Travelogue: Navigating the Foreground
What those of us who haven’t lived in the jungle or gardened in the desert typically don’t know about succulent plants is that whole beings may grow anew from fallen members. Supposing conditions are right, when any one of the waxy leaf-like protuberances of certain succulent plants drops from the stalk, it doesn’t necessarily shrivel and decay but may instead sprout hairy roots and develop into an independent entity. In this way, the plants can be seen to reproduce and walk at once. Visualize a period of weeks or months in the life of a single succulent as if through the mechanical eye of a time-lapse camera, and you will see a profusion of clones expanding outward from the original plant in all directions, colonizing your imaginary viewfinder’s territory. Gardeners advise us these beings thrive on neglect, meaning they’ve self-optimized to survive in arid climates over countless generations by hoarding water effectively. Consequently, if captured by humans, cultivated in containers, and zealously moisturized, they’re apt to suffer water stress, which they express succinctly by discoloring, shrinking, and dropping dead.
To be sure, no such stress plagues the vegetation of Manila, where the succulents grow so freely and contentedly—up the stairs, up the rung ladder to the roof, and clear across the roof deck—that we cannot say for certain who is containing whom. What kind of air do they like? What kind of air will they tolerate? What kind of air do they produce? Today they exhale our welcome reprieve from the acrid cloud of ochre exhaust emitted by the droves of jeepneys and motorbikes circuiting the city below. We’ve arrived for a studio visit and for whatever might unfold. Two years from now, we’ll remember the spartan room, its lone table, the pair of rubber-palmed gardening gloves hung like deflated balloons from two nails in the wall, our host’s peaceful hospitality, and the remarkably nonchalant turkey patrolling the fabricators’ shop next door, where restaurant sets and sculptures are made to order and specification.
The expression “thrives on neglect” implies dependence where none exists. A plant thriving on human neglect is just a plant thriving, after all.
We’ve come looking for one end of the seaway that once connected Manila and Acapulco, port cities in the sister colonies of the Philippines and Mexico—two imagined daughters of an imagined Spanish mother. The first captain to navigate the route was Fray Andrés de Urdaneta, who reportedly guided the San Pedro across the Pacific in 1565, arriving in Acapulco on the eighth of October after four months at sea. The portrait of Urdaneta in the San Agustin Museum depicts a man in a black robe at the wheel of a ship, his left hand minding the rudder, his right raised above his head, gripping a wooden cross. His complexion strikes us as rather pale for someone who has just spent four months on the deck of a ship, yet his serene expression seems too calm for someone merely embarking on a four-month journey into what was then an abyss. A text on the wall of a different exhibition—this one at the Lopez Museum and Library, a private collection of books and objects—settles the question not of what stage in his journey Urdaneta must’ve sat for his portrait but of what portraits like his were meant to do then and might be made to do now instead: “to realign questions… unpacking the strict linearity of history, and its inexorable fixation on ‘great men.’” The display includes several historic maps of the region dating as far back as 1601, each one progressively more detailed and persuasive as centuries and information accrue. We pause to consider the contemporary analogue, which is not exhibited here but is known to us from satellite images on the Internet and recent, firsthand glimpses from airplane windows. We picture the nearby islands from a bird’s-eye view like so many protruding extremities of so many floating swimmers, gradually succumbing to the acute water stress of today’s rising sea levels.
A few paces farther on, we’re struck by the comely backs and shoulders of two female figures clad in seductive 19th century garb in a vibrant painting from 1886 by Juan Luna. The couple faces away from us, toward a stone staircase dissolving implausibly into ether and sunlight. The larger, lighter-skinned figure drapes a maternal arm around the waist of the smaller, darker-skinned one, gently pushing the girl ahead by the hips—up, up the stairs, into that heavenly vague illusion beyond. “Spain,” the apparent matron, is dramatically robed in bright red finery that flows over the steps to the bottom edge of the panel, while “Philippines,” a fragile naïf, has been clothed more humbly in a shorter, undistinguished blue skirt with a transparent blouse, her right arm extended at a 45-degree angle, as if swept away from her body by a breeze. She is vulnerable, passive, a model subject. As white mother leans her laurel-crowned head down toward brown daughter’s unadorned one, whispering some tender promise, she points forward into the depths of the scene with her free hand, directing the girl’s unseen gaze, as well as our own, to an ambiguous future that beckons us there.
