Saturday, July 30, 2011


Boiling over blasphemy
Text and photos by SAM L. MARCELO, Senior Reporter
Posted on 05:00 PM, July 28, 2011

Ongoing until Aug. 21
Bulwagang Juan Luna, 3rd floor,
Cultural Center of the Philippines,
CCP Complex, Roxas Blvd.,
Pasay City

If Catholic clergymen had kept quiet, if Archbishop Oscar Cruz hadn’t called the exhibit “sickening,” if he hadn’t called the artist “sick,” if he hadn’t advised the artist to see a psychiatrist, if he hadn’t implied that the artist’s sexuality was abnormal, if Bishop Deogracias Iniguez hadn’t called for a boycott, then Mideo Cruz’s Poleteismo could have gone unnoticed by the larger public.

When they find it in one of the alcoves of the Main Gallery, they will see multicolored plastic piggy banks stuffed inside a case usually reserved for religious statues; and Christ the King with a bright red clown nose, his right hand replaced by a Mickey Mouse glove, and his head crowned with Mickey Mouse ears made from a Coke can.

Hanging behind a divider is a cross with a bright red penis thrusting out from the vertical bar. And on the walls, a multimedia collage composed of a confusion of images and objects: there are ads, political paraphernalia from Fernando Poe Junior, Gilbert Teodoro, and Barack Obama; there are religious posters of Jesus Christ, Virgin Mary, and the Holy Family; there are handouts, pamphlets, and stickers; there are rosaries, penis ashtrays, crucifixes, condoms, and Christmas lights; there’s a lot of stuff.

“Thereís nothing there that you won’t see in Quiapo,” said Karen O. Flores, officer-in-charge of the CCP Visual Arts Unit.

Several things must be made clear. Poleteismo is part of Kulo, a group exhibit organized by alumni artists from the University of Santo Tomas (UST) who wanted to contribute a show in time for Jose Rizal’s 150th birth anniversary and UST 400th anniversary. It features old and new work from UST graduates such as Jose “Bogie” Tence Ruiz, Ronald Ventura, and Mark Salvatus.

Kulo’s title comes from the Filipino term for “a state of boiling,” and is also associated with rage and irritation. According to curators, the exhibit is framed as a “discourse of the pen and the sword, education and revolution.” Kulo is not sanctioned by the UST, which wanted to have its name removed from the exhibition text after Mr. Cruz’s piece became a hot potato (the University’s request was denied by the CCP since nowhere does it say that Kulo is an “official” UST event).

Poleteismo is an old piece first shown in 2002 at the Vargas Museum of the University of the Philippines. Mr. Cruz wasn’t thinking of the Reproductive Health Bill when he conceived Poleteismo nine years ago.

What he was thinking then -- as now -- is found on the accompanying wall text, which tells viewers patient enough to read that his intent was -- and still is -- to “speak of idolatry and the deconstruction of neo-deities.”

However, in an e-mail interview with BusinessWorld, Mr. Cruz added that he doesn’t want to interfere with how the artwork will affect the sensibilities of his audience. “My role usually stops after producing the final image,” he said. “As a visual artist, the images I create contain more explanation than my words. Images are open to various interpretations on the basis of the viewer’s perspective, maturity, and imagination.”

Versions of the installation have been exhibited elsewhere, most notably in 2007 in the lobby of the Loyola House of Studies (LHS) -- a seminary inside the campus of the Ateneo de Manila University -- as part of Tutok: Nexus, a group exhibit organized in cooperation with Simbahang Lingkod ng Bayan (SLB), “an association of religious priests, seminarians and lay people committed to the service of the Filipino Church and the Filipino nation.”

Mr. Cruz did not hear any aggressive comments from the priests of LHS, even if his piece lived with them for more than a month. In his opinion, the exhibit was “well-received, well-attended, and well-promoted” inside the Ateneo campus. Regardless, he understands where his current critics are coming from. “The moral uproar of some Catholic devotees is as valid as the profundities of my work,” he said.

But, he added, the threats he has received just proves the ugliness reflected in his work. His Facebook page has received a wealth of comments from a poster who goes by the name Rozanna Martini. Ms. Martini called Mr. Cruz a “fucking asshole” among many other things.

She also demanded that Mr. Cruz be given the death penalty, after which his soul -- which she believes he has already sold to the devil -- may rest in the fiery furnace of hell.

“My images are mere representations of things we see in ourselves,” said Mr. Cruz. “We need to realize that [Poleteismo] is the mirror of our society and of ourselves. The uproar it created might be the unconscious denial of seeing ourselves truthfully. The reality of our society is the real blasphemy of our own image; the blasphemy of our sacred self.”

