I try to journal every day. In conversation and in writing, I do better when given a question or prompt. So, this morning, I asked myself a question: What does coping look like for you?
One of the contexts for this prompt is an article I read about the real-life Lord of the Flies: In 1966, eight adolescent boys from Tonga took a boat to get away, encountered a pacific storm, and became stranded on the island of ‘Ata in the Pacific Ocean. ‘Ata is a giant rock jutting out of the ocean and uninhabited because its residents were taken by a slave ship. It proved untenable for the boys until they found the ancient crater of a volcano that had flourishing flora and fauna, including chickens that have been breeding for over a hundred years. They took care of each other and survived for a year and three months until a fisherman from Australia found them. Rutger Bregman from The Guardian writes, “While the boys in Lord of the Flies come to blows over the fire, those in this real-life version tended their flame so it never went out, for more than a year.”
Another is the image of the six of swords from the Rider-Waite-Smith tarot deck. I consider using tarot cards psychological exercises aided by interpretation. And I interpret images (and sounds) for a living now. From it, I was reminded of the statement “We are under the same storm”, instead of being on the same boat in light of the coronavirus crisis. People’s ways of coping are affected by their resources and mobility. So, we are all navigating one storm in different boats. Some have great ships, most have small boats.
A third is the story of American activist and author Julia Butterfly Hill, who protested the clear-cut logging of redwood trees. She “tree-sat” a tree she called Luna for 738 days. In Taoist scholar and professor Dr. Benjamin Tong’s “The Taoist and the Activist” from a show called Lunch with Bokara, Hill says: “So for me, activism is about a spiritual practice as a way of life. And I realized I didn’t climb the tree because I was angry at the corporations and the government; I climbed the tree because when I fell in love with the redwoods, I fell in love with the world. So it is my feeling of ‘connection’ that drives me, instead of my anger and feelings of being disconnected.”
Activism is also doing everything we can to not let out home knocked down and our boats destroyed by a storm; tend to the hearth fire so it never burns out and we can always have light, warmth, and nourishment. I consider activism as a means of coping—keeping that hope and feeding it with action—and preservation. There are people, in our time—ordinary health workers, laborers, farmers, and kind ones—who will do everything in their power to not let it all fall apart.
The same can be done on a personal level with the body. To answer my own question: It begins with my body and the parts that need tending. And tendering. I can’t sleep until I’ve let my grief be carried away by the tide. Obviously an unscientific perception, but I’ve always believed that certain pains and negative feelings hide or embed themselves in specific parts of my body. The tense muscle on my upper right back is where the pressure to succeed resides. When I lie down, it twitches and sends a sharp current of pain down to my hips. To rest is to expose myself to hidden pain. Hidden because I don’t feel it during the day and forget about it until it is time to sleep. In my throat are thoughts that I would rather swallow and stomach than express. The back of my jaw hurts, mostly because of teeth that needs to be pulled out, but also because this is where I carry my worry and rage.
It’s morbidly astonishing how much dirt can get in my skull. My nose is itchy, my ears full of dust gathering like ambergris that can only be extracted by a tiny spoon-like tool, and I can feel phlegm sloshing at the back of my throat for two out of four seasons. Sometimes, the phlegm can feel like a slug sliding through the crevices of my skull; there is excruciating pain when it gets stuck, especially when I am flying. I can’t even conceive of the top of my body as a “head” because all I see and feel is a screaming, flaming skull. The dirt and filth in my skull bear stories of different adventures, big and small. To very bottom, the soles of my feet are calloused and warped from carrying this entire existence.
So, coping for me is to be able to think and write about all kinds of feelings and sensations. Most of all, the difficult ones I would rather avoid because it’s too much to work on. It is such a task to curb my anger, for instance. I try to find a way to transmute all the great and small things that give me pain and grief into a condition close to comfort and joy. Part of my small boat is a tiny lantern. I also tend to that tiny flame as I do try to be excellent to myself. The closer I am to my sparkling core, the better connected I become to the people around me and to my surroundings. At present, this is all that is asked of anyone: be gentle and thoughtful.
Overcome by the need to move around, I have decided to visit a graveyard tomorrow afternoon. Maybe I will remember to write about it, as I had intended to write about a show I saw some time last summer. It was curated by a friend, I told her I love it and meant it. The show was installed in a large exhibition space and people came by the busloads. These days buses and subways run empty. Back home, I’ve seen photos of empty streets. The only signs of life are the cacophony of voices on the internet.
I’ve always been a walker. The past March I put my legs to the test and tried ice skating for fun. I fell so many times on my back it triggered a traumatic memory. An old friend who had accompanied me to the ice asked me why. Why? I couldn’t explain because I didn’t want to. It was the pain. An unseen, internal pain that found its manifestation in physical pain many years after. The morning after that experience, I told myself as I made myself pretty: “How long has it been when you felt such fear you felt as if you were trapped in a block of ice?” Denial was when I, as a kid, would place my hands in the refrigerator freezer thick with ice, hold it for as long as I could, and told myself it was all for fun.
