About the Space

Art in Public and Semi-Private Spaces
by Ana P. Labrador
Art Asia-Pacific Magazine
October 1999

Last March 1999 a newspaper article written by a music impressario carried an item about the Cultural Center of the Philippines’ (CCP) lavatories being ‘out-of-order.’ The relevance of toilets to music is made explicit in the article as it reveals how visual artists invaded the WCs of the premier performing arts institution of the Philippines and turned these into exhibition spaces. The works on exhibition are by a loose group of Manila and Filipino-American (Fil-Am) artists working with 3rd Space1 founder, artist Yason Banal. As a result of the exhibition, eight lavatories as well as the CCP Small Gallery became display areas. This has made them virtually unusable or ‘out-of-order.’

KAKA- is a predominantly installation-based exhibition, organised in response to the 13 Artists Retrospective in the same institution. But while the works of the retrospective occupied the Main Gallery and three hallways, the KAKA- exhibition searched for more frequented spaces of the CCP. The title is taken from a common Tagalog2 prefix for adjectives, used mostly to describe extreme reactions to events, actions or objects. For example, as the wall text declares, ‘the idea of prefix (in language) as extension (in bodies) is… manifested in the contemporary use of speakeasy… through its very own reinforcement and repetition: kaka-suka (nauseating), kaka-inis (irritating), or kaka-loka (maddening).’

More importantly, the exhibition steered away from number 13 as ‘nostalgic reckoning of the germinal Thirteen (Filipino) Moderns3.’ KAKA- instead focused on the phobia for number 13. This was playfully generated during the 13 February opening performance where every 13th guests at the different CCP exhibition spaces were barred from getting in. In a sense, the Thirteen Artists Awards have been an inversion of the traditional belief, making the number seem auspicious – the award and thew nostalgia for the thirteen Moderns lend the prestige for recognition in the Philippines artworld. It has transformed, since its intermittent awarding from 1970, to a symbol of success for the young recipients.

The CCP Main Gallery as preferred exhibition space is reflected by the prestige attached to the Thirteen Artists wards. For the retrospective, the awardees chose not to go beyond the confines of that space. Ironically, the reputation of being daring and inventive that brought most of the artists to the judges’ attention was somehow lost in the exhibition at the Main Gallery. Rather than participate further in the production of new ways of thinking about art, the awardees just slotted in the reproduction of their own nostalgia, referring mostly to their place in the Philippines’ art history and the rehashing of their memoirs.

This brings us to examine works exhibited by California based Filipino-American artists and Manila-based Filipinos with regards to their inclusion to the general debate on the Philippines’ contemporary art practice and the search for Filipino identity. The curator of KAKA- saw beyond the usual art spaces at the CCP. Rather than be limited by the Small Gallery, Banal saw the roomy public toilets as areas for display and commentary. ‘The bathrooms4,’ he writes in the introductory text, ‘would be appropriate exhibition sites for such a project since it is t/here where function and style collide, where the inarticulate form of graffiti is as vital as the message it tries to make legible.’ It also helped that the participating artists are in their early 20s and may have less inhibition about turning those toilets into creative spaces.

During the Saturday afternoon of my visit to the exhibition, a national choral competition was taking place at the Main Theatre. Visiting the men’s toilet on the same floor was much more interesting than the women’s, both for the reactions of the male users and the installation within it. The men were incredulous at the sight of females in their toilet. A few men left to check if they actually went in the right one or were just too embarrassed by the female presence. To the women viewing the exhibition in the men’s toilets, the experience was like being part of a performance: crossing boundaries of social taboos and disrupting privacy.

The CCP audience, particularly the members of the Friends of CCP and the supporters of the Philippine Philharmonic Orchestra complained to the recently appointed administrators about the problem of the toilets. The patrons pointed out that the exhibitions were gross and filthy5. However, the new CCP Artistic Director, Ramon Santos, was undeterred, even extending the exhibition for another week.

KAKA- took place when Manila was abuzz with a number of art shows. The National Commission on Culture and the Arts (NCCA) sponsored exhibitions and performances in museums, theatres and malls to celebrate the arts and culture month last February. Ironically, KAKA- received an NCCA grant, attracting more ire form their critics. Against all this fuss, the exhibition has been generally reviled by members of the Manila art circles as nothing more than one that shocks. Banal the curator, retorts that the deprivation of the normally complacent users of the CCP and its toilets at least made them stop and think about the luxuries that they take for granted. He adds, ‘we did not intend to shock; we were really just being wicked.’

 

Thanks to Onet Magante of the CCP Visual Arts Unit, for facilitating the permit to photograph the KAKA- exhibition.

KAKA-: Extended (I) versions from Manila and California, 13 February – 7 March 1999, CCP Small Gallery and Toilets, Manila.

13 Artists Retrospective 1970-1994, 7 January – 7 March 1999, CCP Main Gallery, 4th, 3rd and 2nd floor Hallways, Manila.


1 3rd Space opened in January 1998 and is located within a residential community in Quezon City (a suburb of Manila). KAKA-‘s site and time specific works owe their orientation from the 3rd Space project that uses the physical ‘house’ as a metaphor for contemporary art-making. Similar to the now defunct Pinaglabanan Galleries in another Manila suburb, 3rd Space creates a site for those ‘young artists who are not yet established or are not embraced by the mainstream, or those who have found success commercially but wish to grow in other directions.’

2 Tagalog is the widely spoken language in the Philippine and is the basis of the Pilipino national language.

3 Patrick Flores, ‘The Art of the 70s: Missing links, burned bridges’, Pananaw 2 (Philippine Journal of Visual Arts), 1998, p. 60.

4 In polite society, it is uncanny how individual cultures choose to refer to these often socially taboo areas of private activity: the US Americans call them bathrooms or washrooms; the British, lavatories or loos; and the Filipinos, comfort rooms or CR.

5 Nicole Tirona’s installation included pornographic pictures pasted on the walls of a ladies’ toilet cubicle on the second floor. The breasts and men’s and women’s genitalia were subsequently defaced with marking pens.


 

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