Asked if he was a Catholic, Mr. Mideo replied that nobody lives inside a vacuum. “We all grew up sharing the same culture as the only Christian nation in Asia. I grew up celebrating Christmas and waiting for Santa Claus the same as everybody else,” he said.

It also bears saying that Mr. Cruz is not a “supposed artist” but an artist, a lauded one who has received a Thirteen Artist Award from the CCP in 2003, an Ateneo Art Award in 2006, and numerous international grants and residencies. He has exhibited and participated in art events in more than 10 countries, including the United States.France, Italy, and Germany.

Poleteismo is characteristic of his practice, often critical and unimpressed by authority. When Mr. Cruz was in America on a grant from an American institution, he created a performance piece attacking American consumerism and imperialism. “He was biting the hand that was feeding him,” laughed Ms. Flores.

Since the controversy over Poleteismo exploded, the CCP’s Visual Arts Unit has been fielding calls from people requesting that Kulo be shut down. “The CCP will not be party to any censorship or suppression. Let it be a point of discussion,” said Ms. Flores, adding that she has seen works at the CCP that were “really, really, really more provocative and disturbing.” (Jose Legaspi’s installation in the Small Gallery, for example, which included a modified Pieta showing the Virgin Mother vomiting on the dead Christ.)

She added that she was surprised by the vehement reactions coming from lay leaders and higher clergy. “They’re not coming from positions of inquiry or consultation. They’re telling people what to do,” she sighed. “We want to encourage sober discussion so that tolerance can be achieved. Art is about dialog and discourse.”

The CCP, she continued, has no plans of giving in to pressure. “CCP has not bowed down to Presidents of the Republic, so why is it going to bow down to the leaders of the laity?” said Ms. Flores. “Let the public see the exhibit.”

“I personally find the exhibit offensive,” said Melo Acuna, online radio manager of the Catholic Bishops’ Conference of the Philippines (CBCP), who was part of a contingent inspecting Kulo. “I see no furtherance of Filipino culture in the exhibit. It is the CCP’s responsibility to serve the public diligently. What diligence is the CCP exercising?” (As of writing, the CBCP has not issued a formal statement regarding Kulo.)

According to the general exhibition policies of CCP’s Visual Arts Unit, review criteria include “sensitive awareness of the artist’s responsibility to Philippine art and society” and “consistency with the CCP’s goals, scope, and program for the year.” Proposals may be disqualified based on several reasons, among them if they are “prejudicial to the rights and welfare of other people.”

“Poleteismo is social criticism, and it is part of social development to criticize what’s happening,” said Ms. Flores. Regarding concerns that Kulo might be prejudicial against the rights of Catholics, she pointed out that Mr. Cruz was educated in UST, a Catholic university, and his piece is a legitimate critique.

Nothing is new about contemporary art and religion butting heads.

Well-known cases include Piss Christ, a 1987 photograph by artist and photographer Andres Serrano, which shows a crucifix floating in a golden sea of urine. Based on its formal value, art critic Lucy R. Lippard judged it “a darkly beautiful photographic image -- both ominous and glorious.” Others were less enthralled.

The Holy Vigin Mary by Chris Ofili also caused a stir when it arrived in the Brooklyn Museum of Art in 1999 as part of group exhibit titled Sensation. In the Village Voice, art critic Jerry Saltz wrote: “To describe the painting is to know this image is many things, but not what its detractors make of it. A very black woman cloaked in a stippled, Prussian-blue robe hovers over an intricate golden ground of enamel dots and glitter. Her mantle is open to reveal a black breast made of elephant dung and festooned with pins. The painting rests on two clumps of dung; one is decorated with the word Virgin, the other with the word Mary.”

Rudy Giuliani, then mayor of New York and a Catholic, attempted to pull the museum’s funding and have it evicted because he found Mr. Ofili’s painting “sick.” In turn, the Brooklyn Museum filed a lawsuit against Mr. Giuliani for breach of the First Amendment and won.

J. Pacena II, curator of Kulo, said that he was saddened by the malice of initial reports. “I’m disappointed in the media. There was no discussion or due process,” he said in a phone interview, adding that a TV program seemed to provoke attacks on Mr. Cruz. “No one tried to understand what he was trying to say. He was condemned and we were judged in a primitive way,” he continued in the vernacular. (A report quoted Archbishop Cruz as saying that organizers of the exhibit “became lesser persons because of what they did.”)

Threats and insults directed towards the artist, Mr. Pacena went on, are uncalled for. “Talk about the work,” he said, adding that viewers should see Poleteismo in the context of the exhibit. “The discussion has gone off in a different direction and focus. Everything about Kulo is concentrated on Mideo’s work, which, admittedly, has very strong imagery, but the point of the exhibit is discourse and that’s what we need right now.”

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