Saturday, October 14, 2017, 6 to 9 pm
October 14 to November 25, 2017
Poklong Anading –
Dusting Duchamp : a Manila story of rags and riches.
All artists have to face up to this humbling yet universal fact of their calling: works left in the studio, paintings, pictures or those early models and projects that have remained tucked away in a corner, favorite pieces too, key works or simply the ones which retain a special meaning and have not been shipped to the gallery or pried away by a long-time collector: those works that remain in the studio will gather dust.
But far fewer artists actually start gathering dust and bring out the dust of the studio into the exhibition space. His Untitled (Dust folio), which consists of 35 plastic fillers, tape and air dust from his studio, is in truth a clear nod to Duchamp’s illustrious gathering of dust on his masterpiece The large glass and the intriguing photograph of the thick landscape of accrued dust taken by Man Ray in 1920.
It is actually quite brazen for any young artist nowadays to claim so loudly to walk in the steps of the father of contemporary art. One would think of the young Rembrandt painting his own portrait at the age of 34 right after Raphael’s iconic portrait of Baldassar Castiglione or Durer’s own self-portrait. Quite a strong statement to make for any young painter.
In the case of Poklong Anading today, gathering dust is indeed a deceptively modest task as it conjures up his proud coming of age as an artist. It is no accident as his first dust folios date back to 2006. Dust has indeed gathered in his works as much as it had between 1915 and 1923, when Duchamp was working on his masterpiece in New York.
This is what this solo exhibition at 1335MABINI gallery is about. The declaration of a self-assured artist who can now claim his place and has achieved a formidable body of works in less than a decade. Not so much spray painting his claim on the concrete walls of the city as discretely scribbling his initials with his fingertip in the dust left by his predecessors.
Self-assurance has not come right away for Poklong, though. On the contrary, one of his early striking sculptures from 2007 is entitled Doubting Thomas. It is a rather large (2 by 2m) diamond shape wooden piece made of frames with a wooden model finger in the center.
While the reference to the Gospel of John is an early and beloved subject of artists throughout Western art, it is quite telling for an artist to confront this parable of doubt at the outset of his career. Even more significant for a visual artist is to confront the doubt of someone who will not believe his eyes but claims he needs to touch. Far from any trace of arrogance, Poklong Anading’s posture would be to question the power of the eye and what is visible. Here is an artist who understands the need for physical interaction with the work, the need for the onlooker to come in direct contact with the work and thrust his own finger in order to see. Hence his original use of the touchscreen – Untitled (dwelling I) from 2012 – and his invitation to the public to actually thrust his finger in order to see the work: “Then saith he to Thomas, Reach hither thy finger (John 20:27).”
Finger swiping is quintessential gesture of an age when screens have replaced the printed word. Poklong’s intervention in the 9th Gwangju Biennale in 2012, deftly pointed to this new mundane paradigm: the act of choosing, at a swipe of our fingertip, our lovers, our sushis (Untitled (dwelling I) from 2012). But not all of his ‘finger works’ are so lighthearted. In x’s, another sculpture of 2009, perhaps one of his most troubling, fingers are not raised or extended but no less noticeable as they remain curled and gripped, the middle finger over the others folded on the palm in a series of hands, bunched together on a white marble pedestal. Those hands are all cut at the wrist as though they were severed in an instant of unbearable pain. And even more disquieting yet, these hands are made of human fat.
The fat points to the open flesh, the gaping wound wherein Thomas is invited to thrust his own finger in order to believe: “reach hither thy hand, and thrust [it] into my side (John 20:27).” It is also one of those rare and shocking instances, all landmark works, when the contemporary artist turns the body into a creation, in a sacrilegious gesture of faith. Blood or human tissue and fluids are thus part of the liturgy served by some of the 1960’s most radical artists, from the Viennese actionists to Michel Journiac. In his most notorious action from 1969, Mass for a body, the Frenchman who had studied to become a priest before turning to a practice of body art, served the participants morsels of a sausage cooked with his own blood.
In Vienna at the time, the blood-spattered ceremonies presided over by Hermann Nitsch or Otto Muehl were no less subversive. While Poklong’s piece of 2009 is less overly bloody, the contrast between the slick surface and ancient prestige of white marble and the bundle of severed hands made of human fat might be even more disturbing.
“I shall see in his hands the print of the nails, and put my finger into the print of the nails (John 20:25).” The doubting artist has taken the gospel to heart and been poring over it for leads in his quest. Indeed one of his most distinctly original series has led him to ‘print on nails’. In another celebrated contribution to the 2012 Gwangju Biennale, Poklong Anading hand painted nails and installed large-scale prints on windows. While the painted nails would conjure up thoughts of coquettish varnish, the process of nail painting, the human interaction of the beauty parlor is actually the core of the piece as a real-time nail bar was installed and nail painting was offered to gallery-goers. More so perhaps than the exquisite tour de force of a miniature and its blown up prints, the whole point was clearly in the process as the artist would ply his trade at the Gwanju’s Dein Market every morning during his three-week residency and offer the vendors, house workers, maids and peddlers to paint their nails.
