A PIZZA DELIVERY (2011) - A Conversation with Manuel Ocampo
Despite his hugely successful international career, in January 2011 Manuel Ocampo had his first solo exhibition in Asia – that is outside of Manila of course. Titled The Painter’s Equipment and presented by Valentine Willie Fine Art Singapore, I was fortunate to write Manuel’s catalogue essay on this occasion. Our email conversations leading up the show were like a piping hot pizza delivery – greatly anticipated; the most delicious chew to sink your teeth into, and a cornucopia of toppings! To date this interview has not been published. For this inaugural edition of Planting Rice, and to coincide with Manuel’s solo exhibition currently at KalimanRawlins in Melbourne, it seemed an appropriate time to revisit the ideas discussed with Manuel earlier in the year. (Gina Fairley)
Gina Fairley: Manuel in some ways your works read like a neon sign on a slightly seedy motel flashing “vacant / no vacancy…vacant / no vacancy”. Tell me about this push-pull of ideas, both in terms of art’s dictates of content and your aversion to it?
Manuel Ocampo: I like this neon sign metaphor in relation to the way my work deals with content. Despite the seeming inconsistencies one sees in my work with respect to content it has, nonetheless, (even with the seedy motel trope) never left the building. At any rate content always lingers, even from the most unfathomable depths of a high modernist formalist painting. The supposed aversion to content is merely my way of denying precedence from the colors and shapes that is happening on the canvas. One needs to be aware that a painting contains a considerable amount of simultaneous information. It is an accumulator of thought and of ideas which scatter and overlap as form, color, matter, proportion. In other words, a painting consists precisely what cannot be thought; it is that which goes beyond thought. It is also my aim at breaking down established ways of thinking and seeing.
GF: A lot of your work has a flattened tableaux quality. For me it parallels that warped reality of the museum diorama. Do you want to comment on the nature of spatial arrangement, juxtapositions or staging within your work?
MO: Stage or staging is the right word in describing how I construct my paintings. To make a more succinct analogy - the figures are positioned in front of a wall as if to be executed by firing squad. I actually look at this [staging] more like the table of contents from a book or as menu from a restaurant. Some dishes seem more desirable than others, so you order the ones that may satisfy you best while the rest can be attempted later. Or with a book, you skip several chapters based on the titles gathered from the table of contents, so that you can just get to the point of the story rather than meander endlessly within the introduction. In other words, there are hierarchies involved when it comes to looking which brings about various levels of attention based on taste, interest, and pleasure.
GF: You seem to be constantly working against logic, rejecting the construction of understanding and meaning. What anchors the work for you if it is not ‘meaning’?
MO: I don't know. I don't see my work as rejecting meaning nor against logic but perhaps my work resides within several meanings. I think, therefore, of intertextuality, where meaning is not transferred directly from author to reader but instead is mediated through, or filtered by, “codes” imparted to the author and reader by other text. For example, when I use the image of the hooded figure we decode it as something influenced by Philip Guston's paintings, or as a part of the critical tradition of Goya, or Bosch, or as some post-colonial reading of history painting, or of Goth imagery related to underground youth culture, or all of these conversations at once. So within intertextuality there are multiple access points to understand a work of art.
GF: It is a curious place to drift, untethered and ambiguous within this plague of meaning that drives so much art today. How many times have you heard the question ‘but what does it mean?’ It drives you towards the oblique.
MO: The often heard remark to "but what does it mean?" is really a cop out from the viewer because I think meaning resides not solely in the work itself but also in the viewer. If art were that floozy then we better just lie back, enjoy the lugubrious ride and get what we totally deserve - a cultural disease involving the absence of imagination - that is a plague of so much art today. When the work begins to explain itself, apologetic in that way, and its veils of mystery and autonomy are replaced with official nametags flaunting their conquest, then why make art after all? A debate between art and criticism goes: "I don't understand this work at all?!," says the critic, which the work of art honks back, "Well, I don't understand you!"
GF: I agree we have become so lazy that we have forgotten how to think, to question.
MO: The most difficult ideas should appear in the most ridiculous of things, in order for them to be engaged at all; and because there is no other way. We have seen so many things done with painting that don't need to be repeated. In fact, most critics would point out that this is why the medium is considered dead - to beat that dead horse. So what more can painters do? They can't regurgitate what others have done before them, that wouldn't be original. And they can't pretend to be original by ignoring the past - that would be conceptually unfashionable. Painting, then in its "old" age, can only go where most elderly adults go, towards the distant abstract shore of senility.
