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Artist at Work: Finding Comfort in the Uncomfortable

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By Kaye O’Yek
Images by Pinggot Zulueta

Recently visited at his studio in Quezon City and asked about the different readings accredited to his previous works, Jose Tence Ruiz quipped, “An artist should understand that there are many voices in conversation, and many viewpoints. It’s troublesome, but we have to cope.”

This artist seems to be coping pretty well, with the homecoming exhibition “Tie A String Around the World” at the UP Vargas Museum that opened last December to accolades from the art community. Ruiz shares the stage with National Artists Manuel Conde and Carlos “Botong” Francisco, and Bacolod Excellence honoree video artist Manny Montelibano. One of the 10 must-see showcases in the 2015 Venice Art Biennale, the Philippine Pavilion exhibition was re-staged for the local art-going public to savor and decipher, organized by the National Commission of Culture and the Arts, the Department of Foreign Affairs, and the Office of Senator Loren Legarda in partnership with the UP Vargas Museum.

Tence Ruiz

Jose Tence Ruiz

The Philippines’ participation in the Venice Biennale 51 years after its first national participation in 1964 was among the most-talked about local art news as early as 2014. An open call for proposals was held and curator Patrick Flores’ concept paper, rooted on nation, borders, colonialism, expansionism, and the maritime tradition of the Philippine archipelago, emerged triumphant.

“Tie A String Around the World” is a line from the Manuel Conde film Genghis Khan, spoken by the legendary conqueror to his lady love as he promises to vanquish the world and lay it at her feet. Reedited and annotated by the American writer-critic James Agee, the film was screened at the Museum of Modern Art in New York and the Venice Film Festival in 1952. The iconic movie is screened again at the UP Vargas Museum, while an outer gallery displayed props and costume sketches as well as notes from Botong Francisco, who co-wrote the script and produced the set design.

Crossing Borders from the Venice Art Bienalle in 2015, Shoal is currently restaged at the UP Vargas Museum

Crossing Borders from the Venice Art Bienalle in 2015, Shoal is currently restaged at the UP Vargas Museum

Manny Montelibano’s unnerving multi-channel video A Dashed State is set up in an adjacent room, with footage gathered from the shores of West Palawan, gateway to the South China Sea. Radio signals in Chinese were interspersed with the sound of ocean waves and the Palawan epic Kudaman being chanted, adding a somewhat jarring layer to mirrored, spliced, and panoramic postcard-perfect sea views. China’s Nine Dash territorial claim is referenced with images of military presence patrolling the borders of the highly-contested Philippine waters, political undercurrents belied by the breathtaking beauty of picturesque islands, and the peaceful demeanor of the island dwellers.

Grounding the exhibition, literally, is Ruiz’s response to Genghis Khan, an installation titled Shoal, a structural behemoth in red occupying the museum’s main lobby. Inspired by the BRP Sierra Madre (LT-57), which was deliberately run aground in 1999 by the Philippine military on the Ayungin Shoal in order to maintain the Philippine’s territorial claim to the Spratly Islands and the West Philippine Sea, the piece is an otherworldly vision of steel and wood cloaked in strips of red velvet. Towering spires and pillows are laid with the textured material as well, with the deep burgundy fabric in certain angles cascading like blood, its belts and lashings reminiscent of sinew holding tumor-ridden viscera from bursting apart.

A product of Ruiz’s collaboration with Danilo Ilag-Ilag and Jeremy Guiab, Shoal measures approximately 20 feet, and a walk around its immensity provides multiple views of awe and terror brought about by the Filipinos’ association with the passion of Christ, religiosity, and adoration. It took nine days to reconstruct the numbered components piece by piece, as they were disassembled at the Venice Biennale after a successful six-month run and shipped back to the Philippines.

That amount of success might be astoundingly difficult to replicate, but Ruiz considers it a challenge accepted as he prepares another ambitious and multi-layered project, “Langue Lounge,” to be debuted in the eagerly anticipated Art Fair PH in February.

“Langue Lounge” is a massive structure playing on scale and one’s ideas of consumption and pleasure. A conversation piece, it brings thoughts of decadence and gratification as it pushes the audience’s sensibilities on what is beautiful and meaningful. Accompanying the installation centerpiece is a set of 14 hefty electric chairs made of wood complete with blinders and footrests that Art Fair guests and patrons are welcome to sit on and enjoy, the plush red velvet seats inviting relaxation and contemplation.

“We have grown comfortable in the uncomfortable because we need to survive. When you sit on the electric chair, you are sitting in a place with structure. If you don’t like it, go to a place where there is no structure. You have to make your choices. You have to rest. Whether people see the contradictions or not, it’s just a sofa, a fundamental shape in your home, and it’s comfortable to sit down and think about while relaxing in the art fair. It’s what art is. It’s everything to everybody,” the artist concludes.

To know more about “Tie A String Around the World,” visit vargasmuseum.upd.edu.ph and the Vargas Museum’s official Facebook page. vargasmuseum@gmail.com; 02 928 1927

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