Ever since I got to Manila, I’ve been struggling to get back into my work. Life here is easy- my fortunate circumstances allow me the modern convenience of choice and sloth -ha- but now and then, I get worried.
I do miss London. Relentless drive, a city heaving with ambition, rocketing always, vector-like, to the future. But I have to admit, it was so depressing there. If not for the friends and the easy access to art, then I would have done myself in a long time ago. I developed bad habits, particularly in my work. Yes, navel-gazing, I’ve done that (name any artist who lived in that city who didn’t succumb to that), endless permutations of thought, and my favorite: desperately seeking innovation in technique first, rather than content, rather than, dare I say, meaning.
Manila. I arrived here last December, due to a twist of fate. So here I am, 9 months hence, working to earn money for a personal project, and here it is again. What do I want to say?
Here, among people everyday (back in my parents’ house), it is comfortable and safe. It is also very busy, barely any space to have those long stretches of thought that comes in solitude. Yet there is always life.
Life is what I missed in London. I understood that life in a 1st world country would be different, but I did not expect it to be vapid and hollow. I would tell my friends my ‘existential’ conundrum, but of course, nearly all of them came from 1st world countries as well, so it was a topic not worth pursuing. But I wanted to have confirmation of what I felt keenly, under my skin, stirring always in pale shapes in my shallow sleep.
There is a certain species of death that happens in that kind of existence (exactly that- life un-lived-in, a mere acknowledgement of breath), and the drawings that I’ve been making are my way of describing it. I’ve been wondering about this for a while when I look at them, and I’ve always felt that they are really just drawings in the most technical sense. I was simply transcribing what I felt.
Much has been made of the passing of the postmodern in art last year, and it was a complicated ‘death’ (theories never die, they merely devalue as intellectual currency), and craft surged ahead as the new ’NEW’. In craft, there is a perceived potential of human connection, an easy way in. We craft with our hands, and the mark is there; the work bears it as much as it is seen.
But as with all trends, it is too easy, and too comfortable to say that making things with our hands again is a way to begin again. One of the many great gifts of the postmodernists (of all, Foucault, in my opinion) is the exploration of the nature of human thought. Yes, it is unfortunately very self-reflexive (not ironic, mind you- YBA’s, there is a profound difference ok?), but rings and sings true: we can not begin again, there is no end in sight, we merely dip as deep as we can fathom, and make sense with whatever we glimpse. Of all the theories from that era, this is perhaps the most evocative of what we experience when we do find time to be alone and think.
Perhaps what we do need to explore is this- we have to turn the whole sheaf of questions we’ve accumulated all these years of critical analyses into a personal one. The question, in a sense, is where we begin again- Who am I in this world? Here in Manila, in this crazy world of wealth and want, of chaos and freedom, it is utterly useless to not ask this question. It is an everyday assault, a dare to make sense of who you are in a place teeming with contradiction.
I used to talk about this with a couple of close friends back in London, and I tried and tried to explain it to them. I think I was trying to make sense of it as well- I was dealing with a bigger contradiction, trying to make sense of the sight of whole buildings made of marble, black granite and limestone, and knowing the provenance of such wealth. Having experienced these extremes, I felt I had to make a choice. Do I go with it, survive and swallow the white pill, or do I go all activist and damn the whole western hemisphere to hell (and multiple recessions- haha-)?
I didn’t choose. My experience was mixed; I love London’s starry-eyed gaze into the future, I hated the inhumanity it espoused. I love meeting all kinds of people, I hated the discrimination that comes with it. I love the honesty that I encountered, but hated the bitter aftertaste. But I did learn something important that changed me, which is to be myself without any regrets. This is the only way I can confront such questions and attempt to answer them.
Chris, a friend of mine, once said that ‘the meaning’s in the making mate’. Yes, and that’s the point- we have try and make sense of what we think and feel through the best way we know how. Language, long the philosophical backbone of many a postmodern critic (and ambitious art student), always had its limits. I never understood why in our MA critiques that this was always the skeleton being flogged about in every debate, a literal ‘bone’ of contention. Language is one of only many manifestations of human comprehension (and incomprehension). To really push into the new, you have to go where language fails.
This is where we have to go. Hand -in-hand, we explore the complexities of how we invent and who we imagine ourselves to be. The questions about questions are over. Language, long at the forefront of interrogation, must give way to uncertainty to gain the necessary weight and strength to deal with the new things we’ll see. To begin again, we have to realise that it never ends.
