Agnes Arellano eating a pizza

Agnes Arellano’s Flying Dakini at MO_Space

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Tonight was the opening of Agnes Arellano’s Flying Dakini at Mo_Space in the Fort. One of my favorite spaces for the reason that when I used to go there, you can get a doughnut downstairs at Krispy Kreme, sometimes for free. I had such fond memories of MO_Space, not the least among them was that show by Pow Martinez of his arbitrarily done sculptures of wood and clay ala Franz West and an inverted surveillance camera. I know when I truly enjoyed a work of art when its meaning has the capacity to grow over time. There was also that fateful night when I accidentally saw Roberto Chabet’s One thousand and one isthmuses and decided to post a status message about it that he liked. That really made my day for vague reasons. Looking back, nobody had an idea what it was about but people always had something to say about it. Perhaps the body of work informs the individual piece as if meaning surfaces over several reiterations. In Philippine Art, there are few artists who have done only masterpieces. Agnes Arellano is one of them. I think I have never seen any minor work by this lady.

I have never been to an opening of a show by Agnes Arellano even the one held last night for the simple reason that I was busy manning that small little gallery on the corner of 4th Avenue called Light and Space. Friends passed by that night and told me about it and I was naturally interested. I thought I heard Flying Bikinis but my ears have often failed me for better or for worse.

The main piece in ‘Flying Dakini’ is a recast of the image of the goddess, which according to the exhibition notes by Ringo Bunoan, is a metaphor for spiritual insight. This is actually the cast of Arellano’s own body done in the late 90s.  Also in the write-up she mentions that the Dakini is shown holding, in her right hand, the scimitar  (a short sword with a rounded blade common in the middle east) to symbolize the “cutting off of defilements – illusions that must be destroyed with a sharp discernment”. On her left hand, she holds a skullcap filled with wisdom and blessings. All lovers should be devotees of the Dakini but I suppose her true believers are either eccentric or extinct people, otherwise this wouldn’t pass off as art. Religious images always undergo modification or mockery before being displayed as art, as if distilling the divine and condensing it with the mundane, except in such arcane cases for a totally estranged audience.

In order to understand the nature of this exhibition and my subsequent opinions, allow me to indulge you in a bit of story telling.

It has been 30 years now since the opening of Pinaglabanan Gallery, which Arellano used to operate. Wasn’t it a week ago when I was sharing a beer with Ronnie Lazaro and he was telling about the awesome things they did there. I couldn’t say anything but nod because I knew little of art history in the 80s or about performance art.  But basing from his story, I have the impression, that the art scene was much more cohesive then and there was more interaction between writers and visual artists than how it is today. Pinaglabanan was not only of skirmish but also a place for exchanges where artists befriended other artists. For this, the Gallery is a kind of legendary institution in Philippine art and for the short time it has lived (1984- 1989) it exhibited some of the best. The gallery literally rose from the ashes when the original Arellano home burned down, along with it killing the Architect and members of his family. The name itself is indicative of the politically charged location, it was the site of armed struggle during the 1896 revolution and the struggle of advancing contemporary art at time of regime transition and institutional patronage was in collapse. I heard from a little bird that it was here where Danny Dalena slapped David Medalla in one of his performances out of ‘trip.’ Roberto Chabet also served as curator of the space and was the last person to exhibit there with his Cargo and Decoy.

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAWith this context in mind, it’s no wonder Arellano paid homage to Chabet by making an altar where one can offer prayers to him. Mo_Space, after all has been the stomping ground of Chabet babies since its opening and Agnes Arellano is perhaps among the eldest of the bunch. In a 1989 review of Cargo and Decoy, Juaniyo Arcellana noted how Chabet, the professor didn’t want to be talked about so I initially thought the whole altar was a misguided tribute and a bit maudlin. But who am I to judge? I wasn’t active in that era. Arcellana also noted how Agnes Arellano used to wear a t-shirt with a print by Bobby Chabet, which he remarks, probably says a lot about her opinion of her professor. Arellano credits Bobby Chabet as her mentor at the University of the Philippines College of Fine Arts and curator of the exhibition where she created her first inscape, Temple to the Moon Goddess at the Museum of Philippine Art in 1983. He was also curator of the first and last exhibitions of The Pinaglabanan Galleries. Her altar for Chabet contains her offering of casts of a human skull and a thighbone painted with red polka dots in reference to Chabet’s cloth-wrapped Bakawan. It is evident, that the exhibit at MO_Space harks back to two eras which are important in recent art history, one is the era of artists run spaces during the regime transition as embodied by Pinaglabanan Galleries and second, the era of artist-run spaces as represented by artists like Ringo Bunoan and spaces like MO_Space that successfully transitioned into commercial art galleries.

