Napoleon Abueva’s long distance race

Napoleon Abueva’s house in Tandang Sora Quezon City is littered with busts of important people coated in dust. Some parts of the sculptor’s studio have fallen out of use since his sickness which restricted him to a wheel chair for over five years now. The stroke practically ended his major productions. At that time I was a sophomore in UP and he was constructing around six sculptures in the garden adjacent to the UP College of Fine Arts. I had met him before when he sat down our fraternity tambayan while eating some siomai. He sat silently. I had seen him in the awards night as a judge of an art contest for students I had participated.  I had seen him in high spirits while giving the opening remarks to an exhibition at the Vargas Museum.

Around four years ago, I met him again to invite as a guest to my first group exhibition but Napoleon Abueva, called by people close to him as “Billy”, was still bed-ridden. Despite this, he took time to receive us. Last year, he wrote a recommendation letter for our crew in support of the Dumaguete Art Project. He was already half-paralyzed and deteriorated to bed-rest. Billy Abueva is the first sculptor I knew and the first sculptor I admired. I learned that his modernist piece “Lover’s Embrace” was done about the time when Brancusi did his but I liked his version better because the lovers were lying down on top of each other as opposed to Brancusi’s which were merely standing up. In a visit to his house, one of his sons, helped us prepare for the challenges we would meet in making a public installation in Dumaguete. He was tough and discerning, he wanted to make sure we knew what we were doing before he gave his support. I was wondering then, What would Napoleon Abueva advise us if he had the strength to talk to us?

Tonight, Billy Abueva is celebrating his 82nd Birthday. It was only days ago when he suffered from a ruptured bladder and his son was calling for blood donors. I wanted to donate (just the thought of sharing my blood with a National Artist interests me) but I was out of the country. I wanted to send him a card to say thank you for all the support he gave, I wanted to tell him how his letter we presented to those concerned opened doors for our project and how this project eventually landed me a research residency in Berlin. I wanted to tell him how I studied his piece at the National Museum as a young-critic-in-training but I find that my gratitude is small compared to the outpouring of love from all his friends, co-artists, and relatives.

Billy Abueva once said that a career in the arts is a “long-distance race.” What matters he says is that an artist sets his goals for the long haul and not be discouraged by the many trials he will surely face. Every time I read his letter, I immediately recall a succession of images from when he was pulling the rope to hoist a sculpture, under the sun to a mental picture of him smiling in a wheel chair while viewing works by young artists to a picture of his pale face and thin hands in the sickbed slightly waving to recognize our presence. Billy Abueva is the grandfather artist I wish I had and so many artists wish they had.  His sculpture welcomed me to college in UP, shaded me under the heat while waiting for an Ikot jeepney, intrigued me endless while sitting endless on a bench in front of my building. My first essay about the art was relating his work to that of another Filipino modernist, Jose Joya.

Tonight, he is awake but could no longer support his head to see the people. I know he hears us, the people who were there and threw him a shindig. He could probably sense the warmth of our Happy Birthday song but he could no longer blush, could no longer return the gratitude, could barely touch because everything has to be sanitized. While dust gathers around his works and unfinished projects, a tight hand is grabbing my heart. Even though our relationship was at best between an idol and a fan, I could not look at him like this. I walked away and sneezed.

Introduction to Moment’s Notice

It is my belief that in any profession, especially in the creative line, one never completely moves beyond the pull of the personal in any human encounter. Experience teaches us to not look at the works merely as objects but also the process behind it. My project has in its typical manner sought to deeply explore my quest as a writer enamoured by the arts and despite all the evident energy displayed to represent this impossibly unending single perspective (as usual), much of the artists representative work included here appear to be fundamentally derivative. Yet the dispersal of artistic ideas seems to be commuted into a diagnosis if anything, lacking in any collective manifesto, speaking mainly through the voices of the individual artists, rather than via any organized curatorial or critical apparatus.
A portion in the book aims to spotlight new talent—artists who deserve more attention outside their art schools, cheap studios, and apartments. I did not seek to work with a set of artists who are normally shown together or those who can easily fit into a concept. I would gladly abandon any curatorial framework in favour of having these people exhibited together even if only in a publication. The reasons are immense and diverse and I have often remarked that this has a working title of “A Few of my Favourite Things,” and I was only half-joking. It is true that the pleasure of rummaging through the materials the artists sent me and visits to their studios and travelling with them is primary to any blanket of coherence that I can cover for this project.
Choosing the photos that would see final print, I often rethink about how to stitch them together and caption them. In the context of critically perplexing language, some artworks play second fiddle to the opinion of their curator, looking like any typical Berlin or Manila group show in yet another white space with ostentatious ambitions and titles. It occurred to me that other curators have already been eagerly successful in exploiting a packaged kind of leftover cosmopolitan attitude towards exhibitions, and this publication simply wants out of that order or at least defeat it by being conscious about it.
My vision if not my work for this project is far from over. Jerwin Collado’s installation entitled Muling Pagkabuhay ni Hesus Cristo is an example. Vaguely and in a very general term, his work evokes the young force behind much of current artistic production. It seems adolescent, not yet inebriated by a supposed maturity needed to succeed in the art world but it is fresh and it sheds new color on a largely greying art scene full of mass-produced, commercially-oriented works. I picked the works for their sincerity and the potential of awkward and quirky juxtapositions such as the pairing of Maria Cruz and Marina Cruz Garcia who in Manila are each commonly mistaken for the other or of artists whom you cannot categorize so easily by age, citizenship, and gender or art genre.
The raw material is there, which this collection is happy to show us. We just don’t yet know what kind of value will ultimately be stamped onto it. I hate to end this introduction on a slightly depressing note but the dramatic and widely publicized impasse between quarrelling factions and sensationalized portrayal in the media that will likely result in misguided notions of contemporary art in Manila can be seen as a symptom of the art scene’s problematic relationship with the larger, international art world. In my small attempt, I propose to dispel that by presenting artists you would never see together in any museum or gallery collection. Thus, the crossing of artistic coteries and the discordant but not meaningless insertions of international artists. More than half of the artists included here work outside the Philippines and few of them actually know each other. Art History is currently being rewritten, whether or not we like it, and such understandings of former affinities disappear. One may see this presentation as part of an organized revision of an attitude towards contemporary art which cuts the boring parts out. Or maybe just a mere coincidence common in art of elsewhere that is also bordered and divisive. But let me end here since I don’t believe in accidents and long explanations. – Geronimo Cristobal, Jr.

4 November 2011
Berlin, Germany