What wills us to speak?
There has been a huge amount of scholarship devoted to the investigation of the origin of this particular intent, a phenomenon amongst all human activity. The creative will, if one experiences it, is as powerful as any of the fundamental desires.
To invent- that word has always been a favorite of mine, because it has a tinge of the salacious, of the slip. There are works of art that invent, and there are those that quite sadly only seek to re-make. There is a tremendous pleasure that people experience when confronted with the new, and also a unique joy in discovering something new in the familiar. For me, invention is a bit of both, and never exclusive to either ‘classification’ (art history etymology never really works for artists).
The reason why this is such a contentious thing now (especially here) is the loss of certainties brought about by an ever-expanding and complicated view of the world. I always thought theories were at best, well-informed attempts to understand things, not truth. Truth is an entirely different animal, and it cannot be tamed ever, even by centuries of knowledge.
This is a tricky thing though; to actually tell an artist friend to clarify his or her intent almost always does more harm than good, but you can see it from a mile away. If the artist is simply ambitious for all things besides the thing, then, as we say in the Philippines, a rat is a rat is a rat. Be a good friend and play the fool. In short, don’t give out anymore cheese, haha!
But enough rhetoric- what I want to say is that intent is a private vocation for those who seek things that are bigger than they are, and the reason for the seclusion is that it is enough trouble as it is, and by keeping it close, we keep it manageable, safe. There still are things in this world that cannot be bought. But to clarify (as experience goes, with so many of my old friends), we are not so strong, and often too keen on proving we are clever enough for the game. I remember counseling a friend, brilliant chap, and he was trying to go back into real work after years in the industry. Funny thing was I expected that he wouldn’t have been able to be creative again, but the fire was still there. He didn’t really lose anything, except the clarity of intent.
In my own way, that’s what I’ve been avoiding. These past two years I’ve been protecting whatever artistic integrity I have left. But the knot tightens and ties itself in. The strange thing about ivory towers is that they have only one purpose: to keep one thing. So, suffice to say, intent is one thing, but to make it real one has to step out and be brave.
Intent is the shape of will.
I have long been an admirer of Rilke, first introduced to me by Katrin before she went on a seven-day trip to Sagada. The now-classic pocket-size Shambhala Press Edition of Letters was my first Rilke, and it was a gentle and subtly persuasive introduction to solitude, the core of my artistic practice.
To relish one’s ability to detach and contemplate things is not just a natural state, but a skill that needs to be nurtured and developed; it is a space that expands, no matter where you are in the world, no matter how you are in this life. I have treasured this gift and have even fought it.
So what does Rilke’s notion of the artistic practice have anything to do with the theoretical issues of imagination and language in art? I dare say it is the key issue, the unturned stone. The omnipresence of globalism and collaborative experiments in contemporary practices indirectly reinforce the need to slow down, to reflect, because the collective rush in my opinion is a quite human reaction to the tightening circle of information, of knowledge, not, as many are saying now, to the enthusiasm that “interconnected-ness” brings.
Yes, revolutions in art owe largely to the influx of difference, diversity, but institutionalizing a social phenomena will not only engender it, but kill it. Sometimes we forget that most theories come from observation, and this precious human facility is the one that takes time, and like a path in the woods, the riches of insight can only be gleaned after traversing the pattern of shadows.
It is an effort to be alone. Unlike the days before the internet, before cellphones, I find myself fighting constantly to be aware of my voice, to hear without prejudice the thoughts I have as I walk. Does anyone remember that fleeting subconscious moment that we have when we encounter a realisation- it felt like stepping into a light-struck place in a dense wood. Today, we often pick through our thoughts as one would pick through clothes; I must think this way, must not think like this.
Imagination and language cannot be deconstructed as Derrida would have brilliantly put it (by putting it to the page, inscribing it to form). Yes, there is an inextractable, even inscrutable connection, but once we look, one goes into gear. Arthur Koestler, one of my heroes, once described human consciousness as an essentially metaphorical one. As we try to make sense of what is outside of us, we already create- every moment is one of invention.
