Monday, April 7, 2008

HOW TO BE A LIGHTHOUSE (for Sid Gomez Hildawa)

(version 1.2.1, with pictures + an expanded conclusion. With thanks to Fatima Lasay for comments leading to these revisions)




“For ten years, Sid was my lighthouse. Now he is gone.”

I wanted to leave it at that, if at all. Sid was a very private man, you see, and now more than ever, I felt the need to protect his privacy. Besides, I saluted him best with my shock, anyway (I’d been sobbing everywhere for four days: over meals, on the toilet bowl, in the office, at the wake, at the supermarket junk food aisle, in front of Rissa Hontiveros at the CCP necrological services...).

But because the worlds of art and education are building Sid cathedrals of words, I feel obliged to come forward and stand witness to the greatness of the man. Of all the people who knew him, you see, I have no right to remain silent. So, here goes:

When I woke up that Monday to the text messages about his death, all my coffee-starved brain could compose were “Tnx 4 telling,” “Yes, I heard,” “Sayang,” and “How sad nga eh,” before buckling down to work.

Sid wasn’t my barkada at all, you see. I only saw him once a month on the average, and I didn’t even see him at all since the end of 2004, when I quit art writing altogether to work at a call center (and quit that to study film in Cebu). I dropped by his office unannounced last November 2007, when my TV crew was taping dragon boat rehearsals outside, but he was elsewhere for a meeting. When I finally saw him, he was already in that super-sized martini shaker they called an urn. That was that.

As Monday’s phone calls went on, however, my indifference began to crumble. A strange knot sprouted in my chest; it grew fast and choked me. When Teny Arellano asked, “Weren’t you guys close?” all I could say was, “I don’t know,” before finally falling apart in sobs.

In every imaginable way, you see, I was the un-Sid.

Sid played his cards close to his chest; he was unassuming, reserved, dignified, and unflappable. I, on the other hand, am too transparent for my own good, and am loud, crass, and belligerent. Sid’s personal life was parsed, encrypted, then squirreled away, while intimate chunks of mine were printed in glossy magazines, and republished online. My demeanor gets me into trouble, while his demeanor got him plane tickets.

(I was openly envious, and always accused him of popping happy pills. Obviously, envy brought out my mean streak: Whenever we went out, I always made him blush. His students were often shocked when I showered him with politically incorrect, left-handed compliments. But he never stopped me from abusing him, and never stopped introducing me to his students. One ex-student of his, in fact, is now among my best friends. Maybe he pitied me; maybe he was atoning for his success. But whatever his reasons for tolerating me might have been, the fact remains: he did. And seeing Sid mortified in a barong –-turning pink with embarrassment, laughing in spite of himself-- oh, I have no words.)

Another major difference between Sid and I was my dislike for poetry (pardon the blasphemy), despite having the poetess Leona Florentino in the family. I was an art world crusader, you see, and right or wrong, there were points I needed to drive home while I could. Unlike Sid, therefore, my loyalty was never to Language, with all of its rich subtleties. Mine was always to Message, delivered with as much clarity, accuracy and brute force that a college dropout like me could muster.

Politically, Sid and I were in opposite camps as well. I had essentially condemned the art community for using its own babies as cannon fodder, especially since those cannons were substandard and poorly aimed (“If this is how thoughtlessly the art community deploys the best of us, how else will it treat the rest of us?” -- from my Cow Essay, 2003). Sid, of course, was the other camp’s standard bearer, him being the art world’s Mother Teresa and all, crucified with arms wide open.

But these major differences were irrelevant to my confusion. What was central was this: In a very personal sense, I hardly knew Sid. I never knew his cologne or favorite dish; I’d never been photographed with him; I’d never met his family; I didn’t know he played the flute; I didn’t even know he snored.

Even on a professional level, there was so much of him that I didn’t know.

Sid and I both painted, but I’d never visited his studio, so I didn’t know his process, the way a good colleague should’ve. Did he use Gesso, or did he prime with latex, like the rest of us mere mortals? Did he prefer round brushes or flat? If flat, did he prefer filberts to brights? Did he ever mourn, as I still do, the discontinuance of Liquitex’s Medium Portrait Pink in Oil? Was he left-handed?

Also, Sid and I both wrote. But I never found out what he REALLY thought of Fukuyama, of Harrison & Huntington, of Gombrich, Danto, Foucault, all those disfavored writers whom I loved, their warts notwithstanding. What did he REALLY think of postmodernism, which tremendously empowered curators and bureaucrats like him, but practically disemboweled the artist-craftsman in him? Sid was an architect, after all; you can’t be an architect unless you respected craft.

And what about the prophets? What did Sid REALLY think of Derrida? Lacan? Chabet?

But in the face of all that I didn’t know about Sid, were his ten inexplicably solid years of phone support for me. He put AppleCare to shame. Sid was my Rolodex, my librarian, my personal wikipedia on Pinoy Art. I’m really “makulit,” but Sid gave me all the attention I needed, whenever I needed it. Whenever I texted him a research question, he answered immediately and always, even at 3am, even when he was abroad. And unlike most of the art world, he never erased my name from his cellphone, even when I was no longer useful.

Of all the garbage I’d published about Philippine art and culture, only my first essay (1998) was written without Sid’s input.

Often, he’d disagree with my topic, assertion, or methodology, sometimes all of them at once. But as long as he believed that my heart was in the right place, I was ok. I could face the outrage in peace, even if, as it sometimes happened, my attacks necessarily implicated him.

Even when I was already becoming disillusioned with the art scene, Sid still chose me to write the CCP catalogue for the 2003 Thirteen Artists Awards. Afterwards, when the Manansala Foundation planned an art-school textbook on the master, it was Sid who lobbied for me, supposedly not because I was a writer on painting, but because I was a painter who could write simply (The latter project was shelved, but that's ok. I no longer write, anyway, and my supposed editor is dead).

The remarkable thing about the extent and depth of Sid’s support was that he was neither my Mentor nor my Muse.

Mentors and Muses are a major issue in the art world, you see. In there, the link to the artist is passionate and primal, bordering on idolatry, incest, necromancy. In there, many minor Mentors with major egos routinely expect to be their students’ Muses as well. But Sid, despite being a celebrated Mentor himself, was never like that; bless his soul. He wasn’t offended that I wasn’t obsessed with him, or that I didn’t even really think of him at all.



At the CCP services, Kuya Jun (of Sid’s office) introduced me to the bereaved family as “one of Sid’s closest friends.”

I was flattered, of course, but it drove the question home: Were we, Sid, really? If we were so close, then why do I barely know you? And if we weren’t, then why do I feel so awful?

In response, Sid did me one final kindness from beyond (No, his martini shaker didn’t dance):

The mass having started, I was sobbing again. The problem was that I rarely ever cry, so I didn’t know how to stop. I wasn’t noisy naman, but I was shaking violently. People around me were starting to forget their own grief, and were starting to turn to me with their hankies or tissue, or just tap my back in consolation. It was getting embarrassing.

Suddenly, the priest said something about the loud grief of lovers and politicians. Because I was neither, I excused myself and stood up, hoping to hide by the escalators. And, lo and behold! Of all people, on his way down to the same spot was sculptor Bob Feleo, who rarely attended art world gatherings. He’d only come to this one to donate a stone boat-coffin sculpture for Sid’s ashes.

Mr Feleo was my father-figure in art school. As a Mentor, he was very hard to please, but was always fair and generous with his time and wisdom. I’d severely disappointed him 11 years ago by flunking out. I set very high standards for myself even then, you see. If my homework wasn’t good enough for me, I chose to flunk rather than submit it. So I flunked out of everything. I didn’t really mind; I was a veteran dropout. But he was furious. He wouldn’t talk to me for two years.

I just hugged Mr Feleo, and started sobbing again.

“Ikaw kasi eh,” he said. “You don’t believe in the afterlife.”

“No, it’s not that,” I said, then proceeded to tell him of my loss; of Sid’s quiet but steady support for so long; of the terrifying fact that I no longer had anyone to text about art at 3 in the morning. “Sila XXXXX naman,” I said, “wala namang bilib sa akin yang mga yan eh. They think I’m a joke.”

“Aha,” Mr Feleo said. “So, you’re feeling sorry for yourself.”

“Of course,” I said. “But also, hindi man lang niya ako naipagmalaki.”

I told him about the radical new TV show I was Writer/PM for. It was, on the surface, a tourism show on big motorcycles. But I’d surreptitiously injected a heady dose of art, history, and archaeology into the backbone of the script. We were only on our 4th episode, but I’d already given Juan Luna’s Parisian Life 3mins of airtime; the Callao Caves 5mins; the Galleon Trade and the 1783 Tumauini Church 8mins each; and one full 30min episode to the Ifugao culture. All this on a major network, at lunchtime, on Sundays, pitted directly against the big-budget song-and-dance extravaganzas. I’d just pulled a coup: a truly cool culture show on a major TV slot. And the audience was lapping it up (largely because they didn’t know it was a culture show). We’d already received over 1,100 comments online. Had Sid known, he would have been so proud.

The bitter thing about all of this, I said, was that I had no reason not to visit. I was no longer in Cebu, but in Malate, just blocks away from CCP, DLSU, Sid’s house, and Sid’s hospital. I’d actually been editing in Malate six days a week since Feb 15. My office window was even dominated by Benilde. In the ten years I’d known Sid, now was the nearest to him that I’d ever located. I’d already even burned him a DVD of the first three episodes. But because I didn’t know he was sick, I hadn’t made the extra effort to visit, or even call. I just took it for granted that he’d be there when I was ready.

That’s the story of our so-called friendship, I confessed: I took Sid for granted. I treated him like some ordinary chair. I summoned him when needed, thanked him while I sat on him, and then promptly forgot him afterwards. I never realized how much he meant to me until he was gone. Even in Friendster, I neglected him. I didn’t even realize that he had locked me into his Featured Friends list. He was never even on mine; not even on a rotating basis.

Then, in one loaded stroke, Mr Feleo absolved me. “What are you crying about?” he asked. “Don’t you realize that that’s what Sid probably wanted? To be on the sidelines?”

That turned everything around.

