Horse bones and monk portraits tell an artist's journey in Japan

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Detail from Oca Villamiel's "Journey," an installation of equine vertebrae and ashes. Photo courtesy of UNDERGROUND GALLERY

Manila (CNN Philippines Life) — Lec Cruz’s notes on Oca Villamiel’s “Drawings, Collages, and Installations” are placed inconspicuously on a low bench in one of three exhibition spaces at Underground Gallery.

The flimsy dossier provides a point of departure, because apart from the ashes and bones on the floor, all else here at first glance are daintily framed swaths of black and the muddiest white, and lawless pencil scrawls.

Cruz writes that “[Japan’s] enigmatic culture spawns into [Villamiel’s] art practice and personal worldview,” and that this collection is a “visual diary” of Villamiel’s many trips to the cities of Nara and Kyoto. If accurate, it might be useful to ask what the diary is for. What does the artist try to record? What does he want to remember?

Oca Villamiel Oca Villamiel's "Drawings, Collages, and Installations" is on view at Underground Gallery until June 24. Photo courtesy of UNDERGROUND GALLERY

The author Francine du Plessix Gray once spoke in an interview about a writer’s compulsion “to keep a laundry list of the soul.” According to Gray, “It’s as if we feel constantly other from the person we were the day, the hour before. This sense of flux is terrifying; we have to crystallize, fix every moment of ourselves in order not to disappear altogether, as if our very identity were constantly threatened with dissolution.”

One uncanny parallel between Gray’s comment and this exhibition is enticing to consider. Here, the works are supposedly imbibed with the Japanese wabi-sabi, which Cruz describes as “finding beauty in the imperfect, impermanent, and incomplete.”

Gray, a Westerner, speaks of an anxiety stemming from cognizance of the transience of mortality. Wabi-sabi is opposite; it’s an embrace. It bears noting that wabi-sabi, for the Japanese, is a concept that is more philosophical than necessarily aesthetic or intellectual. It is entrenched in the collective mind of its people, not so much a concept as it is a consciousness.

Oca Villamiel Untitled drawings (charcoal on paper, 14 x 16 in.). Photos courtesy of UNDERGROUND GALLERY

The first three untitled monk drawings (two labeled “Gangoji Temple, Nara City” and one “Sanzen-in Temple, Ohara Kyoto,” both 2014) are flurries of charcoal on pages of a sketchpad. Though this much the viewer can surmise from each: a monk sitting in lotus position, his hands joined in prayer, his shoulders sloped under his robes. According to Cruz these portraits — albeit offering only the vacantness of likeness — were “hastily reimagined” by Villamiel after the temple visits.

That is one key to the mystery. Haste. Like the surrogate Akira Kurosawa who finds himself in the village of watermills in the 1990 anthology “Dreams,” Villamiel is above all a transiting tourist, notwithstanding the traveler’s genuine interest in philosophy and the anecdote of the odd stone.

The artist does not desire to become a monk. What the drawings reveal are not records of memory, but a telling struggle with the existentially baffling notion of authentic simplicity. Villamiel doesn’t set out to take photographs of the monks, because in this particular enterprise, it serves no end.

The artist does not desire to become a monk. What the drawings reveal are not records of memory, but a telling struggle with the existentially baffling notion of authentic simplicity.

The other charcoal drawings include sketches of pottery and a clay figurine from the Jomon period (14,000 – 300 BCE). Like in all inspection of works of art that do not aim to be mimetic, the viewer’s mind ultimately fills the gaps that the artist leaves, intentionally or otherwise.

Whether these drawings are to be judged as facsimile (that is, as Villamiel’s contribution to the documentation of a history of anthropology) or as conceptual art is beyond the point. After all, Villamiel doesn’t bend over backward to abstract a jar. What we are supposed to believe anyway is that these are drawings akin to personal notes, none too fastidiously torn off a notebook. That some were at all dated and signed is generous — perhaps a gift from the artist to admirers who want a piece of Villamiel for bite-size consumption.

As if begging the probing viewer to consult the original, Villamiel commits to the same slapdash scribbles in his drawing of the resurrection of the Buddha. The original in question is on display at the Kyoto National Museum. It’s a golden scroll, an eleventh-century precedent of a riotous Bosch scene. Except for the captions in the margins, nothing in Villamiel’s version alludes to a glorious renaissance, however. To the unsuspecting eye, it might as well be a decaying corpse with a halo of whirring flies.

Oca Villamiel Clockwise from top left: Clay figurine from the late Jomon period, jar from the early Jomon period, Sakyamuni rising from the gold coffin, Shigaraki earthenware. All charcoal drawings. Photo courtesy of UNDERGROUND GALLERY

A number of the collages appropriate Japanese text on tiny pieces of paper, usually crumpled. Alas, there is that experience of inevitable alienation when one encounters written foreign language, dissimilar to how one might still be able to appreciate the beauty of form and motion in larger-scale calligraphy, even if semantic comprehension were an impediment. Cruz does hint that Villamiel is inspired by the poet Matsuo Basho.

In others, Villamiel cuts and pastes illustrations and photographs: a small monk figure defines the scale of the nature scene in “An Old Pond;” the cupola of a Japanese pagoda is visible in the horizon of “Silent Dawn;” temple steps are the entryway to “Ascending” (all mixed media, 18 x 14.75 in.).

In a contemporary art landscape where collage is trendy, especially among younger artists and graphic designers, Villamiel’s recall the tradition of early twentieth-century incarnations of the technique, for instance with the use of newspaper clippings by Picasso and Braque, hence cementing an artwork’s relationship with history and its place in it.

Oca Villamiel Oca Villamiel's "Journey." Each piece of vertebra “resembles a monk-like angel or a winged man.” Photo courtesy of UNDERGROUND GALLERY

“Journey,” the installation of equine vertebrae and ashes, is a less than abstract representation of a cremated horse with selectively surviving bones. The appropriation of animal remains in art isn’t exceptionally novel. Where there’s a dead animal involved, art’s intent is almost always to function as a testament of death, often in your face and grotesque, though only to the extent that it is naturally so anyway. Damien Hirst notably added to this discourse with a shark in a formaldehyde tank, and famously called it “The Physical Impossibility of Death in the Mind of Someone Living.”

This kind of assemblage done in “Journey,” which Villamiel seems fond of, has already awed the art world before. “Mga Damong Ligaw” of 2014, a magnum opus of sorts, saw bovine horns propped on soil by crude wires. So here it’s convenient that ash can function both as soil and poetry — the former effectively, less so the latter. There may be wabi-sabi there in the yellowing bones, but if it’s indeed meant to be a slice of life that would inspire a Basho haiku, it is too stylistic a depiction to bring one back to its vulnerable place in nature.

Cruz writes that each piece of vertebra “resembles a monk-like angel or a winged man.” Maybe the journey is that of a host of angels, too exhausted to even fly, marching on a wasteland. The image is depressing but cinematic, thus easy to digest.

But while surrounded by the rest of Villamiel’s anonymous heroes steeped in darkness, the ghosts you’ve barely glimpsed, to attempt to derive some semblance of figuration from wayward bones can be a bit of a stretch. “Journey,” though unsurprisingly, is one of the most photographed pieces in the exhibition. The answer as to why is simple: because there, it’s more in servitude to an ambience, than a possibly ancient coded message to unravel.

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Oca Villamiel’s “Collages, Drawings, and Installations” is on view at Underground Gallery until June 24, along with Lec Cruz’s “Troglodytes in Cashmere” and Jel Suarez’ “Never Missed Never Will.” Underground Gallery is located at the second level of Makati Cinema Square.