So it might make sense to think I would walk into places where I never felt cold or lonely. I found this praying mantis among my mother’s bougainvillea shrubs a few days before I was to depart. It seems to be a juvenile Philippine mantis or Hierodula parviceps. A quick Google search of the spiritual meaning of praying mantises told me that they symbolize good fortune, clarity, stillness, and focus. I told my mom and she was pleased; you can never get enough of those good things. Her home had a particular vibe, a way of making me feel the space that I’ve never found elsewhere. Each place has its energy, its vibe, that can’t be replicated. It’s her space. She keeps many plants, her room faces a patch of greenery in an otherwise bustling and dusty city, small animals visit her from time to time. Her latest visitor was a young cicada.
M. says that every great story shares a similar core—somebody wants to go home. A great part of my life has been spent finding ways to get away from home. Thinking that I’m just taking after my father, who was a seafarer, is a nice little piece of kibble I throw my ego once in a while. Home is the capacity to hold and let go of things at the right time.
(A tangential note: my mind is on the full moon and a volcanic eruption back home. It’s a weird place to be, cosmically and personally. I think going back to blogging is one of several ways I’m trying to process these endless passages (or what feels like passages) since the new year came around.)
The past semester felt like running a marathon. Or getting nearly mauled to death and barely surviving. Writing this post, five months from the last one, I feel like a chair that’s been thrown several times across a room until it no longer resembles a chair… which is probably what spiritual Twitter and Instagram phrases as transformation. Whether my soul takes on the form of detritus or a craftsman’s work, the point is I’m back!— not that anybody had been waiting for my superb *100 emoji* content.
I’ve been busy preparing for my graduate thesis and working on self-improvement (it’s every bit as boring as you’d think it would be). Part of the thesis (in my mind) is an exercise in self-recovery and the idea of transmutation. (One might ask: what’s the difference between transformation and transmutation? The quickest answer I can give is that transformation may refer to physical change and transmutation is more of an alchemical and actual chemical change— it gets tricky though because won’t chemical change trigger physical change? Is chemical and physical change mutually inclusive or are there instances when it’s just one or the other (i.e. chemical change without physical et cetera) What about the metaphysical dimensions of both terms? Thankfully, I’m not a scientist or a philosopher so I’ll just have to leave it to the wind or to somebody smarter than me.)
On the publishing front, not much has been happening because of said focus on school and self. I did publish an essay (review?— reviews are the Twilight Zone of writing for me) on Eliane Radigue’s Trilogie de la Mort on BERFROIS. The material from my research into Radigue’s life and work (and sound art, in general) has since developed into the bare bones of my graduate thesis. In between, I’m glad about what I think are improvements in my craft. I might share a few unpublished pieces here or find a place for them. All I know is no matter what happens past writing will always make my skin crawl (as with reading my posts from last year). That’s the most I can share for now.
Late Spring, I went on a trip to Providence, Rhode Island. It satisfied a long standing curiosity for me about how I came to know America— through pictures and illustrations from the Children’s Britannica, a mish-mash in the imagination from reading story books whose names I don’t recall, and, of course, reading Poe, Lovecraft and King in my teens. I remember we had a tiny figurine of what I think is a Mansard House, which I latched onto because it fed the fantasies I had about home. All brick and, or concrete, the windows fully covered with glass (not just jalousies), multiple labyrinthine rooms and baths, a garden, a body in the yard, a crawling chaos in the attic… and so on.
When I take trips, I don’t consider distance or how popular a destination is. I think what I seek is some kind of completion it will bring me. When I came to Providence, I basked in what I believe is a particular attention to quality of life, beauty and nature. In plain language, the good shit. All this and the multiple road works and an incredibly ugly public art piece at Brown (an iteration of Matisse’s “The Dance” but in a material that glimmers like crumpled aluminum foil under the hot sun)— ah, the spice of life! You can’t have it all but you can have a morsel. With some butter, if you’re lucky.
Because I want to be conventional and keep up with the standards of society, I really sought growth this summer. Summers must be meaningful, at least in the Western World, where you are basically frozen in the winter and still a recovering, crawling worm in spring; a wise old worm in autumn. I did just that by publishing and working like there was no tomorrow (technically, there will be no tomorrow soon because global warming will come for us all).
Some publications, up and forthcoming:
– “(NOT) MY WRITING DESK” at Queen Mobs Teahouse
– A visual poem called “The Tongue is a Shore Where Words Become Stranded” at Berfrois (pictured below)
– And forthcoming, again, at Queen Mobs Teahouse (under MISFIT DOCS) “First Flaneurysm”, a piece I wrote for a class in graduate school and it’s patterned after Georges Bataille’s Critical Dictionary. Will be out on August 27, 2019.
Writing and publishing until you go bald— not at all a bad defense mechanism!
