Saturday, January 28, 2012

Passing through

THE IRONY is that in the places where you meet so few people, the folks turn out to be among the most likeable.

Puerto Princesa City in Palawan is such a place.

In the two hours or so it took to clear the airport and travel by van to the coast of Sabang, there seemed to be more trees than people.

These are not just the scrawny, dusty urban survivors eking out an existence in concrete and smog. The trees of Puerto Princesa are royalty. They exude Presence.

These sentinels of antiquity set the tone of the city’s hospitality, as well as the terms of a gracious but firm host. Before passengers disembark, the pilot enjoins everyone to abide by the strict no-littering ordinance of the city.

Even city monkeys that toss litter from vehicles or drop trash outside, around and on top of trash bin covers (but somehow, never inside the bin) will surely be inhibited from monkeying around in Puerto Princesa.

It’s a city without a mall, we learn. This fact is a source of wonder, underlined by the presence of the evergreen vanguards. I had to blink to confirm that we were still in the Central District, not in the heart of a forest.

Yet, in Puerto Princesa, tourists seem to outnumber the locals. Can the government and the private sector sustain this eco-tourism, which apparently is not fed yet by shopping mania and the insatiable search for novelty and entertainment?

Or will malls, resorts and escape getaways someday encroach on and displace the trees from their century-old niches?

You get a preview at the Sabang port, where there’s a bottleneck of bancas. In the islands of Cebu and Bohol, chartering a banca for island-hopping usually means the boat and crew that ferries you over waits for you at the island to bring you back to the point of origin.

In Sabang, you follow a trip schedule. As soon as each batch of seven or so passengers wades to the shore, the banca scoots back to Sabang, picking up a fresh batch for ferrying. At a set time, you emerge from the forest to find your ride back is waiting, as prompt and predictable as any mass transit system.

What creates this un-islandlike flow of commuters and traffic?

The Underground River of Puerto Princesa.

Like other tourist magnets, there’s a long list of acclaim attached to this spot: “the longest navigable underground river in the world,” a finalist of the “Search for the New 7 Wonders of Nature,” and future location of the shooting of a few scenes for the latest installment of the Bourne saga.

That Puerto Princesa straddles two worlds is apparent after one drops from the banca and wades to shore. A few steps take you to a forest that calls, shrieks and whistles in a babble of tongues that don’t sound human but are human in its acuity to communicate.

But even the wilds can be tamed by tourism. The monkeys sidle along like movie stars accommodating fans begging for photo ops. Only those human eyes betray their thieving intentions as they follow the bag swinging from your hand or the bun you’ve put down on a table to better point and shoot the hairy mercenaries.

Trekkers wind past trunks of phantasmagoric twists and heights to find they’ve reached a platform that strongly reminds me of the MRT station crowds at peak times.

It’s quite orderly, with foreigners resigned and watching what remains of the view that’s not blocked by talkative and gesticulating groups of local tourists posing and rearranging themselves for the dozen or so cameras that each group seems to possess.

Not unlike the MRT waiting platforms, though, the brackish water is clear, cold and placid. Schools of fish as long as your thumb and middle finger can bracket create an illusion of ripples and shadows, striping the swimmers. Impassively, the limestone cliffs tower above the crowd waiting for their turn to go inside the cave.

Water, tree, stone—how do they see us, oglers passing through and changing irreversibly everything once under the dominion of millenia?

( 09173226131)

*First published in Sun.Star Cebu's Jan. 29, 2012 issue of the "Matamata" Sunday column

The pedestrian sleepers

A WARM nest of bodies.

Walking away from the Basilica del Sto. Niño’s final evening mass at the height of the fiesta novena, I came upon sidewalks full of people sleeping or settling down for the night.

I felt like an interloper who walked in on guests of the house acting as “floor leaders,” a joke referring to the practice of barrio hosts to accommodate their fiesta visitors on mats spread out on the wooden floor of the living room for lack of bedrooms and beds.

The sidewalks were packed tightly, with sleeping bodies arranged in spoon fashion. Here and there were improvised stoves and a simmering pot. Some of those who were lying down were facing each other, talking as I imagine couples do just before someone drops off to sleep.

Were these people related to each other? The compression of space and the intimate way each body adjusted to the ones lying beside it, not to mention the fact that many lowered their guards enough to go to sleep—all suggested the tightest, most unbreakable of relations, if not by birth then by affinity.

Yet, seeing the bodies stretch out for a block or more, I guessed that it is hardly possible for entire clans to have conspired to live in the sidewalks for the Sinulog. Many of the sidewalk sleepers had to be strangers until they ended sharing a carton spread out on a sidewalk this fiesta.

Perhaps these were street vendors, who preferred to sleep nearby to take advantage of selling opportunities with early mass goers.
Or pilgrims dedicated to fulfill a longtime vow, even if it meant finding rest in one of the most inhospitable places I can imagine?

