By TERENCE REPELENTE
Images by PINGGOT ZULUETA
In his book, Capitalist Realism, the late Mark Fisher likened capitalism to the “Thing” in John Carpenter’s film of the same name. Capitalism, he wrote, is “a monstrous, infinitely plastic entity, capable of metabolizing and absorbing anything with which it comes into contact.”
Filipino artist Mideo Cruz shares Fisher’s vivid, horrific description of capitalism. His series, “Totem Poles” (2019), which consists of various found objects and pop culture images sculptured to look like sacred symbols of worship or as literal totems, is, as Fisher might describe it, “a strange hybrid of the ultra-modern and the archaic.”
Images of popular icons and fictional characters, such as Disney’s Mickey Mouse, Jollibee, Sesame Street’s Big Bird among others, are stacked like colorful candles melting above other colorful melting candles, made to appear like figures or emblems that are usually seen on an altar of worship.
“I’ve always been fascinated with pop icons and the concept of worship,” Mideo says. “What I’m doing is basically an experimentation on the process of transformation. It is an inquiry on how symbols of worship are being transformed.” In his observation, inspired by the works of Naomi Klein and Eric Schlosser, capitalism has created new gods, “neo deities,” in the form of pop culture and brands.
These totem poles, at first, might appear as if they’re just the artist’s personal, whimsical, and playful take on pastiche and popular meme culture. But this concept of creating hybrid and surreal idols is already a decades-old practice for Mideo. Furthermore, his motivation is deeply political. “I’m basically appropriating the excesses of capitalism,” he says. “I use surplus products, surplus materials, which are all produced by capitalism, and I recreate them as a statement against it.”
This, Mideo recalls, was exactly the concept behind a multi-sensory exhibition he did back in 2009, “The Great American Experience,” which he also aptly calls TAE. “TAE,” like most of his works that delve into capitalism’s crisis of overproduction, is rooted mainly on his experiences from a three-month New York artist residency back in 2008. He sums that up in one word: disappointment. First, Mideo was slapped by disillusionment when he saw the real face of the New York art market. “I saw that it’s not really about the artwork, it’s about network, marketing, connections, etc.,” he says. “In Chelsea, there are only 200+ galleries that compete with one another, and you can’t just simply get in. I saw how the rotten commercial art system works.”
Mideo’s 2008 residency also coincided with the Financial Crisis of 2007-08, an almost worldwide fiscal breakdown that shook the world’s economies, especially the US, the most serious one since the 1930s Great Depression. The E (experience) in TAE was his experience during this time. “I saw numerous establishments closing down,” he says, “boxes of products in front of stores, signs that scream: Everything Must Go!”
These anti-capitalist ideas, however, didn’t just pop into his head when he was in the US. Beyond reading Klein’s No Logo or Schlosser’s Fast Food Nation, he attributes his politics and ideological influence to his activism. Mideo is a founding member of the UGATLahi Artist Collective, a national democratic organization of artists, art enthusiasts, and critics with a common goal: expressing resistance to the existing oppressive social order through art. The group is especially known for creating huge effigies and other types of protest art.
“I’ve learned a lot from being an activist. From sleeping on the street and talking to different people from different sectors to having healthy debates and discourse with comrades,” he says. “The theses, anti-theses, and syntheses—the dialectics of my life—were formed during my activist days.”
The “Totem Poles,” among other past series of works, is part of Mideo’s ongoing exhibition at the New Frontier Art Gallery titled “Works Across Transformative Years.” According to him, the title explains why these particular works are grouped together in one show. “These works, divided into different series, represent catalyst points of my career,” he says.
In the “Into the Wild” series (2009), Mideo uses various background configurations, which are primarily therapeutic. The oil on canvas works, according to Mideo, explore different temperaments through the rendering of patterns. Using anatomically dissected images of animals, he sends subtle political messages, which can only be understood when read carefully—or if you’re a close friend of his.
The other series, “Wall Street Monsters and Other Tales” (2012), on the other hand, maintains Mideo’s clear criticism of capitalism. He adds, however, that the works are important to him because they are a product of a residency in China. Plus they are sort of a parody of Damien Hirst’s works, who was exhibiting everywhere at that time—“like diarrhea,” he says, “from Hong Kong to London.”
Still disillusioned with the commercial art market, Mideo currently lives in Gapan, Nueva Ecija. He decided to live off-grid because, at one point, he was confused with what was happening to the local art scene. “It’s all commercial work,” he says. “Hindi ako nakikipagsabayan ng pa-cute sa galleries. I’ve decided to get out of the mainstream.”
Right now, Mideo busies himself by organizing workshops, art camps, and festivals. As a probinsyano who grew up with barely any access to Filipino art or even art in general, he wishes to share and other artists’ knowledge on art’s concepts and forms to the kids in Nueva Ecija, honing their skills at a very young age. He adds, “There are a lot of avante-garde movements that didn’t start in the cities and centers of capital.” Mideo cites the Gutai group in Japan and the Black Mountain College in the US, among others.
This is also the reason he and his art found temporary home in Makati at the New Frontier Art Gallery directed by Australian art collector Nick Moller. According to Moller, the non-profit, non-commercial gallery is a way to support artists that do the kind of art that he likes. He is mostly interested in works from emerging countries such as Vietnam and the Philippines, works that are not designed for sale, and works that express contemporary themes from their respective cultural perspectives. According to Nick, Mideo’s works represent those things.
“Works Across Transformative Years” runs until Feb. 15 at the New Frontier Art Gallery in San Miguel Village in Makati City. | email@example.com