Monday, 27 June 2011

0004 Asian Art News, Turn On And Read, January-February 2011

by Gina Fairley (Asian Art News)

Text in the visual arts can be both illuminating and idiosyncratic. For more than three
decades, this duality has seduced the Filipino artist Cesare A.X. Syjuco, who today has a cultlike following in his country. His literary hybrids waver between poetry, Indie lyrics, and assemblage. He is truly a cerebral artist.
Described as “a living underground
legend” Cesare A.X.
Syjuco occupies a place of
mythology, a recluse and an
eccentric, within the Manila
art scene. A triangular neon in his recent
solo exhibition, The Ancestry of a Stone at
Manila’s Galleria Duemila, perhaps best
sets the mood—GOD SPEAKS TO CESARE
it emphatically states in a red glow. In a
country where 90%
of the population is
Roman Catholic, one
starts to read Syjuco’s
text works in a different
light. Laced with
humor and a probing
assault on banality,
they mesmerize and
confound through the
very media ubiquitous
to advertising and propaganda—
slick graphics
and clever language.
Text saturates
our world. It is not surprising
that language
has been an important
critical feature across
20th century art, from
the Cubi st s to the
Dadaists, key to the
advertising premise of
Pop art and the more
avant-garde Fluxus
artists of the 1960s,
and later where text
itself increasingly became the standalone
artwork within conceptual practices.
Cesare A.X. Syjuco, however, does not fit
into any mould.
As his son and fellow musician
Augusto ‘AGR’ Syjuco described his father
in A Sudden Rush of Genius, a book/
CD set of performed avant-garde poetry
launched in late 2010: “As a crusading music
critic, underground radio jock, and later
as probably Manila’s first important Indie
promoter and record producer—pivotal
roles he assumed in rapid succession while
still a teenager majoring in literature at De
La Salle College in the early 1970s—it is
even easier to forget that he himself was
a musician and performer of immense
capabilities, vision, and technical prowess
....” He continued, “Everyone knows
that Cesare the Art Legend is notoriously
anti-social, publicly distant, and painfully
reclusive, preferring to work in total seclusion
for months on end, missing meals and
staying sleepless for days in a soundproof
glassed loft four-and-a-half story’s above
the secured street where he lives in virtual
anonymity in suburban Alabang ... [his]
obsessive preoccupation with detail and
impatience with mistakes, his stubborn
insistence on things usually considered
technically impossible ....” It is certainly
a different picture to the award-winning
‘Golden Boy of Philippine Art’ touted by the
press. How much is myth and how much is
genius is a curiosity relatively uncharted.
The sculpture PERFECTIO(N)
(2004), in this writer’s opinion, defines
Syjuco superbly. A white neon glowing on
a white wall, its purity flawed by its imperfect
spelling through its unlit N. But this
is no technical malfunction. Meticulously
considered, it is a succinct critique on society’s
perception of correctness
and its parallel
postmodern debate on
what construes ‘good’
art, or perhaps just
a jibe at both with
tongue firmly in cheek.
In the hands of Syjuco,
conceptualism is reduced
to a neat cerebral
cul-d-sac, and it
is an intriguing place
to dwell.
First exhibited
in Syjuco’s landmark
exhibition, Flashes of
Genius (2004), at the
Cultural Centre of the
Philippines [CCP]—
Syjuco’s first appearance
in twelve years
following a sudden
self-imposed seclusion
in 1992—the neon is
as current today as
we move into a new
decade where globalization’s
ideals are increasingly proven
as flawed. Exhibited at Galleria Duemila
adjacent to two works: a dead bonsai in a
Perspex vitrine and a religious statue with
a missing outstretched hand hovering imperfectly
off the edge of a gallery pedestal,
the collective conversation between these
three works taps into—and perhaps even
amplifies—the social landscape of our day.
This is the genius of Syjuco.