On August, I’ll be flying across the Pacific to visit my home. My soul and sanity will be once again torn to shreds, only to be transformed into… something.
I can’t wait to have a view of a different intensity.
The Charisma Series is a four part installment of writings I prepared for a graduate class on the Charismatic Image. The term Charisma, as I understand it, as not exclusive to human beings (tied to leadership, politics, and celebrity—also very pertinent in today’s political and cultural climate) but to images as well. The assignments for the class require texts inspired or informed by images, of insight and criticism extracted from an image. Each assignment also has a theme. For this first installment, I wrote of Simultaneity and the Instant in relation to some photographs by a Filipino photographer named Teodulo Protomartir.
Protomartir of Lucban, Quezon, is cited as the Father of Philippine Photography. He was active around the 1930s until the early 1980s. He taught at the University of Santo Tomas in Espanya, Manila.
Wartime in a Warm Place
Simultaneity, Instant, and the Photographs of Teodulo Protomartir
The negatives were tucked in protective plastic albums, dim and grey with dust and mold. They languished souring, dreaming of places that no longer existed. One can say that these negatives are like the decades old comatose patients in the dim, grey rooms of lonely hospitals. The hours have crumpled, a somber passage from absence to presence tucked in places where the flesh sagged. At any moment, they could rise into the voluptuous afternoon light.
Of the places the negatives, to-be-realized images, dreamt of it can be said that the buildings were most stubborn. Especially the colonial ones and the Art Decos— they lingered in the streets and avenues of Manila, like uncles who wore pomade, tucked their shabby checkered shirts in their pleated slacks (ironed just the way their late wives had done and which their current girlfriends faithfully executed), and insisted that they could still come around (here, the girlfriend stops a giggle. One wonders what made them come—and stay). These men walked in the scent of their own regrets, and unmet dreams which they sought in every woman they dominated for a brief instant.
If a building reaches the limit of its own image, preserved in a photograph, it becomes garish, unrecognizable even. Touched up and re-painted boldly and badly in an attempt to appear new. Those who managed to keep their dignity, to keep faith to their preserved image, now look homeless or insane or both. Greasy, grimy, dressed for nowhere. Eyes most vivid like shattered windows shining in the neon and fluorescent. Sites of the most decadent consumptions and songs.
It was wartime in a warm place, with pockets of peace. In the floor above the antique shop in Kamuning, it is a quiet evening in 1885 and three girls, led by a fiery one named Pasyonarya, are conducting a May Day Eve ritual. They took turns holding a candle up in front of a mirror to determine their future husbands. (All of them will be wedded to Satan). On the ground floor, it is the year 2007 and a cinematographer, a man finds a box of decaying 35mm negatives.
The man looked up from the box. At the doorway was the store-owner. In the distant kitchen, her daughter cooked and listened to the radio. Late nineties indie wafted into the store. The vocalist’s mild case of alliteration resounded above the noise of boiling rice and the sharp fall of raw fish in hot oil. Under the eaves of the old house turned antique store, balete saplings that have made a home in the rotten wood shook in the wind. There was a sourness in the air, no doubt from the negatives, that seemed to pinch the moment to an intensity. They felt time bunching up and colliding. But they only perceived this as the sun shining brighter, as if a cloud had passed, and the clip-clop of hooves coming a little louder. In Pasyonarya’s May Day Eve ritual, this is the moment the truth of romance was revealed. The candle flame surges.
They spoke briefly. The store-owner mentioned that the negatives belonged to the Father of Philippine Photography. She mentioned a name that did not register with the man— he knew all the names in the industry, past and present. Perhaps, the future, too. (In the showbiz circuit, he was also known as some kind of seer that had launched countless careers.) He noticed a piece of torn paper inside the box. On it, written in pencil, were words that he could not make out. Like hieroglyphs. Or rather, the paper was speaking in tongues, having seen the light after sixty-two years in the fuzzy cardboard dark. He made a decision to purchase the negatives.
By the altar behind the till is an ancient photograph of the store-owner’s ancestor. A middle aged woman in sepia. In her eyes were a gleam that people misunderstood as trust. She hid her irony well behind a smile. “Laging nagmamahal, Syoni” (“Ever loving, Syoni”) was written at the bottom right of the photo. He took it as an auspicious sign and left the store with a spring in his step.
What few of the them he could salvage, he cleaned and scanned. The decaying negatives yielded images which portrayed the city at immediate decomposition. Photographs of the city hall, two churches: Santo Domingo and Lourdes. The piece of paper, once he had figured out what it was saying, contained technical notes and described the photographs as the “restoration of Manila”. A faint suggestion crept into his mind. The city, in these images are passing from immediate decomposition to recomposition. Into what? Into, perhaps, the city he knows. And what was that but another thing that constantly strived, beneath with unease, for an affirmed presence. These were places that no longer existed in essence, only in vestiges. Each moment seemed to show the city wrapped in golden hour. In every facade he recognized the city he knew at present, but in the images they bore other, some multiple, iterations. As if he were seeing who and what someone had been in all their former lives.