Looking at Sid’s boat-coffin, I finally saw our so-called friendship from his end, for once: I was on my own boat, sailing alone, away from him, towards my own Muse, into the darkness. He couldn’t go with me, so he did the only thing one Mentor could do for another Mentor’s pupil. He lit my way, as brightly as he could, as far as he could, for as long as he could.

Sid wasn’t, after all, a chair I took for granted. He was my lighthouse.

It was easy riding from that point onwards. I survived the CCP service without further incident. I even managed to eat something afterwards. Before I went home, I even had one of Sid’s brothers take my picture with the ashes, the only picture I know of Sid and I together. By the time the shutter clicked, I was already smiling from within.



Looking back, I now see that there was never any reason to doubt that our friendship went both ways. I now realize that, over the years, Sid was trying to tell me things -–little things, big things; the usual mundane stuff to make me know him better-- but I just didn’t notice, partly because those bloody buggers were in code, stunningly encrypted, and hidden in plain sight.



I’d like to share one of those personal confidences with you, partly as a testament to Sid’s wit and brilliance, and partly to encourage all of us to re-examine our last encounters with Sid for secret farewell gifts that he might have left behind.

On November 11, 2007, Sid uploaded two poems onto his blog, both of them about Juan Luna paintings. The first poem was the now-famous SICK LEAVE where he related his hospitalized self to Luna’s 1892 Parisian Life. The second poem was ON JUAN LUNA’S “TAMPUHAN (1895),” where a man tries to coax a woman out of sulking. [Sid's blogs have since been taken down; here is a copy of SICK LEAVE.]

I hadn't visited his blogs since March 2007, so those poems shocked me.

Among my own essays, you see, Sid’s favorite was ON HERESY AND FAITH (BluPrint magazine, Nov 2002), about the controversies surrounding Luna and the GSIS ransom of Parisian Life. Sid liked it because it was brave and funny and irreverent (who knew that skewering holy cows could be so much fun?). I liked it because that was when I found my own voice, and when i realized that I didn’t have to agree with my elders all of the time.

“So what?” you may ask. “If that came out in the November issue, then it must have been submitted six weeks ahead.” Right?

Well, yes and no. You see, that issue was a transition issue between two towering Editors-in-Chief. Tina Bunoan had already left; Paolo Alcazaren still hadn’t come on board; and the brilliant Rachelle Medina (herself now the Editor-in-Chief of Real Living) was keeping the dogs at bay. The November issue didn’t hit newsstands until Jan 2003. Back in Nov 2002, we were still hammering away. I submitted my final draft to Rachelle on Nov 16.

“So what?” you may ask again.

My final (online) version is much better than the print version; the print version's title is even lame ("ARTICLES OF FAITH"). Most people would just shrug this off as bad editing, or worse, Opus Dei censorship. But to be fair to Rachelle and MMPI, what really happened was this: version 7.3 (Nov 16) arrived too late. What ended up with the printers was version 7.2, submitted a few days earlier.

I’ve deleted the earlier drafts, so, to be honest, I’m no longer sure if I submitted version 7.2 exactly on November 11, 2002. But there’s something that makes me believe I did:

I closed both versions of my essay with the mention of the possible auction of another Luna, “this one less controversial but more beautiful and more dramatic than Parisian Life, with a similarly impeccable provenance/ pedigree.” I never told anyone the name of that painting, because the plan was confidential back then. Besides, the owners eventually decided against auctioning it off, anyway, so why bother?

The truth is, however, this unnamed painting was Luna’s TAMPUHAN of 1895, the subject of Sid’s other poem of November 11, 2007. [Sid's website has since been taken down. As this second poem was never published elsewhere, it is forever gone.]

No, I wouldn't claim that those poems were written for me (they were probably published first elsewhere). But I do believe that the uploads were timed to call my attention to something. And when i read Sid's two poems together in context of both ON HERESY AND FAITH and my major disappointment with its version 7.2, it all does resonate deeply. I even suspect that in the first part of SICK LEAVE --you know, that bit about the missing Parisian Life-- Sid wasn't referring to himself, but to me. By November 0f 2007, Parisian Life was no longer touring, and was always there in its vault in the GSIS Museum; Sid was still Sid; and all the living Luna commentators were still in place -- all except for me. I was that aspect of Parisian Life that had gone missing from the wall. What Sid was saying, was that he will soon follow my silence.

ON HERESY AND FAITH, you see, was my shining moment; and it was when Sid was proudest of me.

There's even a funny story about Sid and this: One time, National Museum consultant John Silva majorly slammed both Luna and Parisian Life in the Inquirer, arguing that Luna as an artist wasn't worth it, and that "heads should roll" over at GSIS. This line of thinking infuriated me so much, because none of the scandal was Luna's fault; and non-artists (no matter how influential) simply just don't have the right to strike low blows against dead artists (no matter how small). When no bigwig took poor dead Luna's side, I did. I wrote a scathing rebuke entitled "Are YOU Worth It, John Silva?", which ended with "I agree with you that heads should roll over this issue. But as an artist you have seriously offended, I sincerely hope the head-rolling starts with you."

Sid was so amused by my rebuke, that he photocopied it and posted it on the bulletin boards outside his office, by the main guardhouse, and near the buffeteria. It was hilarious.

Unfortunately, my writing turned too dark too soon. I didn't need a college degree to see that the art community simply had too many fatal structural problems and too many parasites attached to it. Barely a year after ON HERESY AND FAITH, i would write my notorious vote-of-no-confidence called THE COW ESSAY (in an NCCA catalogue, no less! It was also
extensively quoted by curator Fatima Lasay in her equally controversial essay for the 2004 International Symposium for Digital Art in Taiwan, ART IN THE SERVICE OF BOOTY CAPITALISM), which necessarily hit Sid on the head; which caused a tremendous headache for my dear editor Karen Flores; and which necessarily doomed my art-world career (but NCCA published it anyway). I ended that essay with:

"If we can't give these artists the support they need to make a difference, then the only humane thing to do is to send them home, like leukemia victims too late for chemotherapy, to while away the rest of their artistic careers in complacency and oblivion, wallowing in the contentment of cows."

Of course, this was supposed to be a left-handed plea for deep, structural change (because artists CAN'T stop making art even if they wanted to, so we who love them simply have to work harder and smarter to make things better), but too many people were simply too furious to get the joke. Oh well.

(an amazingly detailed ballpen drawing on the backrest of a Baclaran - Fairview bus seat, proving that we artists can't stop doing what we do. I saw this on the way home from Sid's CCP necrologicals)

But, to conclude:

It's sad when a writer's best work is at the beginning of one's career. So, I believe that Sid's Luna posts of November 11 were his way of asking me to give my writing a second chance after he had gone; that my subject matter didn't... well... matter. After all, by successfully writing about non-art for mainstream media, I'd repeatedly proven beyond reasonable doubt, anyway, that I could write well about anything, as long as I was passionate about it.

I believe that Sid's November 11 uploads was his playful way of telling me that as far as he was concerned, for one all-too-short a moment in time, I was the best art-world heretic around, with or without a diploma. I also believe that he was asking me to keep the faith in academic heresy alive.

I'm not yet sure if I agree with Sid about any of this. So let's just say that I am taking this all "under advisement" for now.

Happy trip, Sid. See you again, soon.


Read more!

Wednesday, March 28, 2007

ON HERESY AND FAITH: A Juan Luna Primer

BluPrint Magazine, Nov 2002

  • The magazine commissioned this essay at the height of the Parisian Life scandal, during the painting's "extended stay" at the Bureau of Customs. to put things mildly, it was hell getting the interviews. GSIS Museum Director Eric Zerrudo even had to meet me incognito (unshaven, and in house clothes!), in some roach-infested panciteria in a Quiapo sidestreet, just to avoid the paparazzi.
  • At the time of publication, i was the only writer (art or otherwise) who publicly supported the GSIS acquisition. I even ended up in a print war at the Inquirer, against National Museum consultant John Silva.
  • A week after publication of this essay, an anonymous artist (well, actually, I know who. But I'm not telling) discovered that the subject of the painting (the woman in the pink gown) was actually a shockingly precise jigsaw-puzzle map of the Philippine Islands, in mirror-image. Luzon was her torso; the Cagayan-Ilocos coastline was her decollete. Her right shoulder socket (east) was the Punta Engaño Lighthouse in Santa Ana, Cagayan. Her left shoulder socket (west) was the Cabo Bojeador Lighthouse in Burgos, Ilocos Norte. Both lighthouses werecompleted the same year as the painting...in 1892.
  • Another anonymous source later claimed that the woman's cleavage, which coincides with the Cagayan River Delta in Aparri, is the location of two Ming-era galleon wrecks, still unrecovered until today because of deep, turbulent waters.



    Parisian Life is one of only six known paintings from Luna’s final year in Paris, and it becomes a chilling diary entry when viewed in context. For 1892 was the year Luna’s baby daughter died, supposedly because her mother “didn’t love her enough;” the year he caught “his wife in a tryst with her lover Dussaq in an apartment at #25 Mount Thabor St;” the year he committed the double-murders which his career never fully recovered from despite his 1893 acquittal. Parisian Life was probably painted during days-off from work on his most ambitious showstopper, the now-destroyed 1892 People and Kings, which was almost as large as the 1884 Spoliarium—that mother of Pinoy telenovelas—but vastly more complicated.

    Why read Parisian Life as a diary entry, instead of an innocent picture of Luna ogling a whore, as suggested by people who apparently haven’t even seen the painting? Because no self-respecting whore-on-the-prowl looks dejected in a first-class café in broad daylight with two half-drunk mugs of beer on her table. Neither does she wear a man’s black top-hat on her already flower-coiffed hair, nor a man’s plaid-lined overcoat over her fabulously flirtatious Luna-Pink satin dress in couture-crazy Paris at the fin de siecle. These visual miscues simply constitute too glaring a narrative boo-boo to even slip past a Painting student, let alone a fully-inducted member of the Société Nationàle des Beaux Artes slighted by the Madrid Salon. This painting, therefore, seems more visually defensible as a lover’s quarrel, with the Pinoy ilustrados playing uzi: with Rizal pretending to be above it all; with Bautista openly salivating over the abandoned girl (or the overcoat, at least); and with Luna pensive, learning a cue from the scene, planning to leave his own wife as well. The deliberation with which the painting was executed, plus the fact that it was constructed like an exhibition piece (it even posthumously won a silver at the 1904 St. Louis Expo), further hints at the artist’s saddened resolve. It is among the most heartbreakingly confessional of Luna’s surviving award-winning Paris paintings.


