Uploaded July 10, 2019
The installation art piece as society's mirror, linguistics book, medicine cabinet for self- and community-healing, and instigator of protest
This is painter and diskurso.com editor Jojo Soria de Veyra's exhibition essay for the catalog of Alwin Reamillo's new one-man show at the newly-opened Altro Mondo Creative Space, here adapted for a diskurso publication. Reamillo's show, titled Pian o Fort e, continues the installation and bricolage artist's rally . . . against a cancer of metanarratives and for a people's never-ending semiotic investigations
one of Alwin Reamillo's "piano barricades" at his Pian o Fort e solo show at Altro Mondo Creative Space | 2019 | piano set with butterfly house, lights, fishnet rubber floaters, transferred images, etc. | dimensions variable
by Jojo Soria de Veyra
WHY have Alwin Reamillo's installation and bricolage art pieces in recent years been inhabited mainly by piano parts—either here to represent the piano itself or to pose as something else (piano lids hinged together to appear as moth wings, for instance)?
In the online catalog of a 2018 group show titled Allegoria at Altro Mondo's old location at Greenbelt 5, two paragraphs illustrated well the context of Reamillo's artistic comfort with the piano material for his signification programs:
Wrote paragraph 1 of that catalog text in reference to the artist's entry to the show (with the music-referencing words here italicized for our highlighting purpose): "Note that this part of the installation is not merely an illustration of the proud myth Reamillo describes above for the purpose of holding up a mirror to current right-leaning Philippine society and thus mock its musical myth-making and thence give it parody’s accompanying afterpiece-sounding slap. While it is indeed also an obvious parody of that type of din, an insult if you will, this is also more importantly a dissonant if not lamenting allegory of a nation’s mental disunity, a dirge about the haziness of things produced by ignorance, an overture to the power of gossip, and an ironic berceuse to the vulnerability of nationhood when wallowing in strong-seeming fantasias of idleness and faced by the chronic presence of information manipulators inhabiting an operatic mad scene.
"On a more positive note," continued paragraph 2, "as counterpoint to the negative note of mythmaking’s dissonant products, Reamillo’s artmaking around this populist mythmaking concerning Rizal also becomes a paean/salute to Rizal’s choice of a treatment for the Philippine social cancer of his time: not science, of which he was a stalwart practitioner, but art, specifically the novel’s and poetry’s musical-visual elements, more specifically the musicality of dark satire. To the attacks of the music of the lie, here comes the counterattacks of the music of dark comedy, a la Marcelo H. del Pilar."
the large Rizal-as-son-of-Hitler-rumor wall piece, serving as half of Reamillo's installation at the 2018 Allegoria group show, and brought in to the current Pian o Fort e show as part of the "Duterte machine" installation on the indoor overhang of Altro Mondo, hovering above the Main Gallery installation of "piano barricades". (Photo by Patrick Ang)
As we move our attention to the present show, titled Pian o Fort e, you can perhaps take it from here. The musical allusions in Reamillo's pieces are as much personal (he comes from a piano-making family) as they are political and social. After all, as we make our daily music as a nation of voices, we cannot ignore how we have also always been a cacophonous people with a not-so-quiet history. We cannot ignore the music from the pianos of our luxury and the ones from outside.
But that doesn't mean that our society's and politics' music have always been loud and urban. In many a moment, it would wallow in the quiet (the sweetness or loneliness) of exile before it goes in again to join the brutal symmetry of gunshots.
"Pian o fort e" is a title that paraphrases Reamillo's long-standing challenge to viewers, especially viewers beyond the aesthetic community, to look at the symbols and meanings around us, and, especially, what they are for and/or against.
THE PRESENT SHOW'S TITLE
Now, "pianoforte" is a word often interchangeably used today to refer to the early piano, which is formally known as the fortepiano. But in musical notation, "pianoforte" strictly refers to a dynamic mark (pf), which directs the music performer to attack the written note at the dynamic level of "piano" (soft) followed by a quick increase in volume to "forte" (loud). Not to be confused with the other Brahms-era pf mark referring to poco forte (a little loud) that is now rarely used qua mark.