Luna made three versions of the painting, Spain and the Philippines. Two are accountably not in the Philippines, and we can’t be sure we are seeing the third here, but copies of the image will reappear frequently in various forms throughout our journey, proving provenance another moot, albeit (for us) inexorable, fixation. Despite the abiding visual presence of Luna’s iconic mother-daughter pair, the Philippine Revolution had successfully rejected Spanish rule within 12 years of the painting’s emergence, at which point Uncle Sam usurped the mantle.
As we make our way out the door, we pause to thumb through the visitors’ book, where we discover a pencil sketch of a girl, again depicted from the back, though this time not in the grasp of an overbearing “mother.” The girl holds her hands behind her in a pensive gesture as she faces an ornate picture frame encompassing the width of the page and what would be her entire field of vision. The frame is empty except for the neatly handwritten words Google Maps followed by a Q-shaped magnifying-glass search icon. The artist has signed the drawing but provided us with no further caption for this visual epilogue. Is it an analogy? A recommendation? A prediction?
We awake some hours later in a collage of architectures, having been spirited away by a driver in the middle of the night along with a car full of pillows to soften our arrival to a park of grand, unoccupied houses outside the city. We had first caught wind of the place earlier that evening from a new acquaintance whose father we soon discovered to be a “collector of buildings.” In a show of generosity as extraordinary to us as it was usual on our journey, our friend sent us here to see for ourselves. For the hour or so between dawn’s birdsong and breakfast, we might be the only people left on earth, abandoned to our elegant, empty villas; Bataan’s dewy air; and the endless sea view beyond the lawn. After breakfast, guests from the neighboring resort begin to wander through the park like sleepwalkers, dazed like us by the compression of spatial, historic, and sensual elements exhibited in mesmerizing, fully immersive, 4-D reality. Artisans, too, soon arrive to populate a row of specialized workshops across the street, which the ambitious collector has established for the maintenance of his buildings. These workshops in turn maintain a variety of local handicrafts from brickmaking to mosaicking that might otherwise be lost. Here, maintenance, like an effort of neural memory, is more a matter of recomposition than of preservation. Bit by bit, elaborate structures are made and remade from disparate fragments of times and tastes. Questions of origination and authenticity don’t delimit their growth. They adapt, reconfiguring themselves like synapses and plants.
“How should things go together?”
“No—how can things go together?”
At the National Gallery in Singapore, propaganda posters against the intruding army in the American War, or the Second Indochina War, or the Vietnam War—all the same war—go together with, among other works, a ghostly figurative sculpture from 1977 by Filipino artist Edgar Talusan Fernandez, representing the “bagging” abductions of political activists that took place during the United States–backed Ferdinand Marcos regime. The display reminds us that 90 years—the approximate distance between Luna’s painting and Fernandez’s sculpture—is a period both longer and shorter today than it was in Urdaneta’s time, the same way a trip by jet from Pittsburgh or Mexico City to Singapore is both longer and far shorter in 2018 than one by ship from Manila to Acapulco in 1565. Upstairs, fresh rainwater evaporates off the rooftop terrace, where a work by Vietnamese artist Danh Vo combines a fragment of a stone sculpture depicting two entangled children preserved like struggling brothers in what could be a loving embrace or an act of strangulation, or both, with a low-lying landscape of architectural elements that evoke beams and ruins as much as children’s building blocks. All around the terrace, the city’s newborn skyscrapers peer and glisten down at us without our permission. They are the infants, but it’s we who are soft and small, delighted by their unfamiliar faces.
