Monday, August 15, 2011


Curates vs. curators: Does art transcend 'blasphemy'?
KRIPOTKIN By Alfred A. Yuson (The Philippine Star)
Updated August 08, 2011 12:00

As I write this, a “Balitaktakan” or discussion is being held on a Friday afternoon at the Cultural Center of the Philippines, precipitated by a controversy over a current art display that has drawn censure from the Catholic Bishops Conference of the Philippines — as well as attendant busybodies sometimes derided as “Catolicos cerrados.”

Okay, from the tenor of that introductory note, one may deduce the quality of regard I have for the Church as we know it here, as well as for its typically vociferous minions. And it may be assumed that I would naturally be on the side of art and artists — especially since they are often hailed in this space.

Yet I think I can ruminate on this subject with at least a modicum of objectivity, if not fair play. Biases aside, we have to nitpick what we know — as received wisdom — and come up with a summary of sorts that has undergone just a bit of cogitation, rather than simply wade in with a strong emo response as what often deluges sosyal Networks in sheer juvenilia.

First off, the artist Mideo M. Cruz, whose installation work titled “Kulo” — part of his “Poleteismo” series — has drawn the prospect of fire and brimstone, even the threat of a court order and legal proceedings, does have worthy credentials to merit exhibit space in CCP. That it would lead to a remarkable CCP-contra-CBCP standoff wasn’t probably seen as part of the bargain. But now that it’s here, let’s examine how it landed on our balitaktakan laps in the first place.

In 2002, Mideo had an exhibit in UP Diliman’s Vargas Museum titled “Poleteismo 1?HARDWARE 2” — which had religious statuettes plus a Ronald McDonald figure and what would become characteristic entanglements of cables and wires.

In 2003, he gained one of the prestigious 13 Artists Awards from the CCP. The citation for this award reads as follows:

“Mideo M. Cruz’ art production has been built upon overtly and subversively expanding and evolving communicative language and contexts, aiming to stimulate interaction and critical consumption of art. Taking his multi-sensory advocacy from the streets to the Internet and galleries, Mideo has crafted political yet humorous work and social discourse realized both collectively and individually. As an artist-organizer, he has consistently addressed issues of haphazard globalization vis-a-vis identity and skewed access to productive assets.” ??

In 2006, Cruz’s “Poleteismo 2” installation was featured in an MTV shoot at the music bar Stone Free in Quezon City. It included Sacred Heart of Jesus posters together with election campaign materials and girlie posters.

In 2007, he became a recipient of the Ateneo Art Award, principally for a work billed as “Banquet.” His “Poleteismo 3: Nexus” exhibited at the Loyola School of Theology lobby in Ateneo de Manila University included scapulars, prayer beads, and election posters featuring Imelda, Erap, and Jamby Madrigal.

Cruz has been invited to participate in art festivals abroad. In 2008, a show billed as “Ex Deuz:?A New Generation of Philippine Artists” went on display in Zurich, Switzerland, with his work highlighted by the inclusion of Sagrada Corazon de Maria posters and statuettes, as well as a crucifixion scene poster, bottles, light bulbs, and a mélange of phone cords, cables and wires.

In effect, his “Poleteismo” and “Relics” works characterized by jumbled juxtapositions of found objects have been going on for a decade. We may surmise that his concept of “Poleteismo” or polytheism projects a personal ars-poetica-of-sorts statement on his critical appreciation of the apparent commodification of images that assault us, as matrices of “localized” culture. These comprise all-too-familiar commercial, political, and religious imagery — in vivid, colorful, or downright messy entanglements suggesting linkages as limned by all those electronic-type cables.

From an e-mail interview conducted recently by the Filipino Freethinkers org (of course they have to wade in; hurrah!), Mideo recalls that he started on such wall collages since 2002, utilizing items or “things that I’ve collected since I’m (sic) in high school. The manner was practically inspired by what we see in common houses where people put pictures of celebrities, politicians, etc. on the wall (sic) of their houses.”

These works included the following (with fragmented notes):

“‘Relic (cross)’ originally titled ‘relic of my nation,’ done in 2004. The making of the Filipinos (sic) after several layers of colonization. Partly inspired by how we got the name of the country in paradigm to the monarchal trend of collecting religious relics. (Hmm, Huh?)

“‘Poon (christ the king) deconstructing the sacredness and reconstructing the icon with parallel meanings. Coca cola and mickey mouse as epitome of neo liberalism.”

Mideo explains that much of the outcry over his current exhibit has been “about the phallic object placed on the works.” (Specifically, an orange-colored penis has been attached to Christ’s face.)

Replying to questions posed by Kenneth Keng, he goes on: “Phalluses has (sic) been an object of devotion in many cultures, use them as amulets, symbolical statues, etc. might be a symbol of power and patriarchy (sic).”

