February in Manila, home to Art Fair Philippines since 2013, is becoming increasingly attractive as a gathering place for those interested in art from Southeast Asia. Last year, Bellas Artes Projects – a non-profit foundation in Bataan, initiated in 2013 by patron Jam Acuzar – opened a Manila offshoot, the Bellas Artes Outpost, in the Makati area of the city. Coinciding with the art fair, a touching show by the late American artist Bruce Conner, curated by Diana Campbell Betancourt, opened across both spaces. Titled ‘Out of Body’ (in reference to an experience the artist had aged 11), the exhibition includes a number of works on paper, made under aliases after Conner officially retired from the art world in 1999. There are also lithographs – among them a grey, mandala-like composition, San Francisco Dancers’ Workshop Poster (1974), which reminded me of the mystical shapes painted by Swedish spiritualist Hilma af Klint: circles and triangles concealing spiritual energy. In one of the most arresting films on display, the young singer Toni Basil dances to her 1966 single ‘Breakaway’. Masterfully edited by Conner in black and white, the film follows Basil in a provocative, sexy and psychedelic dance. The second part of the exhibition, in Bataan, includes the 36-minute film Crossroads (1976), assembled from archival footage of the Operation Crossroads Baker nuclear weapons test conducted at Bikini Atoll on 25 July 1946. Projected onto a large screen in an unfinished church, the repetitive blasts and mushroom clouds over the boat-covered waters play to both the viewer’s nervous strain and sense of wonder, underlining humankind’s ability to both destroy and create.
In an interview released on YouTube by the Los Angeles Museum of Contemporary Art, Basil remembers that, at their first meeting, Conner was dancing holding a briefcase. He dropped it, scattering hundreds of marbles across the floor. An echo of Conner’s action is present in ‘The ’70s: Objects, Photographs and Documents’ at the new space of Manila’s Ateneo Art Gallery. Drawing from the archives of the Cultural Center of the Philippines (CCP), the exhibition, curated by Ringo Bunoan, includes several re-creations, notably of Fernando Modesto’s Dyolens (Marbles, 1974). The work originally consisted of a row of 1,000 marbles on the floor of the CCP Main Gallery, waiting to be kicked around and played with by visitors. Here, the spirit of fun persists despite the fact that the marbles – 5,000 altogether, I was told – were already dispersed and glued down. Also on show are stunning black and white portraits by Nathaniel Gutierrez and an interactive Paper Press by Yola Johnson. Johnson first showed this work in 1973, when she invited viewers to pull and mark the paper, emphasizing process-based practices. Linking two of the three exhibition rooms, Sky Horizons (1973/2015), by Roberto Chabet, comprises several white wooden frames with strips of rubber tyre stretched between them, evoking flying birds or clouds. This well-paced exhibition illuminatingly connects a group of artists who chose to stand apart from the social realism prevalent in the Philippines at the time.
In the art world, as in life, however, there is room for messier endeavours. This February, the first Manila Biennale was willed into existence by performance artist Carlos Celdran and friends in only nine months. Titled ‘Open City’, the month-long event took place inside Manila’s old walled city, Intramuros, which dates back to the Spanish colonial period and was nearly destroyed during one of the bloodiest battles of World War II, in 1945, when almost 100,000 civilians were killed by Japanese troops. Notable pieces include Turf Wars (2018) by Lena Cobangbang: a patch of landscaped grass in Fort Santiago, which loosely maps the disputed Spratly Islands. Parallel (2018), by the anonymous Filippino artist Kolown, comprises a series of signs relating absurd anecdotes as historical facts, such as the Spaniards’ use of pulverized bricks from Intramuros to treat acne in 1644. Just as with fake news, reactions to these signs ranged from gullible credence to annoyance to amusement.
Also on show, at the San Ignacio Mission House, Mm Yu’s In Transit (2015) – a video showing still lifes of the belongings of Manila’s homeless – succeedes in instilling viewers with a lingering feeling of unease at being voyeurs on a poverty tour of sorts. In Plaza de Roma, The Red Slide (2012), by Latvian artist Aigars Bikse, resembles a Soviet-era wounded hero statue – in pink – and doubles as a slide for kids, hinting at totalitarian regimes’ thirst for young blood.
Finally worth mentioning is ‘ChaCha Town’, at the artist-run gallery Mo Space,: a collaborative painting show with works by Louie Cordero and Kawayan de Guia. In the early 2000s, both artists travelled to Japan for a show but, when the organizer ran away with the money, they were left to fend for themselves. Created by the pair working alternatively on shared canvases for four months, the resulting paintings shown here are fun, raw and unrestrained: words that chime with the best of the local art scene.
Main image: Bruce Conner, Crossroads, 1975, installation view, Las Casas Church, Las Casas Filipinas de Acuzar, Bagac, Bataan. 35mm film, black-and-white, sound; 37 min. Courtesy: Kohn Gallery, Los Angeles, Conner Family Trust, San Francisco and Bellas Artes Projects; photograph: MM Yu