GF: I read you once cited Robert Smithson to answer to a question that dealt with ‘identity’. I love his position: ‘think of identity as a non-site’. For me what is most interesting is this notion of charting site / territory / landscape / urbanity etc.. as a kind of psycho-babble for identity. Tell me why you are attracted to Smithson’s words?
MO: Non-site is an invented word, which in Smithson’s work denotes displacement. His earthworks are sometimes put in a gallery context and are therefore displaced. This he calls non-site. Non-site to him is a three dimensional “logical picture.” Logical pictures are diagrams of places or sites, as in a blueprint or a topographical map. A logical picture differs from a natural or realistic picture in that it rarely looks like the thing it stands for. One of the titles of his essay is called The Non-Site (an indoor earthwork), which refers to a 3-dimensional logical picture that is abstract, yet it represents an actual site. It is by this dimensional metaphor that one site can represent another site, which does not resemble it – this is The Non Site. To understand this language of sites is to appreciate the metaphor between the syntactical construct and the complex of ideas...
GF: But how does that relate to identity?
MO: To me the term non-site, which I already bastardized from Smithson, is a perfect metaphor for identity. If non-site then is about placement within displacement then identity too follows the same logic. Smithson to me seems like a crackpot archaeologist. My attraction to his words is in the way things are open-ended yet form a logical continuum from the rational to the absurd.
GF: You have been quoted as ‘wanting to push painting to the point of ridiculous’. What defines that point for you?
MO: I think the statement is a way to read my working as part of the history of painting that strives to take apart pre-conceived notions of aesthetic values like beauty, harmony, etc. The statement also aligns myself within the anti-aesthetic camp as the roots of my work lie in kitsch, the discarded, the marginal, and the lowbrow. So the meaning of wanting to push the medium of painting towards the ridiculous is to use impropriety and wrongness to open cracks in the ideological system of painting. What defines this point is when an image of shit turns into a strange attractor.
GF: The flipside of that push towards the ridiculous - that perverse liberation of painting – is a serious engagement with painting’s historical surface. You have also said, ‘I want to believe that in my practice there is a serious engagement with the history of painting and a radical opposition to its hierarchy of value.”
MO: The history of painting for me is like one big swimming pool where there are lots of painters already in it. You also want to jump in and enjoy the water. So how do you go about creating your own space? Well, one can throw a nutty chocolate bar in the pool, like in the movie Caddyshack and cause a panic so that those other people would jump out thinking it was a shit attack. In painting's terms, the nutty chocolate bar is the so-called abject - a transgressive device that levels the field because nobody wants to deal with it. The serious engagement with painting’s history is the constant struggle, in this day and age, to justify why one is still painting and making something ridiculous is a serious part of painting’s history.
GF: So while there is this constant diffusion of serious content – the truth would be that it is merely a device – a deflection – am I right?
MO: Yes, of course it is a deflection. I think mentioning these words ‘ridiculous’, ‘serious engagement’ or ‘radical opposition’ are rhetorical devices to set up the playing field for how the paintings are to be worked out or read. These deflections are also the content of the work. While I cannot paint the word ‘ridiculous,’ ‘radical opposition to hierarchy of values,’ or ‘diffusion of serious content’ on the works these ideas nevertheless may come up to the viewer when looking at my paintings.
GF: Valentine’s exhibition very deliberately coincided with the inaugural Art Stage Singapore – hell Singapore itself is the quintessential massaged ‘site’. Your 1997 exhibition Heridas de la Lengua was particularly critical of the art market – more than two decades later you face this exhibition this commercial extravaganza [Art Stage is run by Art Basel organizers (the most powerful art fair in the world) in partnership with Singapore government] How do you navigate that territory? Do you just ignore it, or is it so blatant that you can’t ignore it?
MO: I don’t see my work as blatantly working against the market but I feel that the market has an aversion to my work. Maybe I see the work as testing the limits of the status quo of painting in relation to the market or maybe the work is a contrarian full of self-loathing and doubt.
GF: I am curious, then, how you see your work sitting within that context? How did you pitch the tone of the show, after all it is titled The Painter’s Equipment hinting at a kind of ‘toolbox’ of magical tricks that includes a cognoscence of market.
