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Manila Landscape And Lives In Contemporary

Art (By Ana P. Labrador )

The visual arts have become both a refuge from and a catharsis to problems of city living in Manila. Through their works, Filipino artists have looked beyond the disorder either to find something pleasing or to recontextualise the images around them. It is as though the practice of making art renders possible finding oneself in this confluence of people and structures.

The Topography and geometry of the city

Painter Ferdie Montemayor gives us an overview of the Manila landscape by emphasizing its forms and shapes, which he sees from a distance. Living in the hills of Antipolo, just at the rim of eastern Metro Manila, he locates centres and their trajectories through the patterns he sees from tops of residential and commercial areas. But these are always placed in a setting suffused with a gloomy, orange glow, like the dying embers of a once smouldering fire.

Moving in closer to his subjects, Anthony Palomo examines the criss-crossing of concrete arteries at the heart of the city. Built in the late 1980s to decongest vehicular traffic, these "flyovers" raised road mobility above ground. Palomo focuses on these elevations around our built environment, looking up rather than down the cityscape. Meanwhile Fernando Escora zooms in on the shopping malls, rendering his work on the outside of these now omnipresent urban halls colourless. He believes emptying it of colour approximates the mall's soulless character. Despite the busy and crowded scenes around its environment, Fernando Escora manages to evoke a distance among the characters he includes in his work.

Claustrophobia of city living

Lack of space and the bombardment of advertisements mark urban areas everywhere. Manila's inner cities are dense with people living so close together that privacy is virtually non-existent. Some families reside in accessorias, one-room areas of converted old houses downtown. Jerson Samson's paintings of cross-sections of houses illustrate this overcrowding no matter if he uses a bright palette.

Cramped quarters also entail sleeping in claustrophobic areas such as that painted by Reynold Dela Cruz. He has chosen to depict the view from the top of a small sleeping quarter into which two boys struggle to fit their gangly limbs. Vincent Padilla shows various scenes along a passageway in what appears to be a shanty town. Meandering and maze-like, these passages are a backdrop to everyday human dramas.

Cool and trendy Manila

Some have attributed the uncertainty of contemporary life to its soulless culture. Distance is a way people use to protect themselves from being vulnerable. By appearing cool this distance is effectively conveyed. Being cool can mean either being unfazed or following the current trend. The latter is characterised by a conformity to an idea that disregards individuality. Anonymity is the essence of most cafe societies in cosmopolitan areas. Kiko Escora captures this in his work, where subjects are detached from the world outside their circles. As participants in this social performance, the artist seems to re-describe them as individuals gaining control over their lives by the very act of choosing to immerse themselves in that obscurity.

This de-personalised existence of human beings is represented by two installations in this exhibition. Joaida Mejico has stuffed assorted, used shoes in a big glass box. They appear to be in shambles as if the people who wore them hastily dropped them and disappeared. Encasing them in glass makes it look like those shoes have been preserved, never to be worn again. Ikoy Ricio brings up other ideas of anonymity in his installation of thick rubber sheets inserted symmetrically with thong tops of rubber flip-flops. As it appears, they look like uncut footwear whose sizes and shapes are undifferentiated in the sheet. Such an ambiguous identity of possible wearers reminds us of the impersonal character of most manufactured goods. After being exchanged or purchased, these goods eventually get marked by the bodies of their users.

Rather than mere ambiguity, Kim Landicho prefers to present the possibility of androgyny. In his installation, he puts together the male and female symbols usually found separately near doors of toilets. For his work he implies the idea of same-sex spaces where gender lines can be blurred. Same-sex toilets are commonly found in underground dance clubs and gay bars in Europe. The trend has yet to become a norm in Asia or even in Manila, making the idea proposed by Landicho's work slightly confusing.

Sign and text overload

Sometimes the ubiquity of signs and images seems to have immunised most city dwellers as they try to keep body and soul together. Ikoy Ricio's signs installed as a wall piece are advertisements of tubero (or plumbers), hand-painted on metal sheets with their names and contact numbers. These are found nailed to wooden cable street poles still abundant in Metro Manila. Most of these poles would have as many as four to six plumbers promoting their trade. Ricio admits to nicking most of those included in this exhibit, but in the spirit of solidarity has replaced them with his own hand-painted versions.

Nona Garcia, on the other hand, incorporates texts in her work in continuing to explore dualism in her art. In her reconstruction of a hospital room, she examines the absence and presence of people. The abandoned city hospital her family owned was a source of inspiration, helping her to re-create the eerie atmosphere of a room occupied by ill people. Their now absent bodies have been both emphasised and memorialised in her work. Garcia has printed on the bedclothes the names of former patients confined in that room. By doing so, she fills the empty space with the memory of persons lest they be erased by time and the conversion of the disused hospital.

Discordant images

Abstract and surrealist images represented in this collection depict the loss of a sense of continuity from what has been familiar, such as tradition, to what is strange and new. Mariano Ching's layered paintings of an ominous sky with floating dark red biomorphic shapes is reminiscent of surrealist paintings of the early twentieth century. Geraldine Javier similarly works with biomorphic forms but she paints them on four canvases meant to be displayed next to each other. There is no obvious logic as to why they have been set close together other than the artist's intention.

The diptychs by Yasmin Sison, on the other hand, show a figurative image on one side and an abstract form on the other. Discordant images in two frames are also present in many advertising hoardings throughout the busy intersections of Manila. They are a way of attracting passers-by and have no other intention beyond that.

Alienation of youths

Older people have often voiced their concern about the corrupting influence of city life on young people. Much more insidious, however, is the alienating effect brought on by the numbing stimuli of a culture steeped in television and video games. Elmer Roslin comments on this in a series of works about young persons' loneliness and being adrift, their worlds revolving around malls and television. Rendering most of his images in grey and sepia tones, the artist limits his colour palette to emphasize the brooding atmosphere. Here, physical contact only happens while engaging in violent sports, such as boxing. Daniel Coquilla's painting is more haunting perhaps because he totally eliminates colour and renders his images of environmental destruction and urban decay in brown pastel. Other artists like Norman Dreo and Jeho Bitancor echo these sentiments and connect the alienation of youth to the degradation of the world around them. They shake us out of our own complacency, making us more aware of these connections.

City Heroes

For most people, making a living in Manila demands talent and fortitude. But keeping healthy and sane is an even greater task. The constantly shifting social system, the temporary alliances and lack of concern for public safety sometimes make surviving in the city a feat. Heroism is not just confined to endurance of the day-to-day but encom-passes maintaining a sense of identity. Mark Justiniani sees this in his painting of a guitar player who keeps to himself in a solitary and empty room. Perhaps he is singing to himself or just listening to the tunes he is making as a way of redeeming himself from the harsh world outside his room.

Justiniani's contemporary, Elmer Borlongan similarly finds heroes in ordinary Manila dwellers such as the figures of boys in the works featured in the exhibition. One shows a thin boy bearing high a metal cylinder of gas for fuel in the middle of a flooded street. The artists seem to be saying that heroes are actually made not born. It is living in Manila that hones one's skills and the physical and mental agility to make it through the day.

Dignity, identity and criticism are main themes that run through the works for this exhibition. These also demon-strate the pulse, lived lives and creativity of Filipino artists who find residing in this city both pleasurable and painful. Such tensions have provided them with the capacity to render visually what lies beneath what ordinary observers can only see.

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