In 1946, a photographer, yet to be known and recognized, had gone out and took these pictures. No blood, no fire, only a drama carried out beyond the frame. The serene aftermath. The city’s death-mask in the form of photographs. He acknowledged all this and held it close to his heart. But he was a pragmatic man and also knew some money could be extracted from these aesthetic revelations. He reached for the telephone.
It is possible to escape the grasp of nostalgia when one considers the instant instead of the passage of time. To think that everything is both done and undone. That perhaps being can be taken to the utmost through presence. Which bears to ask, what does it mean to be present in an instant? Gaston Bachelard describes the instant as brimming with simultaneities. The three photographs by Teodulo Protomartir contain the sense of the instant by appearing as recognizable even though a majority of its features no longer exist. It is both is and is not. It can be said that in these photos, one is seeing Manila and yet not seeing it for what it was, is, and has been since. In this respect, considering presence through simultaneity is recognizing that presence also means an absence, the way it is often said that light and shadow operate together in order to create an image or scene. Presence as potent illusion.
We go back to where we began, with images resting in obscurity and which had once approached the edge of disappearance. That without an intervening hand, through happenstance, we wouldn’t even know existed. As if it matters that they had surfaced— how has this reality been possibly shaped by the small presence of these images?
Both images were taken in 1946.
There were two major changes that occurred in my life this year and in both instances, I had been most grateful. First was that my mother and me were able to move into a more permanent home. In some way, a step towards stability finally. Second, in early August I came to New York City to fulfill a masters degree, with the generous support of certain persons. (For sure, I am firmly indebted to them well into middle-age.)
The latter half of this year has been very fruitful and I am inspired to work better and to lay some kind of ground for me to walk on.
What else can I say? I am working towards giving myself a better situation as a writer in a new city. Making space for myself where I know people will think twice before giving it to me or will deny it completely. I don’t think anything drastic will change for the better next year and, as everyone knows, it seems to be getting worse. But we march on and undergo transformations as we overcome struggle.
In certain situations, I had responded with less grace. A kind of porousness in character, which I think arises when I feel a mixture of shyness, fear, social myopia, and the need to protect myself. A mixture turned into surfeit by my stubborn nature and the need to be at all times ‘optimistic’. Or, perhaps, sunny. It is difficult to reach out, to navigate through an ocean of various and often clashing personalities. But here, I know I need to reach a little more. To dive deeper without losing the band of light; here, what I see in my mind are the golden borders in manuscripts, lush vignette borders…
In a little Instagram game, I came upon two words which I think would be worthy pegs for next year: Grounding and Magic. In a sense that, when I reach into my coat pockets, I find all that I need to navigate around the city. In a sense that, when I think deeply of something, I am also able to paint in writing a level with which I may see the entire world and define or defend it in a way that is considerate, fair, ethical, equitable for all other views involved.
Really, all I ever hope for is to be kinder and more thoughtful, generous. And maybe get a long warm hug because it is too damn cold.
The storm was dissolved through the night. She woke up with the sweet sunlight pressing against her eyelids and her cat’s soft, cool paw on her nose. Somebody was pacing loudly down the hall. Downstairs, the telephone rang.
A blue and orange tolda rose to meet the afternoon and revealed a dog and cat napping on a worn bench. A crowd was beginning to form at the market for tonight’s festivities. He pressed his camera firmly to his side. Puffy baby chicks, dyed bright green and pink, cried in a cage. A band of ragged children were on their way to play the Color Game.
Whiskey began to do its work. She was getting warmer. Not that she needed to get any warmer in this climate; the cold that needed to be addressed endured in the interior. Inexplicable and unfathomable. Across the street, a family was engaged in a joint effort to hang a parol over their door. Behind the window in the second floor, a woman in an apple green dress watched. She knew this woman was no longer among the living.
Two pale hands held a green bowl filled with small, smooth white pebbles. Her legs were submerged in the river, icy water gripped every strand of muscle. But she was not in pain. Her eyes were turned to the mountain shrouded in mist. Some of the tree tops shook. Something, or someone, was making its way down.
Setting is a dense, old city, full of dead energy. Evening. A grimy street with some character. Signs in floresent and neon, peeling paint and layers of ad and campaign posters. Closed up shops turned into gallery spaces, cloning centers, and expensive hole-in-the-wall eateries. The place has a good color palette, vintage. Good for instagram photos or unbearable author photographs. Few people on the street. From the center of the frame, a flamingo pink wall, the phantom couple emerges. X and J out in search of the apocryphal, ninth Shrek movie in Blu-Ray.
Cut to still shot of a fluourescent sign that reads: IDIOSYNKRETIK EKSPERYENSE.
X: What is that supposed to mean?
J: The hologram of
MC Ride said the ninth Shrek movie can be found here.