MO: One can’t ignore the context one is working in but the way the market works in terms of art is marked by contiguous relational shifts between complicity and criticality. Criticality gets subsumed within the discourse in which it becomes the agent of the market. To me the market is like this all-consuming blob where every blow makes it even stronger. According to Martha Rosler, who is also a world-class player herself in the artworld game:
“The art world core of cognoscenti who validate work on the basis of criteria that set it apart from a broad audience may favor art with a critical edge, though not perhaps for the very best reasons. Work engaged with real-world issues or exhibiting other forms of criticality may offer a certain satisfaction and flatters the viewer, provided it does not too baldly implicate the class or subject position of the viewer... Art history’s genealogical dimension often leads to the acceptance of “politico-critical” work from past eras, and even of some contemporary work descended from this, which cannot help but underscore its exchange value. Simply put, to some connoisseurs and collectors, and possibly one or two museum collections, criticality is a stringently attractive brand. Advising collectors or museums to acquire critical work can have a certain sadistic attraction, directed both toward the artist and the work and toward the advisee/collector. Political opinions, when they are manifested, can become mannerist tropes.”
MO: So to have a real critical position either one should not participate at all in the game, be in the margins, or be indifferent to the rules of the game. Kevin Power observed when he stated in the essay for “Bastards of Misrepresentation” catalogue exhibition that the struggle will be played out in the margins, like in developing countries where the market is still trying to get a solid foothold on culture as an unregulated exploitable arena.
GF: You bring up Bastards and the realm of influence. As I understand you originally used this title in 2005 for your exhibition at Casa Asia in Barcelona [same year as your Finale show which possibly was the first time these ‘bastards’ had seen your work in Manila - which I find a curious connection]. Was this the birth of a ‘movement’ of some kind Manuel? I am not saying these artists weren’t working in a similar way before, but that something was formalized and has gained a certain profile and strength as a group within this scene in the subsequent five years - a collection of bastards. What are your thoughts?
MO: The show I organized in Berlin titled ‘Bastards of Misrepresentation: Doing Time On Filipino Time’ (October 2010) was born out of a dissatisfaction with how the art scene in Manila is heading. This ‘collection of bastards’ are artists whose works I’ve admired and collected; there is no movement. The show is not medium specific; every medium is well represented. I am not even sure if it's possible today to create something called a "movement," aping the so-called good ole days of art groups like the expressionists, the surrealists, the situationists, the abstract expressionists etc. without being cynical and snide by saying, well here's another label for the market to gag on. Send that complaint to the department of avant-garde cliches. Why? Because the issue prances around over-used and abused concepts like identity and authenticity, both terms already flogged to death by dirty old man post-modern with his critical harangue on representation, but ultimately are indispensable brands for goods to sell en masse. The tag "bastard" already connotes a challenge on authority, one who is born outside of official standards without the legitimacy of rights and presents a threat towards the original, since it is as we would call it as the Other. So it’s a "negative" term. And so is "misrepresentation" which might also mean what is false, or what is confusing, what is not clear or incorrect. Perhaps the common thread between my work and these "bastards" is the narrative of the aesthetic incorrect which is almost a de-facto condition for those who are considered "outside the pale of history" (Hegel).
GF: You mentioned a dissatisfaction of the Manila art scene – do you want to expand on this – why?
MO: The Philippine art scene stopped being interesting when the auction houses started dictating the style and market value of the art being made here. Local artists started being ambitious in the wrong way because of pressures from the market. There are no museums or curators in Manila that are interested in actively promoting or creating a dialogue with artists. One can’t expect anything from commercial galleries so it’s up to the artists to do something about their own situation. So we took matters into our own hands. The show is an artist’s initiated project. We all raised funds via raffles, writing sponsorship letters, collaborating with a design organization to make merchandises, etc. all to finance the catalogue, shipping of works, travel, accommodation, etc. I’ve approached several galleries and museums in the States and Europe since 2005 and it is only now that the seeds are bearing fruit. The majority of the artists in this group show are in their mid 30’s and have been showing for quite some time. Some of them have won awards and have participated in Biennales. I believe that this group show is expanding the discursive field regarding art being made in the Philippines today. The current struggle lies within the fringes, this is the reason why being in Manila is a significant arena to play around in more so than if one is in New York - which is a place that is totally under control by the market and is no longer a vital arena for any discourse.
GF: Philippine artists have a strong presence in Singapore already. The curatorial trend lately has been to blur such definitions beyond geography. How pivotal is the brokerage of identity in these works for your Singapore and Melbourne exhibitions? Will they carry imagery, semantics, totally ubiquitous to the Philippines and its national psyche, or is it a more international ground explored?
MO: I really don’t know what the word Filipino means and I don’t want to play the identity game because it’s something that is overly academicized to the point that it lays claim to its own contrivance. Notions of identity and the word’s inherent political attributes are overburdened by clichés. Therefore current shows addressing this theme, even if they tend to blur such definitions, are still tied to stereotypes and received ideas. Identity shows are really about economics. The strong presence of Filipinos in Singapore is due to the fact that works by Filipino artists are doing well at auction houses in Southeast Asia. How about talking about identities of cockroaches, of being jerks, of being happy in a world full of violence rather than unimaginative shows framed within national, social, and geo-political categories. I am thinking more of Scandinavia for these paintings in Singapore.
