‘Running Backwards Into the Future’: Documenting Divergences in Philippine Art

May 28, 2024

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By 

Elle Yap

Modeka Art’s newest exhibit, Running Backwards Into the Future, is genuinely an all-encompassing collection of works that overwhelms the senses and the intellect. 

Curator James Clar assembles a wide swatch of works showcasing the continued evolution of the Philippine art scene. Clar’s choices seek to portray the local art scene before the advent of the Internet; it’s an attempt to define the scene in a local sense, without the frills of an international standard to go by. 

“Freed from these considerations, the art scene and artists were able explore the potential for individual expression through materials and aesthetics. They laid the foundation and cleared pathways for the generation of artists currently working now,” Clar wrote about the intent of the exhibit.

Clar’s choice of artists, from diaspora artist Angel Velasco Shaw to conceptual artist and critic Judy Freya Sibayan, works as a meta-analysis in discussing how Filipino artists converse with the standards of art locally and internationally. The exhibit shows many of the artists’ works with a sense of detachment, as they try to redefine and disentangle the Philippine art scene away from its Western influences. 

The Bureaucracy of Art

The most thought-provoking parts of the exhibit allows one a glimpse of the bureaucracy that exists behind creativity. It also reveals how pigeonholing bureaucracies around exhibits are and its tendency to remove the artists from the proceedings.

Judy Freya Sibayan’s contribution to this exhibit includes emails to the Singapore Biennale in 2019 as the two parties attempt to negotiate and discuss a possible exhibition and the limitations she found on the way. It’s a wall of printed email interactions, and beyond being immersive, it finds irony as Sibayan proposes a performance art piece that demonstrates the lack of equal footing between artists and their benefactors.

The board containing Judy Freya Sibayan’s emails to the Singapore Biennale. Photo by Elle Yap.
The board containing Judy Freya Sibayan’s emails to the Singapore Biennale. Photo by Elle Yap.
One of the emails to the Singapore Biennale in Judy Freya Sibayan’s work. Photo by Elle Yap.
One of the emails to the Singapore Biennale in Judy Freya Sibayan’s work. Photo by Elle Yap.
One of the emails to the Singapore Biennale in Judy Freya Sibayan’s work. Photo by Elle Yap.
One of the emails to the Singapore Biennale in Judy Freya Sibayan’s work. Photo by Elle Yap.
An email to the Singapore Biennale in Judy Freya Sibayan’s work. Photo by Elle Yap.
An email to the Singapore Biennale in Judy Freya Sibayan’s work. Photo by Elle Yap.

‘Lemon Cake’ and the Context of Institutional Criticism

Sibayan also shows some archival newspaper clippings of her 1974 piece “Untitled (Lemon Cake),” a strange piece of art where she crashes an exhibition with a lemon cake, milk, and a metronome. It’s an unauthorized work, and pivotal to Sibayan’s own continued explorations and criticisms of institutions around her. 

A photograph during the original "Untitled (Lemon Cake)" work. Photo by Elle Yap.
A photograph during the original “Untitled (Lemon Cake)” work. Photo by Elle Yap.
A photograph during the original "Untitled (Lemon Cake)" work, shown for "Running Backwards Into the Future." Photo by Elle Yap.
A photograph during the original “Untitled (Lemon Cake)” work, shown for “Running Backwards Into the Future.” Photo by Elle Yap.
Newspaper clipping about the original "Untitled (Lemon Cake)" work, shown for "Running Backwards Into the Future." Photo by Elle Yap.
Newspaper clipping about the original “Untitled (Lemon Cake)” work, shown for “Running Backwards Into the Future.” Photo by Elle Yap.
A photograph during the original "Untitled (Lemon Cake)" work, shown for "Running Backwards Into the Future." Photo by Elle Yap.
A photograph during the original “Untitled (Lemon Cake)” work, shown for “Running Backwards Into the Future.” Photo by Elle Yap.

The exhibit also ended up serving an actual lemon cake during the opening of the event, which raises questions about its effectiveness as commentary in this context where an exhibit in an actual gallery does feature the work and celebrates it. Does that negate the power of the piece as an anti-institutional critique? 

“Capitalism subsumes all critique about itself,” basically. Is it still criticizing institutions when it’s shown by one? 

Pre-Internet Art Driving Narratives

A lot of the other works also tackle archiving in the arts in different ways, the importance of which cannot be overstated, especially in how we create a narrative over societal progress. It’s even implied in the name of the exhibit: what we preserve from our art scene becomes the bedrock of how we perceive its future. 

Nilo Ilarde's "WATER WORK" for the exhibit "Running Backwards Into the Future." Photo by Elle Yap.
Nilo Ilarde’s “WATER WORK” for the exhibit “Running Backwards Into the Future.” Photo by Elle Yap.

The exhibit tackles the topic comprehensively—one can see it already in Sibayan’s email correspondence for the Singapore Biennale. Other works play with the form of print and paper, showcasing its flexibility and the possible preference for it even in this day and age of digital archiving. Works like Nilo Ilarde’s “WATER WORK,” for example, showcase the intrinsic links that one may find when looking into the archive.

"Library Bookworms" by Renato Orara. Photo by Elle Yap.
“Library Bookworms” by Renato Orara. Photo by Elle Yap.

Meanwhile, Renato Orara’s “Library Bookworms” was first conceived as a stealth exhibit in a library where one can find hidden art of the human ear inside a group of books. Orara built the exhibit so that it’s easy to cross-reference between the pieces and the books, creating an interactive experience. Photocopies of it were shown for this exhibit.

