(SPOT.ph) Navigating society's political and personal layers gives complexities to Filipino people's lives. In an effort to make sense of it all, artists Vien Valencia and Len-Len opened solo exhibits at Gravity Art Space in Quezon City last May 26. Both shows run until June 24.
In an installation for Shadow Came Before the Sun: Rituals on Birds, Fish, Forests, and Men of Bulakan, Valencia was unapologetically political, dealing with the environmental and economic effects of building the airport in the area. Len-Len’s Piercing Thoroughly Loving Fiercely, on the other hand, deals with the depth and pain of personal loss as she processed the death of her child through her pieces.
Political Contentions and Everyday Life
Looking at the nuanced situation of society, political and personal spheres are not isolated, rather, they are inextricably linked as they affect reality and experience of life. Valencia’s "Shapes of Water" is reminiscent of everyday life in the fishing villages of Bulakan. The terracotta rows of fish were arranged as if they were out to dry while fishing nets are hung for repair and drying; a weighing scale is on the table waiting for traders. This familiar scene is under threat. With the New Manila International Airport (a.k.a. Bulacan International Airport) now underway, many inhabitants of Sitio Dapdap, Bunotan, Camansi, Capiz, Capol, Kinse, and Pariahan in Taliptip, Bulakan, Bulacan have been displaced from their homes and their source of living.
The fisherfolk community was forced to relocate in early 2020 as the country was in the grips of the community quarantine, which was essentially a lockdown. But there were reports of pressuring community members to self-demolish and relocate as early as 2019. Along with civil society groups, fisherfolks sought a "Writ of Kalikasan," a legal remedy to protect the constitutional right to a healthy environment from the Supreme Court on December 15, 2020, but it was unanimously dismissed on January 5, 2021. At present, the construction of the airport is at full speed under San Miguel Corporation’s San Miguel Aerocity Inc.
Such political-economic conflicts affect community members in profound ways, destroying their familiar, everyday existence. As debates go on about decongesting the Ninoy Aquino International Airport and boosting tourism through the construction of another airport, often absent in the conversation is the destruction and disappearance of lived life. Despite the relative economic limitations of depending on fishing as income, it was a simple, intimate life shared by the residents of the sitios and barangays that were affected and in many ways, destroyed.
Personal Narratives and Socio-political Nuances
Len-Len’s Piercing Thoroughly Loving Fiercely presents a deeply personal story–of loss and coping. She stated in her curatorial note, "I look forward to your lovely presence as I honor and celebrate my daughter's life and death through this exhibition. Come with a flower, a smile, words of sympathy, or a hug, and I wish you get to take home with you memories of love and gratitude." Her bright palette including intense pink, vibrant green, and striking purple, almost deceives the audience. But upon closer inspection of handwritten and framed labels as well as poetry, the exhibit goes on to tell a heartbreaking story of pain and loss.
Though intensely personal, it implies a sociopolitical experience, position, and expectation of women as mothers, caregivers, and the primary person to carry the mental load of the family. In honoring the life and death of her child, the process of mourning, organizing, and eventually unpacking objects and memories, depends on the mother. Another layer of difficulty is the judgment and lenses of society as they process and, to a certain extent, blame and ostracize a mother who suffered the unthinkable and unspeakable process of losing a child.
Len-Len’s acrylic on canvas "It’s Sunday, And She Must Be With Mebuyan Now" delves into the role of the mother in the most physical sense–breastfeeding. Yet, even this could also be contentious, with renewed movements that pressure mothers to exclusively breastfeed, and failure to do so will be doing the bare minimum in motherhood. Such extreme perspectives respond to the powerful marketing strategies of capitalist formula brands, convincing mothers, particularly from marginalized cultures that formula is healthier and better for babies than breastmilk. The difficult conversations in the public sphere obscure important knowledge that used to be accessible to women and the community they belong in. Referring to Mebuyan, a Bagobo deity who breastfeeds all the babies in the underworld, Len-Len unearths the cultural role of women in Philippine society, continuing the care of babies even after death.
Tactility of Practice
Children are key participants in Valencia’s "Shapes of Water," as the terracotta fish sculptures were made by children of the fisherfolks in Bulakan. They created the sculptures with the guidance of Valencia and the lived experience of the fisherfolk.
The entire process, of forming the clay, flattening them, and designing was done by hand–creating and extending the stories through moveable sculptures. Instead of coming together to catch and dry fish—as they usually do before the reclamation, they created a tangible memory of their lives in the fishing village.
Meanwhile, in Len-Len’s installation, the loss of her child was pronounced. "It’s Wednesday And We’re Finally Going Home," features a blue cabinet with three sets of wings. On the top drawer is Len-Len’s journal, narrating her feelings and stories of struggles; on the second layer are baby clothes, meant for her baby; and lastly, clothes and small objects taken home from the hospital—including a thermometer, a hairbrush, and a used container of pasteurized breastmilk. The memorabilia gives a tactile memory of her lived experience and memory, something she will live with and carry through her life.
Atop the piece is "Should I Arrange For Cremation This Tuesday?" acrylic on a wooden jar mimicking an urn. The purple urn is a quiet reminder amidst the bright palette of the exhibition.
Processing the Loss, Resisting Expectations
Central to Valencia and Lenlen’s narratives are the process and struggle of loss, from political to personal and back again. Yet, both exhibitions go beyond loss—traversing the pain into something more.
Valencia continues into a call to action, reviving the narratives and struggles, even the protests that arose as people resisted the building of the airport which ultimately damage the community and environment. Another layer to Valencia’s practice is Nomad Projects, a community-based art project that brings practice, workshops, and research to and with the community. Shadow Came Before the Sun: Rituals on Birds, Fish, Forests, and Men of Bulakan is a continuing project, with the ongoing exhibition at Gravity Art Space as one of its many iterations.
For Len-Len’s practice, continuing the conversations on topics deemed taboo, gives voice to the pain and oppression many women go through. "Is It Saturday Today? I Think She’s Saying Goodbye Tomorrow," with the fiery pink crib, baby blanket, and dried everlasting flowers invite viewers to the conversation of infant mortality and the role women play in the care, process, and weight of mental labor and grief. She invites the viewers in, memorializing her pain, at the same time acknowledging a painful and taboo topic most women are forced to remain silent about.
Spaces of Conversation
Political and personal narratives deeply intertwine, as seen in the artworks of Vien Valencia and Len-Len. The political sphere will ultimately affect and alter the personal sphere. What happens in personal spaces, particularly if repeated and reflected in silent and marginal spaces, would dictate the socio-political landscape of the community.
Gravity Art Space lends space to both trajectories, hosting contradicting, at the same time layered, and nuanced perspectives at the same time.
Shadow Came Before the Sun: Rituals on Birds, Fish, Forests, and Men of Bulakan by Vien Valencia and Piercing Thoroughly Loving Fiercely by Len-Len run alongside Ana Verayo's first solo Precursor and Carlos Quijon Jr.'s curatorial project Object Orientations. The shows run until June 24 at Gravity Art Space, Mo. Ignacia Avenue, Diliman, Quezon City.