    Yes, P46 million (US$860,000) is a sacrilegious sum in these difficult times. But this isn’t the painting’s fault. Shoemaker Jimmy Choo recently sold a pair of diamond-studded bridal shoes for US$1 million; Elvis Presley’s blue suede shoes are currently insured for around that much; and the best of Van Gogh’s poster-sized paintings routinely sell for over US$80 million each. The Luna’s ransom is outrageous only because our country’s public officials have, for generations, allowed the peso to weaken so much. Is 2000 ounces of gold really too big a ransom for the country’s soul? Manila used to have Mercedes-Benzes for taxis, for heaven’s sake! And while we’re here appropriating blame anyway, let’s not forget any of the art critics who have betrayed their profession, who have become complicit in divorcing Luna from the people: they, too, like corrupt politicians and economic saboteurs, deserve black candles in Quiapo for all eternity.

    And yes, the Philippines would’ve better redeemed itself if the painting went to either the National Museum or the Central Bank. But the National Museum doesn’t have a purchase fund; it can’t even afford to fix plumbing leaks or replace busted halogen bulbs for its Spoliarium room. The Central Bank still has its crypt in the Metropolitan Museum, but has long since stopped buying art. Which remaining government agency therefore has both the money and the museum to care for such a treasure? The CCP’s budget was so severely slashed it now has to lease its premises out just to stay afloat. PAGCOR has money in spades, but would it be an ethical repository of art and culture?

    Kudos then to dark horse GSIS, for mounting this brave ransom despite very the strange opposition it got (e.g., the stupefying argument to allow the Luna into foreign ownership in the name of globalization and cultural exchange; or the sanctimonious sourgraping of the very same cultural watchdogs whose incompetence facilitated this mess in the first place). With this one simple gesture, GSIS effectively jumpstarted the redemption of both Malacañan and itself: Malacañan for its shameful treatment of Luna throughout history, and GSIS itself for the multi-billion peso imbroglios implicating both the Estrada and Arroyo administrations. Redemption for both institutions may still be far away. But the spectacular ransom of Parisian Life is a rousing start to their penances.

    Redemption seems less likely for Luna, however. Mita Pardo de Tavera was still denouncing him in newspapers as late as 1988, although her ancestors already retaliated to the double-murder by destroying his early/private work (arguably worse than death for an artist), and although Luna already sent a handwritten apology 91 years earlier. But that is a private matter; blood-debts, retribution, and forgiveness are beyond the scope of this essay.

    And maybe forgiveness no longer matters? Luna’s art, corpse, and reputation have already gone through several lifetimes of abuse. Maybe he considers this penance enough already. For it is so characteristic of him to flout trends and explode into the headlines again like this, with flawless timing, barely three months into the publication of a much-awaited critical rethink, upstaging even a yearlong exhibit of most of his other Paris paintings at the Lopez Museum. Maybe it’s payback time, now. Maybe it was presumptuous of his detractors to think he’d finally shut up just because he was dead and humiliated.

    Of course, the recent media spectacle points to the silence that precedes it: If Luna was always so important, then why was so little written about him in recent decades? There seem to be two reasons:

    First, earlier commentators left such a huge mess. Luna’s art, politics, and life, you see, were hopelessly entangled with the Philippine revolution. He eventually became accessible only via towering interpreters like Rizal. Untangling this mess used to be too big a task for any single art-scholar; it even used to be impossible to refute Rizal’s ilk without appearing unpatriotic, without endangering one’s life (One leading biographer even skirted dangers by claiming that Luna and his wife “parted ways, never to live together again.” It was that bad). Admittedly, not all commentators were as deified as Rizal; Zaide in particular was always a sitting duck. But many nationalist commentators were unfortunately very much alive, and Luna was simply not worth the venom—especially not during the turbulent 1970’s, during the height of anti-Amorsolo Modernism when most artists, curators, writers, and poets were too busy either sucking up to the Marcoses, raging against the Marcoses, or being dead (to be fair, however, Imelda did more for the arts than any other advocate in the country’s history).

    Second, the heretic scholar finally arrived (academic agnosticism—the insistence for corroborative proof, regardless of who says what—is required of serious scholars. Academic heresy is consequently meant as High Praise in this essay, referring to a brave opposition of orthodoxy). Actually, someone might have prayed too hard because there came three heretics: Pilar, Ambeth, and Marian. There were other scholars who contributed obliquely to the rethink—Patrick Flores’ 1998 Painting History comes to mind. But as far as Luna scholarship is concerned it’s the Pilar/Ambeth/Marian trinity that collectively shredded a century of delusions. This also seems to be why few of their contemporaries want to touch Luna again these days. Because what’s the point? It’s like mountain-climbing after Everest.

    Anyway, the first new big-shot on the Luna crime scene was UP History Professor Santiago “Jack” Pilar, with an expensive, well-researched full-color biography/catalogue in 1980. He never claimed the book as definitive (and it isn’t), but it’s so good that it’s still the starting point for Luna research over two decades later, specially because it identifies 445 of the 500-or-so remaining Luna paintings in the world. Good luck looking for it: it’s P4000 dog-eared, nearly P7000 new, if you find it at all.

    Next came historian/columnist/ex-monk Ambeth Ocampo, who augmented Luna research with books/lectures/articles he conjured during his sporadic re-materializations. Thankfully, somebody handcuffed him to the NHI; now he’s continuously exploited in the name of God and Country. He also teaches at the Ateneo now, and semi-regularly writes for the Inquirer. Pilar and Ambeth have between them read every important news clipping, shopping receipt, church document, and gossip letter around. They’re so good; it’s not even funny anymore.

    Finally came the critic Marian Pastor-Roces, the arch-heretic herself—I say that in all reverence—through whose eyes we will view Luna later in this essay. She authored last decade’s Sinaunang Habi, that breathtaking coffee-table book we all would’ve deemed perfect if we only understood half of what she was saying. She’s apparently a jet-setting celebrity theorist now. She wrote the brilliant critical rethink mentioned earlier, called Vexed Modernity, published in the Zero-In catalogue. It’s much shorter than the previous work: this one’s only 28 pages including footnotes, block-set quotes, 3” margins, lots of pictures, and fat gutters. And it’s not even completely about Luna.

    Before you stampede for the catalogues, however, please be warned. As Hannibal Lecter would put it, “Marian Is Evolving.” Her highly compact essay requires a week of reading plus a fistful of paracetamol. It isn’t quite written in English, so it will repeatedly seduce you with a friendly layout, bright colors, challenging wordplay, and a scholarly stance. Only when you are safely hooked will it break your heart. Vexed Modernities only looks like an essay; it is really napalm, burning everything in its path.

    But let’s detour through the historians and their sources for the meanwhile since Marian doesn’t do biography (By the way, I personally don’t know these three. I address Ambeth and Marian by their first names merely because of their fame, like Madonna and Britney):

    Luna’s father was from Ilocos Norte, who migrated briefly to Zambales to trade in seafood, eventually returning home to Badoc as a wealthy tobacco inspector. His mother had Aeta blood but came from a landed family in La Union. He studied briefly at the Ateneo when his father got laid off, because the family relocated to Tondo to wholesale fish. He later switched to a naval school, however, because he needed to earn money (or so Rizal gently rubbed in). He only turned to painting after a short stint as a seaman. He enrolled at the Academia (future UP-CFA) but got booted out after a fight with the school head. He then sailed for arts school in Madrid, where he stayed for a year before following his mentor to Pompeii. He then traveled through Naples, to Rome (he was 26 when he won for the Spoliarium), Paris, Venice and the rest of Europe. Medals and glamorous orders promptly flooded in, and Europe became the “glittering stage” for an unprecedented and still-unsurpassed indio-heredera romance that was rocky enough to begin with, but which rapidly unraveled only after the death of his baby daughter. Then came the rest of 1892, the 1893 acquittal, and diplomatic work for the young Philippine Government. After the futile Philippine Mission to Washington, he died poisoned in Hong Kong in 1899, at the ripe old age of 42.

    After the murders, Luna’s in-laws, the Pardo de Taveras, destroyed all of his paintings in their possession. But in fairness to them, they adopted the painter’s son Andres when the painter’s kin supposedly cheated the boy of his own inheritance (such an Ilocano story). The Pardo de Taveras even sent the boy to study architecture in Paris and whole-heartedly supported his career afterwards. Andres brought his father’s bones home in 1920, but the government refused a hero’s funeral. After WW2, Andres—in a gesture commonly meant to anger the dead—displayed his father’s bombed-out bones in a water-bucket he salvaged them with. He maintained this display for eight full years, until the painter was finally buried (still without state honors, and a year after Andres’ own death), after a shockingly pathetic ceremony in a public school, in March 1953, a full 33 years after his exhumation.

    Luna was excluded from the National Artist Award, which would have allowed re-interment into the Heroes’ Cemetery (such lousy treatment, despite funerals being primarily for us the living). The CCP awarded him Centennial Honors in 1999, but it didn’t have the authority to provide hero status, either. Andres’ widow offered the government 64 paintings in 1960 for P531,000 total. The government refused, offering only P185,000. In indignation, she scattered the paintings abroad. Filipinos have been scrambling to reclaim them ever since. Marian, of course, zeroed-in on the ilustrado angle of it all.

    Vexed Modernity began with Documenta (Germany’s current incarnation of last century’s European art expositions), praising version 11 for being what might be summed-up as the crystallization of Rupture-As-Rapture. Marian said it worked best as a giant artistic sparkplug for the scrutiny of freedom. She asked for scholarly agnosticism, quipped about indios “out to learn white tricks,” and then promptly requested a comprehensive rethink of Philippine history because our ilustrados’ nationalism was flawed and fatal to begin with. She calmly pussy-whipped every nationalist from Rizal onwards (many of whom, incidentally, were Luna commentators as well), claiming that the reformists’ struggle was essentially unstable because they didn’t even agree on the What/How/Why of it all, and even their Who changed over time. Heck, they even mangled the term “ilustrado” itself; they thought it was a coño thing when it actually was, in fact, a very jologs thing.