Archives and Personal Narratives

And the archiving discussion doesn’t end there. Bernie Pacquing’s “Bach” sculptures show two broken violins preserved by the artist. The story behind it is that the violin was ruined by a flood, and Pacquing preserved it a day later to represent the personal narrative of the artists. 

"J.S. Bach's Double Violin Concerto" by Bernie Pacquing. Photo by Elle Yap.
“J.S. Bach’s Double Violin Concerto” by Bernie Pacquing. Photo by Elle Yap.
"J.S. Bach's Chaconne for Solo Violin" by Bernie Pacquing. Photo by Elle Yap.
“J.S. Bach’s Chaconne for Solo Violin” by Bernie Pacquing. Photo by Elle Yap.

These works demonstrate the importance of archiving in artistry—that extra meaning from these ordinary objects emerge when linked together in a hyper-specific way that the artist provides. Whether it’s for personal narratives or to create causal links between time periods, it echoes the importance of preservation to the public. 

Tearing Down the Myths of Western-Centric Ideologies 

How technology tends to push Western-centric ideals towards us also is a theme in some of the works showcased. 

Gerardo Tan's work shown at "Running Backwards Into the Future." Photo by Elle Yap.
Gerardo Tan’s work shown at “Running Backwards Into the Future.” Photo by Elle Yap.
"Beach Scene" by Gerardo Tan. Photo by Elle Yap.
“Beach Scene” by Gerardo Tan. Photo by Elle Yap.
"Phosphorescent Salvation" by Gerardo Tan. Photo by Elle Yap.
“Phosphorescent Salvation” by Gerardo Tan. Photo by Elle Yap.
Close-up of "Beach Scene" by Gerardo Tan. Photo by Elle Yap.
Close-up of “Beach Scene” by Gerardo Tan. Photo by Elle Yap.

For example, Gerardo Tan’s “Beach Scene” depicts glowing human figures, which the artist derived from night vision photographs of illegal border-crossers taken by the police. It’s placed side by side with Tan’s other work, “Phosphorescent Salvation,” which are glow-in-the-dark statues shown in a mirrored environment. Together, they create this impression of migrants as caged in helpless situations—their homes destroyed by imperialism, forbidden to go to the imperialist’s lands to find a better life, and forced to live as examples instead in a world that disregards their right to exist and thrive.

Angel Velasco Shaw’s “1985”

More comprehensive is Angel Velasco Shaw’s “1985,” where her past self grapples with her existence as a transnational person, torn between her upbringing in the United States and her heritage as a Filipino. The work contains a film, Balikbayan, which she filmed in 1985 and which feels like a precursor to a lot of mixed heritage narratives such as the 2022 film Return to Seoul

In the film, Shaw documents the day-to-day life of Filipinos in Smokey Mountain in Tondo, as she laments the alienation she feels in her own homeland. It works as a portrait of a person exploring their heritage. 

Image of Angel Velasco Shaw at work. Photo by Elle Yap.
Image of Angel Velasco Shaw at work. Photo by Elle Yap.
A still from Angel Velasco Shaw's movie "Balikbayan." Photo by Elle Yap.
A still from Angel Velasco Shaw’s movie “Balikbayan.” Photo by Elle Yap.
One of the scenes from Angel Velasco Shaw's movie "Balikbayan." Photo by Elle Yap.
One of the scenes from Angel Velasco Shaw’s movie “Balikbayan.” Photo by Elle Yap.
A still from Angel Velasco Shaw's movie "Balikbayan." Photo by Elle Yap.
A still from Angel Velasco Shaw’s movie “Balikbayan.” Photo by Elle Yap.

Beyond that, it also works as a snapshot of the Philippines during the Marcos era. Shaw showcases a world of inequality where the domineering influence of the West prevails even in our homeland. And what is left is the exploited classes struggling to survive.

A copy of her self-published book, Silent Stories, was also included in the installation for visitors to peruse. 

"Silent Stories" by Angel Velasco Shaw. Photo by Elle Yap.
“Silent Stories” by Angel Velasco Shaw. Photo by Elle Yap.

“1985” is interesting work, mostly because it gives us an early perspective of the raw feelings of outsider-ness that many diaspora artists feel—but also because it presents Shaw’s own attempts to reconcile these feelings and connect with Filipinos, seeking to understand this culture that should be hers and yet isn’t. Stranger in a Strange Land, so to speak. 

Creating an Alternate View of Our Past

As one can see, this exhibit puts together a fascinating series of works to illustrate a broader message of how we perceive our Filipino art scene. It works as commentary for institutions, or a critique of imperialist attitudes within and outside art.

These works also function as an ever-evolving portrait of how we use technology to innovate the way we document our world. Most importantly, it highlights the need to archive the past to show our identity and ideas outside a Western-centric world.

Works by Alfredo and Isabel Aquilizan. Photo by Elle Yap.
Works by Alfredo and Isabel Aquilizan. Photo by Elle Yap.
"Pact" by Gus Albor for "Running Backwards Into the Future." Photo by Elle Yap.
“Pact” by Gus Albor for “Running Backwards Into the Future.” Photo by Elle Yap.
Renato Orara's "Untitled picture of an ice cream man and his friend." Photo by Elle Yap.
Renato Orara’s “Untitled picture of an ice cream man and his friend.” Photo by Elle Yap.

Running Backwards Into the Future complicates whatever narrative Filipino art seems to have by demonstrating that it exists outside of institutions—the artworks and artists that refuse to be gatekept and refuse to be sanitized. The exhibit leaves you with questions of selfhood and artistry, and pushes a path forward for experimentation with our own past.

Related reading: ‘Snare for Birds’: Analyzing How We Look at Archival Data

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