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This is the blog of Ian Rosales Casocot. Filipino writer. Sometime academic. Former backpacker. Twink bait. Hamster lover.

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Saturday, September 25, 2004

entry arrow6:43 PM | Art in a Time of Terror

I wrote this a day after I heard Chris was shot by cellphone robbers. The tragedy occupied my mind all through the day and in the beginnings of weekend. I saw Chris's shadow everywhere...

Art in a Time of Terror

Thinking back, it must have been around the time I was preparing to go see the art exhibit on show in the Silliman University Main Library this week -- a collection to commemorate Peace Week -- when I first heard via an SMS alert that my friend and college classmate Chris Misajon -- son of former Silliman President Mervyn Misajon -- was fighting for his life in an Iloilo hospital, becoming yet another statistic in the creeping reality of murderous cellphone robbers.

The Philippine Daily Inquirer/GMA News Network website had it as a breaking story: "[He] was driving with a companion on a dimly lit street when at least four robbers flagged them down... While his companion ran for help, the suspects shot Misajon and took his cellular phone." That's it. Human life for a piece of merchandise.

Later, I learned that a shotgun had been leveled at his guts.

"He was shot at close range," Eric Joven, another friend, had texted those of us who were suddenly in the grips of bearing bad news. "He was hit at the left side of his abdomen," his kidney shattered, but more than that, there were shotgun splinters all over his other organs -- the liver, the pancreas, the intestines. It took nine hours for the doctors to clean everything out. Much later, we learn from GMA-7 producer and former classmate Ahd Marco that Chris was recuperating in Intensive Care, but now he was within what the doctors called the "72-hour critical period," after which we could finally learn whether our friend's life -- as a young father and husband and as a dedicated TV news anchor -- had been spared. We have learned to count the hours.

Sometimes, it is increasingly hard to believe there could be anything less in our lives than the paramount knowledge of our daily encounters with terrors big and small. Sometimes, when we feel the burden and the weight of such grim realities in our lives, we learn to ask questions without answers: What for everything, given all these? What now?

Specifically, art. What for, art, indeed? If art is supposed to be the classic human celebration of beauty, does it have any import in times of terror?

You could say this notions of dark days was born under what sequential storyteller and Pulitzer Prise winner Art Spiegelman has called "the shadow of no towers," bearing in mind the repercussions of that fateful day in September 2001 when we knew for sure that the world as we knew it was in for some extensive turbulence. Those turbulences have indeed come true, spilling blood and guts all over the world, from Bali to Manila, from Baghdad to Madrid, from Jerusalem to Islamabad, from Washington, D.C. to Riyadh.

In his recent essay, "Writing in a Time of Terror and the (Mis)Manmagement of Grief," Filipino writer Charlson Ong writes about such repercussion on his fiction: "No doubt the events of 9/11 and their consequences have cast a shadow over our work as writers. Already, fictionists like Salman Rushdie and Haruki Murakami have responded with important works. As a nation, we have been victim to political and sectarian violence even before the catastrophe in New York. You in Mindanao have had to live with war or the threat of it for many decades. But now, our involvement in America's 'war against terror' threatens to engage us in a broader conflict."

Art does not develop in a vacuum, indeed, as F. Sionil Jose used to say. Echoing Salvador Lopez, the National Artist for Literature had continued: "The artist is first responsible not just to his art but to society as well."

Ong further writes: "Historically, conflict and catastrophe often bring out the best in artists. Tolstoy's War and Peace, and Dostoyevsky’s Brothers Karamazov deal with the drama wrought by profound changes in Russia at the end of the 19th century. World War II spawned such novels as Norman Mailer's The Naked and the Dead and Stevan Javellana's Without Seeing the Dawn. The Spanish Civil War inspired Picasso's Guernica. Lu Xun wrote Ah Q during the 1920s as China suffered imperial collapse, strife and foreign aggression. So, too, the excesses of the 'Cultural Revolution' of 1960s became the subject of the new wave of Chinese cinema as well as the work of Nobel laureate Gao Xingjian. Apartheid in South Africa was the canvas across which Nadine Gordimer and J.M. Coetze painted their intimate literary portraits."

Thus, in the tradition of Pablo Picasso's Guernica (the Spanish artist's famous abstract, painterly thesis on the horrors of war), we now have within the very walls of Silliman University's Main Library a continuation of the artistic treatise on the meaning of war and peace in an Age of Chaos and Terror. Timely, too, because the exhibit -- sponsored by Silliman’s Peace Resource Center -- comes during the week when all of the Philippines remember the imposition of Martial Law by then dictator Ferdinand Marcos.

The exhibit is interesting for two reasons. One is its curatorial decision to juxtapose the works of established artists now working in Dumaguete with works by young amateurs -- teenagers and grade-school children, I take it, who had taken to the brush and the canvas in an "on-the-spot" art competition to celebrate Peace Week. These works -- some of them colorful doodles done with such grand passions, and perhaps reflective of the Matisse style -- are a merry insight on young people's conception of what is happening right now in our society, proof perhaps that they, too, know the gravity of things happening.

