A heap of broken images

In Villegle’s time, the ruined forms of affichées torn from post-war Parisian city walls gave the collage a dialectical energy: the ripped images negate aesthetic formality, mimicking the destructive nature of war. They serve as a reminder that art endures extreme social trauma. Reflecting on his work, I can’t help but wonder how art will be shaped by the Novel-Coronavirus pandemic. This phenomenon, which Hegel called “Aufheben”, a German word which simultaneously means preservation and change, cancellation and transcendence, pivots on turning assorted parts into something greater than their sum. Such was the nature of the collage, it was a work of fragments not only of images but of contexts that felt greater when assembled.

When Robert Motherwell wrote that the “collage is the twentieth century’s greatest innovation”, it was a reaction to the turbulent circumstances of the art form’s origins. It was a great innovation precisely because it emerged from a time of crisis: on the eve of the First World War when, independent of each other, Pablo Picasso, Georges Braque and Juan Gris stuck metro tickets, notes, flyers and bistro receipts into paintings of synthetic Cubism. The form continued to grow relevant as millions of soldiers died in the hail of bombs and machine gun bullets in the trenches of Verdun. It was also a time when ideas and conventions of art that had stood valid for centuries had fallen and needed resuscitation.

While it was right to see the collage as symptomatic of the decline of optimistic ideas about progress, education and civilization, it is also important to see it as the coping mechanism, in terms of artistic practice, for the illnesses of our modern world.

In 1922, T.S. Eliot wrote The Wasteland and some of its lines are an evocation of a collage. It painted the past as “a heap of broken images,” and ended with the line: “these fragments I have shored against my ruins”. Villegle’s collage aptly visualizes these lines from Eliot’s seminal work. Affichées were scraps of movie posters that had gone brittle under rain and heat of the sun, and when transplanted in the realm of art, formed a composite image that showed its seams: a decollage, which meant it was first broken and detached before being composed and put back together. From the start, each work was site-and political-timing-specific, couched as it was in the destruction and deprivation following the war. The images appealed to the changed sensibility of the people because they weren’t traditional artistic creations, which to paraphrase Adorno, seemed “barbaric to do after Auschwitz”.

I refuse to take the optimistic view of Hegel’s “Aufheben” to apply to art during a pandemic. I have doubts that the emergency we face today will bring about a great innovation or transcendence. Social distancing is not only the antithesis of art but its death and our recourse to social media in this time of quarantine only proves what artists have only instinctively known before: that social media was made for social distancing. On my newsfeed, a number of people have celebrated isolation rather than resisted it. One example is the account of Shakespeare writing King Lear when the Globe Theater was shut down during the plague. Another is Newton in 1665 —then a student—who went through his own period of social distancing and formulated the laws of gravity. This was during the time of the Great Plague of London — the same plague that inspired Daniel Defoe’s A Journal of the Plague Year.

Jacques Villegle’s artistic practice also emerged from this feeling of being cut off from art history, which in turn suggests ignorance of earlier conceptual practices, yet I still have doubts. What about the ethics of making art as humanity faces death from a microscopic pathogen? I deplore the aestheticization of pain and suffering and refuse to romanticize isolation as a creative impetus.

I thought of this when, around the same time last year, I was infected with a corona virus in Indonesia, a less aggressive cousin of the one that is infecting 100,000+ New Yorkers today. My lungs had collapsed, only 10 percent of them was functioning, or so it seemed from the luminous network of roots in the chest x-ray taken at the hospital. On top of that, the surgeon said my gallbladder and my appendix were infected as a complication of the pneumonia, and had to be removed. Unable to breathe, eat, and defecate, my body contorted like a voodoo doll before I was injected with tranquilizers. The surgical operation took four hours through four holes in my chest and abdomen. When I woke up, I was stitched up and wrapped in what looked to be a tin foil blanket that emitted steam. Intubated and wired to a drip, I imagined feeling the weight of my three-month old baby in my arms and when I opened my eyes, I saw no one but an orderly hovering over my gurney.

It took me two weeks to recover inside the hospital where I was grouped with four other patients. We couldn’t talk and visiting hours were limited. For most of the time I was alone, exercising my lungs with a plastic toy the doctors had given me. I was told that I could only be discharged when I was able to lift two balls in a tube and hold it in the top position. There was nothing to feel but the brokenness of the body, how the flesh and organs could easily feel fragmented by the disease.

Since my daughter was born at around the time I was quarantined, I couldn’t see or carry her in my arms. I could only interact with her through a wall of glass. Yet the unexperienced sensation of carrying her was the signal that woke me up and reminded me that I am still alive. I have been separated from my daughter once again since I moved to New York except for a brief two weeks during the holidays when I had a taste of becoming a stay-at-home parent: giving her a bath, preparing milk through intermittent sleep, and endless games to encourage her to walk and speak. My wife felt cheated when despite my prolonged absences, my baby’s first words were “Tatay,” the Tagalog word for father.

In the aftermath of this community quarantine, I can only picture one silver lining: that we might treasure physical presence and human connection. And even that would be temporary and soon we will be back to our individualism. Unable to revisit the Villegle decollage since MoMA had closed, I picture it unevenly in cropped mental pictures. While I detest the word “upcycling” which presumes that any old object is made better when turned into art, I consider the work to be that, a layman’s “Aufheben”, that provides the imaginative tools necessary to resist the destructive trends of the world by ironically, causing “unrest and awakening” in the framework of art.

If there is a new art form that will come out from our current crisis, it will take off from the conceptual criteria of the collage as a medium that pieces together a complete picture of our times: a heap of broken images, the fragments we shored up against our ruins. It will call for us to break down our lives and rebuild it with critical revision.

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