Dime a Dozen: Courting Iconophilia

(by Carina Evangelista)

Dime a dozen. Sampu sampera. Expressions for what’s common, cheap, ubiquitous, palasak don’t seem apt for any self-respecting museum where “Please don’t touch” signs might abound or where people tend to whisper for fear of rousing the artifacts, paintings, and objects from the utterly precious perch of their utterly silent preening. And so when the Lopez Memorial Museum invited three contemporary artists to use the museum as a studio and to choose works from the museum collection to utilize as their medium, the found and shaped forms collided as much as the found and shaped meanings colluded. The exhibition curator, Eileen Legaspi-Ramirez, refers to the game as “baiting [the artists] to freely poach, parody, and animate selected pieces from the museum trove.” In response, the artists’ gambit was to mess up and mess with the muse—the iconic status that the two great 19th-century masters Juan Luna and Felix Resurreccion Hidalgo wielded in Philippine history and art history.


If something is boring after two minutes, try it for four. If still boring, then eight ...

then sixteen ... then thirty-two. Eventually one discovers it is not boring at all.

--John Cage

Juan Luna’s miniature landscape, Nubes, Mar y Tierra, was Gerardo Tan’s muse. Dulled and grayed by more than a century of existence, the small painting looks ill-at-ease in its muted colors rendered in the swift, spontaneous brushstrokes of a deft artistic hand as it hangs bolted under glass and in gilded frame. A TV monitor hangs to its left at a 90-degree angle. This monitor registers what seems like a photo still of a gallery wall in the adjacent room featuring 12 small canvases of uniform size. The still gets disrupted upon sight of a museum visitor’s entry into the gallery and one realizes that this monitor actually registers live-feed footage from a surveillance camera inside the gallery. Upon entry into the gallery, one notices another TV monitor on the immediate left showing a different live-feed angle from another surveillance camera.

The ‘jewels’ in the room are the 12 small canvases. Read from left to right, careful scrutiny would reveal that it is a cumulative sequence of reproductions of Luna’s original. Tan printed two digital scans of the original, glued each on a canvas of the same size as the original, leaving one scan untouched and the other painted over in oil. The second scan that has been painted over was then scanned twice to follow the first formula and repeated a few more times. It is an abundance of redundancy but is it mere repetition?

John Cage’s famous quotation about repeating a boring thing as many times as possible until one finds the thing not boring at all alludes to the magic of mantra but could also apply to the adage “practice makes perfect.” Musical technique is learned through scales, the exercise of playingchords repeatedly as instructed by Hanon in piano, for example. Academic-style painting has imposed on all its students, including Luna and Hidalgo who were pensionados studying fine art in Europe in the latter half of the 1800s, the same methodology of repetition or copying. In major museums and schools of painting, one would still find artists sitting in front of a masterpiece or a marble sculpture with easel, brush, watercolor/acrylic/oil, or crayon, copying the art at hand. Painting in the classical style is learned by repetitive copying of masterworks or repetitive drawing from a model—as many angles of the hand, body, or face; as many versions of sinews, knuckles, or veins. The same goes for landscapes, seascapes, or still life of fruit, flower, goblet. It is in this iteration and reiteration of such intimacy with details that one acquires a repertoire of tricks and heightened visual instincts. [It has been noted for example that Luna made more than a hundred sketches for The Death of Cleopatra, painted in secrecy and which won him his first international prize in 1881at the Exposition of Fine Arts in Madrid.]

Viewing these small copies and paintings of Luna’s seascape up close, one cannot help but exclaim at Tan’s own impeccable handiwork and his facility with painting since he is more known as a practitioner of conceptual art whereby the artist’s ‘handprint’ is typically removed. Tan’s “visual Hanonization” of Luna is a kind of odious ode. He pays homage to Luna but chooses an obscure seascape that Tan himself selected for its “near-abstraction in flatness.” He doesn’t choose any of Luna’s works that might have won acclaim, pulled at heartstrings, tickled covetous tastes, stirred nationalistic pride, and practically ignited a revolution. He deliberately passes on the lush colors, heavy impasto, or loaded subject matter. And it is the small painting of clouds, sea, and shore that he subjects to what he calls “a continuous (and obsessive) process of layering, […intending] to put subjectivity within the stencil of the mechanical.” Tan seems to even parody his own skill as a painter. By interspersing digital scans and his own painted copies of the original, he seems to make a sarcastic remark about the facile appreciation for pretenses of verisimilitude in art that is typical amongst art audiences.

