The radical gardens of Geraldine Javier

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Geraldine Javier's installation, "Oblivions to Oblivions," at West Gallery. Says Javier, "The concept behind the installation is, 'Are the plants leaving the planet or are they taking root and coming back to us?” Should we let them go away or do we plant them again?'" Photo by JOSEPH PASCUAL

Manila (CNN Philippines Life) — On the surface, the work of visual artist Geraldine Javier has consistently tended towards softer subjects and delicate materials, showing women and girls at work or at play, or arranging small animals and lovely gardens into a tasteful tableau. But there is always something sinister creeping beneath the surface, demanding that one remain wary of the nostalgia evoked by her canvases.

Javier entered the UP College of Fine Arts after five years of training as a nurse, and began exhibiting almost immediately. Her practice has since evolved, taking detours from the figurative and narrative, then cycling back to the more conceptual strategies she employed as part of the artist collective, Surrounded by Water.

Geraldine Javier "Oblivion to Oblivion" is a “cloud-like” installation of botanical illustrations embroidered on silk. Photo by JOSEPH PASCUAL

“Beginnings and Endings,” at the West Gallery, consists of two large wall-bound pieces and a “cloud-like” installation of botanical illustrations embroidered on silk. Combining a little bit of each of Javier’s concerns, it toys with the invisible labor and manual dexterity of threadwork while suggesting something revolutionary about growing a garden in the middle of the city.

CNN Philippines Life talked to the Batangas-based artist about her latest exhibit. Below are edited excerpts from the interview.

Could you tell us about the beginnings and endings being referred to in your title?

When you look at the works, you might think, “This is about nature.” But it’s not only about nature, it’s about a way of life, or the philosophical meanderings when it comes to how you deal with life. So this can be about the environment and what is happening now. It can be about the desperation and instability — what with the way the world is being degraded.

For me, a little anger is necessary to propel you to action. But too much anger can also get you stuck, or unable to act because of that anger, so you just have to live with what is given and learn from it. Sometimes things are desperate, but what can you do? You have to be happy and stay positive.

Geraldine Javier "Beginnings and Endings (Bad Romance)" and "Beginnings and Endings (Happy Days)," acrylic on canvas by Geraldine Javier. Photo by JOSEPH PASCUAL

When you talk about this kind of desperation within the environment, what kind of environment are you referring to? Is it just within the political, or social, or is it in general terms?

General, always general. I was a graduate of nursing, and we were taught that it is not just about health [of the body]. It’s holistic, so you really have to consider everything [that surrounds the body].

How does your training as a nurse continue to influence your practice as an artist?

It’s about empathy. You have to empathize with the people you work with — especially for me, people have to help me with the artworks. Even in conceptualizing the work, it can’t just be cerebral, it has to be emotional as well. The work has to be felt.

When it comes to the materials you chose for this show, how did you choose embroidery to communicate about empathy?

I’ve been using embroidery for a long time. I would incorporate it into my paintings to make it more two-dimensional. But with embroidery, you can’t really control how it will look; sometimes the embroidery differs depending on the person who embroiders it. Sometimes it’s so fine, sometimes it’s not, depending on the character of the one making it.

It’s also a community thing. Currently, they [the embroiderers] are in the guestroom of our house in Batangas, so they can listen to music, they have the internet, they can watch a T.V. series while they work. They can talk to each other.

But they have to be very patient. I’ve tried working with other women, or other women would come, seeing that they could be paid well and thinking that the work is easy. But then they try it and see that mahirap pala siya. Sobra, sobrang hirap.

Where did your own fascination with thread come from?

From my mother and my aunt. I would see my mom crochet bedcovers, curtains, and tablecovers. And I would also see my aunt making these really intricate embroideries.

Do you ever feel any tension or conflict when it comes to embroidery and crochet being identified as crafts or as the application of a “feminine touch”?

I actually don’t have any issues with that, but I don’t consider it a craft because of the skills needed to do that. I think what will elevate it beyond being simply “craft” is the concept behind the work.

Geraldine Javier Detail of "Oblivion to Oblivion" which features embroideries on silk organza. Photo by JOSEPH PASCUAL

Could you talk a bit more about your own concept [for “Beginnings and Endings], especially with installing it in this way, where it’s suspended in thin air.

It’s like a cloud. This was inspired by my first painting in the series. I used to paint figurative works and I was trying to change it. I went back to oil painting a year ago, but with that oil painting, it felt the same. Like nothing had changed. [Before that] I stopped painting with oil for five years and explored other media, like acrylics. But people always asked when I was going to do another oil painting. When I tried it again, it looked very competent, but I didn’t feel anything special — like it had not moved on.

I was not very happy about it, so I decided to try something else even if I was not sure if I was really capable or what it will look like. But it’s always like that.

So I tried working with acrylics. I was copying plant illustrations and layering these with my paintings, and that’s what inspired these embroideries. The concept behind the installation is, “Are the plants leaving the planet or are they taking root and coming back to us?” Should we let them go away or do we plant them again?

How did you decide to include mirrors in the installation?

Initially, it was only about the embroideries; but when I was installing, I thought that people should be part of the installation.

What about the decision to leave the backs of the embroideries imperfect and exposed?

Well, what can we do? [Laughs] There are two sides to everything and we have to see both sides.

Geraldine Javier "With embroidery, you can’t really control how it will look; sometimes the embroidery differs depending on the person who embroiders it," says Geraldine Javier on her practice. "Sometimes it’s so fine, sometimes it’s not, depending on the character of the one making it." Photo by JOSEPH PASCUAL

As someone who works with nature a lot, could you tell us how your recent move to Batangas has affected the way you deal with the subject?

I moved to Batangas four years ago, and I thought by moving away from Manila to the province, I would have a more quiet life. And I do have a more quiet life, but I was also struggling with that quiet. With so many things happening around me, I can’t just be in my own world. I can’t just be painting flowers for the sake of painting flowers.

In my next show, I think I’m going to tackle that; but I don’t want it to be obviously political because I’m not an artist who tackles political things.

But do you feel that a concern for nature is a political concern as well?

Yes, I do … except I don’t shout. [Laughs].

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“Beginnings and Endings” runs from Aug. 24 to Sept. 16, 2017 at West Gallery, 48 West Ave., Quezon City. Geraldine Javier’s next solo exhibition opens in Jan. 2018 at the Arario Gallery in Shanghai, China.