Cesare A.X. Syjuco made his debut
into the visual arts scene in 1977 with
a solo exhibition in the Rotary Arcade
Building Makati, curated by the esteemed
Emanuel Torres. It was to set a trajectory
that can be traced to Syjuco’s current
‘Literary Hybrids,’ that fusion of found
text and found object that has defined his
later career. Using iconic Roy Lichtenstein
images minus the dots, Syjuco replaced
Lichtenstein’s text with Tagalog colloquialisms,
usurping American pop culture with
a local intonation, such as Lichtenstein’s
iconic Crying Girl (1963) with the caption
Nagdadalantao (oh no I’m pregnant.) The
Literary Hybrids are merely an updated appropriation
of popular culture with a more
sophisticated understanding of their quips.

Syjuco’s text really became his own,
however, through the TANKA
series of the mid-1970s, abstract
paintings of texture likened to
wood, where he worked back into
the surface with scratches that eventually
became simulated scribble turned into
text. This more gestural, personal sense of
the hand in his work reached its endpoint
with the site-specific work, The Shape of
Writing (1989), simulated writing in Pentel
black pen directly onto the walls of Perth’s
Institute of Contemporary Art, Australia.
Abstraction by its very nature
speaks of non-verbal processes. What
emerged from these early foundations
was the need for greater clarity of language.
It was a transition that won Syjuco
the Grand Prize for painting from the Art
Association of the Philippines in 1982 with
the work, Be Wary of Green / Be most wary
of Memory, collaged magazine and graphic
transfers. It was the precursor to the next
two decades of plucked images overlaid
with sans serif text moving from crudely
backlit tarpaulin in the style of shrunken
billboards ubiquitous to the Philippines’s
skyline, to today’s slick acrylic panels with
interactive fluorescent tubing. Syjuco had
worked out how to use text to engage the
viewer spatially, as well as cerebrally.
It came at a time when Syjuco had
performed his Table of 0 (1981), for the first
time, an auto-canceling found poem that
would punctuate nearly 30 years of his career,
moving among poetry, performance,
and sculpture. This simple multiplication
table of zero defies logic by using a systemic
pattern of acceptance. The meter
conforms to the formality of poetry and its
graphic quality allowed a neutral slate for
aesthetic meanderings, whether performed
or written. In its mere articulation it defined
absence—it offered a delightful parody
and a way forward. When one speaks of
Cesare Syjuco it cannot be without mention
of Jean Marie—a team as watertight as
Jean-Claude and Christo, or Ulay and Maria
Abramović. Their lifetime of collaboration
began as students in 1968. Still practicing,
Jean Marie, a visual and performance artist
herself, today is largely the spokesperson
for Syjuco and curated the aforementioned
exhibition The Ancestry of a Stone.
While their most public project
was the alternative space Art Lab, which
operated as the primary venue for conceptual
art in the Philippines during the
early 1990s, presenting, among others,
Cesare’s painted shadows and one-line
poems in plastic ‘movie’ letters facing EDSA
boulevard, performances by the “Electric
Underground Collective” (an avant-garde
open-mic platform emulated today by the
Manila space Green Papaya Art Projects
and groups such as “Sleepy Heads” and
“Radioactive Sago Project” combining
experimental sound and voice works,)
and Jean Marie’s minimal monochromatic
airbrushed paintings, Art Lab was at the
cutting edge—and of its time.
While the space dissolved with the
1990s—along with Syjuco’s active presence
in the scene—performance has remained a
contingent component to Syjuco’s oeuvre,
spontaneous and orchestrated. “His brain
is upside down. It’s always going opposite,”
Jean Marie says, not so much as
an excuse for his eccentricities,
but with infinite wonder. She
continued, “If music is the space
between the notes, for me art
is the space between the work,
then for Cesare it is the space
and time taken to experience
the words and conversation between
the words—it is a literal
Enter center stage mark
I I—Cesare Sy juco
reemerged onto the
Filipino art scene in
2004 with an exhibition
of new text works at the
country’s premier art institution,
the Cultural Centre of the
Philippines. It was a production
on a grand scale. Divided into
two groups: The Room of Absence
consisting of multi-media works
such as PERFECTIO(N) and
Table of 0 [presented with the
title Invisible Man in Pictures]
that moved toward a position of
nihilism; and The Room of Small
Talk where Syjuco presented
the first substantial collection of
graphic manipulations, aka digital
tarpaulins as light-boxes—it
again bolstered the legend.
