Exploring the nostalgia of lost maps and travel photos

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Watercolored vacation photos of artist Yasmin Sison's maternal grandparents are the subject of her series, "Pepe and Seang's Grand Vacation." Photo by CARINA SANTOS

In “Traveling on the Edges of Lost Maps,” artists Yasmin Sison and Mariano Ching find ways around the world, each of them taking different scenic routes.

Both Sison and Ching have continuously worked within the themes of origins, myth, and displacement, in shows like 2013’s “Stacking Up” (also in MO_Space) and 2015’s “Turtles All the Way Down,” a special exhibit for Art Fair Philippines, and their own solo shows.

Traveling on the Edges of Lost Maps In “Traveling,” Mariano Ching's wastelands feel more desolate, and totally abandoned. Photo by CARINA SANTOS  

In “Traveling,” they work on the idea of the precarious nature of memory and how history, whether personal or collective, is often hinged on it. And they do so in the form of landscapes, letting places speak in the stead of people who used to inhabit these spaces.

For Sison’s part in this two-man show, she presents “Pepe and Seang’s Grand Vacation,” a series of watercolor paintings taken from travel photos of her maternal grandparents. Sison, who is most known for her grandiose and breathtaking oil paintings and portraits, creates small and intimate watercolors that are at once delightful, and quiet, and somber.

Unlike what is typical of travel photographs — here, a “documented tour” of Pepe and Seang’s trip to Europe and the U.S. in 1976 — there is little by way of familial warmth, and while there is nostalgia, it, too, is unlike the kind of nostalgia that comes with vacation photos. For one thing, the subjects, thus named in the series’ title, are notably absent from the photographs.

Traveling on the Edges of Lost Maps “Pepe and Seang’s Grand Vacation,” though a title that signals a time of exuberant adventure, introduces a series based on photographs that could have been taken by anyone of places that could have been anywhere. Photo by CARINA SANTOS

A few paintings from the series are partially obscured by indeterminate blobs of color, working both as decoration and erasure. Some of her larger oil paintings shown in previous exhibits feature the same type of erasure, most obvious and recurring in the erasure of human figures. Similarly, these paintings obscure spaces in the photos that could have been inhabited by humans, at some point. Lena Cobangbang writes, in the show’s notes, that these resulting landscapes are “expunged off their specificity to be these commonplace indexes of space.”

“Pepe and Seang’s Grand Vacation,” though a title that signals a time of exuberant adventure, introduces a series based on photographs that could have been taken by anyone of places that could have been anywhere. There is a stillness in Sison’s work that betrays the joyful connotation of her series’ title, and that disconnect conjures more questions than answers, creating a mystery that surrounds what was simply a couple’s “grand vacation.”

Traveling on the Edges of Lost Maps Ching's work often feels like snapshots of the world’s impending future. Photo by CARINA SANTOS  

Ching, on the other hand, works with both oil and watercolor, rendering landscapes of abandoned bunkers, discarded structures, and various detritus, a subject matter that is not foreign to him. His work often feels like snapshots of the world’s impending future, a preview of the aftermath of perilous wars, though never quite that of the main event.

But in “Traveling,” his wastelands feel more desolate, and totally abandoned. The bunkers and structures, once glorious and necessary, now have their past purpose nulled in the face of different conflicts. His paintings are both a testament to the certainty of the crumbling of structures of power (often replaced by a different, though similarly oppressive system) and a reminder of the “trauma and tragedy” in which the past resides.

Traveling on the Edges of Lost Maps In “Traveling on the Edges of Lost Maps,” Ching and Sison work on the idea of the precarious nature of memory and how history, whether personal or collective, is often hinged on it. Photo by CARINA SANTOS  

Through their exploration and introduction of these places and personal and imagined histories as landscapes, Sison and Ching create new narratives, both beautiful and tragic, fraught with inevitable anxieties.

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“Traveling on the Edges of Lost Maps” is on display from April 22 to May 21 at MO_Space, 3/F MOs Design, Bonifacio High Street, BGC, Taguig.