    Marian condemned Luna and Hidalgo with the rest of them, of course, because their art was complicit in the shaping of this flawed nationalism. She pointed out that the Spoliarium was a fluke: Neoclassical allegory was limited to “elevated,” not “abject” states; sordid realities belonged to the language of Realism, but Realism didn’t allow allegory at all. The Spoliarium only got past the judges despite this fatal flaw, she said, because it was operatic enough and intelligent enough for the retarded Madrid Salon. She was somewhat kinder to Hidalgo, because he was a cop-out anyway (“original sin,” her words). She further argued that the Luna/Hidalgo legacies remain valuable today only because the Filipino is essentially a hero-worshipper; these legacies would otherwise be in art-history’s dustbin because: a) the Salons were unethical imperialist spectacles; b) Neoclassicism was aristocratic & anti-poor; c) only Filipinos understand what Luna really felt for the country; and d) nationalist art in Asia forbids an analysis of nationalism itself. It was heartbreaking, she said—and this was the only time Marian showed pity—for Luna to have worked so hard, only to end up complicitly illustrating the very same cage that imprisoned him. I had to agree.

    (As ex-artist Aileen Familara opined, it must have been a terrible time to be a great artist. Luna’s countrymen were being harassed, his family and friends were being swept into the emerging Philippine Revolution, and he was just stuck there in Europe doodling for royalty. Yes, he was be-medalled, but those medals were for technical excellence, not patriotism—well, he did receive a government medal for patriotism, but it was for services rendered to Spain, not the Philippines, which might’ve added insult to injury. He worked so hard on those paintings, yet they weren’t seen by the tiny people whom he painted them for. Luna himself must have felt so useless and insignificant, despite the European acclaim).

    But Marian didn’t end there. She admitted that both artists eventually made rightful gestures towards Realism towards the end of their lives. Don’t let her admission warm your heart, because that’s just a feint for her cold-blooded coup de graçe. She concluded by opining that Luna’s eventual conversion into Realism was useless anyway, because even after eleven editions in 55 years, Documenta still hadn’t successfully dismantled the Euro-American cultural imperialism that Luna was fighting against.

    Marian’s conclusion obviously dooms Luna’s work, together with that of everyone else who still hopes to change the world through art. But it was honorable of her to recover Luna from a century of cooptation. Filipino visual artists can finally see a plausible Luna now: the ornery-but-well-meaning granduncle who made the wrong moves and who’s finally coming home to die. He is no longer alien to us; we can finally learn from his mistakes. We now see that it was only proper for Filipinos to ransom Parisian Life at P46 million, because other people will just consider it a pretty picture by an exotic Old Master. Others will look at Luna and only see failure; only Filipinos can look at him and see Icarus.

    To be fair, Marian—lacerating and implacable though she might have been—was only being honest. Her opinions on the future of art are corroborated by other international art evaluators/managers. Cutting-edge Art today (if there is still such a thing) is really about socially-relevant performance, not about allegorical painting. Vexed Modernities was exactly the light we needed. It was painful, of course. But what can you do? Truth always burns.

    Maybe it’s just as well that critics, curators, and other art speculators finally turned their backs on Painting; hopefully all the politicians and artiste-wannabes finally go with them this time. Because Painting desperately needs its believers right now. It’s high time that Painters finally recognized that genius by itself (or politics, or adolescent angst) has never made a painting; that modernism was devastating for the artist-craftsman because it allowed decorators to play Painter (it even allowed subcontractors to play Architect). Painting has always been a technical discipline; its self-respect and survival lies in Necessary Luxe, in the celebration of its craft-traditions. How did painters forget?

    But not all is lost. The Haute Couture used to be in a worse predicament but has successfully reinvented itself. Painting can redeem itself, too. But redemption must begin with acts of faith.

    Are you a believer?

    Painters, to begin with, need to return to their heritage. All Old Masters were excellent formalists; none of them had lousy technique. How many self-proclaimed Painters today can even reverse-engineer something as recent and as structurally simple as the Spoliarium? What oil recipe to use, so that paint solidifies before gravity pulls it down? What chemicals, in what ratio, for stable paint layers that only need re-varnishing across centuries? What transparent red to use for blood, since Alizarin Crimson was only invented in 1889?

    The market, too, must believe in its own role. Galleries must demand pride of craftsmanship, rewarding painters who have integrity, rejecting aesthetically sophisticated pretenders who default into abstraction just because they can’t draw. Patrons, of course, must be willing to pay for well-crafted images, regardless of aesthetics.

    This is going to be a difficult and expensive process. But only with this support structure in place can Painting survive. There might not be any critics or medals around this time. It may not even be called art anymore (but that’s okay. Art is such a slimy word these days anyway, like politics or alimony). But there will at least be breathtaking paintings once again for all of you who have never lost faith in the power of one single image to change one life, one country.

    And who knows? Maybe Juan Luna will once again rise from the dead like he did in Christie’s last October, still unforgiven yet still whispering, “Change the world,” ready as ever to flout yet another generation of critics who yet again consign him to his very own Spoliarium. For who would have thought that such a tiny painting as Parisian Life could expose—just by being its beautiful, useless self—so many personal betrayals, ethical lapses, as well as malicious intent, legislative incompetence, government myopia, and a starving people’s confused hunger to never the less connect with a truth greater than itself? What critically “valid” art form today can produce a Rupture as powerful as that? But, again: it demands acts of faith.

    And again: Are you a believer?

    I’m asking because I bring you now another test of faith: another important Luna might be offered to auctioneers within 2003. This one is less controversial but more beautiful and more dramatic than Parisian Life; with a similarly impeccable provenance/pedigree. I can not say more without jeopardizing my sources. But take a deep breath, dear believer. Because if this other Luna does go under the auctioneer’s hammer, then your faith is really going to cost you this time.


    The author sends his utmost gratitude to the organizers of Locus 2 for providing a purpose and a critical context for this writing, and to art critic Lee WengChoy (currently Artistic Director of The Substation, Singapore), for inadvertently providing the courage to speak out from within Rupture. The author also wishes to thank The Lopez Library Archives, The Lopez Museum, The GSIS Museum, The Ayala Museum, PANANAW Foundation’s Eileen Legazpi-Ramirez, the CCP’s Sid Gomez Hildawa, Bahay Nakpil-Bautista, and three nameless birdies, for making this very difficult essay-cum-performance possible.

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Tuesday, March 27, 2007

OPIUM (Vivien Tan)

Manual Magazine, April (?) 2004

  • (This essay is probably the most ambitious text ever published by any fashion magazine for a model in a string bikini. Breathtaking styling & photography by the magazine team, because this was the farewell assignment of our beloved colleague, top photographer Tommy Zablan. That month's issue was completely sold out; I didn't even get a copy.
  • I'm not sure if the essay makes enough sense without the pictures it was designed to escort, since it was designed to be as dizzying as the photographs. But anyway, here's a brief description: This was a spare-no-expense story, a full ten (or was it 12?) pages long, staged in various corners of an antique shop filled with heirloom furniture & excavated porcelain from the T'ang, Southern Sung, and Early Ming dynasties. The model was dressed in various sets of floral/oriental lingerie. Her hair and metallic makeup were designed to make her look like a statue of a goddess. There was an opium pipe; there was a fog machine. Images were darkly lit; more than half of each frame was in shadow.)

Vivien and I had a fantastic plan for this spread: an intoxicating stream-of-consciousness text containing only her half of what was to be a most unusual correspondence. She was to discuss Asia from some exotic ASEAN destination or another, her being the opinionated, globetrotting Pan-Asian supermodel host of cable TV’s Star Asia Travel; I was to steer her narration from various towns in Cagayan Valley and Batanes, where I was going on simultaneous assignments for three publishers. Her write up was to be loosely formatted after Nick Bantock’s best-selling Griffin & Sabine series, but with my Griffin-ish part edited out, my presence trumpeted solely by my absence.

The goal was a slice of Vivien’s formidably erudite mind, embedded into a text that, despite its necessary ornate-ness, was nevertheless to be as under-articulated as Tommy’s shadowy photos, as rococo as Kim’s decadent styling, and as surreal as Fred’s “cold-blooded goddess” makeup. No explanatory pap here (the new http://www.vivientan.com/ had the introductory trivia, anyway, and Google had the rest); only a take-no-prisoners exposition of her concerns and advocacies, with footnotes as the only concession to the disoriented reader. We were to push the Mysterious Femme Fatale concept to the hilt; we were to produce opium disguised as an essay.



Unfortunately, Vivien’s new internet server conked out for a month, and by the time she got back online my assignments were bringing me much farther away from cyberspace than planned. By then I was usually at least 60kms from an Internet connection on a good day, and 120kms from the nearest BPI ATM. On bad days, I was inside caves or some other archaeological site. Twice, I was even stranded on a cliff across the sea during a typhoon.

But you all must have read too many girls-who-slipped-away stories by now, so let me embrace Vivien’s role-reversal instead, and share with you my research material. This material was originally intended to be the invisible framework for her meditations on the construction of a national identity today, when the idea of Nation itself no longer seems to hold.

THE MAHAYANA TARA
Vivien’s eyes immediately fired up, when I mentioned Batanes and archaeology in one sentence.

“Take us with you!” she begged, grabbing her husband’s hand. She had married a wealthy Filipino playboy a few months back (ergo, she will be based in Manila soon), and they apparently were still in the honeymoon phase.

“Yes, take us with you!” her husband chirped. But my horror was probably obvious, so they changed the topic.

Not that I didn’t want them along; they had recently backpacked through Bali and rural China, so they’d probably be fun to hike with. But it was nearing election season, and was a bad time to go nosing around the foothills of the Sierra Madre and the Cordillera. I was afraid Vivien would get kidnapped, hogtied with her own black silk Spring 2004 Louis Vuitton scarf.

In the end, she just asked me to find something for her.

