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Kidlat Tahimik’s cultural dogfight circus

By SCOTT GARCEAU, The Philippine STAR Published Nov 01, 2021 5:00 am

There’s always been a subversive magic (mischievousness?) to Kidlat Tahimik’s work, from the juxtaposition of munching carabao and NASA space launches in Perfumed Nightmare, to his more recent meditations on the Quincentennial.

Through it all, the song has remained the same: Filipinos using their innate breath to blow apart the encroaching shackles, whether from Spanish forces or Hollywood superhero franchises. All of it mischievously (magically?) commented upon in work after work, film after film, installation after installation.

In “Magellan, Marilyn, Mickey & Fr. Dámaso: 500 Years of Conquistador RockStars,” Kidlat Tahimik’s latest exhibition staged inside the Palacio de Cristal in Retiro Park, the National Artist unfurls a narrative within a huge space that holds some cultural baggage for Filipinos: it was at this venue that the 1887 Madrid Expo, one featuring Filipino Igorot figures within glass cases, was held.

Cultural imprisonment as part of one’s cultural legacy, right there on display! The sketchy optics were enough to send one viewer at the time, Jose Rizal, to his drawing table to sharpen his fury into what would become the Noli.

In Jose Rizal’s Noli Me Tangere, the fictitious abusive Padre Damaso is depicted as a wolf about to molest his own daughter Maria Clara.

In Tahimik’s installation, we are time travelers, voyaging back and forth from 2021 to 1887, to 1521, the fatal year of first engagement between the Philippines and the West, and back to the future.

The artist’s response is the Filipino kapwa, the core value of inner self and identity, shared with others. Only that, he hints, can overcome the ill winds a-blowing.

In his written proposal, Tahimik’s working title for the exhibit (on display from Oct. 28 until March 6, 2022) was “3 Guerras Culturales in a 3 Ring Circus,” and what Tahimik proposes, he delivers: there’s enough battlefield spectacle here to fill an Infinity Wars sequel.

Exhibition of filmmaker and artist Kidlat Tahimik in the Crystal Palace of the Retiro Park.

And where better for Kidlat’s patented visual wordplay to unfold than in the imposing scale of Museo Reina Sofia’s Crystal Palace? Spread out within the immense glass and steel structure — which, at 2,500 square meters and a vaulting 11 meters, demands a big, circus-like spectacle to fill the eye — the artist envisions four, not three, rings of activity.

At the right side is “Ring 1: 1521, The Magellan-Lapulapu Showdown (MaLaS),” consisting of a large-scaled wooden boat captained by Magellan, with his slave Enrique or Ikeng pointing ever homeward at the prow.

Consisting of “woven” pine planks (Tahimik says visitors will experience the “woodness texture” of his piece upon first entering the exhibit), the main ship creates a visual spectacle, but also a kind of gleeful discontinuity: after all, how does a “woven” craft float? The absurd dimension seems to open an ongoing commentary on art and skill vs. nature and technology.

This does seem to be Tahimik’s modus operandi: at the back of the ship (named Victoria, history tells us), the artist depicts the island of Maktan being defended by Lapu-Lapu and wife Bulakna; the Arnis martial arts skills and mano-mano combat techniques of the primitivos, Tahimik explains, were “able to land the death blow on Magellan’s vital organs.”

“Ring 2: 1887”: In this later colonial era, “the educated indio Jose Rizal was spelling out in his novel that sparked the Filipino revolution in 1896.”

Surrounding the scene are some of Kidlat’s native totems: figurines carved from the roots of giant fern, woven from bamboo sheaths. It’s about craft overcoming technology, art outwitting science, to this viewer’s distant eyes.

At the left wing, “Ring 2: 2021 Kultur Wars” takes us into the now — another impressive spectacle, as visitors are met with a battle between winds: those blowing from Hollywood, and those blowing in the native Philippines. Surrealistic humor looms large, as it should, in a scene of wooden carvings squaring off: Ifugao goddess of wind Inhabian (Diosa del Vento dela tribu Igorrote) fending off Marilyn Monroe and her billowing skirt.

Nearby, a large thatched vessel arrives like a Trojan Horse, a movie camera perched on its prow, and a host of comic superheroes and Disney icons riding missiles at its disposal.

The “Kultur Wars” are best described by Tahimik’s proposal: “The cultural missiles from Hollywood carry familiar superheroes: Spider-Man, Wonder Woman, Captain America. A squadron of Wind Gods meet the attack of foreign film icons… They engage in dogfights” in a struggle against cultural imperialism.

Wind — a natural force — fending off the descending winds of a foreign land: so quintessentially Kidlat, in this year of the Quincentennial.

“Ring 3: 1887 Expo of Igorrotes Gives Kultur-Shock to Rizal” envisions the exhibited “native” Filipinos in glass cases, just as a wooden Rizal (standing nearby offstage, writing it all down on a wooden table) glimpsed them in Madrid that year, in Tahimik’s fanciful take. The banner of the encased Igorrotes says it all: “Nuevos Christianos Pilipinos,” captured and “preserved” forever under glass.

A fourth circus spectacle is “Spiritual Ring 4: Trompe-L’Oeil,” depicting indigenous deities in the sky — referencing cherubs or gods in Renaissance art, but here, more importantly, sitting on a dap-ay, a circular seat used by elder tribal storytellers.

As Kidlat puts it: “The gods are watching amused — knowing that the tribal people with their cultural skills will survive the colonial forces that try to homogenize world culture.” It’s all a matter of time, perspective, and running out the clock on foreign encroachment and technology, which always becomes obsolete at some point.

Another wrinkle — the pandemic — inserts itself into Tahimik’s message, though this is perhaps too subtly woven into the overall design to meet the eye: ”This colonization of souls, as we know, is ongoing — not only in Filipinas. But it is the global conspiracy to capture peoples around the planet into the prevailing priority philosophy: consume-maximal-at-the-expense-of-nature. Perhaps the COVID pandemic is telling us something is wrong with our competitive, non-caring, efficiency-centered norm of life?”

The artist’s response is the Filipino kapwa, the core value of inner self and identity, shared with others. Only that, he hints, can overcome the ill winds a-blowing.