Two young Filipino artists handpicked for the biggest international art event

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Philippines-based artists Issay Rodriguez and Katherine Nuñez have their works on display at the Venice Art Biennale, in the same breadth as works by giants and wunderkinds of the art world in the likes of John Waters, Dawn Kasper, and Olafur Eliasson. Photo by DON JAUCIAN

Venice, Italy (CNN Philippines Life) — Although there are technically five Filipino artists in this year’s Venice Art Biennale, Issay Rodriguez and Katherine Nuñez are the only Filipino artists working in the Philippines who were handpicked by this year’s biennale director, Christine Macel. The French curator saw their work at the 2016 Art Dubai and was impressed enough to include them in the roster of 120 artists for the main exhibition. They are two of the youngest to participate this year.

Along with another Filipino artist, David Medalla, who is based in London, Nuñez and Rodriguez’s work “In Between the Lines, 2.0” is included in the “Pavilion of Artists and Books,” one of the nine paths Macel has set up to create a journey that celebrates the theme “Viva Arte Viva,” focusing on the role of art — and the artists themselves — in an increasingly politicized world.

Nuñez and Rodriguez are in great company. Their work exists side by side artists such as Dawn Kasper, who has transplanted her entire studio in the Pavilion; filmmaker John Waters; and Olafur Eliasson, whose “Green Light” is a response to the issue of immigration.

In Between the Lines 2.0 Artists Issay Rodriguez and Katherine Nuñez at the Venice Art Biennale 2017. Their work is part of the main exhibition curated by Christine Macel. Photo by DON JAUCIAN

“In Between the Lines, 2.0” is an evolution of their work at the Art Dubai. It is a room full of books, school supplies, and reading materials but all in fabric, crocheted and embroidered, stripping them of their respective functions.

The work is Nuñez and Rodriguez’s approximation of their experience within the Philippine educational system. Rodriguez’s mother is an English teacher and both Nuñez and Rodriguez once taught art at the same time. Through “In Between the Lines, 2.0,” they touch on the criticality of production and demand of the educational system and the objects that we must grapple with in order to submit to the system.

The experience at the Biennale has been rewarding for the two. Having their work in a pavilion with acclaimed artists gave them the chance to interact with their contemporaries and reflect on the art practice at a wider context.

“[Nakausap namin si Sung Hwan Kim during the installation,]” says Rodriguez. “Humingi lang siya ng yosi kasi na-se-stress daw siya, natamaan daw ‘yung painting niya ng wire … Dapat daw nandito ‘yung curator para bantayan ‘yung mga tao. Parang bigla mong naramdaman na, “Wow, may mga ganito rin pala siyang problema. Parang kami bata, tapos siya [established na artist] ….”

“It sort of demystifies them,” says Rodriguez. She adds, “Tapos ‘yung isa pa, ‘Uy, si Olafur Eliasson!’ Wow! At least ‘yung work niya sa Biennale may actual change na magagawa kasi ‘diba parang spectacular lagi ‘yung work niya tapos, ‘And now what?’ Pero ‘yung work niya dito, ‘yung 'Green Light’ ... it can really bring actual [impact]… nakaka-inspire lang makita ‘yun.”

In Between the Lines 2.0 "In Between the Lines, 2.0" is an evolution of Nuñez and Rodriguez 's work shown at 2016 Art Dubai, where the Biennale curator, Christine Macel first saw them. The exhibit is made up of crocheted and embroidered reading materials and school supplies such as newspapers, books, staplers, glue, and highlighters. Photo by DON JAUCIAN

During the opening weekend of the Venice Art Biennale, CNN Philippines Life caught up with Nuñez and Rodriguez to talk about their eye-opening experience in the world’s art stage, and why having your work near the toilets might be a good thing.

Can you talk about the work you did for the Venice Biennale?

Kathy: Actually, [it’s a] separate work pero kaya niyang mag-converge. So, ‘yung kay Issay ‘yung embroidered na mga books, ako ‘yung mga crocheted studying paraphernalia.