As an artist, this is important to me. No matter how many pedagogical branches grow from the current trend of specialised art theories, there will always be that moment of consideration, a beginning of a circle. It is the daily choice of stepping into it that I am keen on, and to keep it I have to know what is happening. To speak of what things are, one must see as one is.
reproduction prohibited 2008 (digital print ) Moshe Ladanga -all rights reserved-
In the process of going over the drawings, jpegs, films and other media for the website, I started to think of what I was really trying to do with all of the stuff I would create. It’s easy to sift through your work when you are working in one medium, or if you have a particular theme, a focus in your practice. But with mine, I have always loved the thrill of the exploration, of experiment. Hence, the mess!
Being in such a rigorous research-led environment led me to take a look at this mess, and try to figure out if I’m trying to say something with all of these things. I was also wary of my own mind, treading carefully so that whatever innocent joy I had left won’t be at my own mercy, as I have this bad itch for deconstructing anything.
What I saw was quite simple; as much as I am passionate about different kinds of art, my creative practice reflects this love, and the reason behind the diversity is a personal refusal to let my mind decode whatever stirs in me that speaks only in tongues. I was reading this essay by Susan Sontag today, a comprehensive appraisal of Roland Barthes, and it struck me how Sontag sliced through all of the common intellectual tokenisms of his theories and revealed, through Barthes’ words themselves, the essence of his work. She said, as in all great works of art, there is always a succinct pleasure in the creative act, both from the author and the reader. And Barthes’ talent lies in the ingenious play between these two poles. Beyond the typical academic readings of Barthes (the author is dead…zzzz…), there is his sublime use of text as text, and the treatment of the textual as surface; it is far removed from the traditional semiotic understanding of text as having an interior meaning, but builds upon the modernist innovation of seeing meaning from the associations, connections, and ultimately, the aesthetic pleasure one experiences in that moment of lucidity, no matter how brief.
But this play on text as surface is not to be confused with the concept of materiality; this play is not a juvenile exercise, nor it is a rejection of the possibilities of the unknown, the suggestions of the unseen. It is a radicalism that is most subtle, a profoundly subversive hint. What I find quite depressing nowadays when I get to see contemporary art is the lack of craft, and by craft I mean in the way of Barthes, where there is a judicious and skillful play between meanings, a grace even in how things are juxtaposed, and artists now are so prone and given to a stilted and academic sense of poetry. Representation is well and alive yes, but in the Walter Benjamin kind of way, where ‘object-oriented’ art language reigns, where art is reproduction via research.
Sometimes when I see so many young and obviously talented artists take on the risk of entering the art world, I shudder, and I remember the time when I was making my first film, where the biggest scare was the void- the rule of experimental film is the blindfold, where language is invention.
Sometimes I wonder how did it turn out this way, with so much investment towards an empiricism of the aesthetic, this addiction to the ‘new’.
Sometimes I question the ‘questioning’, the turn of the creative practice to a critical one.
Look around and the world is changing. I get this feeling at times that all of these pieces of art will be worth nothing to me, for they beget nothing more than the passing fancy, traces of trends, or in the terms of cinema, a cunning form of documentary posing as fiction. But as of late, I have realized that it is useless to dig and find proof of the reason behind this current state, simply because the current state needs no explanation: it is too apparent to warrant even a bit of civil ambivalence.
What I want is freedom. In the Bacchus series of Cy Twombly in his Tate retrospective, you are engulfed by the sheer mastery of his language, and the freedom that he clearly enjoyed and the absolute certainty of his actions. He is one of the few masters today who does not pander to theoretical trends, and willfully and exhaustingly lays out the ‘way in’- his work doesn’t sit comfortably between viewer and idea, but engages you in its own terms, and is always brave enough to risk illegibility for the sake of honesty.
That is my reason I think I keep pursuing this idea (ideal? If it is still valid, then yes) of creativity, where instead of the concept hogging the klieg lights, it is desire I pull out of the shadows and strive to make something out of it.
Perhaps there is something we all missed when art became so popular and profitable, and I think it is the acknowledgment of the origins of whoever chooses to be an artist; some of us still believe in something, and were left unscathed by the postmodernist wave. I admit it is quite difficult to make art while being aware of the intellectual totems that are the standard already in today’s art world, but the question lurking behind all of this critical ‘plumbing’ is what is it all for?
This is the question that keeps me awake, confronts me on a blank page, taunts me on bouts of self-indulgence, and stirs and stirs all that I never had the guts to say into something tangible enough to create with.
Originality for me starts with this question, and the corresponding action is to shut the mind to all of the other voices so that I get to hear myself first; in today’s hyper/post-anything world, such an action cannot even be heroic (ah, I wish) but all the more necessary to survive.