Vivien’s interest in Batanes was deeper than it seemed. She was well versed in the violent histories of Southern China and French Indo-China, and both her parents did cultural conservation research for the UNESCO. Vivien knew her stuff: what she wanted me to find in the hinterlands of Northern Luzon wasn’t a trinket, but the traces of a breakaway Buddhist sect that had incorporated Catholic saints into the Mahayana pantheon.

I haven’t found any leads until now, almost nine thousand square kilometers later, but the trail still makes my heart race. Mahayana Buddhism is vastly more ingenious and complex than the Chinatown (Theravada) version, you see. Mahayana’s strangely post-modern framework allows it to easily absorb other religions into itself, as it did Shintoism in Japan, and Taoism before that.

My belief in the possible Luzon existence of such a breakaway Mahayana sect is also buttressed by the existence of the spectacular Agusan Image, now in the gem room of the Chicago Field Museum of Natural History. Found in 1917 in a Mindanao riverbank, the Image is a 4.5 pound, 21-karat gold statue of an Indic goddess. It was originally identified as Hindu, but Prof. Juan Francisco argued that Hindu goddesses were rarely in cast in gold, and they were usually depicted standing, not seated in the lotus position as this was. He consequently proposed that the image was a Tara of Mahayana Buddhism, dating back to the Indo-Javanese Madjapahit Empire.

The Agusan Image. Photo courtesy of the
Chicago Field Museum of Natural History.


BALI
Five other important Indic artifacts have been excavated in the Philippines so far. In 1843, a three-inch 12th century copper medallion was found in Mactan, Cebu, portraying Ganesha, the Hindu god of elephants. Shortly thereafter, a gold Garuda pendant was found in Brooke’s Point in Palawan. Both items vanished during the 1945 Liberation of Manila, unfortunately, so the only surviving items of this type now are a 12th century Javanese paleograph found in Butuan in the 1970s; the 9th century Laguna Copperplate which, despite being written in the extinct Kawi script of Champa and ancient Siam, nevertheless dates itself to the reign of King Balitung of Eastern Java; and a crude 12th century clay medallion of the Avalokiteshvara-Padmapani, found in 1961 in Calatagan, Batangas (Incidentally, it was Calatagan that Vivien vacationed in, the weekend after her pictorial).


Inscription from the 9th century Laguna Copperplate.




Said artifacts notwithstanding, however, no ancient direct links have been proven between the Philippines and India so far. Experts say Indic influence reached us only by osmosis, via the Hindu and Buddhist kingdoms of Indonesia.

It is a tangle of fascinating stories. Palembang’s Srivijaya Empire was born in the 3rd century as one of five Indonesian kingdoms. It gradually gained power across the centuries, elbowing aside its neighboring kingdoms like the Taruma, and dominating most of Indonesia (and much of Southeast Asia) by the 8th century. By the 11th century, however, it was waning. And by the 13th century, it was reduced into a vassal state of Cambodia’s Khmer Empire (and of the Sukhothai later on). When the volatile Madjapahit Empire captured the city of Palembang in 1414, the last Srivijayan ruler converted to Islam, creating the Sultanate of Malacca elsewhere in Sumatra, hoping for an Arab-backed revenge later on.

The Madjapahit Empire, for its part, was started by Prince Kertarajasa upon his 1290 ejection from Java by the Singhasari king, who was his own father-in-law. This scandal brought the increasingly powerful Singhasari Kingdom to the attention of Kublai Khan in China. Khan demanded tribute, but the Singhasari refused to pay. When Khan attacked Java in 1293, the Madjapahit army sided with him in revenge. Immediately after the Singhasari destruction, however, the Madjapahit turned against Khan, forcing the Mongols to withdraw in confusion.

Sticking to similar tactics, Madjapahit power quickly became extensive, though short-lived. There was an aggressive expansionary period from 1331-1364—felt even in the ancient Luzon kingdom of Namayan (today’s Metro Manila)—but the empire was shaken by a war over succession. This Madjapahit falter was eventually exploited by the vengeful Sultanate of Malacca, which had sculpted itself into an economic powerhouse. Malaccan vengeance was finally exacted in 1478, when the cornered Madjapahit Emperor chose burn to himself alive. His heir couldn’t keep up with mounting military/ economic pressure either, so the entire Madjapahit court eventually retreated into Bali in 1520, into a non-violent world of spirituality and art that survives to this day, a world which Vivien was understandably all praises for.

Sadly, Malacca didn’t get to relish the final Madjapahit humiliation, for Malacca was conquered by the Portuguese in 1511. The orphaned Malaccan heir, Prince Kabungsuwan, fled to the Philippines to start the Sultanate of Maguindanao.


OPIUM
Religion and power weren’t the only opiates that shaped the history of Southeast Asia, unfortunately. The real thing passed this way, too.

Known to ancient Mesopotamia as Hul Gil (“plant of joy”), the cultivation of poppy was passed on to Assyria, Babylon, and dynastic Egypt, from which it spread to the Greco-Roman Empire, and into India and Persia. Fifth-century Arab traders brought Egyptian opium to China, where it eventually became a popular T’ang Dynasty snack food. Dutch traders taught the Chinese to smoke opium in tobacco pipes, which led to an ineffective 1799 imperial ban. When the Chinese finally cracked down on (predominantly British) smugglers in 1839, the British retaliated with The First Opium War. China lost, and ceded Hong Kong as part of its indemnity. When China lost the Second Opium War as well, its second indemnity payment included the legalization of British opium imports.

The Portuguese were already smoking opium when they captured Malacca, but Southeast Asia’s opium problem only began after The Second Opium war, when the British converted northeastern Burma’s Shan state into an opium farm. Inadequate control measures caused such plantations to spread into Laos and Thailand. Eventually called the Golden Triangle, this area became the a major opium producer in the 1940s when Burma became independent from Britain, and when World War II temporarily cut off opium supplies from India and Persia.

During the US-Vietnam War, the CIA reportedly used Air America to haul tons of raw opium out of Laos and Burma, to be refined by the Mafia in Marseilles and reshipped as heroin into the US via the infamous French Connection. Burma became the world’s biggest opium producer in the 1970s, as evidenced by Bangkok seizing a 2,400lb shipment of pure Burmese heroin in 1977, and Burma’s Shan warlord Khun Sa being indicted in absentia by the US for smuggling 3,500lbs of heroin into New York in 1978. Khun Sa eventually “surrendered” to the Burmese Miltary Junta in 1996, and has been “under government custody” ever since. But production remained on the rise. Golden Triangle’s exports were estimated at 2,500 tons of pure heroin annually as of 1995, making narco-politics among the biggest problems of the ASEAN today.

AUSTRONESIA

During this magazine’s pictorial, Vivien and her husband scrutinized every single idol, chandelier, table, cabinet, bed, and temple door in the set, and she haggled for several Early Ming Dynasty jars. In the context of these photos, then, her creamy white belly becomes a reminder that so much of Philippine pre-history was written with porcelain.

Shipwrecks, grave robbers, and the occasional seafaring police colonel have brought forth Ming Dynasty ware to Manila by the crate-full. Over a thousand pieces of superb-and-atypical Sung Dynasty celadon was excavated from just one Mindoro cemetery in the 1930s, and again in Manila in the 1960s, while two steam-shovels pulverized a similarly rich Sung-era grave in a misguided 1926 Novaliches-Marilao excavation. And T’ang Dynasty pieces? They have been found intact all over the country, from such disparate sites as Jolo, Bohol, Ilocos, the Babuyan Islands and Batanes, making the Philippines one of the best places in the world to study T’ang, the first true porcelain.



Where the porcelain trail tapered off, the narrative of pre-history was picked up by older and humbler ceramics, both from here and from ancient Southeast Asian kingdoms like Annam, Champa, and Siam, hinting at what might just be the most intoxicating story of all.




The Manunggul Jar.



One of the most remarkable ancient pottery finds ever in Southeast Asia was a burial jar from Manunggul Cave in Palawan, carbon-dated to circa-850BC. But most Filipinos still don’t understand its implications today, because colonizers brainwashed us into thinking we were an uncivilized people before they arrived; and because our historians (who argued otherwise) never really recovered their credibility from Dr. William Henry Scott’s devastating 1968 revelation that important chunks of proud Philippine History textbooks were in fact based on documents falsified around 1910. Ferdinand Marcos aggravated the problem in the 1970s when his New Society botched an attempt at cultural engineering, exhorting pride in the brave Malay Race, when in fact (as the Human Genome Project later proved) there was no Malay race at all. One result is that Filipinos clung instead to American truths—the only thing reliable—so tenaciously, that neighboring Asians now consider us an American colony.

But unknown outside academic circles, various teams of international archaeologists have been quietly excavating in Cagayan Valley and Batanes over the past few years, trying to solve one of the most important Asian puzzles of all: the journey of homo sapiens into Southeast Asia and Oceania. Among the more interesting clues they are considering are a sophisticatedly-mummified corpse from Palawan, carbon-dated to 4,300BC (3 millennia older than Tutankhamen, and thus contemporaneous with opium-eating Mesopotamia); a bronze needle from Peñablanca, Cagayan dated to 2,280 BC (two millennia before our Metal Age); shell axes much older than those excavated from Oceania; and nine long-voyage Butuan boats, the oldest of which had a minimum carbon-date of 235AD. There was also the strange fact that the Batanes “idjang” fortresses looked suspiciously like the ruined “gusuku” fortresses of ancient Okinawa.

Apparently, one of the theories on the peopling of Asia suggests that human migration started from Southern China, and descended southwards to Taiwan and Northern Philippines. This theory, initially proposed in 1985 by Dr. Peter Bellwood of the University of Michigan, used to be ridiculed. But it has since received support from many highly-respected experts from different fields, among them Prof. Hidefumi Ogawa of the Imperial University of Tokyo; Dr. Kazuhiko Tanaka of the Jesuit-run Sophia University in Tokyo; and the scientists from the Academia Sinica in Taiwan; who all have been closely collaborating with archaeologists and ceramics restorers from both the National Museum and UP Diliman.



I'm the bald guy in the peach shirt. Squatting at my right is Dr. Kazuhiro Tanaka, international expert on pre-historic pottery.



