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  • Start

    17 November 2011
  • End

    06 December 2011
  • Artist

    Roberto Feleo
  • Gallery

    Altro Mondo - Arte Contemporanea, 3rd Level Greenbelt 5, Ayala Center, Makati City

Archipelago in the Aquarium, Deluge in the Bottle

Dr. Patrick D. Flores

In the first part of the 20th century, a certain priest by the name of Selga gathered data on typhoons in the islands. In his twilight years, he chronicled a condition afflicting weather-beaten Filipinos who have had to suffer a cycle of both natural and historical calamities for the longest time. After all, the Philippine terrain, while lush and teeming, has a precarious life. The tropical universe is blessed with profusion, on the one hand, and it is visited by relentless calamity, on the other. The Center for Research on the Epidemiology of Disasters tells us that since 1900, the “Philippines has experienced the most events defined as requiring international assistance.”[i] Between 1900 and 1991, there was an average of eight disasters a year, making the country the hardest hit by natural disasters in 90 years.

The curate of climate spun the word “tifonitis,” which he defined as a “pathological state owing to nervous over-stimulation produced by the frequency or extraordinary intensity of typhoons.”[ii] According to the historian Greg Bankoff who reflects on the “storms of history” that had swept the Philippines over the years, Selga recalled “the events of mass-induced hysteria that followed the passing of five strong typhoons in quick succession between 15 October and 10 December 1934,” resulting in mass panic in Central Luzon and the Bicol peninsula, with reports of  “farmers abandoning their fields,  of neglected fish pens, of parents not sending children to school, of general apathy, lack of concentration and of a sweeping religious mania that the end of the world was at hand.”[iii] In this tense scenario, disaster and rumor fed on each other, shaping a consciousness of apocalyptic dread.

The recent exhibition of Roberto Feleo wallows in water. Water that is collected in the vessel that tries to hold it, resists its inexorable bursting, and secures it from bottom to brim.  While there is a semblance of an irresistible element being contained, there is as well the specter of a failure to retain: the cosmos and catastrophe in a bottle, as it were, becomes visible, surely, but signifies its imminent, fatal release, like the proverbial dams of feeling.

Feleo’s fascination with the glass vitrine was most cogently demonstrated in an exhibition in 2009 titled Viriñas in which he narrated vignettes and tableaux of history through the glass jar or cloche, or vitrina, morphing into the Hispanism viriña. Most of the themes that played out here were “colonial” to the degree that they referenced stories from a nation’s bruising experience with successive imperialisms. This “coloniality” ultimately would allude to a “folk” translation of the said experience within the grammar of both co-optation and dissent.  If one were to find the link between the said foray and the present one, it would be the artist’s suite of glass jars at the Vargas Museum. This time, the vitrines house not “colonial” recollection, but personages of indigenous mythology, perhaps the beginning of a pantheon of seminal figures such as Tuglay, Tuglibong, Lumabat, Mebuyan, and Wari in a native universe, thriving in a vital and wondrous landscape of birthing and survival, odyssey and perdition and renewal.

In these two series, the vast world and its various genealogies are condensed, one might say miniaturized within a bound yet transparent space of various latitudes. It is a vicinity that spills into the environs of the viewer who looks at it as if it were a fragile maquette, a delicate rehearsal of a profound epiphany of a deep past and the uncertain weather of a future, with discrepant elements running the gamut: from toy soldiers to the bululand the bihang, a constellation inscribed on the firmament, the boatman Maguayen, and a man dancing the coconut dance with feet sunk in a limpid lake.

In this world picture, three levels intersect. At the outset, there is the mythological sequence, a dense scenario that is researched and restaged visually; it is previously oral or performed within ritual, but in this instance it is rendered with rondure, as if sculpturally, and also installatively, and with such scrupulous attention to specific facets of flora and fauna, dramatis personae, and the other paraphernalia of a mythologist.  Alternatively, it is imagined like a diorama, except that it complicates the norms of ilustrado or even nationalist historiography, in fact subjecting it to critique and reconstruction so that the “radical” and the “folk” could regain their presence and overcome the instrumentalization of a “national identity.” Then, there is the device of the aquarium, a fabricated one, unlike the vitrine of the preceding oeuvre which was a found object. This container is fairly plain and typical, expected to hold water and marine life, and probably adorned with light, sand, coral, and so on.  It is the stage on which Feleo’s mythologies transpire. It, therefore, defines the dimension of this world and the parameters of the plot: how the narrative is enacted within the constriction of the see-through proscenium. It ceases to be a neutral locus of action; it is in itself a technique as well as a clue to a spectatorial disposition, or how this vista is to be beheld. Finally, there is the discourse that mingles the “colonial,” a long-standing rumination of Feleo, and the “indigenous,” decisively generating a peculiar “post-colonial” argument. It is a salient proposition because it finds the proper symmetry, an alignment of the stars in a manner of speaking, that brings the two together in a complex design and from a persuasive trajectory of history of different origins: Panay, Cordillera, Laguna, and the annals of the largely forgotten war with the Americans, the exemplary conjuncture between the violence of empire and the diversion of the cinema, all crawling out of the wood work of a mock battle in a bay and paltry reparation.

