Paintings that look at you

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A Blank Stare Dear Abstract

Yason Banal Vargas Museum, University of the Philippines- Diliman

His works are preoccupied with lives of outsiders nurtured and broken apart by interaction with the rest of the world giving them the touch of a perceptive wanderer. I have followed his works since I was in college where Banal also taught a course in Film. Since 2012 the peripatetic artist has lived most of the year in Quezon City, where for some time he was based in the second-floor director’s office at the University of the Philippines Film Center. You would likely see him in art galleries in the metro, where I met him just a month before his exhibition Untitled/Again (Marienbad) at OSAGE in Hongkong opened. The scale of the Hongkong exhibit’s ecstatic reception isn’t yet evident on the evening of our first conversation, though the works had already been exhibited in Berlin and London and well received by audiences. As of this writing, his exhibitions at the Met Museum and at the CCP have already passed and I have missed both. In viewing, A Blank Stare, I recall again that conversation with Banal where we talked about the prejudices and issues discussed in his works and the ordeals and lo and hi-times of being a third-world artist exhibited internationally. In one of those conversations, which started while driving to West Gallery in Quezon City, Banal started to recount subjects he used in his works as if he has no vested interest in their position—his stance is that of a detached observer. We also talked about movies and why he loves going to West Gallery so he can see an exhibition and carouse through Video 48 at the same time. Video 48 is a rental store of more than anything else, arcane Filipino movies. Banal was then fascinated by Tito, Vic and Joey and would soon complete all of their movies. He endures this or wallows in this kind of obsessions.   Yason Banal was born in 1972, in Quezon City and educated at the University of the Philippines and Goldsmiths in UK. He is the youngest of eight children. Unrestrained by conventions in his art practice he used to occupy himself instead with more practicable subjects. A fascination with the astronomy or astrology and literature hangs over much of Banal’s current production, composed before his exhibition in Oxford, which we also talked about also in that conversation.   Banal recounts a turbulent year, as he suffered personal losses and struggled to come to terms with the demands of art making after his work, Blackhole camera, won the admiration and was taken in by the TATE Collection. Those struggles were the subject of much of the searching artworks he created during the past years.   When I read about Banal’s performance-installation at OSAGE, which he says is inspired by seriality, black swans, and Alain Robert-Grillet, and Alain Resnais’ brilliantly cold classic “Last Year at Marienbad”. I was instantly drawn into the part of our conversation where he says he talks about contemporary constellation around etiquette, entrapment, and ennui. His interests in human figurines, sculptural garments and gallery artifacts he says were a product of the outlook on cinema. It might be interesting to note that the conversation happened after many postponements. I was intending to write an interview then which eventually took place in a twenty-four hour joint frequented by local alcoholics down West Avenue adjacent to Kowloon where we later had siopao. When I asked him if he had been here before, he said no, but that he liked the neon sign and the run-down environment. Situated amidst Times Street and Delta Theater, the inuman would have offered a pacified atmosphere, but a Karaoke and the loud chatter inseparable from any Manila bar combined with an ihaw-ihaw became an amusing distraction. Banal prefers his work to resemble something like this place—an “unassuming, awkward, invalid.” Right in the middle of this interview, Banal asks me to stop throwing in questions from my list and have a “conversation.” I close my laptop and he starts to say things “off-the-record.” I gave him my word and attempted to submit to my editor what’s left of the interview. It was never published. Last February, I had the chance to work closely again with Banal in a show organized by Brian Curtin at the Chulalongkorn University Art Center. Aside from doing the exhibition design, he was going to reprise a performance connected to his series of vignettes exhibited at the CCP exactly a year ago, during Valentines 2013. He would often hire good-looking men, many of them artists and intellectual-types to pose for his photographs while reading a book or painting. Often using a instamatic camera, the photos would come out well framed and composed but haphazardly, and enlarged on tarpaulin. The effect is akin to a high fashion photo shoot but with a slightly odd aesthetic supplemented by flourescent neon lights. The “Blank Stare” exhibit gathers what is typical of Banal’s practice; wry humor and whimsy are integral, but an exuberant sense of wonder impels the work. The neon light works in “Blank Stare,” Banal’s current solo exhibition at the Vargas Museum, continue in this mode, though they also contemplate a somber side of the artist’s relationship with the rest of the art scene which he depicts as a sort of impenetrable kingdom that is both serious and farcical. One that is imploding and yet still very much contained in a sweeping critique. Initially, I thought  ‘A Blank Stare’ was funny, but as I reviewed Banal’s placement of the various media works, I wised to the work’s sly reproach. Banal’s “Blank Stare” triggers the comparison between the stare of print ad models, which is perhaps the same stare channeled by models in his photographs. The exhibition is not unlike a beauty pageant, but one in which the participant works are not being judged by their own kind. The entire spectrum is reconfigurable and therefore hints at the subjective opinion that each viewer would bring to the task of staring. Nearby, Banal has arranged PVC pipes into a contraption where layers of tarpaulin and woven fabric of tribal patterns are hung. On the West Wing Gallery a neon sign of a Youtube link is the lone subject of a wall as if a barsign that cajoles you to enter or look it up. So I brought out my Iphone and was lead to a video manual on how to erase a painting. On one corner is flatscreen television which shows a slide show of Yason’s photographs of men reading books and posed, with flashing text accompanied by a background music that would be familiar to a televised stock market update. Heavily self-reflexive, one can say that ‘A blank stare’ is an exhibition about exhibitions, a sort of love letter to artists of his generation. Most obviously, A blank stare is a ambiguous commentary on the life of the contemporary artist.  The title of the exhibition perhaps refers to the environments, activities, and thoughts of an artist about the predicament of his peers and the art world. He presents the very behavior representative of the self-awareness that has been the trademark of a true contemporary character and one that would hopefully, reveal the psychology of the art and its proponents. And what is it? Perhaps the lingering emptiness or the queerness or the displacement, which is also, the motive of Banal’s art making. The manner of display of this exhibition evades precisely the focus normally needed to understand a painting, a shaky looping footage of what seems like a hidden camera in Art Fair Hongkong highlights the existential difference between the sacred artists studio and the spectator’s ignorance. The former enterprise is essentially futile and Banal smartly implicates viewers in the same existential absurdity; in order to follow the artists’ “vision,” we must shuffle around and get confused in a similarly staggered orbit. The works in “Blank Stare” can be interpreted as one big installation work composed of televisions and wall projections screen footage. The juxtaposition of two small photographs of a group of soldiers appeals to me as indicative of psychological stress. Banal’s installation calls into question what exactly it is that we learn at being immersed in what is so-called commercially motivated ‘high’ art.

