Cabinets and collages make up this parataxis
Catalogue Essay by Adjani Arumpac
Shade My Eyes and I Can See You
Nikki Luna and Zean Cabangis
Cabinets and collages make up this parataxis—two visions are placed side by side, with photographs as their coordinating conjunction. Zean Cabangis features acrylic pieces with photo transfers of urban spaces of rest while Nikki Luna compartmentalizes unrest, putting snippets from family photos of political desaparecidos in light box drawers. These multimedia approaches to the photograph steps towards a miscegenation, perhaps a necessary shift to adapt to the constantly evolving definition of image as both artists—and their images—struggle to negotiate value in meaning and relevance in signification in an image-saturated era.
The pull and push of the two different bodies of works are twofold representations of the phenomenon of the image.The image has the power to make one forget and remember, alternately adopting and adapting, both ways informing the viewer of its constant negotiations through various time-space rhetorics. Cabangis’ self-purging copies contain no trace of the blatant consumerist cornucopia of imagery that probably drove the artist to seek breathing space. Nor does Luna’s pain-wracked images show violence that heavily contextualizes her photos. The two differ in content and statement yet both feature a subdued approach to imagery, somehow considerate of an increasingly benumbed audience.
There is no other way of feeling for the deluge of image in our age. Seeing is not as important as living through the machinations that condition significations. To better understand, one shades the eyes.
Cabangis’ collages show found images of spaces of fancy, collided against each other to create jarring pastiches of conflicting perspectives. The represented spaces are inspired from distinct memories—when the artist felt most at ease—recreated through the help of online visual references. Cabangis flattens down the different angles created by the play of found images through painterly disruptions. Geometric lines, color drips, and color swathes over and around the photo transfers temper the chaos, allowing him to reframe the already framed images, repositioning the onlooker from his chosen points of view. In his spaces of rest, one is invited to either look up or down.
In Idler’s Dream, beyond the building is a murky cloud formation suggesting an impending storm or an explosion. In to jaja0005, a dead tree flanked by a concrete and foliage claustrophobically reaches for the somber skies. A patch of fresh green is flanked by grey structures in zc dec 2011. The emergency staircase in unfinished pa din is rendered useless by a patch of unruly lines and colors, and the same line/color clump bondages a figure of a lonesome woman inside a room in to jaja 0004. In to jaja 0003, a whole wall section seemingly falls down the direction of the viewer, obscuring a lady. Looking up what seems to be unattainable objects of desire, a sense of helplessness permeates the sight. This feeling is reciprocated by vertigo when the artist went the other way and looked down, as is most evident in his peering down at his leather shoes in Skipping town, augmented by a sensation of crashing through shrubbery in unfinished pa.
Cabangis stands his ground on seeing these somewhat dreary spaces as breathers. The claim lies not solely in the signification but in the process of representation—through photo transfer—which he states is simpler than actually painting the images from scratch. Conversely, his process of representation actually involves not just a simple photo transfer but also multiple conversions—memories as substitute for actual places, juxtaposed on found images. These are not just alterations of the copies of the original, an operation that supposedly renders image as art, but alterations of assumed copies of the original. That nothing has been lost in translation is partly due to the artist working with the pliable terrain of memory, and partly because of the flexibility of the concept of image.
Cabangis’ claim to freedom in this set of works, which he deems is a “break” from his usual tedious painting projects, is a symptom of the image as a copy. Image is not Reality. As a copy, it is already emptied of meaning, converted as a vessel of substitution. The artist’s insistence on materializing memory in order to forget them in his past exhibitions lies in this phenomenon. Cabangis’ quest to unburden himself from memory and history correlates to the natural tendency of the image to purge itself of significations as it goes through regimes. In this sense, Cabangis’ compulsion to produce images/redundancies can actually only lead to his sought-after respite and forgetting—a brutal cyclical process that is both cathartic, for the artist; and appalling, as a symptomatic reading of these modern times’ tendency to generate visual pollution.
Nikki Luna seeks to remember. She fills cabinets with fragments of the lives of women who are victims of forced disappearances and political killings. Luna bridges the gap between the political and personal with details that tell tales in ways that history can never divulge. The blouse, handkerchief, pillows, cup, embroidered detail, writing from a letter, birth certificate, blanket, jewelry, birthday candle, cake, favorite color, graduation, a flower from a sash, a dining table once shared with her family, a boat ride at the famous park in Baguio, a familiar track field—all these show the intimate everyday of women who led very public lives as human rights defenders and activists.
Luna’s photographs, like Cabangis’ photo transfer collages, subscribe to image as art, operating on dissemblance and capitalizing on the meaning that these forced discrepancies can yield. She zooms in on the details of the copies of the original, selectively choosing which minutiae to present to conjure the presences of Sherlyn, Karen, Beng, Tanya. The preference to aesthesicize—to particularize—points to the artist’s vision to seek the fine gradations that define the humane while confirming just how inhuman these disappearances are.
These women matter because they are loved. Their memories live on in ways that they have molded their lives—both as freedom fighters and as mothers, sisters, daughters, wives. The very act of pulling the drawers one by one to look into the photographs invites the viewers to partake in the maddening search for the missing loved ones. That they cannot be seen—their faces not in any of the photographs, their bodies missing, their presence enduring—fuse together rage and longing as an unspeakable pain that sears through all ideological identifications/categories.
Luna’s representations of pain invoke another kind of visibility whose value is weighed by its sheer immediacy. Her images call for an orientation quite different from Cabangis’ continuous eradication of meaning. The urgency of the injustice confronts the supposed stance of image as simulacra devoid of substance. To divest Luna’s nostalgic images of reality equates to a regressive erasing of the memory of the disappeared and killed.
It is tempting to refer to Sontag’s polemics on war photographs as propaganda as Luna also operates on the same emotion—on the pain of others. But perhaps the subtlely of her images draw the line that define her works otherwise. Luna’s representations aim not to directly perpetuate slogans. In her nuanced method, she explores on emotional identification as a key to mobilization, drawing on the power of the images of the common but dear, that regular affection usually announced by nobody but well-kept by everybody.