I didn’t catch Dr. Bellwood and Prof. Ogawa in Batanes (my schedule that month was for the Babuyan Islands, for an unrelated assignment), but I did meet Mr. Willie Ronquillo, chief archaeologist of the National Museum. I also visited the National Museum team in Lal-lo, headed by Ms. Ame Garong, where I tried my hand at drilling through 12,000 years of discarded clamshells (the team found fragments of human skull under the deepest shell layers, hinting at some still-undocumented consecration ritual). I also spent a fruitful week up by the Peñablanca caves with Dr. Tanaka, who is an international expert on ancient pottery, and who showed me photos of three recent Philippine finds by his colleagues:

All three artifacts were skillfully carved in the Taiwanese style, as confirmed by the Academia Sinica in Taipei, one of whose experts is incidentally coming here this summer. But of the two artifacts excavated in Cagayan Valley, one was made of Cagayan andesite (Magapit artifact 6057), the other of Mindoro jade (Irigayen artifact 6188). Only the third item, a nephrite trinket ironically excavated in Batangas, was really from Taiwan. The curious thing is, all three artifacts were dated to 2,000BC.

VIVIEN
Over breakfast recently, National Museum Directress Cora Alvina lamented that there are two things Filipinos never learned to use: Scotch Tape and cement. We over-tape gifts, as if we didn’t want them to be opened; and we cement every heritage site we want tourists to visit, including archaeological sites, thereby ruining them. I nodded in agreement, remembering a beautiful cave in Bicol, which in the 1990s was transmogrified into a disco, complete with a fog machine, a cemented dance floor, and mirror-balls (plural) bolted onto stalactites (plural).

“Every urban planner should visit Bali!” Ms. Alvina declared, praising its urban planning and building codes, noting that even the effective drainage and septic systems were incorporated into the master plan (unlike Boracay), and all of the development executed non-invasively, with minimal use of cement. “Natural materials aren’t necessarily less durable than cement. You just have to use them intelligently.”

I remembered Vivien at the shoot, cooing about Bali, cooing about a remote village in southern China that erected a rudimentary public market on a creek. The villagers did their business at low tide, and went home when the rising tide covered the floor and swept their refuse into the sea.

Vivien had long wanted to do a Star Asia Travel series on rural Philippines, she said. She wanted episodes on Batanes and Banawe, of course, though she also wanted one on Bacolod, where she would sit atop a sugarcane train, discussing history and future. But her company found Dick Gordon difficult to work with.

“Delightful Dick,” she said of him. “He was focusing on domestic tourism, when domestic tourism doesn’t increase GNP.”

I asked her to try her luck again, now that Gordon’s out of DOT.

“Please establish your presence in the Philippine cultural scene,” I begged. “We can’t afford you, but we need you.”

And it’s true. Older cultural workers are retiring, and too few of the young are taking their place. The country needs credible, knowledgeable media front-liners like Vivien to drum up public interest and corporate support for cultural conservation projects, because the allied disciplines are all demoralized by now, and young cultural workers from all allied fields have already begun emigrating. In archaeology, for instance, there is only one student of Lithics left in the country, although so much of the Philippine Stone Age still remains to be decoded, and graverobbers and pothunters are rampantly contaminating too many sites.

“You don’t even have to do anything too different,” I went on. “Just be yourself, and let the younger Filipino cultural workers rally around you.”

“We’ll see,” Vivien smiled, as she ascended the set to pose as a goddess. Tommy knelt down to worship her with his camera one last time, before he himself emigrated to Canada.

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Sunday, March 18, 2007

MUTINY FOR THE MUSEUMS

Still-unpublished (and still-unpaid for!) manuscript. Supposed to be the final story for a new publisher's revamped magazine's aborted special issue on Collecting. December 2005.

The era of dirt-cheap Philippine art is about to end.

Increasing international demand, an exodus of visionaries, and skyrocketing production/ exhibition costs will finally be allowed to take their toll, in a last-ditch attempt to ensure the domestic supply of art worth having. From 2007 onwards -- when the decimation of the ranks begins to show -- I personally foresee a 15-35% show-to-show price increase for good new art, continuing indefinitely until the art market becomes sustainable. You see, it never really was.

For the longest time, prices were maimed by a cocktail of reasons that would've killed off any other field of collecting. The usual suspects were there, of course: the castrated peso, the former dearth of insurance options and secure logistics; the low media exposure due to envelopmental journalism; and the price caps by collector cartels who realized that the geese wouldn't stop laying golden eggs anyway, regardless of how little or how belatedly they got paid for it. The art market only survived because it was heavily subsidized by working-class parents who couldn't bear to see their mutant children starve, and by gallery owners who either earned their fortunes elsewhere (neurologist, publishing heiress, etc), or who had successful children funding their galleries out of filial piety.

Cesar Legaspi, CIRCA 1971 (CRUCIFIXION), 1971. Oil on masonite. 47 x 66 in. P8,500,000.
Photo courtesy Galleria Duemila.

But this was only half the story. Layered over the usual suspects were two cardinal sins that essentially legitimized and condoned the exploitation:



First was the government's post-Marcos de-prioritization of art and culture in both funding and education, purportedly for reasons of economic survival, despite economic progress actually being a cultural process, and despite art (as condensed culture) being key to the removal of cultural obstacles to economic development. That such a de-prioritization could come from a country desperate for international respect is especially ironic, of course, because the extent and conservation of culture is precisely what countries need to showcase to each other to gain respect, and art (as tangible expressions of national soul) is precisely what countries must lend each other as proof of trust and acceptance.

The second sin sadly came from within art itself. Ever since the 1970's, artists worldwide have thrown themselves into exploitation in obedience to a devastatingly stupid bohemian dogma that equates artistic integrity with anti-market sentiments, a dogma complicated in the Philippine context by the further equation of artistic integrity with nationalism.This cocktail resulted in the quicksand otherwise known as Philippine Art: thousands of artists sabotaging family finances in patriotic opposition to globalization, although they're the only socio-economic sector that would've survived the globalization of a nation that never loved them anyway.


Cesar Legaspi, WARRIORS, 1994. Oil on canvas, 32 x 48 inches, P1,800,000.
Photo
courtesy Finale Art File.



Who did this exercise in futility benefit most? Those who scrimped on art to splurge on, to cite one particularly egregious example, a US$6,000 porcelain rooster (I know who you are, you scumbag).

Eventually, cultural exchange awakened local artists to just how good they are -- the Philippine record in the ASEAN Art Awards is unrivalled, for example -- and to just how badly they are treated here, compared to artists in countries sometimes even poorer than their own. Market-friendly heresies have also taken root, fertilized by the chilling realization that many of the Western anti-materialist prophets they followed were actually pensioned aristocrats who never needed a job, or worse, charlatans who actually became rich from their anti-materialist demagoguery (e.g., Joseph Kossuth & his ilk).

Leonard Aguinaldo, Ay Apo, 2005. Hand-colored, hand-carved rubber. 54 x 52 ins. P110,000.
Photo courtesy Galleria Duemila.



And so begins a new exodus of Philippine art. In the 1960's, Juan Luna's fed-up daughter-in-law finally retaliated to government parsimony by hurling 64 of the Master's works out of the country. It took two decades and a bank's fortune to buy the works back and repatriate them. But we never learned. Latest reports say we've already lost over 90% of our cultural heritage to war and neglect, and that two container vans worth of cultural artifacts are reportedly still smuggled out of the country every single day.

Dan Raralio, ENCARGADA, 2000. Bonded Marble. 38 x 42 x 22 in. P950,000.
Photo courtesy the artist.


At any rate, today is the 1960s all over again, on an epic scale. This time, even the geese are fleeing. The last three years alone have witnessed over a dozen disillusioned visionaries either leaving art (e.g., Len Familara into NGO work), leaving the country (e.g., Imelda Cajipe-Endaya migrating to New York), or both (e.g., Ringo Bunoan opening a restaurant in Kathmandu). And those stuck here are increasingly focusing on foreign audiences: In 2002, for example, while pundits whined about GSIS spending US$860,000 for Luna's Parisian Life, a Madrid gallery was reportedly selling another Luna for US$10 Million. And just last October, Sothebys Singapore sold a painting by young Luzon artist Geraldine Javier for nearly double the high estimate. The painting was barely six months old.


Geraldine Javier, TWO MARYS, 2005. Oil on canvas diptych, 4 x 3 ft per panel, price upon request.
Photo courtesy Valentine Willie Fine Art, Kuala Lumpur.


Mercifully, an entirely new species of collector has emerged. Not all of these collectors are rich, and some of them may never be. And too few of them collect art as of yet. But their sumptuary code -- their ethics of consumption, if you will -- is so anti-exploitative, that they are practically in mutiny against their predecessors. They are my Abubot Babies. Soon, the doors of galleries will exclude everyone who wouldn't shop like they do.


Anton del Castillo, RACE TO THE END, 2005. Oil on 22kt gold leaf, 4 x 12 ft, P200,000.
Photo courtesy the artist.


The Abubot Babies are essentially luxury-literate, thirty-something Pinoy techno-yuppies with strong humanities backgrounds and stronger consciences. Many of them wanted to be artists as children, but just had to be "more practical" in adulthood (for instance, the friend who taught me watercolor 16 years ago is now the eminently Google-able hotshot property consultant David Francis Leechiu). Most of them are self-made. None of them spend like the noveau-riche.

They take pay cuts for meaningful projects, believing that the best income is money earned by doing what they love. They believe in corporate social responsibility. They try to change society from the inside. They treat their employees fairly, and pay them decently.

They don't buy fake, because they work with data and discourse, and they define themselves by the symbols they consume.

They are wary of antique furniture for one feng-shui reason or the other. Even if money were no object, they'd rather buy a new Hickory Chair reissue of an old design, than buy the ghost-ridden antique that the company drew inspiration from.

They want exceptional, handcrafted status symbols in their homes, but are turned-off by the carnage, exploitation and deceit associated with the trade in ivory, ethnographic artifacts, and older Philippine art.

They don't mind paying premiums to get first choice at exceptional products. They already do for luxury goods that eventually get knocked off anyway, or for tech gear that everybody else will have later on.

