There is often something austere about Buen Calubayan’s recent work, but one that with its corresponding rigor — for instance when he scrupulously documents the details of his daily commute as an employee at the National Museum in Manila — makes sensible, within the confines of the exhibition space and the moment of its viewing, vastly different scales of time and space.
This is true whether about Biowork (2015, Ateneo Art Gallery), practically a retrospective that thus spans his life; or about Towards the Everyday and Its Proper Places: On Housework Museology and the Production of Oxygen (2018, Blanc), where the scales are the rhythm of the everyday within the walls of home within which both productive and reproductive labor take place; expanding yet again into the wider timeline of the development of a growing child.
In Hidalgo: Towards a History from Within (2016), where the scope is a parallel between the development of his subjectivity as an artist on one hand, and no less than the course of Philippine Art history on the other, Calubayan establishes why it even is the business of a visual artist — a painter — to be flitting across these timescales.
In one of the rooms in Blanc gallery hangs, among twelve framed small mechanical drawings, a painting of the city of Manila, sprawling towards what must be the horizon, only off-balance. Though called Grid, nothing about this image is rigid or stable. Even Pasig seems to be gushing, when I’ve known this river all my life to be mostly stagnant. Sky bleeds into Sierra Madre bleeding into city as I, witness to this, float (or fall), caught within more than a single instant. In this vision of Manila there are hardly any streets; and the only things that orient me are vaguely familiar structures: city hall, a condo, university; casting their silhouettes before the rising sun.
When I saw this work I had just been reading about old growth, starting off from an essay where Giovanni Fusetti, an artist from Florence, traces a link between the innovations in visual production that characterized Italian Renaissance architecture and art, and the “meme,” soon to spread all over the planet, of man’s domination over nature, specifically through its reduction by him into fundamental and abstract principles, laws, and methods for managing it as an expansible (if not infinite) resource towards the accumulation of financial capital. These have left Italy with a trove of aesthetic, man-made treasures — truly some of the world’s highest and most important achievements in art — while devoid of even just the notion of mature and complex land ecosystems.
To illustrate this meme, Fusetti gives the example of the Italian Gardens, where “the organic, chaotic flow of wild nature is subjugated into the geometry of lines, squares, and circles”. This emerging tendency also manifested in the development of such techniques and concepts as linear perspective and the vanishing point, and made possible the experience of a linear time. The artist Hito Steyerl considers how it was the “calculable, navigable, and predictable” nature of the space that linear perspective created that allowed for “a view into a calculable future”; within what Walter Benjamin called homogeneous, empty time.
The incredible planet-wide spread of this meme of order, accumulation, and rapid growth, contra the heterogeneity and the dizzyingly immense extent of biological time that the full maturation of primary forests requires, represent contradicting ways of occupying space and time, and ultimately, opposing fields of sociality.
The homogenizing impulse that, taken to its extreme, obliterates entire fields to make way for plantations of radically simplified sets of crops makes it possible for the meme to mutate into actual virality and rapidly worsening virulence: violence further inflicted on already displaced and disenfranchised — rearranged — human and non-human communities. The sprawl is an existential threat that intrudes vast tracts of land; but what is less obvious is how time is forcibly reconfigured and cleared, rather than always already empty and homogeneous, ready for the promise of endless growth and progress towards a flat and stable horizon.
The alternative is the deepening of entanglements, of interconnectedness; an experience of time that is heterogeneous and properly non-modern; attentive to rhythms and cycles of night and day, and of living and dying well.
What might it take to wrest ourselves back from our acquired ways of seeing?
I remember that around the same time that I saw Hidalgo, having recently begun commuting by bike, I started noticing a certain plant with heart-shaped leaves, in different stages of growth, just…everywhere: tiny on sidewalks or thick and creeping and causing cracks on walls; and also as tall, towering trees lining a street in the central business district in Makati; I have even seen them grow on other trees. This is the sacred fig (Ficus Religiosa), as far as I know, considered in many places, especially around the Pacific, as an invasive species — known on average to live between 900–1,500 years.
They say that when it grows on a wall you’ve got no other choice but to tear the whole wall down and just build it again.
Zyrael Genesis Fortes is a writer and teacher. He sends out occasional letters out of http://www.tinyletter.com/zyrael.