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Despite the change of times, the art of Arellano has evolved little. One can even go as far as calling this exhibition a mere rehash of her earlier works. It seemed like a blown-up figurine. Far from the phallic sculptures of large M-16 bullets displayed a few years ago at the circular node of the Lopez Museum in Ortigas.

Perhaps the problem lies in the fact that Arellano’s own spiritual search and personal experiences direct much of her artistic practice.  Her body of work has become no more than a visualization of her lifelong ‘investigation ‘of the feminine in religion and spirituality. As she has gained a following for a body of work consisting of female bodies as demi-goddesses in plaster and cold cast marble that appeal largely to feminists and the advocacy types, fans of classical sculpture, and to some extent, the horrorific in art. I agree with Bunoan, that they are highly sensual and foreboding and they are powerful evocations of the feminine mystique. This is the best quality of her work. What is usually easy to like, though, is always predictable. Arellano’s masterpieces are replete with things like that.

j7uvIt is a good development that endeavors of artists of her caliber have come to the fore over the last few years. But I’ve always wanted to see something more mature about her work, the kind of art that buries secrets or struggles rather than manifesting them. I long for art that gives something up without insisting on what that something is.

Yet it seems that her works, especially with the blunt agenda, have become a para-religious indulgence. The shamanism exhibited by Arellano that appeared so fresh and en vogue only a decade ago has thawed into a tedious game of pretentions, resulting in a repackaged and, for the most part, awfully trite doctrine: work that “explores” personal issues or “investigates” a social problem. Her sculptures work best without any of these claims.

Arellano is in the stage of her artistic career when each move has been burdened with imparting bromidic messages of social or artistic significance. With exhibitions like Arellano’s Flying Dakini, the art scene has become one big charismatic prayer meeting in which everyone insists on having her say before an audience of witnesses, believers, converts, and penitents.

I doubt if Flying Dakini is really a manifestation of the artist’s own transformation. She remarks how she used to be an iconoclast, but have now become an iconographer.  She was actually both at the same time. Isn’t the expropriation of religious images into contemporary art, also a form of iconoclasm?

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After finishing my routine in the office, I decided to have a nightcap in Stella where I occasionally hear good electronica music. It’s not my regular cup of tea but you have to try and appreciate, find out why other people like such things, much like works of other artists. Upon entering the door, I saw a woman looking at me, but a bit evasively, while alternately slicing and sprinkling salt on her pizza. Spread out on the table before her is a beautiful still life, consisting of plates, a blue pitcher next to a glass of wine, and a silver tray containing a half-eaten roll, a family of salt and pepper shakers beside a silver canister. More pizza was being served. The lady who met my gaze was Agnes Arellano and around her were friends and family. The scene looked straight out Da Vinci’s Last Supper and it was elegant.

Normally, I wouldn’t write trivial details about artists but I guess there’s a point to be expounded here. With all the mystique shrouding her works and her revered image in the local art scene, one would not picture her simply slicing pizza and eating it. In my mind, she would be fed by a multitude of servants off the platter while being fanned by eunuchs, perhaps entertained by a hundred lyres, as Nefertiti would be in Ancient Egypt. Agnes Arellano would have not intended it herself but her sculptures have become her. Being both Pygmalion and Galatea, Arellano has cast not only her physical qualities but also her character in the plaster goddess. The Dakini, with all its spiritual and erotic connotations, make it seem as though Arellano not only offers insight and blessing but her devotion as well. Her views of art are not unlike my reading of Chabet as a Greek God who is omniscient but also flawed, causing tragedies and capable of all too human mistakes. Arellano fancies herself not only in the image of a Dakini but also among the Pantheon of the dead greats. #

 “Flying Dakini,” opened last April 12, at Mo_Space, third floor, Mos Design Bldg., B2 Bonifacio High and 9th Sts., Bonifacio Global City, Taguig. The show will run until the 11th of May.

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