‘Yung akin, laborious … it takes a lot of time to do this, ‘yung crochet kasi, time art siya, so it could capture how much time you spent doing it. So, ‘yung labor na ‘yun ay connected doon sa when you’re learning or when you’re studying.

Is this something you've experienced?

Kathy: Yes. Na-frustrate lang din ako, kasi when I was studying, you make a lot of effort learning by yourself, but then, at the end of the day, when you do your output, it doesn’t seem [to] fit what they want or ‘yung sa gusto nilang system. So I think it’s also applicable not just [in that] kind of learning — individualistic and organic. When you want to learn by yourself, most of it, dahil merong very straight and naka-kahon na gusto nilang ma-produce na mga students, parang that effort [won’t fit their] standards na kaagad.

They would prefer na ‘yung product, ['yung gusto nila]. They don’t care about the process ... more or less. Kaya ‘yung mga works ko dun, they were done in a laborious process, but at the end of the day, when you look at them, you cannot use them. Pinaghirapan mong gawin ‘tong mga papel na ‘to, pero ‘di natin siya magagamit at all. Pero ‘yung catch dun, tinitignan mo kasi siya in terms of function. Itong papel na ‘to, kailangan siyang sulatan. ‘Yung stapler, kailangang gamitin, pero when you look at it as an artwork, dahil tinanggal mo ‘yung function niya, parang nag-t-transform siya sa bagay na pinag-iisipan. ‘Yun ‘yung function niya, instead of ‘yung normal, everyday function.

It becomes a concept rather than an object.

Kathy: Oo. I guess it’s the same na rin, if you look at kung ano ‘yung function ng art. People don’t really see it as something useful, pero it’s important because it makes them think.

In Between the Lines 2.0 The main exhibition is set in a sprawling space in one of the biggest venues of the Venice Art Biennale, which means the works also have to be protected. "Pwede nilang i-touch, but we have to devise a way na hindi nila iuuwi. Parang hindi rin mababantayan, so nagtutulungan din ‘yung work namin. Kunwari, ‘yung piyesa niya, nakatahi doon sa work ko. Pero meron pa rin siyang story. Kunwari ‘yung mga stapler niya naka-ganun dun sa book," says Rodriguez. Photo by DON JAUCIAN

Issay, for your embroidered works …

Issay: Nag-start lang ‘yung work na very personal na gumawa lang kasi ako nung student ako ng hybrid objects, na parang wala lang sila, reflective lang nung mga unspoken childhood memories. Tapos ‘yung isa dun, parang hybrid nung book ‘tsaka pillow. [It’s] somehow reflective of the experience of learning, but as time goes by, na-i-include siya sa different exhibition contexts, nag-e-evolve din …

So how did it evolve since you first made them?

Issay: Parang nagbabago rin 'yung mga questions ‘tsaka mga sagot na parang nakukuha ko from it. Kunwari, nung 2014, ‘yung first time na shinow namin ‘yung works namin pero magkaiba, individual pa rin. ‘Yun ‘yung bago kami naging 98B. It’s for the show called “Objections,” so ‘yung premise nung show, gumawa ng objects na void of their original purpose, or na-alter na ‘yung material. So parang inulit ko ‘yung work, parang same ‘yung form, pero mas general na ‘yung tinatry ko, less personal.

Nung Art Dubai, nagbago ulit ‘yung context niya, so parang mas nagtatanong na ‘ko nung parang bookalike culture kasi ‘diba sila ‘yung university parang inaccessible ‘yung books, so ‘yung mga professor kailangang i-copy ‘yung books. Pero ‘yung replicas, parang nag-p-play rin sila ng role within the education system.

"Na-frustrate lang din ako, kasi when I was studying, you make a lot of effort learning by yourself, but then, at the end of the day, when you do your output, it doesn’t seem [to] fit what they want or ‘yung sa gusto nilang system."