Not unlike his international
contemporaries Barbara
Kruger, Joseph Kosuth, Jenny
Holtzer, Lawrence Weiner, or indeed
Andy Warhol, and others,
Syjuco turned to text-infused appropriation
of popular culture as
the raison d’être. The static light
fitting became an active player
as a defining element within the
artwork itself, such as a formal
division and later a more literal
application as horizon, territorial
demarcation, or discharged ammunition,
further suturing the tools
of advertising with visual poetics.
On the modern experience
Foucault wrote: “What is essential
is that thought, both for itself and
in the density of its workings,
should be both knowledge and
a modification of what it knows,
reflection and a transformation of
the mode of being of that on which
it reflects.”2 Key to these artists
was their intention to dismantle
prescribed semantics and use the
deliverable message as a vehicle for
finding new meaning.
Perhaps this is more simply
illustrated through the Syjuco’s
poster hybrid, Please Notice the
Air (2010), an image of a barren
indiscernible landscape with
uncontrollable air particles expedited
by an explosion. Is it toxic?
Why is there no vegetation? Is
it legal? Are we in danger? It is
the unspoken dialogue between
printed text and image that is
the real progenitor for thought.
It is easily read again in Keep
the Change (2010), an image of
a tank engaged in combat with
the tag line ‘Have a Really Swell
Day / And Keep the Change,’ a
fluorescent tube slicing the line
of fire with military precision.
Syjuco milks the cliché with razor-
sharp wit. His ability to play
with preponderant imagistic and
textural conventions—that is to
convolute, charge and confound
processed thought—is like a slap
in the face with the proverbial
slimy fish to awaken our doze.
It is affronting, real, and memorable,
and he pulls it off again,
again, and again.
I am reminded of the
words of Swiss-born artist Olaf
Breuning, “They (clichés) have
to be very powerful, otherwise
they might not be recognized by
people. It seems that reality in
itself rushes by so fast that stereotypes
are very welcome breaks.”3
Cesare Syjuco has appropriated
posters since the beginning: a
limited-edition graphic accompanying
each exhibition and since
1994, a neighborhood Halloween
intervention that, like his Art Lab
EDSA slogans, takes visual poetry
to an unassuming public, an example,
Dracula Sucks, in reaction
to the Macapagal-Arroyo government.
Today, working closely with
daughter Maxine Syjuco, also a poet
and artist, he now plays the role of
director in this stage act, technically
vigilant and as acerbic as ever.
One wonders, however, at
what point do the words no longer
become words, but rather a permeable
elastic state of meaning? The
fabrication of myth, weaving of a
lie, or revelation of a truth? A superb
example is reworked hybrid,
Veneration of the Lie (1996/2010),
a dented common copper kettle
enshrined in a vitrine as a rare
artifact emanating from Portuguese
explorer Ferdinand Magellan, its
label stating, “This prototype of
Magellan’s invention was recovered
from his flagship, the Maria
Christina, around 1523. On loan
from the Vatican Collection.” Killed
in 1521 in the Philippines, this benign object
doesn’t sync with its label, illuminating
our lost ability to comprehend and question
the information we are fed. Furthermore,
today’s manipulated visual world, under
the auspice of ‘contemporary art,’ has the
ability to throw open debate on history and
recast it anew into an abstracted form not
interested in truth, but rather narrative. The
found object becomes found history—a
simple opp-shop kettle no more.