Reamillo's installation and bricolage art have always been about the loudest issues of our land, but approached through a subtle (soft) display of a myriad of popular and academic (sometimes esoteric, even personal) symbols gathered together to reflect, or mirror, a people's social and political culture. To spell it out, one can say that his art pieces' every fragment individually performs at "piano" level, but then, once viewed alongside the other fragments―re-assembled in our consciousness, if you will―, explodes into a "forte" sort of realization of the agreements and conflicts one witnesses going on. One is reminded of that other musical element, the often-loud counterpoint, that leads to a piece's ending, a piece's resolution.
Notice, however, how Reamillo divides his present show's one-word title into four: "Pian," "o," "fort," and "e".
In its Filipino sense that means "Pian or fort, e," with "e" uttered as a Filipino interjection or discourse marker almost equivalent to "yeah?" or "you know?" or "you see?" or "right?"—underlining Reamillo's folksy sympathies.
But the dismembering of the words "piano" and "forte" could also be read as referring to an ongoing distortion of the pianos (soft treatments) in our environment and the same distortion occurring in the fortes (loudnesses) of our republic.
Now, in Chinese, "pian" means a piece of writing, or a chapter. "Fort," meanwhile, in English means a fortified building. While every fragment in Reamillo's pieces would refer to a symbol in a people's language or memory, each—in fact—also represents an expression of agreement and/or resistance. Therefore, each symbol as a "pian" to a narrative is also a "fort" against its enemy narrative.
"Pian o fort e" is a title that paraphrases Reamillo's long-standing challenge to viewers, especially viewers beyond the aesthetic community, to look at the symbols and meanings around us, and, especially, what they are for and/or against. Also, to look at them as a challenge for us to acknowledge the variety of points of view a nation actually has about its history, its present, and its desires for a future. One approach can be through a linguistic analysis, an analysis of the words we use and how we use them, manifest in the objects and images that we flaunt.
This is how to approach Reamillo's pieces and the flotsam therein: remember that each wreckage of a semantic carrier lying there is a record of a people's various discourses (whether fact- or fantasy- or lie-based) that that people came up with in the process of negotiating their never-ending conflicts over, and special interests in, national problems.
PIECES ON THE GROUND
Reamillo's present show may be approached as a version of his 2015 Asian Art Biennale installation at the National Taiwan Museum of Fine Arts, which consisted of an assembly of piano sculptures and other mixed media pieces, the central piece of which was an installation built to represent both a lighthouse and a columnal apothecary of the pharmacist and revolutionary general Antonio Luna and titled Ang Parola.
Alwin Reamillo's piece at the 2015 Asian Art Biennale, titled Ang Parola/Apotekariya Vertical ni Antonio Laluna (The Lighthouse/The Vertical Apothecary of Antonio Laluna), 2014-2015, comprising of 2 upright pianos in disuse, found and fabricated objects (2 wooden cable drums, low circular table, piano action parts, tools, constructed wooden matchboxes, mortar shell metal casing, exhaust fan, digital signage, light, woven basket, toy bamboo snake, trumpet horn, shredded bank notes, wooden suitcases, bottles, glass vials), 472 × 140 (diameter) cm. Photos courtesy of the artist.
For the present show, Reamillo collapsed this tower piece to become what we now see as After Ang Parola/Apotekariya Vertical ni Antonio Laluna, an installation of three "deconstructed" pianos occupying the central floor of the lobby (or Main Gallery) of Altro Mondo Creative Space and one "rock 'n' roll piano" in the room or hall adjoining the gallery lobby (also a part of the Main Gallery). The apothecary tower is now no longer a tower, instead is here subtly scattered (albeit in an orderly fashion) on the Main Gallery floor. Another installation, about a Duterte machinery, featuring a giant "Duterte orc," a Malacañang matchbox, the Rizal-as-son-of-Hitler-rumor wing, and origami crickets, stand over this orderly scattering from an indoor overhang above the entrance glass wall, there hovering above everything.
