Buen Calubayan’s creativity is not one that is easy. One says that with a wariness—if not a weariness.
One has a sinking feeling after all that the difficulty is borne of an inability, nay a refusal, to engage in the discussion that Calubayan puts on the table. Though the heavier silence is really about the fact that his work does not easily translate to “sellable” art, which is to say art as return of investment, which is to say art as commerce.
In the project “Employee 55” (Lopez Museum, September to December 2014) Calubayan unsurprisingly remains inaccessible—if the measure of “access” is the every-review, the run-of-the-mill praise that most every hip and mainstream young artist gathers online and beyond about his or her work.
Having had my journalism students go see “Employee 55” what they fell back on was what the curator said about Calubayan’s work: that it was a display of the artist being an obsessive-compulsive.
One is reminded to be wary of words.
It is easy to frame Calubayan’s recent work within the confines of autobiography. That of course is already the trap that calling him obsessive-compulsive falls into. It is also to frame the work in presumptions and conclusions that have more to do with who the artist is, versus what the artist is doing.
Or what he seeks to discuss, what words he does not use, because what he has, is well, his work. In the case of “Employee 55” what Calubayan delivers is documentation of his life as a cultural worker. More specifically as museum worker at the National Museum of the Philippines. Race Laps was an online diary of the daily commute of Calubayan from his home to the NMP and back every day. The handwritten diaries, as well as a final printout of the race laps, ringbound, sits on top of the employee desk that is at the center of his installation space.
In one of the drawers are a set of speakers through which the noise of the streets of Calubayan’s daily commute might be heard. Another drawer holds photographs of what the real versions of these drawers contained. On the desk itself, underneath the glass tabletop, are photos of roadkill the employee had happened upon on the daily commute.
Facing the desk is a whiteboard on which the installation’s timeline is detailed, from ingress to egress, cold and stark, like a technical mapping of activities more than a creative one. To one side is an old dark wood and glass cabinet, which from outside is labeled “Race Papers.” That is, everything that’s relevant to the employee’s existence within the government’s cultural institution: from his personal documents to his data time records, his SALNs to medical certificates.
One wall holds printouts of the artists’ catalogues of sold and unsold works, his email exchanges about his works. Another wall holds the maps he used for his daily commute, and a calendar. The original notebooks, which Calubayan used for his race laps diaries, line both walls, framing the desk, and the room.
It is easy to imagine that within this installation what one is treated to is nothing but autobiography, a slice of life (literally) of a cultural worker and museum employee. It is of course the same disservice as calling it the work of an obsessive-compulsive.
The employee as absent
The effect of the installation is one that’s eerie and foreboding. One knows of the presence of the cultural worker that is the lifeblood of this room. It is an absence that is part of the story of this space.
The body of the worker as mere document is here. He is but employee number. He is defined by the documents that render him real and valid as citizen of nation and as government worker. These are documents that have nothing to do with the worker as artist.
It has everything to do with the worker as artist. Because that is what’s in the decision to bring into this space the documents that make an artist: which is apparently just his art as sold and unsold, catalogues that prove an artist’s history based on the amount of work he has done, how much he has sold, what he has not.
The artist is absent, in this room and those catalogues, the work taking precedence over everything else. The employee is just as absent, rendered true only by “official” documents.
Calubayan intervenes in both these narratives and asserts existence despite absence, or precisely because of it. Taking the idea of the race for a career and seeing it through its painfully irrational, if not deadly, conclusions is what’s in these race laps and race documents. It is in trailing one’s gaze on roadkill. In recording the noise of the daily commute as the (white) noise of one’s existence as worker.
The eerie quiet of the room without a worker is portrayal that is perfect for both the government worker and the working artist.
One folder is called “Dugo’t Pawis,” collected sheets of bond paper used by the every-NM employee to absorb sweat and wipe blood—whenever either happen for whatever reason during office hours.
The artist as dead
It is the display of laborious work without the display of the products of that labor. There is no art here, at least not any that’s for buying, for a future return on investment, for that auction price artists are celebrated for. And yet it behooves us to believe that this installation is art, the kind that is also a display of the artist’s labor, that is proof of artistic labor, that reveals the laborious work that goes into art and its making. The artist of course is irrelevant, absent, dead.
All that’s left is “Employee 55.”
One waits for the time when we all would know to appreciate that.