And, wealthy or not, they think haggling is for social climbers. If the price is not fair, they simply walk away. If the price is fair but too painful to "American Express it," the furthest they would go is MasterCard deferred for 36 months, possibly refinanced somewhere down the road. After all, they don't haggle at Chanel or Vuitton. They should see no need to haggle at an art gallery whose products don't even depreciate.


Nona Garcia, NEW SPECIMEN, 2003. Oil on canvas, 71 x 42 ins. P62,000.
Photo courtesy Galleria Duemila.


Obviously, people who shop like this will eventually turn to the art of their time. Art (as embodied meaning) is the ultimate collectible of the avatar age, anyway.

But what art will they patronize? Four preferences can safely be assumed:

1. Flawless construction
, visible or otherwise. Rolex, Ozwald Boateng, Macanudo, Asprey, and Hermes have spoiled them that way.

2. Craftsmanship celebrated
, as taught by Fendi, Bottega Venetta, Elie Saab & Roberto Cavalli. Also, many of these kids can draw. They or their friends will be able to spot bullshit in the galleries when they see it.

3. Intellectual integrity
. Yohji Yamamoto, Vivienne Westwood, & Takashi Murakami have taught these kids to respect intellectual property. They will not take kindly to artists slavishly knocking off other artists' styles. They dislike like the watered-down art usually peddled by interior designers.

4. Unapologetic, drop-dead gorgeousness
. As a matter of survival, these kids grew up trying to resist sophisticatedly seductive ads of sophisticatedly seductive objects. If a particular artwork cannot visually compete with a 20-inch iMac G5, a Bulgari Astrale, or a metallic red 2007 Jaguar XK, it won't even register on their radar.


Francesca Enriquez, DYNASTY ROOM, 2005. Oil on canvas, 22 x 19 inches. P50,000.
Photo Courtesy Finale Art File
.


Miraculously, as if to ease the Abubot Babies into art collecting, two global art trends will soon affect local artistic production: the decline of political art (soon to be legitimized, I've learned, by the 2007 Venice Biennale), and the return of academic realism after Postmodernism was discredited by the WTC bombings. Properly harnessed, I believe this new cocktail can usher in a new golden age of Philippine art, and finally force the country to pay attention to it.

Ang Kiukok, HORSE, 1994. Oil on canvas, 40 x 36 inches, P1,500,000.
Photo courtesy Finale Art File.


Crippled and neglected as it still is, you see, the legacy of Philippine art is already mind-boggling: Amorsolo alone produced an estimated 25,000 paintings, plus a similar number of drawings, with the better paintings starting at P3 million on a good day, and with the masterpieces going for P22-P40 million.

I can only imagine how things will be for artists, the economy, and even the country, when the sun finally rises, and the Abubot Babies finally join this mutiny for the museum.


Fernando Amorsolo, UNTITLED (PORTRAIT OF A WOMAN), 1924. Oil on woodboard. 10x14 in. P6,000,000.
Photo courtesy Galleria Duemila.


SIDEBAR: ADVICE FOR THE YOUNG AT ART

1. Visit every exhibit you can. Find out why you like what you like. Looking costs you nothing, and is still the only way to develop an eye.

2. Never let your interior designer choose art for you. By instinct, she will merely get art that complements the furniture, when she's supposed to aim higher, and get furniture that complements the art.

3. Identify the trustworthy art dealers (there are many crooks among them), and allow the good guys to make money off you. Just write it off as your matriculation and research costs. Dealers need a buffer, you see. They’re the ones who have to find & incubate new talent, and they lose almost P100,000 a week (plus financing costs) when showing important-but-hard-to-sell art.

4. Don’t haggle; you’re not buying fish. If you can’t afford it, don’t buy it. If the art is any good, its value will increase with age, anyway, and you’ll eventually get your money’s worth. Besides, most galleries work by commission, so the poor artist will be shouldering up to 70% of whatever discounts you wring out of the gallery.

5. Unless you’re a cultural worker yourself, never discuss business with artists inside their homes. It is an abuse of hospitality. If you like something in the studio, grab your cell and call the artist’s dealer. If the artwork hasn’t been promised to a dealer yet, then at least step out of the house before you offer to buy. And please have the decency to volunteer a premium for the privilege of First Refusal. Art should NOT be cheaper at the source. It is neither cattle nor vegetables nor furniture.

6. Unless it's at at a formal exhibition mounted by a Selling Curator, non-cultural workers should never EVER buy art from students. It’s the artworld equivalent of statutory rape.


Vicente Manansala, NUDE, 1979. Charcoal on paper, 21 x 29 in. P850,000.
Photo courtesy Galleria Duemila.

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Saturday, March 17, 2007

THE DOWNSIDE OF BEING FILIPINO

Published as a boxed article by the Inquirer on 24 Nov 2006, the only comment published in full. Other replies and rejoinders, including Jon Red's were parsed and compiled by staffwriter Marinel Cruz.

Dear Inquirer,

This is in response to UP Film Institute's Prof. Tilman Baumgartel's article, "The Downside of Digital," (Sept 24, sec J2). I'd like to thank the professor for playing Devil's Advocate, and for this opportunity to comment.

The professor's concerns seem to have resulted from seeing too much crappy amateur work. For at the professional level, digital isn't easy at all. It's actually more difficult to use than film.

With digital, you've got the worst of both worlds: the intolerance of slide film, and the lighting principles of negative film.

Like slides, digital has a painfully short tonal range (5.5 stops vs neg's 12), and is very intolerant of over exposure (0.5 stops tolerance vs neg's 10 stops). Yet, unlike slides, to get good blacks in digital you must STILL over-light the set (like negs), and then stop your shutter down.

Digital is also infamously sharp. Selective focus is frequently impossible, forcing art departments to work doubly hard, just to keep distracting visual elements under control-- and that includes everything from pimple scars and stretch marks to shoddy set design and windswept weeds dancing in the background.

The Devil's Advocate shouldn't worry about digital films being branded as cheap, either, because they aren't necessarily so. Digicams sell for a fraction of their film-based equivalents, admittedly, but all digital gear becomes outdated every 18 months or so (if they don't fall apart before that), whereas built-like-tanks film cams depreciate over 10-15 years (and remain serviceable decades after). Also, until digital distribution/exhibition systems become available, digital footage needs expensive 35mm blow-ups for commercial release.

Nor should the professor worry about the cinematic "Philippine night." Pro digital, when done right, actually does better night scenes than film nowadays, if you can afford the post-production. As a matter of fact, cinematographer Dion Beebe shot 80% of Michael Mann's COLLATERAL (2004) in HD, precisely because HD handles low-light situations better than negative film (slide film would theoretically be better, but you just don't shoot with slide film these days).

But this doesn't mean celluloid is dead. Being continuous-tone images, old celluloid movies could easily be re-scanned with future technologies, whereas digitally shot films remain at their original resolution, and could only look increasingly pathetic over time. Besides, the digital equivalent of a 35mm frame is a 6MP image. It will take at least two decades more before we see cable-free 6MP movie cameras shooting at 172 frames per second. And who knows how far film chemistries and economies of scale would have improved by then?

And so, since pro digital is more difficult and is neither better nor cheaper, it is obvious why Filipino artists are embracing it at all: poverty. We can't afford to plunk massive fortunes up front for Arricam 535s or PanaVisions that will last forever, so we'll just pay smaller fortunes for flimsy, user-hostile HD gear that quickly becomes worthless. It's a bargain we have to make if our stories are to be told at all.

Is the Filipino audience still worthy of such a sacrifice? This, to me, is the true dark night of Philippine Cinema today, and an issue that requires another Devil's Avocate altogether.

Me? I have never given up on the Filipino artist, but I have long since given up on the Filipino as a public for art.

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Friday, March 16, 2007

FALL FROM THE SHOULDERS OF A KING

Manual Magazine, August 2003

There was a time eleven years ago when I treated Mario Katigbak like my father. This wasn’t a good thing, of course, because a week after he hired me, I ran away from home and stayed away for ten years. Katigbak eventually fired me in exasperation, and it was this that turned out to be a good thing, because—as my therapist later pointed out—I tended to click with my mentors only after I broke their hearts. But that’s another story.

Katigbak wasn’t yet the face of Bulgari when I met him. Back in the summer of 1992, he was a vulnerable man, trying to recover from a triple-whammy that would’ve broken lesser mortals. His father the ambassador had just died; communist agitators had recently caused his factory to close down; and he was in financial ruin because he had thousands of evening shoes consigned with Rustan’s when Manila’s party scene ground to a halt. Back then, he was the fallen king of shoes, Imelda Marcos’s shoemaker, erstwhile local assembler for Christian Dior and Charles Jourdan, erstwhile designer & producer of over 90% of the shoes in Rustan’s, including his own legendary brand Maro.

For my part, I wasn’t yet an art-world vivisectionist back then either; not yet the writer BluPrint Magazine now calls call Eric The Merciless. I was just a confused philosophy-school-dropout whom Katigbak housetrained and sent forward to represent him. He literally clothed me. He didn’t need to, really; I could well afford my own clothes. But my tastes back then were flamboyant to the extreme, and he was obviously mortified to be represented by a hyperactive teenager wearing vintage 1970’s bottle-green bell-bottom corduroy with pink-and-aqua gumamela prints, white doily-lace hems, and a half-kilo lacework-steel belt-buckle that read THOMMY—a gift to my father by the Batang City Jail. Thus, Katigbak gave me some of his own suits, and he occasionally shopped for me as well. And I literally wore his shoes: We had nearly the same hard-to-find shoe size, so he gave me the prototypes for the aborted men’s line of Maro (which were done his size), hoping in vain that I’d give up my magenta python spectator wingtips, or my yellow-ochre vinyl triple-monkstrap derbies.

There was a professional reason for Katigbak’s sartorial alarm: He had hired me to manage a new store named Simply, and I was anything but.



Simply was his post-Rustan’s flagship, and it was a breathtaking store. Powder-pink, Persian-rugged, ornately chandeliered and mirrored-all-over, it looked like an antique-filled boudoir from an Ilonggo sugar-baron’s mansion. It smelled of coffee and roses, very Matriarchal Old Money, and we fastidiously cultivated a relaxed and homey atmosphere, with the implication that if Mrs. Marcos herself ever visited, she would fit right in (We even kept her personal shoe-last in the backroom; I used it as a talismanic paperweight). Sadly, she never did get to see the store. But her daughters did. We even named a best-selling slipper after Irene.

