(SPOT.ph) If you’re one of those kids whose every move was documented through photographs, you probably have separate photo albums for your baptism, first birthday, first step, seventh birthday, kindergarten graduation, grade school graduation, a field demo during intramurals, and maybe even prom photos that you hate by now. It’s more fun if these are printed photos in actual albums now stashed away at your parent’s house. Whether you like it or not, these images document your life—starting from the moment you were born (plus points if your dad was able to sneak a camera into the delivery room).
For artist MM Yu, photographs tell a narrative that can be as short as a day in the city or as grandiose as the whole landscape of local contemporary art—"a small glimpse of the Philippine art context in a primarily visual format," she says in an interview with SPOT.ph about her upcoming piece for Art Fair Philippines 2019.
Titled Subject/Object, it features hundreds of images of places and objects, inhabited or used by fellow artists she has interacted with over the years. The collection was first shown in 2009 at the now-defunct Mag:Net Gallery in Katipunan. Since then, Yu hasn't stopped capturing similar moments, either intentional or accidental. In an exhibit note written by Lisa Ito for the original show, she describes Yu’s process, in which she "limits her interventions in the compositions to framing."
Most of the photographs are unplanned moments in the artists’ studios and homes, ensuring the rawness and authenticity of their documentation. You'll see a painter's disorganized studio, a sculptors' saw and hammer, and a sketcher's set of pencils. These photographs are matched with objects that Yu borrowed from her contemporaries, all arranged at random in a huge space assigned to her for Art Fair Philippines. So it’s not only the image you can see, but the items as well—either similar or only representative of the still life in the photograph.
Transforming subjects into objects, memories into things
Yu’s interest in recording everyday moments started at a young age. "I remember that I looked at the camera just as a kind of toy that I took everywhere with me. Even then, I would take photos of everything—my classmates, relatives, places, objects with an Instamatic camera," she recalls. She would wait excitedly for an hour or so at the nearest Kodak shop while waiting for her film to be developed. The output would be blurry, with subjects that are off-center, or a cropped-out head and feet, but it didn’t stop her from taking photographs. "I took photos relentlessly because I felt that my photos transform my memories into something tangible," she says about her habit of clicking away with an Instamatic.
Her first solo show in 2001, Memoirs, was part of her undergraduate thesis at the University of the Philippines’ College of Fine Arts. It was produced at a time when digital photography wasn’t as advanced, so the use of double exposure techniques was a bold move in developing her photos and showing a different texture for her images.
"I took photos relentlessly because I felt that my photos transform my memories into something tangible."
More than 1,000 pictures were divided into four panels that were arranged like a four-sided box. These photographs give a glimpse of Yu's life: Her mother playing the accordion, a metal gate double-exposed with a clothesline, and a workbook for Chinese class layered with a school corridor.
Telling the story of the city
The volume of photographs that Yu has acquired through the years doesn’t only tell personal stories, but also the tales of our streets. She would always have her camera and make it a part of her daily routine. "I want to document the images formed of and by the city; and of how [the city] is always changing, evolving, and disintegrating in order to adapt to our wants and need," she says about her unplanned photo walks around the Metro.
Thoughts Collected, Recollected (2007, Finale Art Gallery) featured more than 30 handmade spiral-bound black notebooks that contain Yu's photographs arranged according to theme. They're similar to the photo albums in your childhood homes—with one showing off her neighbors, another compiling her photographs alongside strangers, and even one with funny faces of random people. Vincent Alessi, in an exhibition note, writes: "Thoughts Collected, Recollected asks the viewer to probe, to consider, to investigate, and to participate."
"I want to show a survey of the city and the years that I’ve been taking photos are recollected into several series, making an archive of Manila’s topography."
In Transit (2016, MO_Space at Art Stage Singapore) took a more literal approach to living in the city. It showcased makeshift homes found on the streets, from a kariton covered with cardboard boxes that serve as a roof to an old mattress laying on the pavement. Yu extends the memory of a house beyond the traditional structure.
"I want to show a survey of the city and the years that I’ve been taking photos are recollected into several series, making an archive of Manila’s topography," she continues.
You might say it sounds cliché, but the adage "A picture paints a thousand words" is perfect for what Yu has been doing throughout her career—painting a picture of her life, and subsequently, of society, through photographs.
Art Fair Philippines 2019 runs from February 22 to 24 at The Link, Parkway Drive, Ayala Center, Makati City. For more information, visit Art Fair Philippines’ website.