This contemporary apathy to read,
to take the time to understand—or worse
still, not to want to understand—is brushed
off with the pun ‘it’s all Greek to me’ and
the dismissive catch-all phrase ‘whatever’
in the similarly toned work, Greek to Me
(1997/2010). A stone etched with the Latin
phrase ‘Cogito Ergo Sum’—I think therefore
I am—René Descartes’s foundation
to Western philosophy (and in context of
visual poetry Barbara Kruger’s signature
appropriation ‘I shop therefore I am.’)
Printed on the Plexiglas vitrine hovering
in front of the object in intermittent
black and red text (another Kruger reference?)
is the exchange: “: It means I love
you in Greek. / : No, stupid. It’s Latin. / :
Whatever.” Context is challenged by text.
This is not a mining of the Filipino psyche
or fashionable global-political diatribe; its
anchor is in the human condition. One is
encouraged to think beyond the literal and
question our place—the solid foundation
of a rock upon which to build. In the rush
to move forward what is placed in jeopardy?
Whatever ....
Is religion equally as scrutable as
history? Syjuco’s Literary Hybrid, A Simple
Case of Arm Robbery #2, suggests so. It
parallels the museum case with the homeshrine
housing a ‘sacred’ object—a seat of
authority and respect. Sitting in proximity
to the neon PERFECTIO(N) in the Duemila
exhibition, one cannot help but enjoy the
pun as the Christ-figure is
worn, derobed, and missing a
hand. Its text is the nonsensical
banter about the ownership of
the hand, perhaps the maids?
The charitable gesture to offer a
hand is taken full circle. Humor
and banality veil a deeper critique
without being preachy.
It is this balance that is signature
to Cesare Syjuco’s works.
Laced with punchy wit,
clearly there is a serious side
to the work often overlooked.
A dead bonsai arrested from
its meticulous grooming is an
affronting image. It is an assemblage
of object/text that
sits central to Duemila’s exhibition,
and perhaps a profound
summation of Syjuco’s
hybrids. Space Water (2010)
was made at a time when Pakistan was
flooded, China and Australia were afflicted
by drought, and COP15, the Copenhagen
Climate Conference, fell over. Its text reads:
“:What is Paramount? / The conquest of
space or the price of water? / : The inexhaustibility
of water / : But space is so vast!
/ : And water is so scarce here.” It begs the
question: At what cost?
The influence of language on our
perception and representation
of landscape is ingrained. As
an Australian I can’t help but be
framed by the narrative and mythology
of a threatening ‘outback,’ and an
ever-present, razor-sharp horizon. While I
realize that is a very different landscape to
that of Cesare Syjuco’s, where a horizon is
perpetually smudged by pollution, it is a
shared concern. This connectivity is more
literally suggested in the visual poem, “A
shadow is never blacker than its shadow /
A hole in China is not a mountain in Peru,”
manifest as a text work on acrylic panel in
2004, and in 2010 the graphic of a learjet
and fluorescent horizon added—a constant
reinvention that defines our times. One can
never fool one’s shadow and every action
has a repercussion. It is a lasting message
amidst this blanket of popular culture, cool
graphics, and punchy lines.
While we can quickly glance over
Cesare Syjuco’s works with a knowing
smirk, it is their residual imprint that’s
lasting, not unlike the retinal burn of
fluorescent light that underscores many of
his texts. The image of a dead bonsai is
wrong, its Zen [im]perfection as potent as
a malfunctioning ‘N’ in that opening neon
PERFECTIO(N)—we go full circle.
While there are countless Literary
Hybrids that could describe the genius
of Cesare Syjuco, this is the one I want
to leave you with as it forces
viewers to consider the work of
Syjuco in a different light. Turn
on the switch and read.

1. Jean Marie Syjuco in conversation
with the writer,
Manila 2010.
2. Foucault, Michel, The Order
of Things, An Archaeology of
the Human Sciences, (1970)
p. 327.
3. Olaf Breuning, 2004.
Gina Fairley is regional contributing
editor for Asian Art
News and World Sculpture
News. She is based in Sydney

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