These intersections configure a crystal arcade of sorts mainly by way of the aesthetic of sapin, which has guided Feleo in the pursuit of his trails. The term is largely conceived as a protection of a surface against another, or a cover to screen vicissitudes. It is essentially a layer; it is external as opposed to interior, a supplement that effects either balance or completion, a sense of security, a fit, a measure of safety, precaution. In the native argot, sapin is usually footwear, sapin sa paa. As such, it may be related to any other raiment, or saplot. The latter usually corresponds to the body and its need for an “outside,” as in saplot sa katawan, which is, for all intents and purposes, nothing but defense, skin, cloth. But always it is about protection — for instance, from dust or a neighbor’s espial — and so, by virtue of which, it could be about concealment in response to the threat of privacy.

Sapin, however, connotes multiple layers, or a juxtaposition of materials, a collage of mixed elements and media. In a makeshift culture in the era of disposable and throwaway goods, sapin may correlate with sari-sari, halo-halo, barong-barongpito-pito. There is, in fact, a local delicacy made of glutinous rice called sapin-sapin, a round pie-like cake that forms strata of colors and flavors. To a certain extent then, sapin is palimpsest, a record of superimposing images, revealing traces of history, encounters of culture, a heritage of hybridities. It is in sum what social scientists refer to as social thickness of disparate levels, an accretion of meanings and interests.  Sapin is encrustation, or as a dictionary would yield, muchos dobleces de una cosa. 

Apart from its physical manifestation, sapin may pertain to guile or guise, a face. In this scheme, however, sapin need not be decidedly construed as deceit or masquerade. For, in keeping with the metaphor of protection, it could be a means of warding off evil or any other importuning. Or, it could affirm innocence as in the old phrase, walang sapin sapin ang loob, which is translated as hombre sencillo. Sapin can only deploy a dialectic with bulislis, or exposure, and of arte, or art. This is why Feleo’s sapin is elaborate and exacting as may be gleaned in the painting of small objects or in the armature of copper figures clad in sawdust, in etching of glass or the hewing of human forms from fern wood in ebullient colors. He confides that this technology is the history of making in a particular milieu, and he refunctions it not out of a primitivist nostalgia for ingenuity as if this craft history has already vanished. On the contrary, it is still very much in our midst and the reckoning of it is active as well. It is the responsibility of the artist to explore this material as an indispensable history of art, to be ceaselessly patient to wait for some methods to reveal themselves in the toil.

In the end, what Feleo contributes in the idioms of the Philippine aesthetic tradition, aside from the facture that is in and by itself peerless in its artisanal and visionary achievement, is the possibility of the “tropic.” It is the critical nexus between the mythic and the worldly, between the cosmological and the historical.  The trope in the language of theory is a swerve in the everyday use of language; it is a figurative turn that aestheticizes the very process of turning. As Hayden White posits, “the tropic is the shadow from all which all realistic discourse tries to flee. This flight, however, is futile; for tropics is the process by which all discourse constitutes the objects which it pretends only to describe realistically and to analyze objectively.”[iv] In Feleo’s post-colonial ethnoscape, this turning creates a different chronotope of the Philippine tale; it is no longer just exclusively mythological and therefore, indigenous and oral, on the one hand, and purely historical, written and visualized, on the other. In the aquarium, the deluge of fragments from both is drained, so to speak, funneled into a space in which they cohabit the condition of exceptional mestizaje: the ancestry of lore, the modernity of art, the post-colonial memory of country. And this mode of containment is but suitable because what is made to fit is an archipelago in pieces, the Philippines as an aesthetic of dispersal, which is amassed not so much for another version of official, mystifying coherence as for the much-aspired prospect of mutation, the very chance of being remapped in all its elusive liquidity.

The total effect, therefore, is not phantasmagoric or magical realist; it is not a confluence of fact and fiction, or a synthesis of the actual and the fantastic. Rather, it is a third moment in the sensing of history, a tropic moment, it could be argued, in which, the “aesthetic” finally participates in the crafting of this thing called history, which is no longer just “textual” or “literary.” It is fleshed out in the register of an image, a vision that is ratified not by evidence, but by a belief in the marvelous and the portentous. It is the marvel and the portent that inspire us to make history, the transcendent agency to, at last, make us want to become witness and seer like Roberto Feleo, the devoted medium of history’s afterlife.





[i] Bankoff, Greg. 2007. “Storms of History: Water, Hazard and Society in the Philippines 1565-1930. A World of Water: Rain, Rivers and Seas in Southeast Asian Histories. Ed. Peter Boomgaard. Singapore: NUS Press, p. 153.

[ii] Bankoff  2007, p. 179.

[iii] Bankoff  2007, p. 179.

[iv] White, Hayden. 1985. “Introduction: Tropology, Discourse, and the Modes of Human Consciousness.” Tropics of Discourse: Essays in Cultural Criticism. Baltimore and London: The Johns Hopkins University Press, p. 2.