Why would one choose dirt-strewn pavements and the risks of sleeping in the open for the accommodations and amenities set out for out-of-town visitors at the Devotee City in Compania Maritima, just a walk away from the Basilica?

Yet, this sidewalk scene reminded me of my aunt’s anecdote about Black Friday, the day after Thanksgiving. Termed as such partly because the peaking of shopping always brings about high levels of chaos and stress, Black Friday is much anticipated because many take advantage of the widespread store sales and big discounts.

Outside stores selling major-ticket items like electronics, buyers camp out on the sidewalks to be among the first to go in when the doors open. The adjective, “black,” is also said to be based on the accounting standard that businesses record their losses in red, and gains in black.
Bargain-hunting in the West can induce people to abandon warm beds and find temporary comfort in the thought that they will be the first to grab great buys.

Is it the same for the sidewalk sleepers I walked amongst on my way home?

While I agree with most observers who say chaos describes best the state of our sidewalks, a Dec. 17, 2011 article in The Economist puts forth some curious insights about pedestrian behavior, based on a new science examining and predicting how people behave in a crowd.

According to researchers, a crowd is a mass of “particles with a will”. A social force drives persons in a crowd to react like particles in fluids and gases. Some factors attract persons; some, repel. Thus, there is little freedom of choice because individuals react in the same, predictable way to certain givens.

Yet, the scientists also note some aberration. Why are persons in some cultures less bothered about the chances of bumping into another person? The Economist observes that pedestrians move around in crowds in Munich and Mumbai, but an experiment showed that the Indians walk faster than the Germans because they are less bothered about bumping into others.

Or why do persons in the East instinctively step to the left to avoid a collision with another person? Except for South Korea where there is a government campaign requiring pedestrians to walk on the right, Orientals instinctively sidestep to the left and Westerners, go for the right.

Getting over the initial discomfort from watching the people sleeping on the sidewalk , I chose to walk on the street. Despite heavy traffic, I did not want to step on anyone, and I felt like an interloper in that warm nest of bodies.

And yes, I moved to the left to spare the pedestrian sleepers.

( 09173226131)

* First published in Sun.Star Cebu's Jan. 22, 2012 issue of the "Matamata" Sunday column

Saturday, January 14, 2012

Ease unease disease

CAN an empty room disturb?

At first, when I entered the Cebu City Museum last weekend, the silence was like a canvas splotched with the distant clamor of the streets, the freezing rush of the air-conditioning unit, and the flight of the dust motes.

Being in a roomful of art can never be serene for long.

On exhibit till the end of January, “Contemporary Cebu,” curated by J. V. Castro, is an excellent hole to disappear into for any visitor or even native who mistakes Cebu to be an interminable fiesta.

The Senyor Sto. Niño, a child imbued with the paradoxical powers of a king, a soldier and a Patron, is an apt metaphor for the contradictions of spirituality that pulse from the works of Wenceslao “Tito” Cuevas and J. Karl Roque (explored in this space last Sunday).

There is nothing unequivocal about the visions coming from Dennis “Sio” Montera. His “Final Warning on Global Warming” is a massive stage bursting with warm pastels and whites, threaded with ominous black snakes of bitumen. Cebu, with its overflowing dumps, flashfloods and flyover complex, is a carnival with a countdown, Montera seems to say with his other works, “A Painful Crescendo” and “The Fire Within”.

Since I first covered Montera in mid-2000, I consider bitumen every bit a signature as his apocalyptic vision. A byproduct of decomposed organic materials, bitumen (asphalt or tar) has been used for ages by people. Yet while the ancients have used this thick, shiny material to seal their reed boats and mummies, modern societies use this principally to bind asphalt in roads and meet the demand by refining crude petroleum oils, a stark prediction for where mankind is heading to.

Although much diminished in size compared to Montera’s, the works of Marvin Natural are as unsettling. Too brief is the refuge taken amidst the angles and lines created by tree trunks and branches as this is quickly dispelled by the clangor of artwork titles that read like breaking headlines: “Storm Leaves 2.9T Stranded” and “Heavy Rains and Strong Winds Hit Cebu, Pag-asa Says It is Just Low Pressure”.

Lightning stuns first before thunder hits. So it is with the black and white art of Kidlat. Hung outside the museum, the posters I brushed past at first. Then I went back because of something that snagged my eye. In “Tower,” a pile of pancakes has a knife impaled on it, oozing a viscous liquid that looks more like blood than syrup. In “Last Dance,” an empty chair stands desolate in a sea of blood and discarded knives.

“Piñata” and “Candy Strings” made me feel I had gatecrashed a mad children’s party or peeped into a nursery witnessing an unspeakable act. The black triangles of candy suspended from a string should not even be touched, lest they explode and mangle. There is an ancient rocking horse with torn bandages. According to Kidlat, art is not a broken nail dragged against a board; it is the unease lingering after the nail rips.

