In 2012, in one of the first major exhibits and works of Ronald Ventura after his record-breaking sale at a Sotheby’s auction, he built an exhibit around the bul-ol, creating giant and miniature versions, striking contemporary poses and layered with pop culture images; it would also become the centerpiece of Art Fair Philippines 2013.
That same year, AX(iS) Art Project brought the Cordilleras to the Singapore Biennale, filling a wall with bul-ols as it built a historical re-writing of the changes that affected the region’s becoming.
At that same time, Gaston Damag had his Homage to the Culture of Rice at The Drawing Room in Singapore’s Gilman Barracks, where he built upon the bul-ol and cut through it pieces of glass to form architectural-model-like pieces with a core of bul-ol, that reflects, deflects, puts into question, the valuation of the rice god in present time.
One could only be thankful for Damag, who put into question the necessary (if unthinking) exoticizing and romanticizing that is in artmaking’s use of the bul-ol as art object, where a romance with the past does not allow for a real critique of its present – or of artists and artmaking that use these icons as mere objects.
In present time
It is the present time after all that could only inform one’s spectatorship of the bul-ol at this point, especially given the intertext of how time itself has transformed this rice god into nothing more than a tourism icon, sold as pendants and paper, attached to ashtrays, on the handles of wooden spoons and forks and knives, as image printed on bags and t-shirts.
Of course the bul-ol as cultural object to be bought and consumed is no different really from using it as art object to build whole exhibits upon, where capital (tourism, artmaking) invests as well in its truth as rice god, as pre-colonial icon of a Filipino belief system.
But unlike the anti-reflexive exhibition of objects like the bul-ol, Damag outdoes himself in Absence—a display of Ifugao heritage’s reconstitution by capital and modernity—that works with the paradox of consumption that is both a remembering and forgetting of the original bul-ol and other objects of our Ifugao heritage.
This was a critique of the present, a light on the things we’d rather not see or the ones we were taught to never see.
It is easy to be blind after all, in present time. Here and now, what we bring to this exhibit is the intertext of Damag as international Filipino artist; in present time, what we bring to this exhibit are our notions of how the bul-ol has become art object du jour, the centerpiece of many-a-representation about nation.
The death of the object
Against one wall are glass plaques etched with what look like museum labels for the bul-ol, from Geneva to Paris, with the names of private collectors who have donated these as “art” to museums. That the objects themselves are absent from this space is the point: you can imagine what these look like given the familiar words interwoven with the foreign ones: divinities, Ifugao, Cordilleras.
It is ours, but not ours. It is both the rice god, and the art piece — one cannot be the other.
The opposite wall carries iconic weaves from the region. One is installed as a layer to a galvanized iron sheet, the kind used for roofing, the material that deflects the elements.
Now layered with the work of the nameless women who creates heritage with her hands and whose loyalty is never valued, the Cordillera weave is rendered just as negligible, its importance silenced by the fact of commercial production and construction.
A large piece of the same weave is also draped like a teepee in a corner, leaning upon a neon light – almost like a saber. This is an unlikely combination that is also an impossible one: there is no space to sit within the structure, and one is forced to stand at a distance from it because of the glare of the light, the heat it produces. The experience itself is a missed one: the weave is to be touched and felt, it is about the hands that wove them. But layered with light and plastic, the spectator is necessarily removed from this experience.
All these installations render the original objects as absent, their presence here but dead versions of the originals. A native spear sits on a tongue created from a neon light. A spear that is both heritage and history, now rendered merely as cool and contemporary. It’s a form of dying in itself.
Faith and hunger
But the centerpiece of this exhibit was the series of installations of the bul-ol atop high tables, each one with a light bulb on its head. No light shines on these icons though, and the effect is a darkness—literal and figurative—like a version of the pomp and pageantry of a wake as so designed by our neighborhood funeral parlors with bright lights and white coffins.
Except that here it is eerie and haunting. The bul-ols are all melted down, all headless, all at different points of disappearance. Even the lights that shine upon them are dead.
The visceral reaction to this vision is of sadness, but also of pain. In this present, this faith in the rice god is all the more tested, all the more relevant. In a time of hunger and drought, when farmers are being killed by neglect—if not government’s guns—the effect of Absence as art exhibit could only be about the events outside of it.
Here, Damag did not take the bul-ol as object for historical romancing. Instead it became about a critique of the present: of modernity, but also of the contemporary as a space where meaning is not negotiated, but is lost altogether, especially in the face of unquestioned institutional consumption. More importantly, in real time, this exhibit spoke about nation in a state of #BigasHindiBala, in this juncture of hunger and want, and violence.
Sometimes art works in a time of hunger.