Alwin Reamillo's scattered pianos that constitute the current installation titled After Ang Parola/Apotekariya Vertical ni Antonio Laluna, 2019, 3 "deconstructed" pianos and 1 in-disuse upright piano, found and fabricated objects (2 wooden cable drums, piano action parts, tools, lights, glass vials, etc.), dimensions variable. (Bottom left photo by Jon Red)
a detail on one of the pianos
Alwin Reamillo's Duterte-machinery installation on the indoor overhang, hovering above the After Ang Parola scattered installation
In both the Taiwan tower version and this collapsed one of the Luna apothecary, the hero's family name has been turned into "Laluna" through the titles, urging us to recall the take on the hero's person by his enemies as La Luna, the loony one. In the era of Rodrigo Duterte, it would seem that certain other "loony ones," who would dare oppose the country's president with their own solutions and cures, may be up for some collapsing and scattering as well, their apothecaries toppled into divided parts.
But, again, this toppled apothecary that was formerly a tower, although now made horizontal and scattered on the floor from its previous vertical magnificence is not necessarily in shambles. That is to say, while now made to lie down, the installation's fragments are in fact still in existence as an apothecary divided into solid parties, still offering its alternative cures from various territories, and may therefore be read as still an object of resistance, or a sort of horizontal barricade or fortified artillery structure or camp wary of the dissonance of that ruling force. Furthermore, the former tower now has a part with wheels, a part ready for any transmutation of its "fort e" status, a part more mobile now perhaps than Luna's or its contemporaries' army or military knowledge ever was.
There's another difference. While viewers of the Taiwan museum-installed tower engaged the artwork from below (from a worm's-eye view), now its collapsed and scattered version can be viewed from Altro Mondo's mezzanine/balcony, giving the viewer a perspective suggestive of a bird's-eye view, even able to observe the Duterte machinery across, on the overhang, lording it over the scattered apothecary below. Or, the piece that formerly guided us to look at the loony one as a tower to be awed by from below is now an installation leading us to view it from all positions and sides (beside it, even above it). Could this be because whereas the 2015 piece tackled the heroism of Luna in our country's past, the piece's 2019 configuration suggests a need for an analyzed redux of that same sort of heroism for our present time? That is to say, is it because that sort of heroism must not now be regarded as Luna's awesome achievement alone as a cult hero but one that anyone could now actually barricade himself with, here below, or peruse from above?
Consider likewise the possible contextuality of the fact that the blackness of the flooring of Altro Mondo provides a counterpoint to the whiteness of the older version.
PIECES ABOVE, IN THE MONTEVERDI ROOM
But what about the other pieces in the present show, particularly those in the gallery's Monteverdi Room? Do they also talk about healing or cures?
a glimpse of the myriad pieces from Reamillo's Monteverdi Room display
A good answer to this question would be a perspective provided by Reamillo's 2014 show at West Gallery titled Mise en (Matched) Scene). The whole show was another "ensemble of reworked and recent mixed-media pieces, comprising of found and previously used objects . . . matched, reconfigured and re-animated within a box format"—stated the gallery catalog essay, titled "Object," written by Flaudette May Datuin. The format and layout of the entire installation also referenced an apothecary of herbs and anting-antings, . . . which, in the traditional Filipino worldview, according to Datuin, would be understood as alluding to "aids to rituals performed by the arbularyo, the Filipino healer. Aimed at smoothing blocked energy flows (bara), aligning mis-aligned energy channels (pilay), balancing imbalances in musculature (pasma), flushing out toxins and expelling wind and cold (hilo, hangin, lamig)," the arbularyo would "mobilize a range of methods—from whispers (bulong) to 'massage' (hilot) to incantations (dasal) to prescribing herbs."
What was Reamillo trying to do here?
