By Alfred A. Yuson
The Philippine Star, 29 November 2004
An MMDA-pink pedestrian overpass spans C-5 or Rodriguez Ave. towards Libis, off the corner of Julio Vargas Avenue. Relatively new, it looks spic-and-span, bright and cheery, but remains unused, because it has no stairs on either end. Bayani Fernando’s boys had installed the bridge without consulting the proper owners on both sides of C-5. No one seemed to know that they would have to ask permission to encroach on commercial lots before they could erect the stairs.
For now we can laud it as an installation piece, an eye-catching sculpture symbolizing shortsighted futility, with a clear allusion to the merits of a mythic nowhere. Well, it’s also simple a landmark to make Metro Manilans shake their heads in consternation or amusement.
These days, whenever I catch sight of it, I wish Cesare A. X. Syjuco would take it upon himself to volunteer to collaborate on the work-in-arrested-progress, apply his iconoclastic bravura touch, the way Pacita Abad enhanced a similar walkway spanning the Singapore river. Perhaps Cesare can add text on its broad span: some arcane calligraphy, a cryptic quotation, or pithy lines of dialogue.
He could also decide to hang a row of framed tarpaulin pieces with images in color or black –and-white, lit from behind, so that motorists whizzing by at night would raise both eyebrows and say, “Did you see those? Hey, That was Humphrey Bogart out there in one of those banners, must be another Smart Addict come-on…”
But neither smart nor addictive describes the munificent sampling of Syjuco’s recent artworks, which are on formal display at the CCP Main Gallery until January 2005. Billed as Flashes of Genius, the visual-literary trans-media exhibit of some 60 works is exactly that: it “flashes” uncompromising genius, the way a creative deviant would throw his overcoat open to display naked rhetoric and philosophical questions to an intrigued, rather than stunned, crowd of instant voyeurs.
There’s a ludic and sexy come-on quality to Syjuco’s art, boldly challenging, or at its gentlest inducing / seducing the viewer to / into instant myriad reaction that partakes of both quizzical cerebral contortions as well as gut-feel appreciation.
“Fantastic!” That was how fellow Philippine Star columnist and critic-at-large Dr. Isagani Cruz was reported to have exclaimed on opening night on Nov. 13. I believe I muttered the same appraisal inside myself when my wife and I did an early bird walkthrough that night, even before the ceremonial ribbon was snipped to open the show.
Oh what a show it is, of the show-and-tell garden variety, too, as in managing to raise all these splendiferous existential questions that translate into hybrid bushes, hedges and groves of perked-up consciousness. It is the same response we had to seeing all those sculptures of cows all over London, or a simulation of alien-looking characters seated on an installed park bench across Singapore Art Museum.
Here in Metro Manila, we hardly have such visual titillation offered publicly, that is, not inadvertently, as with that virginal MMDA walkway. At best we have commendable examples of commissioned public art at The Fort, occasionally at Greenbelt, and that of former Manila Mayor Arsenio Lacson reading a newspaper while facing the sunset in Roxas Blvd.’s Baywalk. No giant spoons or magnified simulacra of mundane objects greets us in any metropolitan tour, only the invariable accidents of kitsch such as that monstrous sculpture on an island upon entering Anonas Ext. in Quezon City.
Well, some alderman ought to commission Cesare A.X. Syjuco to serialize a chainsaw massacre of city consciousness by installing his arresting “conceptual” art where it can stop people on their tracks and make the think, even if the first thought would likely be: “Is my leg being pulled?” That goes into the equation all right; yet it is more of one’s relationship with words and images, thereby the world of worlds, that is being tweaked onto a higher plane.
Consider the dialogue in a set of three hypertext artworks Cesare has included in his exhibit.
“18. Mundane” goes thus: “:What is mundane?: Anything and everything when you’re bleeding from shrapnel on the bridge of a burning deck. :My thoughts exactly :You’ve never had a thought in your life.”
“19. Mundane” has the following: “:What’s the difference between mundane and inconsequential? :Mundane means it’s unimportant. Inconsequential is when it doesn’t matter. :What’s the difference there? :It’s a mundane question. A reply would be inconsequential. :You’re a jerk, you know that? :I love you too”
And “20. Mundane” goes: “Q: Why do people bother with the inconsequential? A: I’m not sure Q: You mean like ‘Life on Mars’? A: I mean like life anywhere”
The enlarged text, in bold, black or red, is superimposed on black-and-whit photo images of an imperiled battleship at sea.
The “Dead Enough” series, also a triptych or trilogy, goes this way. Panel 1: “How dead is very dead? Not dead enough.” Panel 2: “How ‘enough’ is enough? Very verry dead.” The text is imposed on a familiar if vintage cinema frame showing a well dressed lady with a pistol in hand. The third panel magnifies the hand with the gun, under which the bold black text, in lowercase, goes “one more for the road,” (Yes, that’s a comma rendering finis to this unholy trinity.)