Vietnam writes the final chapter of our journey, beginning at Hỏa Lò Prison, part of the prison network built by the French in the late 19th century in what is now Hanoi “in order to cope with Vietnamese struggle movements,” as the author of one wall text put it in English and just below, in French, “pour réprimer les mouvements nationalistes vietnamiens en plein essor” (to suppress the Vietnamese nationalist movements in full swing). The whole of the French colonial coping mechanism entailed a self-serving legal code and a headquarters for the secret police, “forming up a complete autocratic ruling system to aid their domination and oppression against… the Vietnamese people.” The museum tour includes life-size figurative sculptures representing prisoners in barracks that illustrate the austere conditions in which Vietnamese political captives were confined, chained, starved, and tortured for half a century, until March 1945, when a group of detainees escaped by way of the underground sewer system, catalyzed insurrection, and hence “became the Party and Government leaders.” Within a couple of decades, US prisoners of war would be installed there, bestowing on the complex its euphemistic moniker “Hanoi Hilton.”
We pass through the souvenir shop as we make for the exit, lingering there to regard a collection of rectangular commemorative refrigerator magnets featuring images of protesters—American and Vietnamese—and of pointed guns—American and Vietnamese. Other magnets show the prison entrance photographed during the French period, and a few show the same entrance illustrated in happy colors, as if lifted from the pages of a storybook about a pleasant village. There’s another handful made from Builder Levy’s well-known photograph of the 1967 Harlem Peace March, in which a poster that reads “NO VIETNAMESE EVER CALLED ME NIGGER,” clearly legible in the center of the frame, is held up by a striking black woman in sunglasses whose body disappears behind the placard while solemn black men occupy the foreground on either side of her. All fridge-magnet captions are in English.
Back in the city center later that afternoon, the stone relief of a tiger climbing down a mountain attracts our attention. In April 2016, the World Wildlife Fund reported that only five tigers remained in the wild in Vietnam. Exactly one year later, five tigers would be discovered in a freezer here, their organs removed, presumably to serve the Chinese market for medicines made from body parts of rare animals. To our minds and our cameras, this stone relief conveys reverence for the tiger. We reflect on the ambivalence our respective cultures have demonstrated toward nature. Our recent ancestors drove many animals to extinction. Collectively, we assent to continue that effort today, though our participation is far less direct than packing a fridge with eviscerated tigers, which explains why we can’t easily be moved to their direct defense. I shouldn’t say “can’t.” Whales have made a comeback, haven’t they? We are pleasantly surprised to hear from Vietnamese artist Richard Streitmatter-Tran about a specimen of whale earwax titled The Cerumen Strata, a work of his from 2015. We hadn’t thought of whales as having ears, much less earwax, less still a lifetime of earwax as telling as a geological cross section, its compressed layers indicating times, places, and related environmental compositions. According to an essay by Streitmatter-Tran and Le Vi in the book Art in the Anthropocene, “Like tree rings, which not only reveal to us the age of the tree, but also changes in climatic conditions during its lifetime, the chemical profiles uncovered in an analysis of the whale’s earwax display a much more complex picture in which changes brought about by internal hormonal fluctuations intermingle with those induced by human activities.” What human activities register in the earwax of a whale? Did they notice the last century’s wars? Have they noticed this century’s?
Salon Saigon, an independent art space located in the old wartime residence of the US ambassador, offers a decidedly more erotic perspective. An exhibit of small paintings on transparent silk by Le Hoang Bich Phuong includes one of a flowering plant (is it a tiger lily?) delicately growing from the red neck stub of a headless human torso, whose sinuous hands gesture alarm or exuberance, while in a set of line drawings blind, bulbous thumbs, pairs of fingers, and single manual digits attached to slender legs entangle with one another in the wormy hysteria of being and being together.
At the airport, awaiting our return flights, we look through our snapshots of the jeepneys in Manila, where our journey started. Jeepneys are extended, bus-like vehicles originally made from jeeps left behind by American troops after World War II. They are often brightly painted and ornamented with makeshift parts. We had thought to capture as many as possible in the digital memory of our camera phones as we made our way through the city’s busy thoroughfares, but autofocus intervened, and so we have instead collected numerous precisely focused pictures of raindrops on the glass of our car’s windows.