I’m a big fan of Chinese artists Sun Yuan and Peng Yu. Ever since I saw Angel, a hyper realistic sculpture of a dead angel splayed on the ground, I have sought to keep abreast of their work. Made from silica gel and fiberglass, the most striking feature possessed by the wrinkled seraphim is a pair of molted wings. His feathers have withered away, and instead, he is left with wings of flesh and bone; they resemble chicken wings after they’ve been dressed. I saw it when it came up for auction last year.
Another celebrated piece, Old Persons Home, also works with silica gel and fiberglass fabricated by the pair into elderly personages. In this one, the artists assembled a group of world leaders (Churchill and Arafat, to name a few), sculpted as doddering and drooling ancients on electric wheelchairs. Famously exhibited at the Saatchi Gallery in London, the figures would occasionally bump into one another as their wheelchairs moved about the space.
When I heard that the duo would bring one of their more recent pieces to Manila, I made sure to make the time to meet them. They have worked together to produce a whole range of work, frequently causing controversy for their audacious use of materials (baby cadavers and human fat). Unfortunately, only Mr. Sun travelled to Manila. Ms. Peng could not get a visa in time, and stayed in China.
Hong Kong Intervention, from 2009, and reprised at the 2010 Sydney Biennale, currently runs
at the Jorge B. Vargas Museum in UP. A project that involved 200 Filipino domestics in Hong Kong, the piece debuted at Osage, a gallery for contemporary art in the SAR. It is through the cooperation of the Osage Foundation that this work made it to Manila. Perhaps, this counts as one of the duo’s tamer pieces, but it does ring close to home.
For this piece, the artists gave each of the Filipino OFWs a toy grenade. The Pinoys stuck their grenades around the houses they work in and then photographed them. They paired each of their resulting photos with one of themselves with their backs turned, concealing their identities from viewers. One gets a thrill out of looking over the photographs mounted on the Vargas Museum walls. You feel like an intruder allowed a forbidden peek, or an eavesdropper who unwittingly stumbles on an intimate conversation. It is also fascinating to examine the images, guessing at the lifestyles suggested by the spaces. In a sense, this mischievous piece captures the Pinoy penchant for chismis, for making uzi, for the unwarranted way we stick our noses into other people’s business. If only the amos knew what their household helpers were up to when they weren’t around!
Address, a piece by another artistic tandem, has been mounted at the museum’s lobby. This one, by Alfredo + Isabel Aquilizan, touches on the process of migration, an issue frequently tackled by these two artists. It is one familiar to the subjects of Hong Kong Intervention. The two exhibits relate to each other through this common thread.
In Address, we see rows of balikbayan boxes set beside what we presume to be rows of their contents, all precisely arranged. They signify life stories reduced and compressed into cubes, transported and transposed into alien territories.
Sandra Palomar and Nolet Soliven have installed Flesh at the museum’s third floor space. The exhibit illustrates their reactions to work in the Vargas Museum collection. They deliberately chose two nudes made by uncelebrated artists (Nude Study, Marcelino Sanchez, 1935 and Sultana, Antonio Dumlao, undated), and dictionaries that translate Filipino tribal dialects.
Nolet’s Fleshcape dominates the space, bisecting the room. He draws and paints magnified impressions of female body parts on both sides of a long sheet of paper. Sandra’s Reflection Piece 001 stands between this and the Sanchez painting. One is meant to peep inside to see refracted impressions of both the nude and Nolet’s work.
On the other end of Nolet’s drawing, Sultana is posed atop a set of drawers. Arranged inside the drawers are the dictionaries, vintage photographs of tribal Filipinos, an image of Nora Aunor, and some sculpture. Like the kayumanggi in the painting, the assortment celebrates our Filipino ethnicity.
Interview and translation exercise 001 is a video by Sandra. It includes the written recollection of a young Manobo’s initial experiences in Manila. A transplant into the capital city, he too is a migrant— like the domestics photographed for Hong Kong Intervention. He knows only too well the displacement explored by the Aquilizans in Address.
Hong Kong Intervention, Address, and Flesh run from 31 August to 29 October 2011 at The Jorge B. Vargas Museum and Filipiniana Research Center, Roxas Ave., University of the Philippines, Diliman, Quezon City. Phone (632) 928-1927 or visit