By “ill-at-ease,” this writer refers to the melancholy and yet cool and detached nature of Luna’s seascape—most likely painted plein-air—and now, for security purposes, suffocated under glass within a gallery of a corporate building. Luna, a certified ‘pilot of the high seas’ at the age of 17, painted many a seascape in his lifetime. The seas represented his voyage, his need to flee from his parents’ wish for him to become a priest, and his strong desire to see, grasp, and grip that wide swath of a rich world beyond his town of Badoc in Ilocos. The seas also represented that great temporal and geographical gap between his enlightenment in Europe and the very object—his homeland—of his ideological longings.

Luna’s life—the artistic, political, and personal—was fiery, luminous with triumphs and plagued with tragedies borne out of the heat of the times and of his own violent passion. His instrumentality within the Propaganda Movement (and therefore role in our own history) and his own persona as an internationally acclaimed painter that practically won for him the high esteem of European royalty have contributed to the iconology of his works and life within the matrix of our cultural imagination.

Tan’s The Moon (Luna) in Prison (Cage) Trance is the contemporary visual incantation that copies and recopies, successively flattens (thru digital reproduction) and reanimates (thru Tan’s own brushwork) what might have lain forgotten or corrupted within this imagination. When we think of Luna, do we remember the pathos of the Spoliarium or recall the controversies around what the artist Mauro Malang Santos has referred to as “nanganganak na Luna”—the doubted authenticity of Lunas that sprang upon the market over time, through the lawyer of Luna’s daughter-in-law’s estate, bank-government deals (unscrupulously negotiated ‘cultural endowments’ in exchange for tax deductions), and more recently, the thousand Paris drawings purportedly by Luna that warranted a fancy coffee table book marking nothing less than the Philippine Centennial itself?

Tan alternately inflates and deflates the value of the Luna painting, ultimately gauging the rigor or caprice of how we view our own cultural legacies, how we evaluate contemporary art practice (conceptual vs. academic; experimental vs. collection-worthy; critical vs. museum-approved), and how our relationship to our cultural history might validate only the market value thereby making it difficult to legitimate non-traditional artworks produced in the here and now.

Viewed from a distance, it is clear that the colors of the Tan/Luna seascape “reproductions” have intensified by the twelfth canvas—as a result both of Tan’s own mixing of colors and of the inevitable digital adjustment of this particular artwork in this 21st-century age of mechanical reproduction. The colors deepen, the brushstrokes thicken, the outer margins darken. What flatness Tan admired in the original has in fact given way to depth—of color, texture, and meaning. Within the rubric of serial conceptualism, what is obsessive and cumulative in Tan’s work departs from what is technically minimalist. Even from the strict point of view of aesthetics, the repeated painting over of the same seascape somehow achieves the feel of animating the waves and the clouds at each repetition. And for each of Tan’s repainting of the Latinized signature, “LVNA,”[i] the stamp of what the 19th-c. master and national hero represented becomes equally layered with meaning.

Tan’s artistic process and use of surveillance cameras is his commentary on the “fetishistic impulse to amass artworks which necessarily locates the subjective reading and history of art within the confines of the collector’s or the museum’s values.” For the artist, “the controlling gaze of the surveillance cameras tracks and locates the viewer within the museum.” The surveillance mechanism re-reproduces the many reproductions of the original and extends the fetishization of the art object by fetishizing the very act of viewing and experiencing the art object. Mediated, filtered, flattened, animated, repeated, reiterated—the image of the very act of visual consumption is itself up for consumption.

As opposed to the 1960s fascination with what Lucy Lippard has called “the dematerialization of the art object,” Tan here rematerializes—repeatedly at that—an image that has been left languishing within the walls of a museum and trapped within the discourse merely of a bewildered market.

The Last Trumpet is the echo of the echo of the repeated echo of the First Trumpet.

--Ramón Gómez de la Serna, Greguerías

But is Tan’s twelfth canvas the last disciple? As the last echo is the echo of the repeated echo, one could consider what Jean-Luc Nancy has described as the simmering, lingering but never exploding nature of “the vestige of art”[ii] through “its infinite finishing (or infinishing) and not its finite perfection.” The last disciple, in Tan’s conception here: the image, the incantation, the meanings and suspicions of our own imagination—is that which is in fact the perfect work-in-progress.


Gaya gaya puto maya

La Luna la luna

Maya maya puro gaya

Ang buwan ang buan

Puto puto Gaya Maya

Go bble forth and multiply

Repeat 2X

-- Artist’s Statement for Dime a Dozen

From Tan’s obsessive and cumulative copying of a single Luna painting, we move to a gallery full of a variety of Alwin Reamillo’s copies of different Luna originals. A small object stands above the very door to the gallery, that of the shell of a red crab adorned with a copy of an idyllic Amorsolo detail. This crab—askew and awkward but brazen like a playful wink—simultaneously invites gallery visitors to, and warns them about, a room teeming with the kitsched-up tension between the originals and their corresponding copies. Enter the mockery of mimicry.

