sculptures or indigenous materials used in crowded, naturalistic installations that tend towards a self-consciously nationalist style. There are many exceptions to these generalizations but it is not an unfounded description.
My own practice, its relation to arte povera, its simplicity, and use of everyday objects, minimal technical interference and sparse presentation needed contextualisation if the work was to have meaning beyond curiosity alone.
The ART-LAB building is in the corporate compound of the Syjuco family’s group of companies. It is really only the children of wealthy or middle class families who can afford the luxury of being freelance artists, and experimentalists like Cesare and Jean Marie, although they are nationally renowned, still rely in some way on family benefits. An illustration of the ART-LAB installation show that was on when I arrived shows the work of seven individual artists, but, like the streets of Manila with over 6 million inhabitants and at least one-third of them squatters, demarcations between structures and spaces become very indistinct. One installation bleeds into the next, or a web of jute and papier-maché happily entwines everybody’s work. It’s just like the streets and the traffic, everything fluid and chaotic and utilizing all available surfaces to good ends. Even a dominant style of Filipino painting reflects this life force – canvases loaded to the frames, groaning under dense, compact mark-making and a profusion of colour and line.
It was a revelation to me that, in this context, my tendency towards sparse presentation and looking to the significance of empty spaces between words was symptomatic of my own relationship to the land in Australia. It was a perspective of distance, horizontality and space that seemed quite alien in the denseness of Manila.
The crux of the extremely positive response by local artists and media to the project was the fact of an Australian artist actually working in Manila using local materials, both conceptual and physical in the development of the work. The use of everyday worn objects, drawn from the streets and artisans of the city, opened up a critical dialogue in providing immediate reference points for Filipinos. One review read:
How does an Australian artist capture the Filipino spirit? Then again, why should he? Neil Roberts…not only answers these questions but also dissects Filipino culture through research and interaction, a rarity among foreign shows. In contrast with the condescending attitudes of most foreign painters or sculptors, who impose their standards on Filipino viewers, here is one who seeks to understand the Filipino soul.
These words highlight what I believe to be the strength of artist exchanges – the essential need for interactions, not importation. Without losing sight of my own place and history in the work and my position as always a foreigner, I was able to spend the time learning, becoming known, finding objects that had resonances across the cultural divide, listening. It is difficult work but absolutely crucial to any sense of exchange developing with these countries.
(This article was compiled by Stephanie Radok from a lecture by Neil Roberts.)