CYBER ART EXHIBIT | Monsters, machines, Steampunk…and Hiphop?

There are two art exhibits in Malate that I’d like to recommend.

One is Causality, featuring kinetic art by Ian Jaucian (Philippines) , Bagus Pandega (Indonesia) and Yuko Mohri (Japan). The second is A Rotten Pile of Temporary Realizations by Arvin Nogueras, better known in musical circles as the dj/ composer Caliph8.

Both shows opened on Saturday May 3 in Malate’s Mabini 1335 a relatively new gallery in the building that used to house Tesoros, the handicraft shop. It’s a
beautiful old Malate building with high ceilings and wooden floors that the Austrian management had the good taste and wit to work with the old architecture rather than erasing it under anonymous modern fixtures (which would have been the far cheaper option). This and the fact that it sits in the middle of the gritty environs of Mabini give it plus 10 for charm; The gallery is an oasis of contemplation flecked with old Manila accents amidst Southeast Asian street chaos. Bladerunner chic.

There are probably people who might view foreigners taking over vintage buildings with suspicion, but I have to say, that it’s hard to imagine many locals doing better. In fact, it’s much easier to imagine locals pulling it out like a tooth and replacing it with a concrete box.

Give credit where credit is due: Mabini 1335 is an out-and-out beaut. These days I’m much more inclined to think that Manila needs to become more international, especially where the arts are concerned. We need a dialogue with what’s happening in other parts of the world — which is why I am particularly happy with the way Birgit Zimmerman, the Austrian curator, has put Causality together.

In Causality, she juxtaposed a local artist, Ian Jaucian, with Yuko Mohri, and Bagus Pandega, from Japan and Indonesia respectively. With this simple move, she reveals Jaucian’s art as happening in a common space of ideas, not as insignificant techno-weirdness.

This could easily have been the case, as Jaucian uses motors and microcontrollers to make objects that pretend to come from a kind of monster movie set in Manila.

Jaucian’s objects are arranged in an alcove that features a whiteboard filled with newspaper clippings and scribbled notes (one of which features the code for the computer program that animates a little Golabulos swimming in a dish of water).

The details in the room tell a story of scientific hubris and alien catastrophe that (as far as I can tell) was made entirely without allegorical intentions. It’s a sunny, whimsical, and familiar pop narrative, but one that’s not often encountered in Manila’s art galleries, certainly not enhanced with microcontrollers.

A gallery-goer more used to static, conventional works might want to dismiss this all as some kind of science-fair joke/aberration, but Jaucian’s company makes this a difficult move Pandega’s works are the most obviously and raucously kinetic, with one particular sculpture featuring a hammer slamming into a gallery wall.

After a while you begin to realize that his sculptures are talking to each other: the vibrations of the hammer is triggering responses in its neighboring assemblages.

I liked his surface textures the most. Pandega’s works can be described as steampunk — a style inspired by 19th century machine design, but it’s not steampunk that takes its cue from pop or the Internet. Absent are the superfluous sprays of gears and pipes that are the hallmarks of pop steampunk, with which hobbyists festoon their goggles and USB flashdrives.

While hobbyists mask function with nonfunctional décor, Pandega and his fellow
artists takes pains to expose and highlight the functions of their works. They assume that understanding how and what a machine does can be pleasurable to the viewer. Pandega’s machines may be stylized, but he wants to maximize readability.

He uses a lot of old wood and bulky electromechanical components to execute a heavy, earthbound style of technology that is the opposite of the Brancusi-cum-Jobs aesthetic of seamless, brushed-metal UFOs. Pandega’s machines creak and snap. They drop levers, flap wings, turn wheels and mesh gears. They seem really at home in Mabini 1335.

Mohri’s works make me remember the poet Rayvi Sunico saying that a contemporary poet should be able to find beauty in the act of shifting gears in a car.

Why it is so hard for us to see poetry in our machines is a deep and tangled question, but for now I’ll just say I believe this blindness is caused by the same ideas see Art as the opposite of Science/Math/Engineering. But even without going into this issue, you can still say that the ability to see poetry/beauty in a machine requires 2 things:

1. You have to be open to the idea that a machine can be a poem and 2) You have to
know something about what the machine is doing. This is relatively easy when the
machine is mechanical: you follow the movement of its parts. This gear turns that
gear, which pushes that lever, which opens that door, and so on. It gets harder when the machine involves electricity. To read an electrical machine requires that you remember some of the science that is so badly taught in our schools and so baldly ignored or badly slandered in the arts. Mohri is alive to the image of energy flowing through machines, acting at a distance, connecting parts, and makings things move.

As we and our doctors know in the headwaters of the 21st that animates our nerves and muscles. Electricity is something we share with plants, lightning, and vacuum cleaners.

If you think about it, this idea is the very stuff of animism, even pantheism.

When I think about it, it seems amazing that electricity isn’t up there with fire and sunlight as a basic poetic metaphor. But then I stop thinking about it, and then cultural reflexes roll back over me. Electricity becomes invisible again, and I forget.

Mohri’s electric poems help us remember.

A solar cell turns a tiny motor that flutters a scrap of feather that looks a struggling, blinded moth. A couple of kilos of cable induce currents in copper wires thin as hair, causing a sheet of paper to sing.

The stuff draws you in, makes you think.

That’s the Causality show on the second floor.

Weird, less danceable wing

On the first floor, Nogueras, one of those natural musicians who seems incapable of making an uninteresting sonic gesture, expands on Hip-hop’s visual idioms in a solo show he’s titled A Rotten Pile century, it’s electricity of Temporary Realizations. I’m not too inclined to read anything more into the show title than a joy in sounds. (Okay, maybe I hear a bit of incantation in there. A bit of reverse psychology, like saying “Break a leg” to invite good luck).

Nogueras extends Hip-hop’s chop-‘em-up techniques into the visual realm, breaking sketches and doodles into fragments that he collages into larger compositions.

It’s also worth noting that Nogueras’ music falls into the category called “abstract Hip-hop” –the weirder, less danceable wing of Hip-hop that explores sound as sound and thrives on extreme textures and unexpected transitions. You can see parallels in his doodles, which are all about texture and form: shapes, lines and drips, angles versus curves, density versus emptiness.

Aside from his collages, Nogueras has some videos on loop on a couple of flatscreens. Severe black and white things, animated shapes intercut with scraps of footage dredged from the net. He tells me that their soundtracks are also fragments, also intended to be heard together, assembled in the viewer’s ear.

Unfortunately, the sound was turned down at the show opening, but perhaps this will have been corrected for the regular run. I hope so, as sound is a major component of Nogueras’ practice and sensibility, and his show should reflect that.

Now, it seems almost ill-spirited to mention this, but I need to mention that I find the absence of the little white information cards frustrating. While the gallery does pass out flyers with information about the works, it’s fiddly to leaf through them, and they do not really ease the task of finding out the title and author of the thing you’re looking at. I have to say: Bring back the little white cards!

Mabini 1335 is open Tuesdays to Saturdays, 2-6 PM. Appointments can be made for Sunday showings. Causality runs for the rest of May, while A Rotten Pile of Temporary Realizations will remain on display until June 27.