The other reason, for me, is the way the exhibit makes me see how artists render social reality. I like the way some of the works channel our pains with such subtle use of imagery and composition. I like their thoughtful provocation. Others, however, disappoint by giving something "too easy": a bludgeoning of on-your-face "message," in other words.

But this is, nevertheless, only a critic's demand. I am even ashamed to demand so much from an exhibit of good intentions. Over-all, one must only admire the way our artists have indeed lived Sionil's call, that "art must not develop in a vacuum." These works have something to say, that is important. But some just say it more poetically than the others.

Of the more seasoned artists, exhibits such as this tend to draw out the pedantic, the didactic. You know... artwork that slaps you with "obvious" message -- a clear line drawn between point A and point B. Sometimes I call this "PLDT Art," referring to the competition sponsored by the telephone company that calls for artworks celebrating "nationhood," the best of which becomes the cover for PLDT's annual phone directory.

Sometimes I call this "Obvious Art." But, really, I have no real quarrels with such art, only with their easy blatancy. What to make of Diosdado Custodio's "Let Peace Arise," for example? The title tells us enough of what the painting means to "be," including the motif of a hand breaking glass, bearing roses. Or Crystlyne Faith Gayo's "Deuteronony 30:19," which just shows us the scale of justice, licked by flame and dotted with doves with laurel leaves in their beaks? Or Helton Jerome Acahay's "Deep Within a Rifle," where a green hand reaches for the insides of a rifle, only to reveal what looks like the entire circulatory system? If poetry is supposed to be about beauty in the tangential, there's no poetry here, only a rendering of the didactic and the obvious. There's also Rene Elivera's "A Piece of My Peace," a nonetheless interesting work that still showcases the obvious: a background of dusk with a foreground of blooded barbwires suddenly revealing a rose. The talented Mr. Elivera has made more demanding paintings, of course. Just not this one.

I find that the more interesting works in the exhibit lie in their almost subversive use of the obvious, however.

Sharon Rose Dadang-Rafol's "A Bubble of Hope," for instance, may seem flippant in its use of blue and green bubbles, complete with praying hands and tulips, but the pastel rendering and the implied message that all of these are "bubbles" hint of the precariousness, indeed, of hope in post-modern times.

Susan Canoy's "Temporaryong Kalinaw" also hints at this. Hers is a work also done in strange bright pastels and in painstakingly rendered realism, and surrealism. What you have is an image of a family in dead-center between what seems to be representations of country and city. The "nice" family, however, is surrounded with balloons -- labeled "temporaryong kalinaw" -- which are almost ready to burst. I liked the feel of danger to this seemingly bright picture. That, for me, is subversive, and saves the work from being too obvious.

Jaruvic Rafols's "Black Eye Peace," too, is of that mold. He features a huge human eye in the center of widening rainbow ripples, with a pair of hands somewhere in the composition gripping at something. There is something there, a hallucinatory take of perceptions, perhaps. There's also Lord Allen Hernandez's "Unity Against Diversity," the title of which may hint of the Obvious. But Mr. Hernandez saves his work with his delicious play of shadows and color, and the use of an interesting image -- what looks like puppet figures (a man in Muslim garb, a priest, and a woman) embracing for the "light." Very interesting, but again, there is nothing new here.

Over red wine last Thursday night in CocoAmigos, I asked artist Mark Valenzuela what he intended to say in "Love Affair." What I get of the painting are two blue human figures -- a Muslim and a Christian -- under seawater, bubbles drawing out their last breath. He just smiled and said, "Under water, all you have is silence." Which is interesting concept going beyond Obvious.

But the first thing that drew my attention, though, is Jutze Pamate's "The Terrorist Dogs and the Doves of Peace." The title alone sounds so much like one of those magic realist opus by some South American writer. The artwork itself is thought-provoking: two orange dogs (one prominently splashed in the foreground) with beady eyes, standing on their hind legs, surrounded -- attacked? -- by doves. I like the use of metaphor. I like the composition. I like the comical sense the work displays that nonetheless also shows an understanding of this prevalent undercurrent of restiveness, of the animalism of terror. But Pamate has always done this: his paintings have always been brilliant social commentary, but without the obviousness that mars most artists' works.

In the end, I can say that Art perhaps becomes our ultimate refuge in times of terror. Not an escape, no. It makes sense -- within frames, within measured color and composition -- of senseless times. It captures zeitgeist in its rendering of metaphors, in brush strokes (and for writers, in words), the perfect mouthpiece with which we tell our story of understanding of a troubled world. In art, we get an understanding of the latter's complexity, and perhaps of hope. For the artist, his/her art is expression of what is bottled up within us all. Conversely for the viewer, the art becomes the medium, the Rorschach ink blot, with and upon which we heap our pains. Art is necessary.

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