The glossy details of the nails, the indulgence of intimate grooming, the intoxication with the self and the strategies of seduction evoked in the nail painting activity are actually superseded by the interaction with the workers, either male or female. The manicured hands are not those of the socialites and pampered wives of rich collectors at an art opening but the hands of the fishmongers in the wee hours of their working day. The astute recording by the artist of the street sounds, of the modest life stories, the brouhaha of market life testifies to the actual focus, and ambition, of the piece.
Any miniature painting in the art of Poklong Anading has to do with the attention to detail, to the humblest artifacts and often overlooked artifacts of daily life in the metropolis. This decidedly modest approach has drawn legitimate references to the Arte Povera for the continuing attention to the humble worker’s hand, the one he held and painted on Daegu market for instance.
Another instance is the striking and ongoing collection of trapos or ‘basahan’, the small rags made of shreds of fabric stitched together. Those are round rags, mind you, the size of spread fingers and made for dusting. They are used by the maids and domestic helpers of the city to clean and chase dust. They also betray a more acute concern for the vernacular and the micro strategies of sustainability and the modest re-use of the leftovers of the clothing industry. One thinks of the patchwork design in settlers’ America, when scarcity and thrift were turned into folk art.
And in the videos of pavements and street corners and busy intersections those hand-sized discs are suddenly swept aside by the passing SUV or tossed and left fluttering by the side of the road. Those highly utilitarian micro-objects are suddenly turned, by the mere strength of the artist’s eye, into pixels of bright colors, the Benday dots of a metropolis turned into the huge canvas of our dreams.
The city under the microscope of the artist’s eye reveals these tiny specks, these man-made butterflies. And those butterflies are not unlike the ants in an acclaimed video by Brazilian artist Rivane Neuenschwander from 2006 and now in the MOMA collection in which minuscule color confetti are being carried around the city on the insects’ back. In both videos, the city is being invaded by the tiniest of color discs and the maids into an army of improbable street artists.
And in one striking series, perhaps Poklong’s most famous to date, the city is not invaded by dots of colors but discs of light take over. In Anonymity, a series which dates back to 2004 and was shown at the Guggenheim New York, portraits of passers-by holding mirrors send a blinding ray of sun into the viewer’s eye. In Poklong’s world, fingers have not been objectified as fingerprints, intimate ID tags that are registered and checked and verified each time we cross a border. Fingers remain anonymous and joyous miniature paintings. Much as those city dwellers would rather remain anonymous in a world obsessed with surveillance and control, they turn into swarms of fireflies, dotting the stairs and parks and pavements with man-made stars. But beyond the seemingly playful interaction between the onlooker and the observed, the photographer and the blinding model, the hidden faces are somehow disquieting. They point to an obvious paradox in art history. Light is the condition for the scene to appear and be seen, yet the light source is never to be shown. If you go all the way back to the great masters, from Vermeer to La Tour, the light source is always off stage, never directly to be seen, whether it is the window on the left of the canvas or the candle screened by the hand. In this series, on the contrary, the artist seems to recall the famous wisdom by French philosopher La Rochefoucault: “Neither death nor the sun can be looked at with a steady gaze.” And for any artist, staring into the sun is clearly an act of defiance, and a way of erasing, of beheading all the playful passerby.
Very much like those hand-held pocket mirrors or the soiled cotton pads from the painted nails series, Poklong starts from a seemingly mundane, banal and barely noticeable material and makes use of it through different media: from video and photos to installations and actions. In his latest works those ‘basahan’ are turned into the tiles of a man-made body shelter. They even become the most sacred of the artist’s tools: being used as paint brush in the most recent paintings on show.
That Poklong should turn to the most traditional of media, painting oil on canvas, could come as a surprise from an artist who had always proven attuned to the process of creation. The shaped canvas he has chosen, the expressive gesture registered on the surface of paint as well as the painter’s tool glued onto the paint itself, all point to illustrious references in art history, from Franck Stella to Jasper Johns. But they also point to his continuing fascination with the process of art, the thick layers of oil tracking the itineraries of the found rags which become part and parcel of the work, thus inviting into the painting the memory of its chance existence as a discarded artifact, a piece of junk and refuse salvaged by the artist, used as a brush and eventually being incorporated into the artwork itself.
And in his own words, he actually uses these dust rags to gather and retain dust on the surface of the painting: “These series of paintings are also heavily marked with paint strokes where dust could possibly shelter.” In this almost Freudian slip or declaration of Duchampian loyalty, Poklong Anading actually confesses that his use of found objects is about gathering dust. A Manila story of rags and riches indeed.
And in a dystopian twist, Poklong proposes to deploy his Duchampian dust gathering process to the gallery space itself. For the whole duration of the Household exhibition, an industrial-strength fan will be sucking the air inside the gallery through the canvas of the painting, thus collecting the dust and using it as the pure, undiluted pigment of the next painting. Gathering dust and trapping the air, two Duchampian obsessions which aptly come together in the gallery space.
Words by Alexander Colliex