by Patrick D. Flores
In the exhibition Persistent Visions of Erika Tan on the third floor of the Vargas Museum is a film of flickering images from three small screens projected onto a wall, looped and edited frantically until it exhausts itself after twenty minutes or so. The pictures take us to the colonies of the British Empire, gathered from archives of official and amateur footage to capture the life of conquest, the colonial quotidian, dwelling on nature and leisure, the foreign and the native, bodies huddled in islands longed for and missed. Surely, the impulse is ethnographic, with the gaze as central intelligence: a seeing that cultures. Around it are works from the collection: a nineteenth-century painting by Juan Luna of Europeans in a picnic in Normandy, Vicente Alvarez Dizon’s evocation of morning of a Philippine idyll under a Japanese sun, and a book of photographs of American possessions and their people.
The bounce across these signs complicates the gaze. The latter in fact caroms because there is no single trajectory and telos. The local is surveiled alongside the stranger; the colonial reflects on the civilized and feels accustomed to distance as Jose Rizal’s letter to Luna would attest; the western outpost is reimagined as Oriental. Indeed, this interaction conveys the technologies of the visible -- and in the process, the contingencies of the sensible.
Outside this intersection of stares is another crossfire, another instance of the graphic, seized at the moment of a fire that razed a barter zone, a burning of expenditure, nearly co-incident with the slaughter of around sixty people, buried alive, mutilated, so that a certain power could fester in the Islamic south. A curtain is before us, seared fabric stitched in time, bearing marks of an inferno. It covers one of the windows of a museum built to house the collection of a Filipino political figure, himself forged in the furnace of transitions: Executive Secretary during the American Commonwealth, Mayor of Manila during the Japanese period, and accused as collaborator after “liberation.” This drape is a quilt of sorts, shreds and seams of an improvised economy in a nation-state of “permanent crisis,” trapping light that is artificially forced to bathe the premises, thus rendering the textile, the fiber of fire and faith, wondrously incandescent – and incendiary.
The project of Michelle Dizon and Camilo Ontiveros titled Curtains: a film in three parts probes a different veil of graphic, from the index itself of the real in society that, to lapse into normative parlance, seemed “unbelievable,” to the means by which it is grasped in media as a sensation because, again, of its “unbelievability.” It repeats to a certain extent the photographic that so immerses the disposition of another exhibition that is its tangent; it also supplements the cinematographic logic of imperial representation and generates its own sequence in three passages, from the stairs to the curtained hall, and around the corridors, happening by the flashing annals of colonization in this meditation on duration itself, with uncanny intervals of text. The window that is partly shrouded or cloaked is replicated in a series of quiet photographs of other windows not necessarily related to the graphic real. They are the specters elsewhere, the allegorical recall, intimations of absent souls looking, instances of melancholy through slits of jalousies.
At this point we ask: Is the curtain a kind of graphic as well? Is it frame or lens or ornament? Is it opportunistic because it could be drawn at will or vulnerable because it hints at habitation? It could be that the outside/inside symbolic order or antinomy need not always define the reality of our place in the world. It could be that the curtain refuses this boundary altogether. It could be that, as in the abstractionist Gus Albor’s effort to prove he could draw through his portraits and abstract works downstairs, this anxiety of the graphic, which ultimately is the ground on which the museum gains its power to represent, is not all there is to consciousness or reflexivity or modernity itself.
Such a project, therefore, is not merely about returning the look or a turning away, but the unnerving feeling of not being able to look out, of being compelled to con/front the real and the graphic like the phantasm called Ampatuan at the same time and in the same place of a film’s unraveling: to be at home outside, to overcome the context within.