Inkcanto: Fat man in the house of Chabet

'Cargo and Decoy' by Roberto Chabet is currently on 'To Be Continued,' an exhibit of Chabet’s works at the Cultural Center of the Philippines. (Photo taken at the Institute of Contemporary Arts, Lasalle College of Arts, Singapore on January 2011)

I am not a conceptual artist because, in order to be a really good one, I would want to have Jesus powers first. Let me explain.

Believe me, I’m at a stage of my life when I really need Jesus because 1) my eyesight is getting worse; and 2) my sciatica symptoms are, in their own horrid way, crippling—two areas that happen to be within our Lord’s specialty. This is why Jesus has been on my mind a lot, lately—it’s a rather unsurprising tendency for a Catholic to think of Jesus of Nazareth during a long, painful recovery from sciatic nerve back pain.

One may attribute this tendency to childhood Catechism classes and all those stories about cripples being made to walk, the blind being made to see, and the obese being transformed into the slimmest, biggest losers. Oh, wait, that last one is not something that Jesus did—there’s no Miracle at the All-You-Can-Eat Buffet.

I wonder why Jesus never got into conceptual art, considering that he was already prodigiously multi-talented. He was a carpenter; a winemaker; a storyteller; an interpreter of Jewish law; a fisherman; a healer; and literally God’s gift to women (and men). If you think about it, nearly all of Christ’s miracles were ephemeral; meant to be consigned into memory; concerned themselves with the pliability of materials as well as the vacuity of one’s relationship to space; and always collaborative (“Be it done unto thee according to thy faith.”).

Feeding 4,000 people with only four loaves of bread and two fishes, for example, is both conceptual and performance art—with the entire audience participating. Walking on water—now that’s radically altering one’s relationship to space. Imagine what I could do if I were a conceptual artist with Jesus powers. For example, anyone who encounters my installation piece, titled I Say Unto Thee, This Day Thou Wilt Be With Me in Paradise, would be in for a big surprise.

I wanted to go to a Chabet exhibit before my eyesight and my sciatica got really bad, to the point where I would not be able to leave the house at all. That’s why it was worth the pain over the weekend to go to To Be Continued, an exhibit of works by Roberto Chabet, ongoing until March 31 at the Cultural Center of the Philippines Main Gallery.

Roberto Chabet, for those who, like Atty. Christopher Lao, ought to have been informed, is the pioneering figure in Conceptual Art in the Philippines. For the past fifty years, Chabet has been at the vanguard of conceptual work in the country. As Museum Director of the CCP in 1970, he founded the Thirteen Artists Award, which was envisioned to support Filipino artists whose works represent “a recentness and a turning away from the past.”

To Be Continued was first presented in the Institute of Contemporary Art—La Salle College of the Arts, Singapore in January 2011. It is part of Chabet: 50 Years, a year-long series of exhibits organized by King Kong Art Projects, Unlimited, in celebration of Chabet’s 50th anniversary as artist, teacher and curator.

‘To Be Continued’ by Roberto Chabet is a collaborative work between the artist and his former students. It is comprised of ten painted plywood panels, using colors blended from the three primaries: red, yellow and blue.

There’s no substitute for encountering installation art that literally surrounds you and contains you within its contrived space. Rather than encountering each individual installation, my own experience with “To Be Continued” was total—I could only appreciate the individual pieces best by taking in the entire space occupied by the exhibit. I had the impression of walking inside someone’s house while moving around the exhibit. Or perhaps, more accurately, I had a sense of being inside Chabet’s mind.

Just like you are having a horrible sense of being inside my mind right now. Whoa. Hear that voice in your head while you are reading these words? Neat, huh?

Chabet’s Psychopathology of Every Day Life, 1.2 features three wooden boxes lined with mirrors that infinitely reflect their contents: numbered as well as plain white billiard balls. Another piece that creates a similar trick of mirrors is the untitled work that is composed of a wooden box filled with cheap mirrors, the kind with aluminum frames (dangerously pointed at the corners) and wire stands; the ones you see being used in movies by poor Asian people. These works make one think of such things as: Infinity and whether it is “Real” or “Abstract”; the endless repetition of Images in a presumably finite Brain; and the eternity of that awkward moment when you are caught with your pants down by your future mother-in-law.