He also states: “I’m a visual artist who commonly (sic) tries to cross borders of discipline in producing my works…. I’m exploring a lot about the nature of the deity. How people attributed the sacredness (sic). How symbols evolve from various civilizations, how the worship evolves. But this particular piece is more regional and cultural attributing to our psyche as Filipinos (sic). And also pertaining to our aesthetic perception…. As far as I know the CCP is an independent institution. An arena where academic discourse is welcome. The conservative interference may be their means of showing their power over the so-called morals very similar to what my motivation in the work (sic). Phallic symbols may stand for power. It contributes more to the readings of my work.”

To the question of whether he’s aware of any other “blasphemous” works in the Philippines, he replies: “A lot has been done before using the imagery of the catholic faith. In CCP Jose Legaspi did a Madonna and Child with Mary vomiting to (sic) the child Jesus, Paul Piper did a sto nino out of a barbie doll and dress it (sic) with condoms. Alwin Reamillo did a Mickey Mouse Sto Nino, Louie Cordero did a painting of Christ the King with a Mcdonalds figure…”
The interviewer asks, “With their criticism of the church, do you think El Filibusterismo and Noli Me Tangere are ‘blasphemous?”

Mideo replies: “Blasphemy is in the eye of the beholder. I don’t even think of my work as a blasphemy. Instead I think of them as a critique but if you will see it as a blasphemy, I might (as) well consider that Rizal’s work is a blasphemy too.”

Okay. Now the firestorm. I’ve culled some reactions from the Net, generally ranging from anger and contempt (from offended Catholics) to disdain and counter-rage over those, as well as support a la circling-of-the-wagons (from most artists). For the most part, the level of commentary and discourse certainly appears more elevated than what transpired (and is still transpiring) re Christopher Lao’s “boboismo.”

Among the condemnatory would be such a one as Alan Generoso Cadavos’ “This guy is really sick. Psychologists should keep an eye on him. Hannibal Lecter in the making.” Or Dennis Sabog’s “BIG TRASH N GARBAGE ANG NAKA DISPLAY SA PICC.” (Huh? CCP, Dennis.) Then there’s the commendably Christian, as from Cyrel Alagbay: “by the way, your art is the first of its kind… but i feel little bit offended as a christian that a dildo hangs on the cross… but anyways, peace to all : )”

Then there are the informed, balanced reactions, as from Pam Hofeleña: “whoever said art had to make sense? surrealism, dadaism, gustav klimt? and of course! salvador dali! … to be honest, i am personally not impressed by this eh... installation art. with all due respect, you should just paint. mind you, i don’t share the same sentiments as with all the holy and faultless bigots... b-b-but i really think you should just paint.” She tosses in the following: “even Kierkegaard denounced religion. and nietzsche too: ‘i like your christ, i hate your Christianity’”

Stephanie Mayo’s remark is cogent: “The thing is, Mideo’s art —aesthetically speaking —is an eyesore to me. But I’m not bothered by his messages, because I myself am against idolatry, fanaticism and hypocrisy, and ‘gods’ that you buy in Quiapo (na minsan tinatawaran pa ng mga... tao). What should be discussed here are the following: Is there a limit to freedom of expression? Is there a Philippine law that the Church can use against Mideo and CCP? Huwag na nga pagdebatihan kung tama ba yung ginawa ni Mideo o hindi, kasi yan ang laman ng utak niya eh. Pag-usapan nalang natin kung may limitasyon ba pagdating sa ART.”

More from Ms. Mayo: “Sa aking pagkaunawa, hindi si Cristo ang dine-desecrate ni Mideo. I think his statement is about IDOLATRY. Kaya hinanay nya ang mga imahe at rebulto ng simabahang Katoliko sa iba pang ‘idols,’ tulad ni Jollibee, ni Britney Spears, atbp. At maaaring tinitira rin niya pati ang pagiging ipokrito at pagka-panatiko ng ibang mga katoliko. In one article, though, Mideo said he wanted a ‘reaction.’ So I really can’t say what drove him to create his art: just to provoke people? Or was he being honest and sincere in his message? I believe in the freedom of expression, pero if he did it just to provoke a reaction? Totoo rin — kung sa Islam nya ginawa yan, papatayin sya. So the question is: is there an art that is punishable by law? Bcos the Church is threatening to sue him and CCP.”

Some of our notable artists also express concern over outright provocation.

From Arnel Agawin: “Ang mga bakla pag inatake ang mga kabaklaan nila, umaangal. Ganoon din naman siguro ang karapatan ng mga katoliko (or any other faith, for that matter). I just hope Mideo will find all the backlash worth what he and his work stand for, and be prepared for the consequences... or, that his issue, or method, is so crucial for the art community to stand behind for. Free expression is not absolute. Artists only have the choice to try its limits. So far, wala pa naman akong alam na artist na willing mamatay para sa trabaho niya. Baka ang kaibigan nating si Mideo na yan. But that would not be very ‘creative,’ I think.”

