How can art represent the 'common man'?

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In ‘The Man Who,’ a video and wall installation shown at the Singapore Art Museum, Filipino artist Vic Balanon explores the ways in which the artist and the working man are the same, rather than different. Photo courtesy of the SINGAPORE ART MUSEUM

Manila (CNN Philippines Life) — Prior to being an exhibiting artist, Vic Balanon worked as a studio worker at a major Japanese film company, where he was, among a sea of other studio workers, part of a “machine” that required different parts to function. Tying with his personal experiences as a “common working man,” Balanon investigates the ways in which these two experiences have, in fact, not been as different as one would believe.

Through “The Man Who,” an installation shown at the Singapore Art Museum SAM at 8Q as part of “Cinerama: Art and the Moving Image” in Southeast Asia, he explores an homage to Dziga Vertov’s “Man With a Movie Camera,” an experimental film released in 1929, “The Man Who” draws from Vertov’s resistance to using cinematic montage as a vehicle solely used to push a narrative, as well as the implication that each action and activity is “equivalent to one another, connected by rhythm and movement.”

Balanon’s interest in this egalitarian mindset mirrors the experiences as a worker that, for “The Man Who,” he taps into. “When I decided to leave my day job as an animator and started to focus seriously on my art practice, I had this aspiration of representing the common man, some sort of an artist for the working class,” he says. “Thinking about it now it was quite a naïve assumption and also a bit arrogant.”

The artist-worker contrast was more complicated than he initially thought, going beyond institutional and economic structures, as well as notions of individual growth and creativity. The implications are wide-reaching and complex, a web of interconnected systems that affect each other, so instead of navigating through them — something he is admittedly wary of attempting — Balanon turned inward and focused on his studio practice, searching for relation and identification to the common man.

“Perhaps we have put too much premium on the artist because of our romantic notions of her,” he says. “We’ve always thought that there’s this chasm that separates her from the rest of us. But we have never asked the opposite: that maybe the challenges and struggles she encounters are not so different from ours. So I sort of made this question as one of the working themes of ‘The Man Who’ and made an attempt to represent the artist as a common working man.”

Balanon works with several different mediums — ranging from hyper-detailed illustrative work, sculptural installations, and video — and tends to explore them with rigor and curiosity, often employing different techniques to thoroughly inspect a specific form.

Vic Balanon 2.jpeg Vic Balanon on his practice: “When I decided to leave my day job as an animator and started to focus seriously on my art practice, I had this aspiration of representing the common man, some sort of an artist for the working class. Thinking about it now it was quite a naïve assumption and also a bit arrogant.” Photo courtesy of the SINGAPORE ART MUSEUM

In “The Man Who,” Balanon toys with the two-pronged idea of “a studio” as something that is a collaborative creative outfit and a physical space where an artist makes his work, inhabiting that intersection and attempting to make a film with a painter’s mentality. Although the making of a film often constitutes an elaborate system of skill-specific labor — a collaborative practice — “The Man Who” was created by a one-man studio, within the constraints his studio space (“my garage-studio,” Balanon says) affords.

“It was a very cumbersome process and I have to say that this is the most challenging and difficult project I have made so far, not only because of the thought-process and problem-solving demands it required but also of the amount of physical work I had to expend to finish it,” he says. Balanon served as the camera operator, props-man, director, editor, and actor. In the middle of making “The Man Who,” he wondered if hiring collaborators and assistants would have been a better option, had he been able to afford it. He says, “I could only imagine how the process would have unfolded, but certainly it would have resulted in a different form altogether.”

Like Vertov’s idea of connectedness, Balanon’s breadth of work thrives on relationships and, in his words, operates as a sort of continuity. “I see my artworks as parts of a continuity, as a series of images like scenes in a film,” he says. “But just like how I view movies and films, I am not really interested with technical narrative linearity. I am on the look-out for the cracks, the charged spaces in-between where possibilities are engendered.”

In addition to drawing inspiration from Vertov, “The Man Who” is a nod to animation from Takashi Ito to Guy Roland to Jan Švankmajer and the Quay Brothers. “The ‘tribute’ label is undeniable and was done so in earnest,” he says, embracing the possibility of his work being called a pastiche of far-reaching references. Pastiche, Balanon says, is a remix, a hybrid, a celebration. “The techniques and influences also served as guidelines, to ground the images lest they veer into unnecessary trajectories and not just mere stock to copy from.”

Vic Balanon 3.png Aside from the video, “The Man Who” has a graphic wall installation reminiscent of Joost Schmidt’s iconic Bauhaus poster, which Balanon says is intentional. “It was a motif carried over from a series of works I exhibited prior to this one.” Photo courtesy of the SINGAPORE ART MUSEUM

“Part of the challenge in creating this animated video was the decision to not have a working script, storyboards and preparatory sketches,” he says. “The Man Who” was created intuitively, the process of shooting and visual organization done simultaneously, the sequences shot out of order. “In a way, it’s the opposite of deconstructing narrative sequence.”

Aside from the video, “The Man Who” has a graphic wall installation reminiscent of Joost Schmidt’s iconic Bauhaus poster, which Balanon says is intentional. “It was a motif carried over from a series of works I exhibited prior to this one.” The series involved the visual nature of geometric abstraction as a grounding for Balanon’s figurative portraits, in an attempt at synthesis, and then further linked with “The Man Who,” where “possibilities of the visual interplay between abstraction and figuration in moving images” were explored.

Through “The Man Who,” Balanon goes beyond his surface-level inquiries concerning the correlations between cinema and art, particularly painting and sculpture, building on the notions of visuality and image-making shared by both, and attempting to look for connections between the fields’ practitioners at the time of their discoveries.

“Except for a few figures (Hans Richter, Viking Eggeling, Walter Ruttmann), I think the explorations were made independent from each other’s preferred medium even if they shared the same enthusiasm for revolutionary forms and ideology,” he says. “It was only later, when filming equipment became more available and affordable that artists crossed-over and took the reins of experimentation of cinematic form.”

“‘The Man Who’ is a fictionalized representation of how an artist operates inside his studio. Hence, it is also still a work in progress,” Balanon says. Presently, it serves as a working summary of the themes he would like to continue exploring: “how human movements interact with unnatural abstract motion and design” — a performative action set into motion through the gaze of the camera — a focus on rather than the differences between the “worker” and the “artist,” the ways in which they are the same.