The last few weeks I’ve been collating my work and organizing it, figuring out the best way to show my work. I do a lot of different things, and I remembered the graphical interface of Puredata, which is the inspiration for the Main page.
Have a look: http://www.mosheladanga.com/
Nick Buer’s piece in the basement corridor (Photo courtesy of Tim Pickup, MA08 Flickr Pool)
I spent quite a lot of time invigilating downstairs, in the basement. With the eerie and strangely soothing sound of the motorway reverberating throughout the space (coming from Nick’s interactive piece, pictured above), I was altogether calm and comforted by the sound (I grew up in a city). There were many people who wandered throughout the space, and I am still surprised at the various reactions, spoken and unspoken, I have witnessed during exhibition week.
There were a lot of people who came downstairs, and it worked to our show’s advantage; since most of the pieces were installations, the basement was a great place to get lost in. I remember when Adriano and Katrin were brainstorming, they took each piece in hand and looked at the image, read the description, and formed the idea for the curation of the space. I learned a lot from those days leading up to the exhibition, and it was that particular day that stood out. Beyond all of the egos, safety issues and practical considerations, the point of curation is that the pieces can be experienced the way they are made to be experienced, and that the pieces, no matter how diverse or disparate, can talk and relate to each other, forming a sort of meta-journey, a line of thought that weaves through the space.
The people that went down the stairs followed that line; I had instances where people who initially were looking for the loo, went in and got lost for a while and before leaving turn to me to give thanks for the show. There were children who were being herded by their tutors, and despite the placations and pleas, they got engrossed in the images, the interfaces, the slow and meditative spell of the screen and the solemn hum of the dark space.
There was this young woman, at first all huffed up and proud, announcing she was an art student and basically demanding to be taken to each piece and be ‘informed’ of the idea and the method of its execution. I obliged her with a few pieces, but with a particular one (Birgitt’s) she asked if the photographs were manipulated to be more pretty. I answered that I didn’t know, but if you look at them, they were describing something else, something more than what you can see. She got intrigued, and after two hours, I saw her again and offered a bright smile before she left.
That same day, I had a lively discussion with a man, an exchange full of fireworks so to speak, and we ended up talking about history and politics. We ended with a bout of hearty laughter and a slight bow of the head, an acknowledgment of like minds.
There were also those hours when the space would be empty, and in those moments I would get to sit down and just ruminate for a bit, taking in what this meant, how this is all going to go, where is this going to end up. Sometimes I would catch myself wishing that the exhibition would last a bit longer, so that I get to meet more people, get to have more conversations about art that weren’t about theories, to experience more this directness, this simplicity. The thing most obvious to me regarding this experience is that it matters a lot to think of how people are going to see your work, that imagination and creativity still count for something.
In my head I hold other stories, of untold instances, of appreciative handshakes and generous gestures; it would be foolish to write them all down, as they still hold their spell as memory. There are times where there is need for refusal, like in art, where meaning is lost when nailed to theory, to research. I leave it be, and let these words on this page be a remembrance.
The week of the MA Degree Show was hectic, exhilarating and most of all, thought-provoking. It was my first experience of invigilation (what a posh word!), and by far, this was the best thing, the most rewarding thing for me. I’ll write about it in my next post.
First things first; here are pictures of our installation, Reproduction Prohibited (2008), courtesy of Tim, as seen from the MA08 Flickr pool.
corridor installation view 01
corridor installation view 02
Reproduction Prohibited (2008)- Katrin Maria Escay
Reproduction Prohibited (2008)-Moshe Ladanga
Reproduction Prohibited (2008), detailed view- Katrin Maria Escay
Reproduction Prohibited (2008), detailed view- Moshe Ladanga
Reproduction Prohibited (2008), detailed view
Reproduction Prohibited (2008), detailed view
*Please visit the MA08 site which contains a comprehensive archive of MA Work from the show: http://www.ma08.org.uk/
The great thing about the show was getting to know so many people from the other courses; those long hours of preparation and invigilation provided us the opportunity to finally share stories with the other MA’s, and also getting to know what their work is about. During this time I’ve grown to really care about our batch of foolhardy artists who happened to be in the same space for the span of time. I’m proud of the camaraderie and the friendships we’ve formed, and there’s nothing better than getting to talk about everything with such a warm and comfortable group of people.
Here’s to the best possibilities and the fulfillment of potential:)