Some of the works offer nothing short of imperial messages, like the twin “Resonance” pieces, where the first aphorism is “The Resonance of Matter Matters,” and the second simply drops the first three words, so that we read: “Matter Matters,” – with eloquent spaces in between. (Yes, again writing finis are commas instead of periods; even that seemingly arbitrary touch must be a flash of something, say, idiot-savant proclivities?)
And then some works validate the authentic poet in Cesare, who after all is a Palanca prizewinner in that genre. “A Death Wish” – which shows a distorted B&W photo of a dancing man, reads text-heavily: “I’d like to go quite suddenly, I think, whacked from behind when I least expect it, face down and spread thinly on some anonymous sidewalk, in someone else’s anonymous hometown later to be peeled off the pavement like chewing gum from underneath the treads of a crumbling cream passat, and totally, joyfully, wordlessly oblivious to the hours and the whys and the wherefores of somehow not going in the very same way that I came,”. Breathless; even that comma gasps for air.
And there are story-poems, as with “Dorothea” which has a B&W photo, again distorted, of a naked man with a cello, imposed on which is a modernist fable: “There was in his strong upright father a kind of vague borderline malevolence more disturbing than it was reprehensible. It took curious form, for instance, in the jar of attic mice that he kept locked in the trunk of his car. Or more to the point and closer to home, to his bedside drawer, the perfectly trimmed tiny crescent thumbnail with someone else’s name on it. Q: But who was Dorothea? Q: And why were her mice so very small?”
For sheer poetry of quintessential, postmodern wit, there is “Bow” which shows a naked man with a cello, and the following haunting micro-text: “There is no song in the bow in breaking. Wrap me in the bow in breaking.”
The work titled “River” is rhythmically cautionary: “A river stays spread on pages without sight has no reach, without reach will not flow, without flow will not rain, without rain will die.”
Most of the artworks are on large tarpaulin rectangles that are box-framed and backlit. But there’s a delightful eye-and-mind-popper of an installation right on the sort of anteroom when you enter: a bulky yellow column, the plaque for which, reading much like a road sign, welcomes the viewer into the kind of mildly caustic, quasi-ethereal plane the artist visits in his sleep as well as OBE experiences, no doubt. Generously does he share such dreams with us.
The work is titled “A Concrete Fiction” – text on acrylic panel installed on color-coordinated concrete post (existing), 2004 – to wit: “One (1) rather unremarkable concrete structural girdle post, obstructing principal lines of vision in exactly the wrong place at the wrong time.. steel, fiber and ABS reinforced for maximum load bearing capacity under extreme stress.. X meters high by X meters thick by X meters wide.. clad entirely in hipping grade marine plywood and painted a Gay Capri Yellow (Ace Premix 442B or 442C specified).. to be immediately constructed on this site for no conceivable purpose and at ridiculously excessive cost.. and to be left uselessly in place as a careless inconvenience for the duration of the monsoon season..” Space follows, then dialogue in itals: “Q: You’ve got to be kidding..right? A: You fckn wish..”
Behind this column is a glass rectangle with the word VOID. Viewed at a certain angle, this piece imposes its reflection on another work two meters away. It’s that kind of hyper-imposition I wish Cesare can apply on many of the ongoing infrastructure projects in our otherwise benighted cityscape.
Cesare A.X. Syjuco lives a life of the mind, and what antic, impish imagination he parlays into words and visuals. A painter, poet and art critic of international stature, he racked up various distinctions at a young age (TOYM award for Art and Culture advancement; Gerry Roxas Foundation Presidential Award for Outstanding Achievement in the Arts; Gawad CCP sa Sining Biswal; AAP Grand Prize for Painting; UNESCO Paris Gold Medals for Photography and Design; the First Purita Kalaw Ledesma Award for Art Criticism, etc.).
The groundbreaking artist once operated the studio-gallery Art Lab right on EDSA, in the ‘80s and early ‘90s, if I recall right. Then he inexplicably disappeared from the local art scene. Rumor had it that he and artist wife Jean Marie had decided to turn into stage “pay-rents” for an ultra-rock band consisting of their five kids. And with the Syjucos no rumor is ever an exaggeration.
Now, a dozen years after he donned that cloak of invisibility, the Harried Pater of EDSA, Vancouver and Alabang resurrects himself, and his pioneering art, nay, revives them, nay reinvents, nay, redoes and remixes all of our notions on what can be splendid in the visual arts (cum literary), with this his 13th solo exhibition.
No wonder one of the tarpaulin works, in full color, is a page straight out of a Flash Gordon comic book. It is titled “Last Leaf” – with the ersatz-hype text blessing the frames: “I am the last leaf in this book of vanishing pages.”
What is this guy on? Pa-share naman, kumpadre! But of course the last must be the first. So welcome back, amigo pare siempre!