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.


Ambata Marinu said...

Oh my Lord! Eric Florentino Tan! where have you been? It's me Eric Ambata geez its been years, hope to talk to you soon my cell is 0917-5454172 and my email is


Anonymous said...
This comment has been removed by a blog administrator.
Tabuena arts central said...'re freaking good at what you do!

EricFlo said...

Thanks, TAC. But being good hasn't done me any good, apparently. ;-)