Simply’s merchandise mix was revolutionary then, not for its opulence, but for its severity. Because of shoemaker’s pride, we only carried classic pumps, which were the hardest to produce, because they had to fit perfectly. Only we could pull it off, because Katigbak was no ordinary shoemaker; he actually graduated from the Calzotura in Milan. Admittedly, I was an awkward match for those pumps. But I came into my own for the schizophrenic, deliberately over-the-top made-to-order line. That was my baby. My clients and would I think up increasingly bizarre challenges for Katigbak, and his technical solutions burned themselves so deeply into my mind that I still remember them now, eleven years later.

Our supportive clients would’ve been the envy of any sculptor: There were architects who wanted funky stilettos to match funky bags they commissioned for their document folders. There was a teenage Muslim princess in jeans and pigtails who walked in one Sunday morning and commissioned 21 pairs of gold-leafed python stilettos. There was a society matronette who really loved the Autumn 1992 Ferragamo signature print—she already had all the bags—but didn’t like the flat shoes they came with, so she bought the biggest duffel bag Ferragamo still had, and commanded us to slice it up into a shoe. There was one lady who left me part of a leopard—or was it a cheetah?—which I immediately dispatched to Katigbak in the factory, because I didn’t know if it was even legal to keep the pelt in Greenbelt, or if we could slice it thin enough for use in a stiletto anyway (I remember this incident well, because before I even caught my breath, a young Sari Yap strode in, egged on by then-writer Alfred Schröeder, to ask me to write a fashion column for a new magazine called Mega. I chickened out). I even remember a pair of heirloom cushion-cut diamond earrings we stitched onto black suede stilettos.

But most memorable was the early morning when an ethereal morena dropped by with her Spanish boyfriend to order a shoe. We so amused them, that they stayed on to chat long after their order was finalized. Only after they left did Katigbak announce that our client’s boyfriend was Fernando Zobel de Ayala. FZA soon broadcast our encounter to his other tenants, saying that everyone else’s customer service should try to be as good as ours. For weeks after that, I was besieged by strange women with strange feet who never bought anything.

Alas, those glorious days didn’t last. Towards the summer of 1993, communist agitators again infiltrated the factory, sabotaging quality control first, eventually monkey-wrenching production altogether. Then, Katigbak’s brother died in a car crash, the same week his business partner’s sister died of cancer. A few weeks after this, my grandmother also died from cancer. Lola couldn’t be buried without me around, so her funeral was postponed until I could go home to Vigan one month later.

I returned to Katigbak numb and spaced-out. He eventually fired me that May, saying, “Eric, I am not your father.” I didn’t understand him then. But in retrospect, I probably did want him to fire me, because the whole time I was out here having a life, my grandmother was apparently dying in my blankets, on my pillows, calling out my name.

I started arts classes soon after, but dropped out of UP-Fine Arts when I couldn’t find a mentorship as intense as the one with Katigbak, who drilled me about my drawings, morning and evening, six days a week, for practically a year. How should I have known that such a mentorship was a rare privilege, even among sculptors, when I so easily found it with a shoemaker?

Besides, paintings & sculpture seemed boring anyway. Exceptional shoes had palpable electricity to them, an intoxicating cocktail of defiance, sin, danger, refusal, decadence, and unrepentant drop-dead gorgeousness that was rare elsewhere, even in the fine arts, sparing Juan Luna. Much art I saw seemed eager-to-please. Stilettos, though, stared imperiously from shelves, challenging the worthy and the brave.

And so, over the years, I cobbled up a plan to elevate shoes into art, to make them worthy of a museum exhibit. Not in the Rachy-Cuna-at-the-Met, pagbigyan-mo-na-lang sort of way; not even in the Costume Institute sort of way; but a real show to stun shoe fetishists and cultural theorists alike. I wanted to build on Katigbak’s legacy, to codify the dense visual vocabulary of shoes into a rigid set of meanings; like Gregorian Chant perhaps, where one scale meant laughter, and another, sorrow; where composition followed strict rules of progression and accent. I wanted well-fitting shoes with social relevance. I wanted to recode The Sistine Chapel frescoes into stilettos.

And so I studied everything I could. I dissected sculptors’ production setups, tracked down specialist tanners (thinking, what could i make barracuda-skin mean?), and used a 1999 art congress in Palawan as an excuse to investigate the Crocodile Farm’s harvest cycles, even staying in Puerto Princesa for a month to evaluate the viability of training Iwahig prisoners in tannery or leatherwork. Back in Manila, I learned to produce transparent paint from powdered glass, and — armed only with a toaster oven and a candy thermometer — updated a two-century-old matador-costumer’s formula for gold-leafing cowhide, so I could make shoes that looked like Russian icons if I wanted to. I even learned to flay rabbits for fur. So when Miuccia Prada, Rene Caovilla, and Cesare Paciotti started releasing increasingly bizarre shoes in the late 1990’s, I instantly decoded their gene-splicing, and knew I was on the right track somehow.

In early 2001, I took the plunge. When cultural workers including Ayala Museum Directress Dr. Nina Baker assured me that my shoes wouldn’t have problems finding gallery representation and critical support, I packed my bags and moved to Marikina. Through the help of TESDA and Aglipayan priest Fr. Medardo del Castillo, I apprenticed in a real boot factory, working every bench except the scary steel-toe machine. I didn’t mind the hard work or the numerous grisly accidents inflicted by my shoe-knife. But I was bleeding money, and was terribly lonely because nobody understood what I was doing on the factory floor. There were neighborhood rumors that I was actually either a shabu wholesaler in disguise, or a communist infiltrator. But what devastated me most was the realization that the atelier-type production setup I wanted was unsustainable versus the flood of cheap Chinese imports. Thus inconsolable, I packed my bags again in the summer of 2002, and finally returned home to my father.

Katigbak gave up on shoes as well. He closed Simply in 1994 and opened Bulgari in 1997. Presumably, he spent the three-year interim grieving. He really, really loved shoes.

He and his partners started Bulgari off by retailing just the watches, renting space at the Silver Vault of Rustan’s Makati, and expanding six months later into Rustan’s Tower. But sales were good, so Bulgari offered them in 1999 the franchise for an entire boutique. The 6750 outlet consequently carries the whole Bulgari line, including neckties, cufflinks, watches, eyewear, bags, scarves, jewelry, and perfume. Later this year, they’re opening a second boutique in Greenbelt 4.

During the interview for this article, I asked Katigbak some sensitive questions: what his client demographics/ psychographics were, why they can afford Bulgari during an economic crisis, why Bulgari is such a strong brand here, and (most importantly for me), if he was happy. He needed time to think of answers, so we ate lunch first, and talked about shoes.

He raved about the black Cesare Paciottis he was wearing, amazed at their fit, arch, and detailing. Like a kid giddy over a new toy, he even gleefully propped a foot up (in the Makati Shang lobby, of all places) so I could examine its seams, soles, and a gunmetal fleur-de-lis ornament pinned under the shank. Between bites of a hamburger, he confessed to still peeking at shoe books occasionally, though he tried not to, “because they bring back so many painful memories.”

He asked me if I still followed shoe trends. I pointed to my ratty gray sneakers and shook my head. It’s just too painful, I said. And it’s true. I only buy P75 rubber slippers now, and don’t even remember my shoe size anymore. Luckily, it’s impolite for artists to dress well, so I wear sweaty cigarette-vendor outfits even to meetings in museums and the CCP. I just try not to dream of the crimson-and-saffron wingtip cross-trainers that Yohji Yamamoto had just designed for Adidas.

Back in his office, Katigbak and staff arrayed before me several outfits accessorized with Bulgari products, to illustrate how men’s professional wardrobes can be livened-up while remaining credible. Katigbak’s style suggestions logically revolved around dress shirts: dark tones for doctors (to contrast against white coats), light blue for bankers (to suggest stability), and complex pastels for architects (to suggest creativity). Visually, the accessorizing worked. The style solutions looked classic from afar; individualistic at close range; impressive at arm’s length. Even the ladies’ jewelry, I noted, was designed with the same point of view. There was a timelessness and stability to it. Simple, but not minimal, not “refusing.” There was pride of craftsmanship, but it was a serene pride, a humble respect for the dignity of materials. There were no gimmicks. Even the quirkiest of the bags exuded effortlessness.

On the whole, I suppose, the product array exuded not luxury, but a certain grace, a certain nobility. It’s definitely not my aesthetic—Victoire de Castellane’s defiantly insane jewelry for Dior is more my type—but I respect Bulgari’s point of view.

I asked about market positions, if Bulgari’s volume was truly head-to-head now with its more established rivals. Katigbak wouldn’t comment, but he smiled. He paced me through Bulgari’s setup, showing how they databased even their clients’ spouses’ birthdays, and tried to anticipate their preferences. I saw how his customers could grow so loyal: the tenets making Bulgari a runaway success now, were essentially just ultra-sophisticated variants of the same lessons in customer service that he hammered into me back then: Don’t sell, just present; the products are good enough to sell themselves.

I asked if the artist in him was happy. He nodded. Bulgari apparently allowed him creative freedom, and client feedback was instantaneous; unlike in shoemaking, where he had to wait six months to gauge responses to the collection. He brought out house photos of Bulgari’s events. For one recent no-Press-allowed launch, for example, he designed column-shaped cocktail tables made of carved ice. He commissioned color-coordinated food. He even changed Cheval Blanc’s furniture.

I went home deflated. Because Katigbak always told me the truth anyway, in both good times and bad, I guess I was hoping he’d tell me Bulgari was just a compromise, just a day job; that he was secretly plotting to become the King of Shoes all over again. But he seemed genuinely happy, so I felt abandoned and betrayed. It was he who started me on this long solitary journey after all.

As the days went on, however, I felt strangely lighter and lighter.

“But you went for it, Eric,” he had consoled me during the interview.

Maybe that’s all I really needed to hear to set my spirit free.

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