ImageProponents of museums assert that people must be introduced to and educated about the kind of things they see with which we contract ‘culture’ before they will care about (and hopefully prioritize) the motivations behind the work. Banal’s installation is an accurate recreation of the gallery or museum experience then: in a university museum, we hear the sounds, we gape at the hectic, colorful and often abstract images, and we smile at the familiar and strange, weird, and almost meditative if not violent absurdity. Banal makes us feel the contemporary relationship (or lack thereof) between man and art, focusing particularly on the disjunctive gaze. Banal argues that humans possess art by visual means; we look at them, take a photo of them, but do not recognize that the works can perhaps look back across the ignorance and fear with which the art market has thrived. The human observing a work of art through reinforcement by institutions objectifies the artwork, reducing it to an icon. Banal adeptly knows that the fact that our views are mediated all the more makes us lose all significance. Works of art are the objects of our ever-extending knowledge. What we know about them is an index of our power, and thus an index of what separates us from them. Certainly, this esoterica is cruel, but it is an exchange, at least, unlike the one-way stare of the average museumgoer. In fact, the exhibition has surfaced ugly assumptions about social rank and economic worth as manifested in our behavior towards the whole hubbub about art. The artists recent works reminds us about the sociological function of art, and that our inadequate relationship with the function of culture in our lives is reflected in the unreadable aspects of what has become the notion of artistry in the network of relationships and connections that supposedly make it. #

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