GF: Singapore is very neat. It has well defined boundaries – on every level – psychological and state! Manuel how do we define you in a “neat” context?
MO: I think one has to look at my paintings gradually, step by step, as if navigating oneself through the streets of Manila – dog shit mine field, full of garbage, stinky, flooded roads, drunks inviting you for a drink, religious fanatics asking for donations, children and blind beggars pester you for money, and the cops will likely pull you over for some unknown violation only to ask for a bribe. The viewer has to be armed with the unerring faith in the power of irony and streetwise to all the tricks of ridicule. The work’s purpose is to keep one alert, ready to penetrate one’s conscience, so that the painting can reveal itself for what it really is – an absurd body of accumulated information with no clear direction or intention as to which imagination and meaning are casually attached.
Maybe my strategy for Singapore is like the Bob Marley song from the Heathen: “...he who hides and runs away lives to fight another day”. I also don't know anything about Singapore so the content in relation to context will be fuzzy. But then again I imagine that Singapore is a non-site. Not that it does not have any history, culture, etc. but its locus is always under negotiation.
GF: And Australia – it has been a slow and patchy awareness of contemporary Philippine practice. Do you think Australia is caught in ‘market-mentality’ or do you think Melbourne audiences have a read on the ‘tricks of ridicule’ you suggest?
MO: With the help of you, Tony (Twigg), Maria Cruz, Neil Fettling and David (Griggs) Australians are becoming more and more aware of the artistic landscape of the Philippines and vice versa. David has been inviting artists from Australia via David’s Lost Project’s residency program’s focus on Australian artists. In less than a year David has invited Ben Quilty, Lisa Andrew, Simon Barney, Lizzy Newman, and currently Josey Kidd-Crowe to exhibit and live in his gallery. Through these efforts I think a lot of Australians are now curious of what is happening here in the arts.
This will be my third Melbourne outing, I have been working with Jarrod Rawlins since 2008 and this will be the second time that I will be working with him. I also did a residency program and a show at Gertrude in 2009. I think by now Melburnians are street smart enough to handle my paintings’ visual taunts.
Conversation between Manuel Ocampo and writer Gina Fairley conducted via emails between August and November 2010. It remains the copyright of Ocampo:Fairley.
Manuel Ocampo’s “The Beer Belly Masculinity Intensification Program or When Hangover Becomes Form” was presented by KalimanRawlins, Melbourne, from 26 August to 17 September 2011.
About Manuel Ocampo
Manuel Ocampo (b. 1965) is a Filipino artist whose work has been exhibited extensively throughout the 1990s, with solo exhibitions at galleries and institutions throughout Europe, Asia and the Americas. In 2005, his work was the subject of a large-scale survey at Casa Asia in Barcelona and Lieu d’Art Contemporain in Sigean, France. Ocampo’s work has been included in a number of international surveys including the 2004 Seville Biennale, 2001 Venice Biennale, the 2001 Berlin Biennale, the 2000 Biennale d’art Contemporain de Lyon, the 1997 Kwangju Biennale, the 1993 Corcoran Biennale, and in 1992’s controversial Documenta IX. His work was featured in many group shows in the 1990s, including Helter Skelter : LA Art of the 1990s at the Museum of Contemporary Art in Los Angeles in 1992; Asia/America : Identities in Contemporary Asian American Art at the Asia Society in New York in 1994; American Stories : Amidst Displacement and Transformation at Setagaya Art Museum in Tokyo in 1997; Pop Surrealism at The Aldrich Museum of Art in 1998; and Made In California : Art, Image and Identity 1900-2000 at the Los Angeles County Museum of Art in 2000. He has received a number of prestigious grants and awards including the Giverny Residency (1998), the Rome Prize at the American Academy (1995-96), the National Endowment for the Arts (1996), the Pollock-Krasner Foundation grant (1995) and Art Matters Inc. (1991). His recent exhibitions include The Painter's Equipment at Valentine Willie Fine Art Singapore (2011) and The Ghost Poop of Painting at Galerie Zimmerman-Kratochwill (2011) in Graz, Austria.
About the author
Gina Fairley is a freelance writer and curator specialising in contemporary art of Southeast Asia. She lives between Sydney and Manila and runs the window gallery SLOT with artist Tony Twigg. http://slot.net.au/