In this sea of disquieting inanimates, I thought faces would be sanctuaries. Palmy Pe-Tudtud and Vidal Alcoseba Jr. deny this. Masks stare from the disembodied faces writhing in Tudtud’s “Solidarity” series in red (I), brown (II) and blue (III). Are these the visages of the disappeared, ironic about social justice? Or the pretences donned and discarded by those courting our confidence?

Alcoseba skewers the state of the human with black, grey and dingy white. In this order, I viewed “Untitled 3,” where the defined musculature of a figure’s shoulders inexplicably ends in a twisted mouth and absent hands; terminated in “Untitled 2,” where a riot of lines crisscross like barbed wire, oozing shadows; and finally redeemed in “Untitled 4,” the darkness framing two beacons of light: what may be a chalice of gold and a dove.

Thanks to Ritchie Quijano’s mixed media sculpture, the only three-dimensional works in the exhibit, I found myself treading the backwash of impressions. Quijano creates art from found pieces of hardwood and waste. “Babel” resembles a modern anito, and “Tooth,” bristling with tubes, screws and blades, reminds me of a cannibalized guitar or pelvis.

Yet in dread is the equilibrium. A small screw propping the bottom balances the four levels of the pyramid in “Babel”. Take away this nonentity and this illusion collapses. Art, though perceived by some as an indulgence, creates the space that enables victims to squeeze out and walk away from disasters immemorial.

( 09173226131)

*First published in Sun.Star Cebu’s Jan. 15, 2012 issue of the “Matamata” Sunday column

Saturday, January 07, 2012

Instructive accident

AN INSTRUCTION on reading or cultural resurgence?

In search of the “Contemporary Cebu” exhibit, I stood outside the wrong museum. Answering my inquiry about modern art, the guard at the Museo Sugbu pointed out a tarpaulin announcing recently excavated artifacts.

Rereading the invitation, I discovered the venue was not the provincial museum but the Cebu City Museum. For old-timers, the Rizal Memorial Library and Museum is a landmark I’ve come to associate more with neglect and renovation rather than any cultural stirring.

Yet, if it is now possible for a native Cebuano to get into a museum mix-up, this may still foretell of the blooming of the city of my birth.

It’s an expectation the renovated Cebu City Museum meets. In place of the dark recesses and creaking floorboards that, while redolent with the patina of years, reinforced the museum’s mothballed state is a space of light, height and vision.

This extravagance of light and space is exploited by the “Contemporary Cebu” exhibit, which has all works except two of Ritchie Quijano’s sculptures mounted or ranged along the walls.

In the late 1980s, J. Karl Roque’s lifelike depictions of marine creatures exerted an impact like photojournalism: seeing the bounty up close underscored the evanescence I witnessed in my work with nearshore communities.

Roque’s 2011 diptych, “In His Eyes,” brings back the sensation except this time, instead of observing and judging, I am immersed, part of a silent but not inarticulate world. An undertow of spirituality is created by the title and the blurred glimpse of beauty, as a diver perceives the bottom of the sea roiled up in a storm.

Roque’s “After the Storm” and “Scent of the Morning Rain” are, poetically and visually, depictions of healing and resurgence. Each work is circular, with a hole painted off-center, bringing to mind an artist’s palette awaiting a hand to mix the colors interpreting reality.

At first glance, the spirituality of Roque is reflected in Wenceslao “Tito” Cuevas’s huge canvases. Stand before the works long enough and the child-like innocence of the pastels and the figures shift and move till the viewer realizes that meditating with Cuevas leads her down a different path.

Deified or vandalized? Cuevas’ contact print of Holy Family images, “Do Not Enter Our Aura with Your Hysteria,” has bright yolk yellow suffusing the iconic Sto. Niño. Is this splash of color the gold leaf of veneration? Or splatters of superstition defacing faith like rotten eggs hurled by unbelievers?

In “Amen (So Be It),” white smudges obliterate a sea of faces. The symbol of purity, white here is anything but restful. Cuevas wields the color with the icy precision of an executioner expunging, reducing the canvas not to the original state of blankness but the bleakness of a death-soaked field.

From nil to nil. This leaps out during that afternoon of walking around the Cebu City Museum exhibit. In the works of Roque, the phrase rises like a benediction, undeserved and all the more precious for being bestowed.

Yet, taking a few steps across the room or twisting the glance, I encounter the same phrase, bristling with innuendoes, in the Cuevas works. The artist is a razor stripping away the layers with which we cover our nakedness and exposing what lies pitifully at the core of our pretences.

