Latitudes: Encounters with the Philippines (2010)

The Absent One

A persistence of absence yields this tender presence—sheer ribbons cascading down a ground littered with crumpled white tissue sculpted in wax, as if just discarded by someone inconsolably weeping. Finally, Nikki Luna touches on that which renders weight to absence: desire. The absent one, tragically, is the loved one.  

In Roland Barthes’ glossary of love, The Lover’s Discourse: A Fragment, absence is: “Any episode of language which stages the absence of the loved subject—whatever its cause and its duration—and which tends to transform this absence into an ordeal of abandonment.” He categorically defines absence as a discourse carried on by the sedentary woman. While man hunts, woman waits. 

That absence is a preoccupation identified with the anguished abandoned female is what Luna gently explores. She hangs ribbons that are printed with the words “gaano ko ikaw kamahal” (how much I love you) borrowed from the lyrics of a popular Filipino love song.  This is Luna’s grandmother’s love song for the husband who left her in their twilight years. He is for whom this woman weeps. The sheer fabrics, randomly strewn, recall cassette tape ribbons, conceptually reinforcing the visual repetition. A silent melancholic swan song plays again and again, swathing the whole area with an unspeakable weight.  

The tragedy is not the physical absence of the loved one. It is his relentless presence in her. The line “how much I love you” is a paradox as abstract ideas such as these cannot be weighed and ascertained. Abandoned, it seems she is loved less than she loves. But as Luna has seen, every falling apart has a history that is never black and white.

The artist manifests a fragment of the raison d'être through the tissue sculptures, some of which are left white while some are dipped in gold paint. There is grief and there is gold, as there is purity of affection pockmarked by worldly desires. The general delicateness of the created space belies an ongoing brutal dissection.  Going beyond thought-terminating clichés, Luna simultaneously deconstructs love, woman and family by minutely scrutinizing the woman, embodied by an estranged kin, as both selfish but loving; selfless, but in the end, unloved. 

This woman is not the stereotypical doting mother nor domesticated wife. Nor is she the epitome of empowered female. The precariousness of her devotions has ultimately led to her isolation.  In defiance, she turns to the material as it is tangible and easily owned fully; and to her memories, as in these, she was loved. 

By tracing the intricate meanderings of this woman’s emotions, Luna has come to this precious pattern of repetition. Not unlike the Great Gatsby’s beating on, “boats against the current, borne back ceaselessly into the past.”  Not unlike Kundera’s eternally unhappy man, as “happiness is the longing for repetition.” Repetition is inertia, and inertia is pain. According to Nietzsche, “only which never ceases to hurt stays in the memory.”

Luna both champions and castigates this figure of the hurting female. Hence the flesh and blue hue of the trimmings, evoking the image of veins pulsating with want and discontent. She lays these bare as veins seen through a luminous wrist. She shows us just where exactly life throbs, writhes, thrives.  


Adjani Arumpac