X: We’re in a funny part of town.
J: The writer of this story does not know how to spell ‘flourescent’. There, she did it again!
Ah. Finally, I did it!
X: Who said that?!
J: Who said that?!
It is I, the all-speaking I.
Semana Santa heat brought tears into one’s eyes. She mouthed her prayers as she lit a green candle. Though a cool breeze swept past the chapel, the flame was not diminished. Footsteps sounded on the marble floor. She turned. It was him.
Blue light spilled onto the street. The heels of her shoes sounded smart on the pavement. Three floors up the building, two people were shouting. Whether it was out of spite or joy, she could not tell. Night was unfolding at each step and her heartbeat became quicker when out of nowhere, the air became saturated with the scent of cadena de amor.
Light of the moon, heal me, she said as she held a bunch of white lilies. In her heart, felt a little knot undo itself. The black sea rolled like silk and about the mangroves, fireflies lingered. To heal was to give in to the indulgent visions. Tomorrow, the boat will dock on the island to take her back to the city. For now, she drew in the warmth of the bonfire and the moonlight and that waning song somewhere among the trees.
Casa Alameda, a sprawling one-storey building, had once been a pancit factory. In her mind, she conjured the sound of the machines rolling and refining the flour to make noodles. Something like, tu-ga-taka tu-ga-taka tu-ga-taka tak tu-ga-taka tu-ga-taka tu-ga-taka tuk tak. And so on. On the floor, detritus from all the years. Detritus, as if time had crashed and fallen as shards of glass, pieces of wood, and metal on the ground. Each moment lay there around her. Without rhyme or rhythm, only senseless metaphor for time and personal histories.
An unexpected thing happened that afternoon. A maya landed outside her window, holding a small, folded piece of yellow paper in its beak. “Hello,” she humored herself by talking to the bird, “what do you have there?” The bird cocked its head sideways and dropped the piece of paper, as if to say, ‘this is for you, really yours.’ As soon as she picked it up, the bird flew away. She unfolded it. On it was written: Tonight, the world will be crushed by a rain of stars.
Her studio was on the third floor of a building built in the 1920s. Light from the street lamps fell through the window. The room was an eclectic assemblage of the things she liked or the things that caught her eye. Perhaps the same could be said about the rooms of certain people. But hers was distinct in a way that some of the objects in her room only made half-sense. For instance, a sculpture that looked like a plate and a pot cover at the same time, but was neither. A skirt hung on the wall as if a tapestry. When asked what informed her work, what the core was, she responded with a curt nod and said it was hunger. Then she rose from her seat and produced a dozen sculptures of socks, stacked as if it were a pile of laundry.
The city is a spiral that grew through years of private disuse and public mistrust. Still, she found pockets of light and warmth in it, especially with him. It was in this city where they met. Where, under the light of a green lamp on a parking ramp near a bar called Boni’s, they first professed enduring love for each other. The couple had known difficult times. Both felt wistful as they boarded a plane to a different country. Both also knew that they could keep running but the collapse will always catch up.
She thought, as she looked out the window on the tiny lights, she could utter a spell that could change things.
The bells were bunched like grapes and hung from the ceiling. She noticed how the space smelled like roses. It was an overcast afternoon, the air thick. She walked in, no expectations, only drawn in by shimmering flash of the tiny metal bells.
Bells bunched up. She read the text on the pamphlet. Seduction Devices. Devices for Sedition. She thinks to herself in the hollowed room. Interesting how such a thing had served a double purpose in the past. In espionage, Seduction and Sedition were twin sisters joined at the shoulder. Yesterday’s weapons were today’s art pieces. And tomorrow, everything will be moved into the basement. The space will turn into a shrine for a statue of somebody’s mother dressed like a saint. Mother does not look happy.
Spring rain came. The roads shimmered, dead stars that had gently fallen from the sky, meaning no harm to anyone or thing, and scattered. Everything was unfolding. Flowers holding their tight buds through the last minute. A child standing on tip-toes reaching up to something, perhaps a bug hovering in the air, taut and focused. A couple huddled on a street corner, now, reading a message on a cellphone. One that will change their lives forever. How ghostly were their faces, now, like the moon. But smiles are breaking, even on the cracked asphalt that released heat. When the city wakes up, she knows she will vanish.
Note: These writings were prompted by a game on Twitter where I had to write ways of introducing my friends as though they were characters in the stories I write. I still have several friends without intros and there is still the intention to produce something for them. The post will be added to, soon.
A response to the exhibit CONVERGENCE (17 November – 5 December 2018) at the Arnold and Sheila Aronson Galleries, New School, 66 5th Avenue, New York City. Curated by Utsa Hazarika.
I. Here Come the Multitudes
The central question posed by the exhibit Convergence: “Can artworks create social spaces through the communities they implicate?”
