Updated 12:04 PM PHT Wed, February 22, 2017
Manila (CNN Philippines Life) — The Mexican visual artist Carlos Amorales embarked on a trip to Guatemala feeling disappointed. He was on his way to the country for a music project, and he came across an article by the journalist Ryszard Kapuściński about the assassination of the West German Ambassador to Guatemala, Karl Von Spreti, by the Guatemalan guerillas, making him see the country in a sinister light.
Before he even stepped on Guatemalan soil, he became paranoid, after concluding that there seems to be no music in it. “In Guatemala, there seems to be only silence,” Amorales wrote in an essay explaining his latest work exhibited at the nonprofit space, Bellas Artes Outpost in Makati.
Amorales was set to work with the orchestra at the Teatro Nacional de Guatemala on an experiment. He had composed a score, printed on sheet music with graphite and partially erased with rubber eraser. The result was a semi-erased score to be read and interpreted by the orchestra in an experimental fashion.
However, the orchestra’s conductor, at first enthusiastic about the collaboration, expressed his hesitancy due to Guatemala’s conservative music culture and the possibility that audiences might not understand the piece and misinterpret it as a “badly played musical aberration.”
This was when Amorales and his team got sidetracked. At the Teatro Nacional, he encountered the Guatemalan composer and musician, Joaquin Orellana, who worked at the basement of the theater, like “some kind of Phantom of the Opera,” as Amorales put it. He entered Orellana’s cave of a studio, which was filled with more than a hundred instruments “made of wood, cane, turtle, shells, and metal,” all forming a huge deconstructed and deformed marimba. They looked like Modernist sculptures, only they were not made to be visualized aesthetically, but designed as sound tools. Orellana called them “utensilios sonoros,” or “sound utensils.”
In that moment, the idea of a silent Guatemala seemed obsolete. Amorales had long been collaborating with his friend and musician Julián Lede in a series of animated films for which Lede would compose a score to go with the animated sequences. Orellana, on the other hand, had also taken classes in audiovisual technology, along with structural linguistics and philosophy of art. At the word “animation,” his eyes would glint. He and Amorales were meant to collaborate on something together.
When Amorales encountered Orellana’s instruments, he instantly thought of the 1940 Walt Disney film, “Fantasia,” a masterful combination of film and music, a critic's favorite yet a commercial flop, and one of the first instances in the 20th century where, critics say, “high culture” classical music and pop culture (in the form of Disney characters) converged.
This idea was responsible for the birth of Amorales work at the Bellas Artes Outpost. He and Lede commissioned Orellana to compose his own score for “The Sorcerer’s Apprentice,” a nine-minute segment within “Fantasia.”
Now entitled “Orellana’s Fantasia,” the exhibit involves a projection of a shadow play depicting Orellana and his sound utensils, with the score playing in the background. In some frames, Orellana scribbles notations on the screen in swirls and waves, in a musical language he made for himself and, therefore, only he could understand.
The second part of the exhibit displays a double projection of “Sorcerer’s Apprentice,” where Amorales has extracted all the frames of the original “Fantasia” segment, and photocopied them several times until they appeared diluted. He then connected all the photocopied frames together to create an abstract motion picture in black-and-white, where a dark blob shapeshifts and hovers over Mickey Mouse and his brooms. Orellana’s score of glissading bells and atonal chimes plays in time — or rather, out of time — with this animation.
The haunting echoes and disjointed reverberations of “Orellana’s Fantasia” may seem uneasy to the ear of the average listener, but according to the exhibit’s curator and Bellas Artes’ creative director Diana Campbell Betancourt, this was precisely what got her interested in Amorales’ work, as well as the medium he utilized.
“Sound is something I find, at least in my other activities, [uneasy yet open], than something visual,” she says. “Sometimes people see an image, they think they can’t understand it, they back away. But sound can pass through walls and pass borders. It’s not easy, but it’s a different way of thinking.”
Betancourt believes in the ability of sound to transcend cultural barriers, which is Bellas Artes’ rationale for inviting Amorales as their first resident artist, and for displaying “Orellana’s Fantasia,” for Filipino audiences to see, and hear.
At the opening of Amorales’ exhibit — entitled “Prelude,” overall as an allusion to the fact that this is his first exhibition in the Philippines, and as a sort of preview of his residency at Bellas Artes — various musicians, artists, art patrons, and even gallery owners filled the entire space of Bellas Artes Outpost, which also officially opened its doors to the public on the same night. It is clear that the space’s first exhibit was well received, despite its choice to debut with something more unconventional.
Bellas Artes is not a traditional art space, in the sense that they believe in doing something different, and that the goal of their exhibits are not to sell, but to showcase the diversity in artists’ practices, as well as to give them a venue for experimentation. In the end, the artists keep their work.
“A lot of people ask how this is gonna make money,” says Jam Acuzar, founder and director of Bellas Artes. “I'm like, it's not gonna make money. It's nonprofit. It means that we're gonna rely on funding and support from the community. It's a community space. It's not gonna make money. We don't wanna take their money and set up Bellas Artes Projects, Greenhills or something. We're not gonna scale to other branches. We just want to share what we're doing and what we have.”
Betancourt adds, “This is not a collection-building platform. Sometimes, I see problems of artists who have residencies [in some galleries], and they'll pay the artist like 500 dollars and ask to keep the work. That's not how we work. It's pure generosity. The artist keeps the work after the residency is done, and the work can go off to wherever.”
Bellas Artes Outpost relies financially mainly on the foundation that birthed it, Bellas Artes Projects, the headquarters of which is in Bagac, Bataan, in Las Casas Filipinas de Acuzar, a heritage park of rebuilt Spanish colonial houses. This is where the foundation had been holding art workshops and exhibits since 2013, geared toward the promotion of local craftsmanship by having artists and the locals from Bagac work together and interact in one way or another. The space in Manila is the product of patronage and help from other galleries in the local art community. Bellas Artes also houses a library to which several individuals and local galleries have donated their art books.
Amorales’ “Prelude” is only the first of many activities to be held at the outpost, among their future programs, such as a children’s shadow play workshop, and a talk about “Exhibiting [Jose] Maceda,” by Patrick Flores and Dayang Yraola. The chiming rings of marimba is only a preview of things to come at the Bellas Artes. As of now, Acuzar can only say, “This is hopefully an experiment.”
“Prelude” by Carlos Amorales is on display at the Bellas Artes Outpost at 2nd Floor, Building C, Karrivin Plaza, 2316 Chino Roces Ave., Makati until March 20. For a full schedule of programs, visit Bellas Artes Projects’ website.