They’re learning materials in different stages of life, pero ‘yung orientation ko kasi mas graphic artist, so ‘diba sa practice, kailangan mong gawing useful ‘yung information pero dun sa artwork ko, ang tinatry kong gawin ay mawala ‘yung use nung information na nire-replicate ko.

Pero, intentionally, ginawa naming interactive ‘yung work, na pwedeng hawakan or ma-share kasi it’s also the same sentiment na gusto namin with education na parang flat-learning, accessible ‘yung information, ‘yung knowledge. Tapos i-re-reappropriate siya para mas okay ‘yung quality of life.

For this work, how did the collaborative process happen? How did you decide at which point it’s going to evolve from the earlier versions?

Issay: Tinatry lang naming i-balance na meron siyang ginagawa na ganito. Kunwari, ‘yung iba kong work, merong highlights, so parang gumawa siyang highlighter. Nag-try kaming mag-usap.

Kathy: There were days na, “Okay, we’ll work separately.” But then, ‘pag nakikita namin ‘yung works namin, “Okay, gagawa ako ng ganitong object, pwede natin siyang lagay sa books mo,ganun.

Issay: Actually, hindi siya natapos doon sa pag-create nung work. Ito kasi malaking exhibition so kailangang i-protect ‘yung work. I mean, pwede nilang i-touch, but we have to devise a way na hindi nila iuuwi. Parang hindi rin mababantayan, so nagtutulungan din ‘yung work namin. Kunwari, ‘yung piyesa niya, nakatahi doon sa work ko. Pero meron pa rin siyang story. Kunwari ‘yung mga stapler niya naka-ganun dun sa book. Binabalance lang namin siya kung pano siya naka-curate.

In Between the Lines 2.0 Through “In Between the Lines, 2.0,” the artists touch on the criticality of production and demand of the educational system and the objects that we must grapple with in order to submit to the system. Photo by DON JAUCIAN  

Did your inclusion in Art Dubai and Venice Art Biennale affect the way you think of art and the process? Is it more an opportunity for you or do you think it’s a validation of what you’re doing?

Kathy: Tingin ko naman dahil it became bigger na rin, dahil international art event na sobrang laki, it became a big deal na rin. Parang, wow, dami nating makikita dun! The artists that we only see in books, and studied or reported [about] before in our classes nung college tayo, makikita natin sila dito, tapos they’re just across the room.

Overwhelming din for us, siyempre may sense of responsibility din, kasi this isn’t just any show. You’ll be very visible. You’re also funded by a cultural foundation, so ... kailangan naming i-consider na we have to do our best every time. So may ganun e, na balance, at the same time, you just want to do what you do. You just want to keep on doing what you want to do, na as much as you can, na comfortable ka, pero at the same time, parang iisipin mo rin na, shit, ang daming makakakita sa ‘yo and you’re too visible...

Issay: Ako, tingin ko, maganda siyang opportunity kasi gusto ko kasing shineshare ‘yung work or parang nag-collab kami. ‘Yun kasi ‘yung spirit na nahanap ko rin sa 98B. Tapos dito, ang alive nung spirit niya. So magandang opportunity na napunta kami dito. Nakita namin ‘yung mas malaking mundo, tapos actual siya. Tapos parang dream lang siya, tapos magically, parang tung! Andito kami!

"Being Filipinos merong mga bagay na definitely ma-e-experience for yourself na dun lang sa Pilipinas. Lalabas at lalabas doon sa trabaho mo kasi ‘yung artwork din namin nagso-source din kami from [our] experience."

Coming from your comment on Olafur Eliasson’s work, is that your view of art? That it should be transformative ...

Kathy: What I think is important is that you’re sincere sa ginagawa mo. As long as you know you’re not hurting anyone, na you’re sincere in what you’re doing or you believe in what you’re saying or doing, okay lang siya. Feeling ko naman that’s what’s important sa artwork din, kasi, ewan ko, if you do something na ‘di ka naman totoo, parang, bakit … artworks are a reflection … ano rin siya e, ‘pag gumagawa ka ng artwork, ilalabas mo rin ‘yung a piece of yourself for people to scrutinize or touch or parang halungkatin or whatever. I think you have to be as sincere about it as possible. And it has to be ethical also.

