by Joseph O. Cortes
Contemporary Art Philippines, Issue No. 12
If you think you’re misunderstood, then you have never heard of Cesare A.X. Syjuco. Heralded as the bad boy of Philippine avant-garde, Syjuco is much admired by critics, but mostly misunderstood by the public. That is why with every art outing he has had, he continually harks back to works he had made in the past. “I am misunderstood,” he defends himself. “That’s why I have to keep on repeating myself.”
For his recent exhibit, The Ancestry of a Stone: New Literary Hybrid, his wife, Jean Marie, who curated the show, brought back pieces from his landmark 2004 show at the Cultural Center of the Philippines, Flashes of Genius, which marked his return after a 12-year hiatus from the art scene, contrasting it with recent works that further explore his unique art of “literary hybrids”. Jean Marie points out that Cesare’s works are unique in the world of art. Even the term “literary hybrid” does not exist anywhere else. It is Cesare’s own coinage.
“Poetry and image are of equal importance,” says Cesare, wjen asked whether the image or the words came first. He has shunned interviews for quite some time, preferring his art to speak for itself. However, for this show, he has gladly allowed talks at his home in Ayala Alabang.
Cesare’s present artworks merely continue artistic concerns he has delved in as early as the Seeventies. Jean Marie says her husband has always been fascinated with letteristic images, with cursives that have no decipherable meaning forming as integral part of his works. Now, they are the work itself.
Take for example the piece “Perfection”. The word is spelled out in neon lights, but with the final letter “N” made a bursted bulb. In his home in Alabang, he has another take on it. All the letters are lit up brightly, but for the final letter “M” misspells the word.
You cannot fail to notice the humor in this work. The joke is in the execution of the word. In many of his pieces, a similar rational process seems to have played a part in the realization of the work.
Another neon piece, “ItnavaAvanti” is also a literary joke. The letters are spelled in reverse, which contradict the direction to move forward. Instead of rushing on, the word goes backward. But in this piece, there is another sleight of hand involved that adds a layer of meaning to the piece – it is often installed beside a mirror panel named “Mirage in Your Rearview Mirrored,” on which two poems by Cesare are printed. Seen from an angle, the word “Itnava” spells out “Avanti”.
All these jokes are carefully set to capture your attention slowly but surely. Cesare agrees that he has never been this humorous. “I admit it,” he declares. “This is my funniest show ever.”
One of the words associated with Cesare is “underground”. While many counter that he is already mainstream, having exhibited at the Cultural Center of the Philippines, Cesare claims that he is still not.
“When I refer to myself as underground, I mean that I think out of the box,” he says. “It would be unhealthy of me to think any other way”.
Likewise, he still relishes the avant-garde tag that is often associated with him. It has never bothered him. In fact, he embraces it. “I am happy with most people’s expectations of me,” he adds.
For the Gelleria Duemila exhibit, Cesare presented a number of new works and hybrids. Apart from the neon signs and acrylic hubrids, some pieces were pure text.
Jean Marie says many people are uncomfortable encountering text in art. But you can see the letters as curved lines and appreciate them for their form. It is only when you read the words that Cesare’s full intent takes over.
The piece “Here” is a two-panel neon backlit piece that takes readers on a convoluted discussion of the here and now. It lists down nine suppositions starting with “Could this be here?” The Socratic arrangement of of ideas seem to follow rational thinking, except the arguments presented do not relate to each other and take the idea of “Here” elsewhere. A partner panel lists down the quotes from Hermann Goering, Bono and Jose Maria Sison that play with the thought of “Here”.
If “Here”plays with rational thought, “Caution: Falling Ninjas” confronts logical thought with absurdist idea. The piece is no different from an ordinary street sign that warns you of a bend on the road or a left turn. Is it a warning that ninjas will regularly fall from this spot, or will ninjas be falling shortly in front of you? But then, who has heard of falling ninjas?
There are also pieces in vitrine where found objects are given new meaning by the text ascribed to them.
In the box titled “Greek To Me”, a huge stone is inscribed with “Ergo cogito sum” (I think, therefore I am). The discussion of an imagined couple is written in front of the vitrine; they argue over the meaning of the words, only emphasizing the struggle between the couple to understand each other.
In another box is an old Nazareno statue with a missing arm with the curious title of “A Simple Case of Arm Robbbery #2”. Jean Marie says the piece is an extension of an earlier piece by her husband where the arm of the Nazareno statue is the focus of the piece.
The hallmark of Cesare’s literary hybrids is the acrylic panels that combine image and text. In many of them, a single image comes with an accompanying line or sentence that distorts the mage’s meaning. Think of it as a variation on Einstein’s montage technique where two unrelated images – in this case, image and text – are combined, thus creating a new meaning.
The acrylic panel “Der Duschraum,” combines the image of a bloody imprint in a shower door with the phrase, “We’re just cleaning up”.
The work is one of the few pieces in the exhibit that reflect Cesare’s macabre sense of humor. Is the image on the shower a ghost image? Is it something out of Alfred Hitchcock’s “Psycho” or a recent horror flick? Or is it a veiled reference to Auschwitz with its showers? How do read the accompanying text when placed alongside this image? It makes you ponder multiple references.
“Der Duschraum” is mounted uniquely from the other pieces. It is set inside a bathroom, the panel just hovering below a real working shower. Is it funny? Maybe for Cesare.
With any of Cesare Syjuco’s works, there is always an element of surprise. But his language, his literary hybrids, work at a level that requires just a casual glance and quick thinking to recognize its meaning. Its creation might have required some thought, but the meaning is plain and simple: it is what you want it to be.