(MY REVIEW OF THE “PROPAGANDA” EXHIBITION, LOPEZ MUSEUM, February 6-May 30, 2015)
It’s the war I didn’t see that most intrigued me.
World War II killed 60 million people – among them, my grandparents. Pa and Ma were just kids then, but the horror of that conflict haunted them to their death.
Perhaps that’s why I came to Lopez Museum’s first 2015 exhibition, “Propaganda”, mounted to commemorate the 70th anniversary of World War II’s end.
However, what I found wasn’t just displays of memorabilia and themed artworks on that last global carnage but traditional media combined with digital content about a battle which never ceased, a war for the Filipino consciousness.
To enrich and re-frame the exhibition issues, the Lopez Museum combined their permanent collection with the temporary one to “reflect on where we, as a country, have been and where we are going”, in the words of Co-curator Ethel Villafranca.
Hence, they displayed canvases of old masters Juan Luna and Felix Resurreccion Hidalgo, national artists Fernando Amorsolo, Jose Joya, Cesar Legaspi, Vicente Manansala, and J. Elizalde Navarro alongside modern artworks and mixed media installations.
Rare fifteenth century books, the 1734 Murillo Velarde Map – the first map of the Philippines made by a Filipino, along with Jose Rizal’s inkbottle and shell pen holder, co-existed with 1970’s Martial Law editorial cartoons, contemporary shadow-puppetry animation and video installations.
Interestingly, the museum halls also featured Samsung Smart TVs and tablets with the “Facets” apps that animate static painted images via Augmented Reality.
As soon as I pointed a Samsung tablet on the “Fighting Filipinos” World War II poster, the flag, which the guerilla fighter lofted, rippled like it was moving in the wind.
Next, I trained another Samsung tablet on Luna’s “Espana y Filipinas” – an allegorical painting of Mother Spain guiding her colony to peace and progress.
Luna made three versions of this oil-on-wood opus in 1886. A couple of years ago, Sotheby’s Hong Kong sold an earlier version for over US$3 million to an undisclosed collector. The other version resides in Cadiz, Spain.
Now, with the aid of a Samsung tablet, I saw Luna’s canvas in ultra-violet, the way restorers would see through its layers of pigments, the dark patches revealing retouches and later additions invisible to the naked eye.
For a museum buff like me, it saves a lot of time and enhances the viewing experience.
Better yet, using the tablet, I flipped through the digital pages of ancient books I would never be allowed to handle, else they disintegrate under my fingers.
To retrieve information on the artworks that would otherwise fill panels upon panels of written descriptions so tedious to read, I just scrolled through the screen.
The museum also displayed vintage posters lauding Japan’s imperial propaganda – the Greater East Asia Co-Prosperity Sphere –to “free” Asia from colonial powers, which in reality sought to exploit and conquer. Near the entrance, still photos of LVN movies covered an entire wall.
One room recreated Santiago Bose’s 1983 installation “Pasyon at Rebolusyon” (Passion and Revolution) – a forest of bamboo draped with two flags and strewn with debris, a skull, candles and to one side, a book in a wooden box marked by the all-seeing eye of God, which seems to be inhabited by some creepy spirit.
Santiago, who was active in the 1980’s and 1990s, was the first Filipino artist to juxtapose global images taken from McDonalds, KFC, Petron and Shell, with indigenous patterns and pictures to address difficult socio-political concerns with wit, humor and irreverence.
Not surprisingly, he inspired Don Zulubayba, one of the most promising artists of his generation. Don planned this “Propaganda” exhibition with the Lopez Museum but died unexpectedly before it was mounted.
Still, the exhibition, which also became a sort of tribute to Don, includes his “Pagsasabuhay, Abysmal Abound: Trinity of Passiveness”, as well as his “anino-mation” (shadow puppetry animation), “A Not So Giant Story” (Legend of the Philippines) – how the archipelago was created, the way the artist imagined it.
“Propaganda” likewise showcased commissioned works from social realist and Negros Occidental-based artist Nunelucio Alvarado, who assembled a wall collage of his wood-cut images crowned with blood-red paint splashed on old newspapers spelling out: “Rompagon ang mga sakon!!!” (Attack the greedy) and titled it “Wala” (Nothing).
On the opposite wall, hanged Joya’s “Quiapo Nazarene Festival” –the National Artist’s abstract rendition of the frenetic energy of the feast that draws millions of devotees. The painting was also the country’s very first entry to the 1964 Biennale— a major contemporary art exhibition that takes place every two years in Venice, Italy.
In the next hall, Gawad Urian awardee film-maker Alvin Yapan mounted a video installation of rice grains falling nonstop.
Actually, he used 10 kilos of rice and looped the film continuously so they seem to fall forever. His intent: to highlight the role of the rice cartel in election campaigns. Rice is the country’s staple grain, a powerful political commodity.
Another installation, 2012 Thirteen Artists awardee Joey Cobcobo’s “Tahanang Walang Hagdan” (House Without Stairs) is a participatory art composed of a poor man’s dilapidated wooden ladder jutting out of a hole in the ceiling.
The ladder dangles over ascending platforms of giant inked stamping pads stacked over a sheet of paper blanketing most of the floor, with pads of paper scattered about to serve as “stepping stones” out of the “canvas” into the frame.
Pairs of wooden shoes (“bakya”),whose soles are woodcuts of various designs, line the wood frame. The artist invites visitors to don the “bakya”, step on the oversized stamping pads to ink the soles and create their imprint once on the paper “floor”, in the process, becoming collaborative-painters on the immense blank surface.
On their way out of the giant “canvas”, they put their feet on the stepping pads, making a second imprint, which the artist rips off for them to take home as souvenirs.
Indeed, the “Propaganda” exhibition engages the public. And by harnessing technology, it changes the museum experience, provoking viewers to question their very notion of art and history.