Issay: I think, pareho lang din naman ‘yung naiisip ko with her, pero at least minsan‘di ko alam kung foolish siya — pero gusto kong maniwala na meron siyang magagawa. Kahit hindi as an exact object, at least ‘yung experience nung taong makakakita nung work, parang mapaisip siya or it can effect ‘yung change na hinahanap nating lahat, parang ma-instigate niya ‘yun. Kahit hindi ‘yung object itself, kahit ‘yung encounter with it can influence [someone].

Kathy: Siyempre, we’re not really claiming na art is medicine you can administer to the whole world. Ewan ko, para ka lang nagtatanim ng punla sa mga tao. Parang, okay, meron akong artwork na binigay sayo. Pag-isipan mo siya. Magtatanim ako ng seed. It’s up to you kung gusto mo siyang i-nurture.

Do you guys think about the fact that you’re the only Philippines-based artists in the exhibition, since David Medalla is based abroad? Did you think that your work should at least represent the country’s art scene?

Issay: At least for me, hindi naman namin siya consciously inisip na may nationalistic themes na kailangang ma-cover or whatever, pero I think pareho naman kaming naniniwala na it’s inevitable to represent kung saan ka galing, kung magiging honest ka doon sa work mo

Kathy: An artist can only make art about something that he knows. An artist can only take from his personal experiences.

For us, being Filipinos merong mga bagay na definitely ma-e-experience for yourself na dun lang sa Pilipinas. Kung ano ‘yung meron dun. Tingin ko lalabas naman siya at lalabas doon sa trabaho mo kasi ‘yung artwork din namin parang nagso-source din kami from [our] experience. It’s sort of autobiographical work.

Issay: Or masu-surprise ka na ‘di pala universal ‘yung akala mo na mo alam rin nila ‘yun, tapos ay, uniquely Filipino pala ‘yun.

In Between the Lines 2.0 The work is Nuñez and Rodriguez’s approximation of their experience within the Philippine educational system. Photo by DON JAUCIAN

Did you guys ever think about how huge the main pavilion actually is? That there’s a danger that your work might drown in such an enormous space?

Issay: Naniniwala naman kami dun sa work na kaya naman niyang mag-[stand out on its own].

Tapos malapit siya sa C.R., madadaanan mo pa [Everybody laughs]

Issay: No, but like, I think it’s a good thing na, “Uy, may work dito ah!” Or the curator made sure na she’s giving us an intimate space, to repeat the experience na gusto rin naming makuha.

As young artists, what do you think is your ultimate responsibility?

Issay: Na ‘wag tumigil. [Laughs] I think ‘yun na ‘yung pinaka-ultimate. I mean, kasi, ‘di mo rin alam kung anong mangyayari along the way. Kasi pabago-bago rin lagi ‘yung mga nangyayari sa paligid.

Kathy: Feeling ko, being part of the Biennale, mas na-realize ko na parang, “Shit! Mas malaki ‘yung mundo. Na nag-e-exist.” Tapos …

Issay: Kasali kami!

Kathy: Kaya ako sobrang nagte-take talaga ako ng photos, kuha ako nang kuha ng brochure kasi kailangan ko ‘tong iuwi, kailangan ko ‘tong ibigay sa mga estudyante ko or sa 98B. You just want to share. Being a teacher din, gusto mo ring ipakita doon sa mga … i-impart mo rin sa students mo na ito, parang, ito 'yung nangyayari sa labas. It’s sentimental, pero at the end, it’s inevitable din na isipin, eh. You have to keep things evolving. For me, ‘yun ‘yung responsibility namin. You’re part of this, you have to share it with others.

Issay: Na you’re always part of something bigger than yourself.