“Human life is nothing more than a picture, blessed with images. The human life is cursed and it is only in pictures that we are able to grasp it, the pictures are untraceable, they have been with us since the beginning of human existence; they are earlier and more powerful than our thinking; they are in a timeless space where the past and the future are intertwined and they are more powerful than us.”
– Hermann Broch, “The Death of Virgil”, own translation)
The petroglyphs of Angono in the province of Rizal are the oldest known stone engravings in the Philippines. The carvings were first documented by acclaimed Philippine painter Carlos Francisco in 1965 while he was leading a Boy Scout troop on a hike. Little else is known about the figures, or the people who etched them. One clue is that many of the human carvings appear to be in a squatting position, which has led scientists to theorize that the area was a place of worship. The engravings are under a massive rock projection. A total of more than 127 human and animal figures cover the rock wall over a length of 25 meters and a height of 3.7 meters.
The petroglyphs are not connected to each other, which suggests that they were made at different times. Their origins date anywhere from 2000 to 3000 years ago. A remarkable, perhaps not entirely accidental, occurrence is the proximity of the engravings to today’s cities of Laguna, Angono and Binangonan, which are known for their craft and wood carvings.
A few kilometers away from Manila in the capital of the Philippines, where I lived, I went there on a side trip and found, lamentably, that the carvings are nothing more than traces and shadows of what Carlos Francisco documented in 1965.
The mountains, about 90 minutes’ drive from Manila, were an entirely forested area. But most of the trees have since been felled to make way for the country’s fast-growing population, with a holiday resort, a golf course and upper-class housing development now surrounding the rock wall.
A real estate developer owns the land on which the petroglyphs are located. He has donated the hillside on which the carvings are located back to the National Museum. He allowed only a small buffer zone, though, and the road runs just 10 meters (33 feet) from the carvings. Wind and rain, as well as plant roots creeping through the stone, have also damaged the soft rock where the carvings are etched. The poorly funded National Museum cannot afford to pay for adequate security so vandalism is also a constant worry. People have scrawled their names on the rock and there are slash marks on some carvings that archaeologists have determined were only made recently. The UN Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization (UNESCO) placed the petroglyphs on its “tentative list” of world heritage sites but that has done little to stem the powerful tide of neglect. Mining at a nearby gravel pit a few years ago also shook the ancient site. The foundations of the rock wall continue to face more threats of destruction.
The Angono Petroglyphs, which evoke the sensibilities of the primitive always present in the shadows of Philippine contemporary or neo-expressionist art making, remind us that a linear art history perspective is a limited and distorted view. In a lecture at the Nanyang Academy of Fine Arts in Singapore, I’ve talked about the evolution of the Filipino’s artistic sensibilities. In that lecture, I emphasized the devices of contemporary artists who could go anywhere in this line of evolution to fork into another path. I have often thought that, it does not matter where I start painting, the best painters always have the earliest cave and rock drawings in their minds.
Since I began painting, I’ve always been aware of the unique situation that presents itself in the act of visual representation: that like the natural or intended palimpsests in the petroglyphs of Angono, where the voice of various people over long periods in time meld into a single artistic tableau, there is more than one voice speaking in the work. I have often confused the voices with the work but I am well aware that the notion of the creation of the work and its creator can change in art history, that when nature and human destruction creeps in, that all things return to just being artifacts with little importance given to the individual creator but rather to the kind of people and culture that spawned the creation.
Despite and because of this realization, I have never attempted to divide the voices; on the contrary I have always sought to unify the different discourses animating the images. The ultimate coherence of these discourses, though, is not necessary and is definitely not the goal of my work.
My works develop mainly from the knowledge and mastery of tradition on one hand and an epistemic confrontation with the image on the other. Both turn on the problems of perception of the form, particularly of appropriation and how we reference the world outside the work of art.
When I am painting, my preoccupation with tradition first manifests itself in what we will call here as “pre-images”: objects of knowledge that serve as a starting point for a more in depth, critical occupation with certain pictorial conventions and ideas. Painting for me thus begins as an act of critical application, rather than as an intuitive process of expressive fertility. This allows me to be more objectively productive, in other words, to practice a reasoned creativity.
While it may seem basic, there is something oppressively daunting in the endless pursuit of clever image strategies. And the successful form, the one that I would own, would be the paradoxical result of an exercise in humility: tracing the movements of tradition in the piles of ideas it has left behind.
I am very concerned with the notion of the “artistic” because I emphasize critical reflection in my process and, along with this, locating inner artistic actions and reactions against the environment within which I work. In this light, I try to be careful about quoting styles as mere appearances. I would like to think that there is something beyond them than the history of art. But, I’m always restrained by the question, what doesn’t fall under the scope of the history of art?
The full text of “Return to the mental caves to recover inner images” will appear in the accompanying publication to the exhibition “Paintings After Compositions” on July 31, 2017.
Paintings After Compositions, by Geronimo Cristobal, CSCVA 2017, 550 Php, 35 pages.