Through this question, the exhibit also actively investigates the power of art spaces to bring together aspects of culture and society, that even in their variety or complete difference from each other are still somehow able to transform and create strange harmonies. The act of coming together is a process, sometimes smooth, at other times gloriously messy. The lingering idea among cultural workers and patrons is that a gallery or museum space, however their formation and continuing existence are also subject to scrutiny or institutional critique, is able to provide venues for a variety of voices. But before this ideal is taken into consideration, in the context of Convergence and countless works that have endeavored to investigate cultural spaces and institutions, it still begs to be asked: But do they, really? The route that Utsa Hazarika, as curator, takes is through the artworks themselves.
Hazarika’s careful and skillful curation of the works created a dialogue between the works and that the ‘voice’ of each work would be considered by its viewer. Hazarika, in the exhibition catalog, explicates that Convergences is drawn from Homi Bhabha’s concept of social processes as a confluence and convergence of time, place, idea and image (Artforum, 2017). To humbly add: sound, light, and air. Elements that are as indispensable to the well-being of the gallery space as it is for the rest of the world. Firmly placed within this discourse is the concept of fluid geographies and borderlessness. But before these are further considered, ample consideration must also be applied at the existing realities of walls, fences, barbed wires, social bonds, kept things and constrained bodies.
“The influence of these ideas on Black and South Asian art in Britain is widely recognized through the works of artists such as Black Audio Film Collective, whose works transgress the borders between disciplines, genres, and identities. Less often are they seen interacting with curatorial practice and its relationship to the institutional structures within which art is valued, viewed and consumed… Convergence employs these sociological and artistic approaches to interrogate these structures.” (p.9).
Convergence can also be considered an integration of social critique with institutional criticism. The conversation and investigation may be looked at not as a linear process of communication but as the exchange of a multitude of voices and images.
II. Rhythms and Atmospheres
“For those who make it to safe shores, land offers no solace.”
“…so on the bus we attempt to forget those nights where we walk up in the market defenseless, knowing we cannot afford this life…”
“Who’s to say/ the fire’s stopped?”
The exhibition catalog also features writings by Lara Atallah, Cameron Downey, and Jamiya Leach. The addition of creative pieces cultivates a texture that can be considered unique to the exhibition. The format of the catalog also turns it into an important element of the exhibition. Placed in between the curator’s note and the artist’s statements, it also aids the viewer/reader in locating their perceptions and presence within the exhibition space. It creates the possible rhythms and atmospheres with which the viewer/reader might see the works. Or, rather, which might help the reader/viewer find ground in seeing the works. This creates, also, a sense of intimacy with the space and text/ subtexts.
III. Twelve Concepts
“Kindred Stitches” by Sareh Imani works with the concept of mending. She explores this concept through a three-channel video installation. On one screen, she tries to revive her sick cactus while receiving advice from her parents, as well as listening to their stories of how they had previously saved countless cacti. On another channel, Imani tries to mend a broken cast of her mother’s back. The third channel features her father performing reconstructive ear surgery. Kinship and healing are strong elements within the work but there is also patent interest in the political aspect that emerges, especially with regards to the third channel. Imani explicates, “In this surgery, a dismembered ear is being reconstructed with sculpting techniques using the patient’s rib cartilage. This antiquated method is used in Iran as a result of US sanctions which made artificial ear prostheses inaccessible” (p. 34). Though Imani explores deeply personal relations through medical imagery, the viewer is also afforded a glimpse on how a larger concern, such as global politics, permeate and alter ways of living and doing.
From acts of mending and making-do in spite of constraints, the reader/viewer’s attention is led to a state and sight of dissolution. “The Night Floats on the Water” by Natalia Almonte paints a corner of the gallery space in pitch black. Within this immersive (or, what was intended to be an immersive) space household objects are mounted to the wall to evoke a sensation of them floating up to the ceiling. A single white rope and a stone above and beyond the dark corner seems to be an attempt to tether the scene, and are effective in their failure to do so. “In the darkness I sense the scale of the room to be at an unattainable distance and simultaneously closing in on my body” (p. 36). “The Night Floats on the Water” is a delicate yet powerful work on catastrophe and the helplessness and loss that surrounds a community during the event and even at the recovery phase. Putting it into context, the reader/viewer may look no further than the aftermath of Hurricanes Katrina (2005) and Maria (2017) in New Orleans and Puerto Rico, respectively; Haiti after the earthquake in 2010; or Tacloban City, Philippines after Typhoon Yolanda (Haiyan) in 2013, and countless other natural disasters the world over that have altered landscapes and displaced communities.
Alonso Cartú portrays power struggles through the installation “On Good Terms with Temptation”. Using ink popsicles, Cartu turns a friendly and decidedly innocent gesture of offering a treat, in this case a popsicle, into a cold one (pun not intended). Once the ink popsicles have melted, broken symbols on the wooden sticks emerge. This can be considered a passage from darkness to clarity, to borrow Hazarika’s commentary on the work. It can also be seen as a visual play on subtext, sarcasm, or pun. The disillusionment that passes once a relationship has been put under harsh light and it is clarified that everything is not what they seem to be. A smile melting away to reveal a frown or, perhaps worse, a neutral, impersonal stare.