"Alwin Reamillo’s artistic vocabulary," Datuin's essay proposed, "partakes of the itinerant arbularyo’s methods, aiming to 'doctor' or 'mend the broken relationship between image and meaning' through a process (the artist) calls 'skin grafting/rebuilding/reconstructing/reconnecting'. A found archival photo, for instance, will be replicated, reproduced in variable sizes (as mirror photocopy prints), then manually transferred/relocated to a new ground/body" (e.g. a piece of timber, constructed objects, found objects like bones or crab shells), towards a form of "skin grafting that combines found historical and iconic images with" new ones, as well as combining images coursed through a digital process (enlargement, tone adjustment, and, finally, digital reproduction) with those from traditional processes (good ol' collage). "Once transferred, these grafted images," individually or as a whole, "are allowed to settle/'heal' (in their) new ground for (a) time before new elements from elsewhere are grafted again (into) the picture plane, giving rise to alternative narratives and histories. This 'surgical' transfer becomes a 'meditation on both the original context of the image and (the) new ground (to) where it (has been) transferred, animating a new mise en scene,' (says the artist). In the process, these disconnected relationships between disparate images, meanings (or) contexts (are) sutured, or 'doctored', (toward) a new site of healing, as (the artist) puts it."
So, there you go. Reamillo is not here to merely gather and record, or to merely put up a mirror to society in order to shame it. He is—ultimately, like the arbularyo—interested in our management of our symbols and contexts as individual selves and as a people . . . so that we may find the cures we have been looking for amidst the flotsam, as we said. He is here operating as a guide the viewer is open to critique positively or negatively.
Open, we say, because, unlike the arbularyo or the Western medicine doctor, Reamillo would not prescribe. In the gathering and mending of his images, he would don the hat of an anthropologist out to sell cures only coming from the viewer's conclusions instead of from his own. In his role as an apothecary he would rather that the viewer as memory-seeker and meanings-reader arrives at his/her own mixture.
So, "these doctored and grafted fragments," continued Datuin, in their constructed newfound loci (wooden suitcases, giant matchboxes, miniature retablos/altars, boxed frames, chinese scroll paintings), would "collide and mingle in dynamic, unstable and bizarre combinations, conjured intuitively and playfully. Rather than a polished product, the artist’s mise-en-scene of animated, mis/matched and matchboxed objects is constantly on the move, unfinished, multi-layered, always on the verge of (some) next experimental step and continuously passing over a threshold rather than arriving (at) an exact and definite destination, resisting integration into a coherent narrative. Forgotten, overlooked, presumed dead and of little value, the objects come alive through an alchemical process that ignites and transforms them into potent substances with renewed value and meaning. In breathing life into objects and infusing them with spirits through mending, suturing, re-constructive layerings—akin to the arbularyo’s hilot, bulong, and dasal—the object ceases to be a noun, a product, a collector’s item . . . It is (now) an active verb, an agent of change and hope. In a world haunted by illness, the object objects."
The object objects. In other words, Reamillo prescribes a treatment through self-diagnosis coursed through symbols as symptoms, where the artwork becomes both a picture of an illness, our nation's cultural and political illness, and of a blossoming cure which may already be there somewhere among the cultural debris. The artwork is not the treatment. It is merely a map towards it.
WHERE THE PIECES STAND
To illustrate the extent of Reamillo's non-prescriptive attitude, we may look at his February 2019 piece at a curated group show of Southeast Asian artists in Yangon, Burma, for an example. Reamillo's site-specific contribution to that show was titled Recuerdo on RockenRoll Piano.
While two other participating Filipino artists saw no need to go to Yangon for the installation of their pieces, Reamillo's feeling was the opposite. Always Reamillo crafts his pieces as site-specific, and for the completion of his Yangon piece he had to build the work with the help of local artists over the course of two weeks. The piece, built from an old upright piano he wanted to source within Myanmar, was "fitted with wheels taller than the piano itself"—wrote Apa Agbayani for CNNPhilippines.com. It had to be so, because, after all, the piece had to carry "bits and pieces from the artist’s memories of his family and the Philippines’ political history" as well. That's already quite a heavy load for a musical instrument on wheels to carry and for a single artist to tackle! Thus the need for assistants to be part of the "carriage," which would then include the host-country itself as emplacement and sympathizers within that point of the artistic statement.
