Apocrypha • Renato Ong

Apr 8 to Apr 28, 2015 • Tall Gallery


In this exhibition enigmatically titled Apocrypha, Renato Agustin Ong convenes an assemblage of labor and its conditions across time and place in the local-global nexus in which the Philippines finds itself. The artist stages a series of three tableaux to conceptualize the differences in how labor is created and how the people that create it materialize collectively by way of a crowd, a pantheon, a force, a community. Such a collective lurks in the woodwork of the device of the tableau that in many ways references a kind of “theater,” one that reflects on the agency of the working subject—the toil, the travail—as well as the structure that is ceaselessly mediated by those who must transform in order to prevail. The tableau, therefore, becomes a narrative, deceptively static and choreographed, but actually proves to be a dense frieze of potential allegories that disclose a multitude of denials. Thus, the term apocrypha surfaces to haunt the armature of the generative figure, unleashed instead of being overly wrought.

Renato Agustin Ong explores this scheme to offer three levels of labor. Or, it might be better to claim that this labor is actually a form of world making across distinct temporalities and procedures of facture or fabrication. The first level takes us to the street, at once public and domestic, inhabited by “cart people” whose vehicles are simultaneously dwellings and technologies of survival. They are rendered bare though are festooned at the same time with the possessions of persistence; they “proliferate” and their swarm cannot be missed. They are cut up and hollowed out to demonstrate how they have become used and discarded in the cycle of production in the city, cast in a miserabilist, pejorative vocabulary as scavenger, squatter, or urchin, oftentimes in the register of so-called poverty pornography. This said, they are otherwise animated, infused with the liveliness of a bricoleur, imbricated in the appliances of their desires and anxieties. For the artist, while these cart people are abject and alienated at certain levels, their lifeworlds are robust, prone to the improvisations of the quick-change itinerant performer. They are not merely the embodiments of dehumanization who are thought to be consumed by the catatonia of civilization and progress. They are, in fact, hunters and gatherers of the nature of the mean and also munificent streets. It was the anthropologist Claude Levi-Strauss in the book The Savage Mind that characterized the bricoleur as a strategist and tactician par excellence. According to him, the bricoleur is “adept at performing a large number of diverse tasks…the rules of his game are always to make do with ‘whatever is at hand,’ that is to say with a set of tools and materials which is always finite and is also heterogeneous…the contingent result of all the occasions there have been to renew or enrich the stock or to maintain it with the remains of previous constructions or destructions.”

The next tableau consists of the overseas Filipino workers, hailed without fail as the heroes of the contemporary nation. Their patriotism supposedly rests on the routine of sending money to their families back home to keep the national economy on an even keel. They are index of the intense migration of labor that has drained Philippine society, this after the long years of successive colonialisms since the sixteenth century that had shaped the history of a post-colonial country. The figures in this congregation are slightly raised above the ground, but they are bereft of color, as ghostly as global capital, in contrast to the ebullient chromatic constitution of the cart people. They are not the “stars” of the spectacle, regardless how they exemplify the labor needed to make the Philippines putatively competitive globally. They are, however, quietly stalwart, heroic in their stances, and commemorative in their outlook, conceived to grace the rotunda from the airport to the city of Laoag in Ilocos Norte. They are meant to be remembered. Or maybe martyred, primed like alabaster for execution?

The final set-up refers to the deep past of ancestors, an evocation of the Philippine primeval, so to speak, via the “tambara” of northern ethnic lineage. They are spirits of the atmosphere, hovering like guardians and specters of the afterlife, presiding over the fates of mortals as pillars of a cosmological consciousness, a phalanx in a battle field of mythologies. That they may defy the gravity of the gritty ethnoscapes in which people roam to work and eke out a life is a telling sign of the moment they constitute in the vast continuum of the everyday in historical time. To them the artist assigns a vital role: a semblance of affinity and a means of integration between the diverse forces of labor at work in the social world. After all, they are votive figures, ready to receive supplications and offerings, hopes and dreams and even love. Like the cart in the earlier ensemble, they are vessels, too. In this instance of commingling and, we dare say, the conjuring of a “sudden vicinity of things,” the constellation of labor, of world making, is finally consummated. Here, three strata of time gather and inevitably accrete: street time, migrant time, and ancestral time. These three revelations of the world, their eventual enfleshing or enworlding, trace the arc of origin, existence, and travel.

In the artist’s imagination, this world in the making is a phantasmagoria, partly desolate, but also partly whimsical. The project relies heavily on the ability of Renato Agustin Ong to hew figures with commitment and interest, and to encrust it with a heady sensibility like a bricoleur and with the Philippine habit of diskarte informing it. The figure in highly mediated resin and supplemental media, therefore, refuses the formalism of sculpture; it, rather, becomes something akin to a puppet or a marionette or even an effigy, on the one hand, and an anthropomorphic cabinet of curiosities, on the other. It is vividly ornamented with disparate paraphernalia, cleverly segmented to intimate the fine furniture of western rationality and colonial mastery, and riddled with inscriptions from tattoos to random protrusions, receptacles, and appendages. These seemingly somnambulist characters—by turns grotesque in the vein of caricature and idealized in the guise of religious statuary—appear at times as cyborgs or androids, robotic and post-human, in a universe that desperately must change to redeem itself from the tireless anthropocene enterprise in which corpus is, sadly, apparatus.

—Patrick D. Flores