Psychopathology of Every Day Life 1.1 has two wooden tables nailed to a red plywood panel. There is a conflict created between your perception and interpretation: you know these are just two wooden tables nailed to a wall. But what else could they be now that they can’t function as tables? “Table” is just a concept defined by its function, right?

Advice: don’t nail tables to a wall, especially when those tables happen to be inside a cheap, hole-in-the wall KTV bar in places like Imus, Cavite or Taytay, Rizal. The owner of the place and its drunk patrons might become much too interested in why you did that—and saying that you are simply “defamiliarizing” these objects of domesticity and consumption for them, may result in all-too familiar and uncomfortable sensations to your person.

I liked Psychopathology of Every Day Life 2.1 because it features a metal pole sticking out diagonally from a green wall panel, with a camouflage net flowing down from the top. I will leave it to learned critics to explain why I like it (that’s part of a critic’s job, right?) but I will only say that I expected, at any moment, a Predator to jump out of the net, grab me by the throat and explain Chabet to me in its alien, clicking language. The Predator as Art Critic and the Art Critic as Predator—this is a concept that quite a few artists may sympathize with.

My favorite artwork at the Chabet exhibit is Cargo and Decoy, a collection of blue plywood panels paired in V-formation and leaning on wooden sawhorses. To my mind, they form the centerpiece that brings all of the other artworks together.

Art, including Conceptual Art, cannot exist in a vacuum. And while a vacuum is exactly what some readers, by now, might deduce to be my brain’s normal state, it’s perfectly all right to look at an artwork and get all sorts of thoughts a-buzzing inside your head.

Which is probably why, while I was admiring Cargo and Decoy, they also began to remind me of wooden cock shelters used by cockfight aficionados—you know, the kind where two pieces of plywood form an inverted V, to shelter the fighting cocks from the sun and rain? I live in the suburbs; I see that stuff all the time so I can’t un-think the association:

One of these is Art. The other is not. Hopefully, you can tell which is which.

I also love how boats appear in Chabet’s artwork; upside down boats painted in black—they are so deliciously Jungian to me. To Be Continued is very engaging—whether or not you are the sort who loves conceptual art to bits. To my mind, conceptual art is inevitably participatory—the viewer is not so much looking at an artwork as diving into the flux of seeing-being-seen-thinking-therefore-altering-the-experience-of-art.

It’s not so much a matter of “Here’s the artwork and I’m looking at it” as it is “Here’s the experience of the artwork as can only be experienced by myself at this moment only.” It also occurred to me that, while viewing the Chabet exhibit, I was also changing the entire gestalt with my overweight body’s uneven gait and the regular tapping of my cane.

The rhythmic cane-taps, resulting from my disability—in turn caused by a pathology of a nerve in the lower spine—added an aural dimension to what would have been a more silent experience. Crippled Fat Man With Cane Viewing Chabet might yet be hailed as performance art in some alternate universe.

Upon leaving the exhibit, I began to wonder: Why is it that I have heard about more conventional artists “switching” to Conceptual Art, but hardly any news about a conceptual artist switching to a more conventional, perhaps more mimetic art? And do we call such artists, um, Ex-Conceptualists, or “Ex-Cons” for short?

The point of all this being, don’t miss To Be Continued by Roberto Chabet at the Cultural Center of the Philippines Main Gallery—seriously, don’t miss it: you only have until March 31. You don’t have to be an expert on, or even be very familiar with, conceptual art to appreciate this exhibit—however, you would enjoy it much, much more if you had an idea who Chabet is and how experts assess his works.

So please read art expert Ringo Bunoan’s essay on Robert Chabet here: and also check out Kingkong Art Projects’ catalogue of Chabet artworks here: before going to the CCP. Not reading through the content on these links may result in a curious debacle of pompous dumb-assery — and you have to be a paid professional art-and-culture pundit to do such a thing.