The “Contemporary Cebu” exhibit opens portals for viewers to step inside and through. For curator J. V. Castro, the assembled works are revelatory of the maturity and complexity of art produced by local artists. He wrote that the works defy the caricatures of provincial art, or the sort of pastoral scenes art experts in Manila imagine are being created and appreciated outside Manila.

As one who has never left home, I am not startled by what has been growing in the backyard all this time. It pleases me though that the organizers—the Ramon Aboitiz Foundation Inc. (RAFI), the Alternative Contemporary Art Studio and The Grove by Rockwell—have assembled until Jan. 31 this breadth of artistic vision that refracts realities, unique to Cebu and at the same time, universal.

That this third element—vision—finds its way into an old landmark given new relevance—formerly the Rizal Memorial Library and Museum, now the Cebu City Museum—pleases this true-blue Bisdak even more.

(To be continued next Sunday)

( 09173226131)

*First published in Sun.Star Cebu’s Jan. 8, 2012 issue of the “Matamata” Sunday column

Friday, January 06, 2012

A grain of sand

THIS is my theory: if one lives by the sea, one must be reconciled to always living with a grain of sand.

The final days of the old year deposit our family on the southern coast of Cebu. The sullen sky, the turbulence of the surf and the chill in the air create a spell of solitude that keeps away weekend worshippers but summons us, who crave a rest from the festivities ushering in a new year.

Yet, while it’s true that we want some respite from holiday-making, it’s also misleading to give the impression that the coastal solitude at this time of the year is quiet and placid.

For one, the sea, like any creature of moods, is never silent. One dawn I woke up suddenly. It took me a second to realize what I was missing: the violence of the surf pounding the shore. Only when I flexed my toes and touched the inevitable grains of sand on the bed did I realize I was where I was when I had gone to sleep.

As a child, I already realized that sand leaves the longest memory of interludes at the coast. Whenever it was time to go home, we children were told to rinse our feet and sandals for the last time in the sea.

Yet, no matter how carefully and slowly we walked back to the car, there would always be sand sticking at the back of our legs. The more one rinsed, the more sand clung. It pleased me to always hold off going home by hollering I would wade “one last time”.

Only to find, weeks later, in the middle of a gym session, I would be fingering sand in the pocket of a pair of shorts I waded in at sea.

I brushed sand again when I watched the works exhibited by Raymund L. Fernandez in his SM City Cebu retrospective, “Bulahan ang Bunga sa Tiyan Mo,” from Dec. 23, 2011 to Jan. 4, 2012.

Mons, my former teacher and now colleague at the University of the Philippines Cebu, gathers works that touch on the religious. In an interview, he said that for his first one-man show in over 10 years, he had to choose between this theme and nudes, the other significant body of works he’s made over the years.

Those with greater empathy for the flesh than the spirit should still visit the exhibit. As an artist, Mons has never been caged in by themes. The “Bulahan” works rub raw my preconceptions of spirituality.

His “Belen” is a block of bayong carved to show the dominant visage of St. Joseph and the smaller image of the Virgin Mary, cupping a Niño, a reversal of roles in all the stories of the manger birth I’ve heard.

In “Sta. Maria Asuncion,” reportedly a 400-year-old found piece of molave illustrating the Assumption, the faces and the feet of the angel and Mary are distended in rapture I immediately associate with the sexual, having had no experience of the spiritual variety.

More curious is the story behind Mons’ “Bulahan ang Bunga sa Tiyan Mo,” which shows magkuno inlays portraying the face, hands and feet of Mary, set off against the molave body. It is not only the starkness of dark wood against white that startles. It is the realization that one is looking at an image of the pregnant Mary, an oddity in traditional iconography that shows Mary at the Annunciation, fast forward to Mary in the Manger, skipping other allusions of the flesh.

According to Mons, discussions over a possible commissioned work on Mary fell through. That same night, he dreamed of a woman sitting on a log, who then looks back at him and says, “I have for you a gift.” Waking up, he dismisses it as a “diabetic” dream.

On the same day, his brother, Londong, tells him about finding a molave trunk abandoned near their ancestral home in Dumanjug. It takes Mons another two years to finish the carving of Mary, which he later gives to the Congregation of St. John. While the sculpture was in progress, his younger son, Elias, often kissed the molave bump, a natural formation of the wood that inspires the “Bulahan” theme.

In “Timon,” a molave trunk carved to show a fisherman steering in a storm, I find a clue to Mons’ view of the religious shaping a life. What I mistook at first for a devil lashed by the storms of faith into covering his face is a mere mortal whose enormous feet express the tremendous effort of will and sinew to steer on course.

Faith is not passive acceptance. It is recognizing the anomalous, even doubt, to prove the existence of faith. Very much as a grain of sand brings back in a rush a whole interlude.

( 09173226131)

*First published in Sun.Star Cebu’s Jan. 1, 2012 issue of the “Matamata” Sunday column