On an unplanned trip to the Cultural Center of the Philippines that had little to do with art and everything to do with the cultural work of getting cheques so far away, ones that are about a government bureaucracy that does not make things easy for workers—cultural and otherwise—it was a relief to be drawn into Casa Fuego, an exhibit by Toym Imao. Because a display of larger-than-life toys renders one necessarily a kid, no matter how critical the stance you take relative to this magnitude. Size and monuments The giddiness over the size of these installations does not last long, which is not a bad thing. The size and scale of artworks—how big something is, how detailed, how beautiful!—has become embroiled in the enterprise of art fairs that use these works as centerpieces of commerce. An artwork or two is chosen as showpiece, becoming the cornerstone of every press release and the most instagrammable attraction, which also makes it necessarily “representative” of all the other art that appears in the fair. Imao’s works for Casa Fuego could just as well fall perfectly within that context.
Thankfully not. (Not that the CCP as an institution is any more or less than an “institutionalized” art fair, but I digress.) A set of seven installations, the size of these works is actually premised on the familiar symbol of heroism: our monuments. This, one realizes, is part of the experience: that for once, these monuments happen up-close—not up on pedestals, and not to be viewed from a distance. They are not frozen in action either based on some subjective notion of what their heroism represents. But of course these are not mere monuments of heroes, as Imao layers the monument—its literal size and the magnitude of its meaning—with the fact of our national heroes Jose Rizal, Apolinario Mabini, and Andres Bonifacio—and the fact of toys. Or he layers our heroes with the fact of monument-making? He layers these monuments with the fact of fictional heroes? He layers real heroic icons with the fiction of toys? The confusion is part of the fun. Heroism and fiction The three national heroes are expectedly at the center of these seven installations, representing what looks like a triumvirate of brave men, ready to fight for humanity—in the way that Hollywood heroes do. So no, the heroism here is not at the level of Captain Barbell who saves a barangay at a time. Neither does it hark back to our folk heroes ala Bernardo Carpio or Lam-ang. Instead it is Rizal and Bonifacio in superhero armor, carrying swords, standing tall, soldier-saviors. But it is the imagination of Mabini as hero that is most distinct, because the sublime paralytic is flying tall, hung in mid-air, moving his legs like no rendering in history has allowed us to imagine. He is wearing wings like it’s part of his armor, which is ironic when one realizes that those are origami wings, its size undermining its fragility. These heroes are flanked by three installations on each side, each one a combination of the various fictions from childhood that we hold dear: Those mechanical horses we used to ride pre-amusement and gaming centers, those green plastic toy soldiers, a wannabe-batman in red. But also we are given “heroes.” The body of a man in a barong, all presidential, his hand compassionately gesturing to “the people.” The man is faceless save for a humongous Marcos bust sculpture over his head. In front of him is the every-Pinoy in the act of resistance—on his head a horse’s head sculpture, his hand covered with fire, his ears with wings. Another every-Pinoy is wearing a barong, holding a giant matchstick in his hand. Around his neck are pieces of rope; at the end of each one is a hero’s head. This crew of defamiliarized heroes is installed all in one row, like the way children line up action figures and soldiers like a battalion ready for war. Fire and
forgetting The war of course is happening from within these ranks, and within this box of Casa Fuego matchsticks that this exhibit unloads upon itself. The dynamic between the hero and the politico, the toy versus the real, the fictional savior versus the national heroes, all these come into play as one goes through each installation, and as one takes in the exhibit as a row of unconventional and forgettable warriors. The latter would’ve been the best frame for this exhibit, given the fact that Imao had worked into this portrayal of heroism and monuments the idea of a box of matchsticks, one that will inevitable burn into its demise, one that is negligible in the greater scheme of things. If there was a core to this re-imagination of our heroes and the appropriation of the familiar into what is monumental, it was the fact of Casa Fuego—the house on fire. Alas, this exhibit is failed by its curatorial note, one that only frames it superficially in notions of “appropriation” and “alternative imagining.” But probably the more powerful lens to see this through is via our notions of nation and heroism and how these are not only unstable, it is also rendered transient by the mass production of heroes, the ones who are more exciting, because practically unbelievable (politicians, included). Ones that crash and burn at some point, to be replaced by the next great fictional hero. Meanwhile in real life, in third world Philippines, we can barely find heroes we can believe in anymore. And the ones we’ve always had? We’ve missed out on understanding them, too. We burn.