Red Mansueto raises pertinent questions: “Is Art getting to be the best excuse for ‘Pansin’ effect....?? Cmon guys, this is not about ‘Art’ or ‘Religion’ anymore, this is all about ‘VALUES’ already.... We have been taught how to follow the law of the land and to respect our elders and to pray well whatever our faith is. If we were all free in everything that we have to do in the name of ‘ART’ then everything would be chaotic, Hitler could have been right to exterminate the Jews in the name of art if he did claim it that way or the Ampatuans for that matter in the name of ‘ART’.... It is very easy to get away with things just to say ‘Performance Art’ yan e.... The way to earn respect is to know how to respect others and ‘Your Freedom Ends Where the Freedom of Others Begins.’”

Last Thursday morning, some rabid haters actually went into the gallery and defaced Cruz’s artwork, occasioning the CCP Visual Arts department to issue a “Call for Respect and Sobriety” that ends thus: “(W)e would like to remind anyone else who are considering violent and destructive acts against art, artists and art institutions that such acts are clearly criminal. Let us all be proper, respectful and tolerant despite our different views. Maging mahinahon po tayo at makinig ng maayos sa isa’t isa. Not all of us are Catholics, not all of us are artists, yet we are all deserving of honor and dignity.”

Distinguished writer Tony Perez wrote: “I was there at 11:35 AM and saw the extent of the damage. The installation is no big deal; the media unnecessarily focused on DETAILS of the exhibit and not on the whole. The statement of the artist, as I see it, is the humanity of Christ... Christ’s stepping down as Son of God to mingle with and save sinners, and how He is ignored by many and gets lost in the slew of popular icons. As a Religious Studies major I did not consider the statement blasphemous at all. It is simply unfortunate that the artist, on camera, was not eloquent enough to express himself to interviewers. The culprit/s wrote in BALLPEN on portions of the artworks, a pedestal, and walls, ‘EMEDEO [sic] SUMPAIN KA! BAKLA!’ And then on another (unfortunate) artist’s work that had the word ‘MOVE,’ he or she wrote, ‘TO HELL.’ The culprit/s also hacked off the wooden penises from the cross installation.”
Well, well, now. What can we say, maybe invoke that old street-smart axiom: “Ang pikon, talo.”
We understand that the CCP “Balitaktakan” last Friday began with very angry words, such as from a Dr. Primitivo Chua, who couldn’t control his vocal decibels: “Nakakahiya kayo! In all my 76 years I have not seen an exhibit na ganitong kabastusan… ito ay gawa ng demonyo!” And that another elderly fellow shouted: “Do you people understand what the word pornography is?!”

In turn did the CCP head honchos maintain their dignity and rationality, with CCP prez Raul Sunico acknowledging that the CCP board members were themselves divided, in effect balanced, between the regard for artistic expression and religious values. More or less, he added: “This is not in defense of anybody. It really depends on the eye of the beholder.” CCP chair Emily Abrera could not help but start her own remarks without a reference to the initial angry voices. “The tone you took was offensive. I hope we can keep the dialogue on a high level.” She spoke on “points of reflection, of how artists view our world. We encourage free expression. This has taken it to the edge.

So has it become simply a tempest of a contretemps between conservatives and liberals, or as a wag put it, artists vs. fartists? Many are quick to point out that the CBCP appears to be intent on fighting on various fronts even as it probably discerns that it may continue to lose influence and blind loyalty if it didn’t apply the usual “trench warfare” against evolving regard for faith itself, or rather organized religion and its often unfortunate aspects of fundamentalism — vis-à-vis evolving mores, decreasing dependence on dogma, conversely increasing reliance on rationality and practically, especially with regards reproductive health rights, divorce, lifestyle and quality-of-life choices, etc.

Definitely, more and more Filipinos are expressing disdain over the constant busybody-ness of the Philippine Roman Catholic Church, which keeps “meddling” in governance, politics, matters of state, and the conduct of private lives — instead of simply tending as pure pastors to the care of “souls” and providing guidance on the merits of contemplation and in being “Christian” in the general sense.

Now it’s picked a fight against Art, or rather the random personalized principles behind it, especially edgework. While I tend to support the contention that Mideo M. Cruz may indeed have gone over that edge since he offended many Catholics, thus casting away sensitivity to or consideration of other people’s feelings, I am also of the view that the tempest could have been avoided had the CBCP and Pro-Life Philippines simply issued a written protest or a dignified condemnation of the exhibit. That they had to go to Madame Imelda R. Marcos to make “sumbong” was nearly as injudicious as issuing threats of court action. The result is more publicity for an artist’s work that may indeed have been carried out in the spirit of needless provocation. If so, in this instance, the provoked could well have turned the other cheek to this cheekiness, and while not exactly lapsing into the silence of the lambs, simply chosen to invoke the merits of dignity and grace.

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