When most everyone knows to point-and-shoot a camera at moments deemed unique, when these can be uploaded on social media, touched-up and pretend-unfiltered, and these gather enough likes and shares, it is easy to imagine that this is all that it takes to be photographer.
Or that this is all that it means. It is in this context that one might appreciate an exhibit such as Traces (Finale Art File, June 2015) that sought to do a survey of photography as art form, across various types of visual artists, photographer and otherwise.
But this context might also be its undoing, making one wonder: if capture is the point, then how much of it is really about artistic practice? And in the same vein: if artistic practice is the point, then how much of this is really about the capture of another?
Shooting the self
One of the more disconcerting things about walking through this exhibit was the sinking feeling that for many of these works, the capture of the unique image was also really about the “privilege” of being photographer. One always thinks—or imagines?—the task of creativity to be about self-effacement. This is especially true for photography as artistic practice, where the disappearance of the hand that pointed that camera at a subject seems imperative.
But one realizes with Traces that a selfie need not be the camera turned on the photographer’s face. It could also just be a glaring display of her privilege. Say, Tammy David’s “Humans of Tacloban,” a tarpaulin of Interior Secretary Mar Roxas yawning while looking at his mobile phone, sitting atop construction materials at what looks like a pier, which we are told is in Tacloban.
The power of this photograph is in the uniqueness of the opportunity to capture it. Except that in the case of David, this is merely a version of an ill-conceptualized Esquire Philippines cover from November 2014 that offended survivors of Yolanda.
One wonders how this is truly representative of the artist’s body of work and her artistic practice. One wonders why being bound to a transnational magazine franchise’s most unkind cover to date was not reason enough to keep this photograph hidden in one’s hard disk forever.
The backbone of concept
The works that seemed run-of-the-mill were aplenty here, with experiences that did not seem unique enough, with stories that we’ve seen before.
None of Benjamin Rasmussen’s Yolanda photographs were distinct enough in terms of subject matter or treatment. One also realizes that long-drawn out descriptions for any piece of art is never a good thing. The title “Homecoming,” meanwhile, doesn’t bode well for art in general, predisposed as these works are to nostalgia and memory, longing and belonging, and in the end the exoticization of the home.
This is true of Jay Yao’s work—as it might be said as well of Rasmussen’s—removed and distant, painful to see especially given photos of poverty and tragedy.
But other artists spent time and energy building upon a conceptual backbone for their works in Traces. Jake Verzosa’s two walls of photographs and video work are slices of life from various places, with uniquely eerie portraits and bizarre images, all in black and white and uniform frames. For Geloy Concepcion, it was a matter of focus: Manila’s Golden Gays, all made-up and laughing and alive, in the darkness and the shadows and dead. It was both tribute and eulogy, one that refused to wax exotic.
Jes Aznar’s “Testament Series 1 to 6” is a set of what look like mugshots of indigenous peoples, as indicated by bits of clothing and accessories caught on camera, but also by the seeming distrust of the camera, the eyes emotionless, almost aloof.
The haunted and haunting
Geric Cruz’s “Langit, Lupa, Impyerno (Im-im-impyerno)” resonated long after leaving the gallery. Four images of a nameless dark sea and two portraits of nameless subjects—a boy making a scary face and a man with a heavily tattooed face—effectively defamiliarized elsewhere, creating a space haunted by characters, human and sea alike.
Veejay Villafranca’s series of photographs printed on galvanized iron sheets reveal a world where humans are mere ghosts in the dark landscapes of tragedy and need, urban decay and oppression. In “Ironic” images do not merely stand for space and time, as these are also about specific plights and stories, and a photographer’s critical eye upon the world.
It is also critique that is at the heart of Carlo Gabuco’s “Water Under the Bridge Series 1-6,” a set of lightboxes filled with water, aquarium fish and water lilies, and a portrait each of a human with eyes closed. It is unnerving to say the least, to be reminded of the drowned and forgotten, they who stand for the crisis of nation.
Giving the conceptual a bad name
There were many old works here (Kiri Dalena, Ringo Bunoan), if not derivative ones (MM Yu), which was fine, survey as this exhibit was. But probably the most difficult thing to see was Wawi Navarroza’s installation “Groundwork: Covering Holes on Rocks with Flowers,” which seemed like a joke, like a lazy excuse for a work, where the artist hand-stripped enamel paint from her studio floor, a mound of which was exhibited as “Groundwork: Stripped Enamel Flooring.” Some of the chips were installed as 99 presents (which looked more like books), individually covered with gift wrapper made from a photograph entitled “Covering Holes on Rocks with Flowers” made by the artist herself.
As with the Roxas tarpaulin, one is reminded that it need not be a selfie for it to be self-referential, if not self-centered. And in the context of the artistic practices here that worked towards the erasure of the photographer and which engaged with the world by featuring the other, these works that reek of narcissism just seemed out of place, out of sync. Maybe out of whack.
In the context of a nation in dire need of critique, Traces reminds us that photography as artistic practice matters. And why photography is not just about magazine covers and Instagram, and how it is better off than Pinoy contemporary art.