Saturday, February 11, 2006

On Mideo Cruz's art

Gut Rumblings

The word banquet normally connotes images of gustatory indulgence and material sumptuousness: a lavish selection of edibles surrounded by satiated gaiety, inebriated celebration, and merry-making all around.

But Banquet, Mideo Cruz's third one-man show at the Cultural Center of the Philippines from February 2 onwards , takes a divergent tack in representing this concept the artist appropriates as a title. Rather than mimetically depicting the common notion of a banquet as a feast of plenty, Cruz chooses to unmask the poles of gluttony and deprivation existing in today's Third World societies. The banquet represents a spartan and parasitic repast, rather than a source of communal nourishment and gaiety.

Interestingly this time, Cruz eschews figurative pictorial representation and instead resorts to irony and tongue-in-cheek critique through abstraction, installation, and performance art. This is among Cruz's first few exhibitions of his abstract works on paper, as the artist is known for his figurative and installation-based works in his previous solo shows Pilipinas Kong Mahal (My Beloved Country,
1998) at the Tumbang Preso Cafe in Quezon City and Santong Pinagpasasaan (Sacred Abused, 2005) at the Kulay Diwa Galleries in Paranaque.

Meanwhile, Cruz's engagements in performance art is also a direct influence of Cruz's previous involvements in political and collaborative artistic engagement as a former affiliate of the protest art collective UGAT-Lahi and one of the main movers in the multi-media international artist network New World Disorder since 2002.

In this exhibition, Cruz positions his coordinates within the general context of Third World marginalization and chronic disenfranchisement, noting the appalling level of disparities in Philippine contemporary society, between the entrenched few seated at the banquet tables, so to speak, and the vast majority who subsist on pagpag (local slang for discarded and recycled foodstuffs) in the streets just outside the Palace halls.

In Banquet, performance art and painting are juxtaposed to deliver Cruz's visual indictments against these societal contradictions. On the opening night of Banquet last February 2, the artist delivered a prolonged "live installation" piece in the center of the gallery space, critiquing contemporary practices of power-related and material excesses and overindulgences. Cruz settles in front of a table laden with white linen and bones, garbed in finery, and donning a mask of a pig. This solitary guest helps himself to the macabre banquet of bones and flesh, gorging on the entire pile throughout the opening of the show. Luxury is denoted through symbols such as the candelabra positioned nearby, while a carved white image of The Last Supper hung above the spectacle seems to denote that nothing is left ever left sacred or untouchable by such greed.

The performance itself is sufficient in driving home the scathing point of Cruz's ironic wit: that 'beasts' such as these are all too real and pervasive once the viewer steps out of the gallery's pristine halls, populating the nation's chambers of power. Cruz flings this image of rapacious personal greed in the face of facts such as the Philippines being mired into trillions worth of foreign debt and registering record-breaking levels of hunger and unemployment at the start of 2006.

The symbolic jab at persistent issues such as imperialism and bureaucrat capitalism as a fundamental element in the signified consumption of our resources and lifeblood-whether material, symbolic, or ideological-is also evident from the start. The sustained time sequence of the entire performance (approximately two hours) also signifies the persistence and prolonged recurrence of such forms of dominance in today's society.

Meanwhile, in the two-dimensional works shown in Banquet, critique is defined through the negation of the visual. Banquet presents more than a hundred small abstract works rendered in acrylic and mixed media on paper, tiled all around the Small Gallery's walls. The presence of the artist's social commentary is defined through the general obscuring or erasure of images—the 'whitewash' of the abundance that was formerly perceived.

Entitled by Cruz as his Prism Deduction series, the works are varying configurations of nuanced grey and white geometric forms, gestural monochromatic strokes, and plays on optical perception and space. Food posters primed with white latex paint and painted over with loose, sweeping strokes of white are exhibited alongside delicately-nuanced monochromatic and geometric abstract works rendered in charcoal and graphite on acrylic. The works are all tiled, side by side, across the left and right sides of the gallery walls, surrounding the now-desolate table filled with food discards.

In contrast to the overt satirical tone employed by Cruz's live performance, the political import of the paintings seems obscured by non-figurative modes of seeing. As a concept, the term prism deduction seems rather slippery in terms of adherence to scientific processes, but this is perhaps a formal articulation of the bleakness of social reality, rather than an experimental accounting for the exact behavior of optics.

The implicit critique may be gleaned from the type of abstraction and processes that Cruz resorts to in his two-dimensional works. The reference to social reality seems rather tangential in the works hung on the walls, but may be inferred in their production processes. The way Cruz builds up the translucency of his geometric images--obscuring of form and previously defined boundaries: an erasure of what is
present—may also be a visual articulation and critique of the calculated detachment and nebulous apathy the artist perceives in today's milieu. No scarlet scars of rage jar the works' carefully rendered and miasmic layers: instead, the borders of forms rendered on graphite are clothed in haze. This visual metaphor may denote the illusive blurring of boundaries used to justify various forms of intervention that precede such spates of greed and hunger.

Examining Cruz's use of process also makes the veiled criticism evident. For instance, Cruz's painting over discarded cardboard posters depicting images of abundant food with white pigments adds to the strength of his critique. The artist complements the previous performance depicting rapacity by juxtaposing the installation with paintings where previously discernible images of nourishment and survival are erased or whitewashed. This harks back to the reality that majority of the people in this nation (with 80% of the population surviving on P90 or less per day as of 2003, way before the Expanded Value Added Tax) are deprived of seeing supposed economic gains and are prevented from turning their consumption into a tangible act. Images of food are painted over, and the color white takes on a
sinister symbolism: white of hunger and bones, white of emptiness and death.

The abstraction does not lessen the societal import of the pieces, but rather, complements the messages that the artist wishes to convey. This series, full of seemingly uniform yet shifting signs, are Cruz's attempt to visually articulate the artist's personal and political sentiments on the experience of material disenfranchisement and social dislocation. In the final accounting, Banquet leaves the viewer sated yet disturbed at the growing rumblings in the gut.

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