Alwin Reamillo. Recuerdo on RockenRoll Piano. 2019. mixed media on in-disuse piano. dimensions variable
(Photos by Apa Agbayani)
So the artwork also had to be a product of travel, of its current locus, as we said, and of a people inhabiting that locus. In short, where an artwork is and how it got there must always be a part of the artwork's context. In this Yangon piece's case, where did the historical music come from, and where was it going to as part of a touring exhibition? Why was this historical music (not an aural one) being played on a piano from within Yangon? Did the local artists who helped Reamillo build the piano bricolage sympathize with the "building" of the piece's contextualities?
And what about the wheels? Why were they not moving? Was it because for now the historical music was parked here, in a Yangon museum, content with being heard by a people who can only sympathize with, or vicariously experience in their tickled imaginations, the agonies and triumphs being narrated therein?
Recuerdo on RockenRoll Piano "can be rolled on its wheels," noted Agbayani, "a reminder that time is a vehicle of memory, yet exists in constant forward motion." But the piece also "serves as a marriage of materials and ideas between Manila and Yangon and is another proof of concept for (traveling show curator Iola) Lenzi’s thesis of throughlines in the region’s political art."
Here is proof that Reamillo is not an artist merely aware (or an artist who does not merely wish himself and us all to be constantly aware) of where we come from and of where we might be going with our symbols, he is also one aware (or would want us all to be constantly aware) of where our hopes and dreams (even our little aesthetic dreams) are located at this very minute of our hoping and dreaming. The site, too, as well as the time, must always be party to the artwork's contextualizations.
After all, as a student of social sculpture, Reamillo does not see himself much as a producer of art qua the realization of objects hidden from street reality. He would rather see himself as a mere user of art in aiming for a dreamed-for objective. That objective would be a culture's transformation and mending for a better, literally more meaningful, tomorrow, one realized not by arbularyos and doctors who wouldn't want you to ask questions but by a people who cannot be stopped from doing so.
WHERE THE ARTIST'S ART AIMS TO MOVE US TOWARD, OR WHAT IT IS IN US THE ARTIST ULTIMATELY WANTS TO MOVE
Finally, an important element must be highlighted about Reamillo's art through the years. This has to do with his unceasing experimentation in the studio in his creative practice, as instigated by the necessity to improvise in the face of changes in location or changes in time. Basically these experiments are either made-necessary or otherwise personally-intended contextual changes. This dynamic characteristic of his art also extends to his relational projects with communities, his social sculpture, the improvisation and adaptations within which demand the most open eye and mind.
So, the constancy of mixing, of shifting, of movement, have now all become embedded in the formal elements of the artist's artworks, which constancy would often render a piece's being, or the idea behind it, mutable. This is one reason why Reamillo won't put his name on his pieces, in lieu of which he may simply allow a label or printed info at the back of some of the fragments in these works.
In short, to Reamillo, the act of placing elements within a piece and of placing the piece itself in relation to a given site or space or gallery with a name, a reputed gallery . . . already makes it party to an entire visual poem, already a sort of balancing act on a tightrope one must experience for a total appreciation of his intent.
With that in mind, then, we might say that his present show cannot be fixed in its focus on either a progression from softness to loudness, or vice versa, or on a contrast of them. Rather, the art is to be found in the constancy of the movement between these two points representing the two ideas.
To Reamillo, this creative consideration of the two poles and how they contrast and continue to combat with each other and then dialogue within a viewer's mind . . . is meant to unsettle the viewer's gaze (as well as complacency), hoping that after this viewer's experiencing of both the individual works and the works in their totality something changes in the way he/she initially approached the two poles. That, in fact, may be deemed as the ultimate aim of Reamillo's every creative process, wherein the piano's pianoness is ruptured, and the forte's forteness is likewise questioned. [ d ]
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