Locating the body and the consciousness it harbors within physical and virtual space is tackled in Alymamah Rashed’s “The Title of this Painting is Written in Invisible Fruit Ink”. Through what she refers to as her Muslima Cyborg Body, Rashed investigates the discourse of her own body in relation to liminal spaces, of fluctuating between borders, bodies of water, and questionable geographies. Rashed uses warm colors which reminds one of the sunset, and a deep prussian blue as a ground upon which the virtual body in the canvas appears to be praying. This body takes on an ethereal appearance, with three faces, and three other, smaller bodies hovering above it, signifying the multiplicity of identities, the complexity of consciousness that traverses physical “real” space and the virtual space of the canvas, of an artwork. The canvas is propped on two wooden blocks with the hands of the Muslima Cyborg Body painted on them, on one hand is a black vase with a single red rose. These details on the floor signal to the reader/viewer that this body is not solely confined within the canvas space but also spills onto their reality.
The concept of water as home can be seen in Adrian White’s black and white photographs. Among the excellent collection is “Untitled (5)”, a striking photo of a woman walking towards the ocean, a mask behind her head. Perhaps a reference to and re-imagination of the Janus head where one traverses time looking back and forward simultaneously. A photographer based in New York, White’s works primarily deal with the people of the African diaspora. He creates portraiture that deals with memory, trauma, and history. “Untitled (5)” specifically refers to the story of seventy-five Igbo people and their chief who walks with his people back into the water rather than be taken as slaves. The chief sings in the Igbo language, the water spirit brought us, the water spirit will take us home. White recreated this story with performance artist Raissa Mata.
When we think of inheritance, we often tie it to material possession and heritage. Victoria Manganiello’s “Terminis” is an installation of meticulously handwoven textiles, in black and yellow, that express a progression through the variations in pattern for each of the five panels hanging from the gallery ceiling. Through these textiles and their connections to story-telling (for instance, weaving patterns found in many world cultures often also harbor the stories and memories of a people), technology as a means of passing knowledge and heirlooms, and geography, the concept of inheritance can be finely framed, however these connections are still tenuous. “Knowledge of the future is never provided at the start, yet we can understand that there is a connection to our histories” (p. 50).
Ephemeral visions or momentariness can be found in Zeshan Ahmed’s “Under Erasure”, which takes on the philosophical implications of color and erasure. “Color doesn’t exist but the perception of color does” (p. 54). In “Under Erasure”, Ahmed explores the limits of photographic representation by breaking down the image to its syntax of Red, Green, and Blue (RGB) in separate film layers which was then installed, on top of each other, on the gallery wall. Allowing the light to seep through each layer creates new, abstracted images. Images that are constantly present, as we are aware of having seeing them, but never truly fixed. Each element flits in and out of vision, like moths in a flickering flame.
Moving from an image broken apart to create other perceptions of wholeness, we move to Alexis Williams’ digital collage “Depression”. Against the backdrop of a desert, we see a man, bent facing the sky, whose soul appears to be leaving his body. It also appears to be a gesture of surrender, as one tries to grapple with “the power of mental and emotional weight” with one’s subconscious (p. 56).
Luis M. Diaz’s digital c-print photographs, “Untitled” are testaments to his intentions of becoming the record keeper of his family’s narrative. A narrative that revolves around migration, labor, and the American Dream. Diaz writes, “It’s been thirteen years since my family has immigrated… They sacrifice their bodies in the name of the American Dream. A dream that has given as much as it has taken. A dream that’s turned into a nightmare. A dream that is ultimately a lie. My work comes from a desire to be recognized… … It’s through creating that we resist expectations and generalizations that have been created to suppress” (p. 60-61). There is a difficult space to be traversed in deciding to be an artist and belonging to a group of people that have been boxed into specific categories or stereotypes. Diaz’s gesture and act of being record keeper as artist (or artist as record keeper) both undergoes and overcomes this difficult space as he creates art which may also be considered a refined record of his family’s struggles.
Liberation in ambivalence is at the core of Subin Kahn’s work “Aurora Floral Dress”, an asymmetrical dress that incorporates both feminine and masculine silhouettes. It “represents a young soul, bruised and deformed by gender norms and stereotypes” (p. 68).
The concept of imprints of the collective in a personal mythology are seen in Nandi Bayekula’s “Totems”, where she explores the fine lines between the hidden and the revealed. For Convergence, she created a series of tapestries that evoke ceremonial masks from the Baoule people of Cote D’Ivoire. These masks were specifically used for ceremonies to attract bountifulness. Through her own take on traditional masks, putting imprints of her heritage into the work (which may be said for each artwork in this exhibit), has also enabled her to communicate with her ancestry and the memory of her people. Bayekula’s works, with respect to the rest of the works in Convergence, also open up the larger question of how can identity, specially political and cultural aspects of it, be delicately and deftly handled as it is expressed in art? Further, and to act as a Devil’s Advocate, could there be a way to be pressing yet gentle in wanting to be recognized? Could there be an oblique strategy in declaring one’s questions, frustrations, and bid for presence? These questions are raised in light of Bayekula’s masks harboring dense strands of identity, history, and memory yet commanding a quiet, potent presence in its place in the gallery hallway. In front of the elevators, in the sound of conversations and banter, no less.
