By Johnathan Libarios Rondina
Philippine Daily Inquirer, 09 June 2008
MANILA, Philippines - Scrolling through avant-garde artist Cesare A. X. Syjuco’s on-line blog is an exercise in momentary displacement. There is nothing there; not a single line of his famous cryptexts or those raging dialogues between debating punctuation marks.
And just when I am prepared to file this empty page in my head as yet another of Cesare’s conceptual pieces, his wife, painter and performance artist Jean Marie Syjuco, tells me it’s nothing more than a page under construction.
Still, my interpretive faux pas is perfectly excusable. Both Cesare’s and Jean Marie’s works over the last three decades have often been described as, well, indescribable.
After all, he has been known to cast invisible sculptures molded with nothing but poetry and halogen. She, on the other hand, is prone to convulsive fits of symbolic self-mutilation, at one point even giving herself the unkindest of haircuts in a highly acclaimed art performance at the Cultural Center of the Philippines.
Indeed, theirs is the kind of the art that induces nosebleeds, cerebral puzzles without a single solution, creative meanderings without a specific point or destination.
Milan Kundera’s view on the duality of art expressed through the character of Sabina in the “Unbearable Lightness of Being”—on the surface an intelligible lie, underneath the unintelligible truth”—rings true of the Syjucos’ multi-layered, transmediated textualities.
Speaking of Cesare’s works, filmmaker Don Escudero once said, “They are very evocative. Evocative of what, I don’t know!”
Cesare, a multi-awarded poet and art critic, simply describes himself and Jean Marie thus: “Cesare Syjuco is primarily a poet whose literary experiments take him into the realm of the visual arts. Jean Marie Syjuco is primarily a visual artist whose art experiments take her into the realm of the literary. So this is a perfectly good example of how two very different people can start out in opposite directions and still end up in pretty much the same place—in this case, the art gallery.”
Constantly defying the reductionism of the finite, the Syjuco experiment, through its many permutations in poetry, performance, painting, music, and installation, continue to speak volumes about the postmodern condition, and now promises to engage a new generation of art audiences, challenging them to accept and understand the inherent multiplicity of meaning and experience.
Lifetime of collaboration
Their lifetime of collaboration began almost immediately when the couple met in 1968 as high-school students. He was the energetic captain of De La Salle’s debate team. She was on the forensics team of the School of the Holy Spirit. It was a romance borne of the art of discord.
“Ours was a turbulent romance,” Jean Marie recalls. “It was an on-and-off relationship. We used to argue a lot.”
They married 10 years later in 1978 and collaborated on many projects thereafter. Many art enthusiasts agree that the couple’s best collaboration was the Art Lab on Estrella Street at Edsa which, for much of the early 1990’s, served as the primary venue for Conceptual Art in the country. There, Jean Marie showcased her “Approach to the Minimal” series of Zen-like monochromatic, airbrush-textured paintings. Cesare, painted shadows on walls and wrote poetry on thin air.
In 1995, when the MRT construction started to cast an ominous shadow over the Art Lab, the Syjucos decided to close shop, much to the disappointment of their friends, clients and fellow artists.
Those were difficult times for the Syjucos. Cesare’s father had died the year before and the couple’s children were growing up, demanding more parental direction.
“We decided to strengthen our family life,” Jean Marie explains, “and so we became very private.”
During those private years, the Syjucos also managed the career of their children, who formed the avant-garde rock band Faust! in 1996. Although short-lived on the mainstream music scene, the group received critical acclaim and enjoyed a cult-following.
Shrine to art
Cesare and Jean Marie also spent their time in hiatus building their biggest installation project yet—a multi-level home in Ayala Alabang—where nine-meter streamers scream anti-ruling order slogans in signature Cesare fashion.
Jean Marie proudly welcomes guests to their impressive home as a curator would to a museum. In fact, she has started to open their house to visiting art-club students from nearby schools.
The Syjuco home is a shrine to art and gives visitors an insight into the creative and complimentary dynamics between its two masters. Taking center stage are Cesare’s poems in glass and light boxes, and several neon-light installations, drawings and paintings.
As in all of Cesare’s works, these home pieces cannot be ignored; here, there and everywhere, they assault and confuse, confound and mesmerize.
In contrast, Jean Marie’s works take a strategically subdued position in their domestic realm. A synthetic flower blooms by synthetic sunlight in the dining area. A cat-and-fish installation plays out a tale of catch-me-if-you-can in the toilet. A bird’s nest nestles peacefully on the hallway as the sound of flowing water echoes throughout the space.
Somewhere inside this big house, Cesare is working on his new pieces. Jean Marie says he’ll be down in five minutes. Fifteen minutes later, she calls him on the intercom.
“Come na, now na,” she whispers, with such heartfelt, teenage-sounding affection that reveals her passionate regard for her husband of 30 years.
“We’ve mellowed over the years,” she says. “Now we don’t argue anymore.”
Cesare emerges from his lair another five minutes later. I offer a hand, he offers a hug as though we’ve known each other for years. Notoriously shy, he is known to come to his own show openings late, where he stays only briefly before disappearing again into the night.
He asks me to sit down and we talk about his mundane pleasures which, not surprisingly, include changing the strings on his 54 electric guitars and, quite surprisingly, watching “American Idol” with his kids, and the joy of going to the beach with the whole family for the first time ever.
A short while later, he stands up, gives me another hug, this time as though we’ve known each other forever, and says, “You will come back again, will you?”
“Jean Marie is my wife, my best friend, my anchor,” he e-mailed a few days later, answering my question about his lifetime collaboration with his wife. “She is my moral support, my manager, and my curator. I’m sure I’d be completely lost without her.”
In her new works, now on view at E Gallerie, Jean Marie presents a series of six minimalist paintings in gradating beige hues. It is really a logical sequence, a mathematical formulation where she repeatedly inscribes a basic principle of art—“The painting of a single line is still full of adventure”—until, in the end, painting, line and principle come full circle.
The Syjuco experiment, 30 years in the making, is an adventure slowly inching its way toward that direction.