IV. More Questions than Answers
Going back to the exhibit’s main question: Can artworks create social spaces through the communities they implicate?
Extending the inquiry, perhaps it would be also helpful to consider what is meant by social spaces. Harking back to lingering ideas about galleries and museums, they would qualify as social spaces in so far as having been formed, so it is said, for the general public. It is a common sentiment to look upon archives and collections and lament that it is “hidden from public eye” and would be worthy to showcase for the “public”. Who is the public? is a question that has been uttered by countless cultural workers working within and beyond the boundaries of institutions. Harking back to Nandi Bayekula’s work and the questions it inspired, it seems that this ongoing investigation on spaces, institutions, and identities, there are more questions than answers. It seems that one must learn to become comfortable with the abundance of questions without answers. To be constantly wondering and be led into enchantment.
Through the artworks in Convergence, a social space is created for artists working within the categories of ‘young’ and ‘of color’ and of different orientations, interests, and genders. It can be said that the goal was to create a space whose lines were not so clearly defined so as to be inclusive and accommodating. What can also be thought of as a safe social environment. Within these parameters, the exhibition proves to be effective in spite of the unevenness of the works. Hazarika as an artist and curator, as well as the artists she was able to gather with for Convergence possess great potential and growth. It is a wish to see more of their works in the coming years.
All quoted statements are taken from the exhibition catalog for Convergence, 2018.
Consider attention as an agreement. A pact between the perceived and the observer. A thing, landscape, situation or person catching the gaze and presence of another.
—- Hello, here, look! Look at me!
—- Oh, hi, I haven’t seen you before. Have you been here for a long time?
—- Not really. Just long enough for you to notice me.
—- Wow. What are the odds?
Consider attention as an agreement which neither of the two parties have been aware of until the moment it is executed. Somewhere unknown is a hand that had willed for these bodies to be at the exact place and moment to meet. The only signature needed is the memory imprint, knowledge that each one exists and there is a shared memory.
(Photo by ZMD Recidoro)
Welcomed by concrete, plastic, and a smell I couldn’t describe— chemical, gasoline, a bit melancholy and fluorescent, I first met New York at midnight.
These days I always wake up 3 am, Witching Hour, though nothing about my environment suggests dark secrets or comedies in underground tunnels.
In trying to acclimate, I still grope for words. Maybe in crossing the Pacific, under the force of departure I disintegrated in two halves, bloated and eyes bloodshot, and am still trying to be whole again.
Monday, I roamed around Manhattan with my mom and uncle. It took my mind off the act of trying-to-be-one-again. It was a gloomy, rainy day, not the best day to roam, but maybe a reasonable light to see Manhattan with.
We visited the School of Visual Arts building, which honestly intimidated me. The day after, a Tuesday, my mom told me that we had, in fact, visited the back-door. The entrance was at the 24th, across NYU, where my aunt went to see her dentist.
After lunch, we stopped by the Asian Cultural Council office where I met with ACC Senior Program Associate Liz Behrend and saw their collection of artworks by former fellows.
My uncle taught me all the stops and streets in Manhattan. Tonight, I’ll try to venture out on my own and see it in another light. I’ll also be meeting up with a good friend, and I’ll see how this all goes.
I’m still processing plenty of things— things I never quite expected, accomplishments and all. I follow the shadows of anticipation and anxiety as I ease into Staten Island and Manhattan. Or do the shadows follow me? That tone is too edgy for me and I’d rather be the one chasing (away) my own emotions.
In a fit of vanity, I’d also like to note that all this walking around S.I. and Manhattan has decreased my back fat (hurrah).
My uncle took us to Rockefeller Center and the 9/11 memorial. Even in daylight, without the two beams of light, it was quite moving. How it is a symbol for both endless grief and hope. This photo does not do it justice.
I do plan to write more about this in length, once my headaches leave me and I get used to the new hours and the air.
We also visited St. Patrick’s Church, I had been telling my mom that we should go and that I wanted to pray there. We missed the 1:30 pm mass and I made a promise to myself to hear mass here more often once my schedule settles, too.
The architecture is exquisite, the experience delicious. The church was lit with lamps that were for me too bright, and I thought it might have something to do with the need to See-All, for surveillance. No body is left concealed. I am more used to dim, somber churches, so this is something new to me.
Expect more lengthy and evocative pieces in the next few weeks. I still have a few errands to do before the term begins. Thanks for reading.