Reamillo chose the specific works by Juan Luna belonging to the Lopez Memorial Museum collection that were featured in E. Aguilar Cruz’s Art and Culture of the Philippines / Monograph Series I. Published by the Department of Public Information in 1975, this monograph was part of deposed President Ferdinand Marcos’s systematic attempt to espouse his brand of nationalism under the aegis of ‘Bagong Lipunan’ (New Society) propaganda.

The dozen Lunas herewith selected are laid out so that the portraits of men are arranged on walls mostly facing the walls on which the portraits of women hang. Upon entry, a trio of walls features a copy of Luna’s self-portrait (the original no longer extant) smack center flanked by Luna’s portraits Mi Hijo Andres and Mi Padre. The portraits of the father, the son, and the son-of-a-gun (Luna himself) are—like all the works featured in this gallery—duplicated in tarpaulin, the medium of choice for commercial billboards that have choked Manila’s skyline and have literally proven fatal during typhoons.

On one side of the wall where the portrait of his son, Andres (fondly nicknamed by Luna as ‘Luling’), hangs is a panel featuring the following excerpt from a letter by Luna:

Here I paint landscapes and when I am not doing so, I go on an excursion, hiking to nearby towns. Sometimes I catch shrimp and talangka and my inseparable companion is Luling, who now talks like a Frenchman.

This quotation illuminates the proliferation of crab shells that seem to have scattered over the Reamillo tarp copies, the walls, and the floor of the whole installation. All the portraits and paintings that have been duplicated in tarp feature crab shells with photocopy transfers (particularly of the faces) from the originals affixed on the surface of the crab shells through an application of acrylic emulsion. This process requires that Reamillo photocopy the images in reverse (or in ‘mirror’) in order to achieve the correct orientation upon transfer. Just one manifestation of ‘reversing,’ the process itself is a metaphor for Reamillo’s cache of mimicry strategies: reversing, mirroring, thwarting, even upsetting. In fact, he originally planned to turn the ‘original’ copy of Luna’s self-portrait (copied by Gaston O’Farrell, a student of Luna’s) upside down. Reamillo felt that the portrait is itself already a form of ‘defacing’ since it was merely a copy. This could be overreaching since copies as studies are in themselves a way of honoring the original. In effect, what Reamillo attempts to posit is that just as an original’s heft determines its worthiness of imitation (and thus flattery), the intrinsic value of the critiqued also has to deserve the intensity of the critique.

Unless a museum visitor were inclined enough to actually try to read the small etched plaque at the bottom of the frame, one would not immediately know that this self-portrait is just a copy. However, Reamillo’s proposal to hang the portrait upside down was deemed a bit irreverent by museum officials. He then settled for subjecting the tarp copy (of the autoretrato copy) instead to this pagbitin-nang-patiwarik installation execution.

Returning to the crabs, Reamillo states that his use of crabs as ‘canvas’ mines multiple metaphors. There’s the Luna quote for one; and there’s the so-called crab mentality that supposedly plagues Filipino progress; and there’s the Latin word for crab, cancer, alluding to both the social cancer of Rizal’s Noli Me Tangere for which Luna himself made illustrations[iii] and the carriers of ideological cancer that Reamillo feels predominates “colonialism then and now.” As food, he also uses the crab as a metaphor for propagation so that all nourished by it should “Go bble (pronounced by the artist as ‘babble’) forth and multiply.” He asserts however that there is no hierarchy amongst these metaphors and as such, there is no one fixed or prescriptive reading since this very ‘babbling’ in our contemporary culture is itself a jumbled mixture (a halu-halo concoction) of signs. He cites as an example our commercial signage even in the business districts: there are signs in English, Pilipino, Taglish, Spanish, Chinese, Japanese, Korean, not to mention the many other Philippine languages and dialects used for advertising and signage across the archipelago.

Our historical ports are rife with the comings and goings of economic, political, and even spiritual trade. And our history of diaspora includes the self-elected as well as state- or Church-imposed ‘emigration’ of a number of the Reformists leading up to the Philippine Revolution. As Reamillo has said, “Luna is one of the first OFWs of his time.” And again, the crabs’ scuttling the surface of the earth in different directions serves as a metaphor. On one of the walls, the artist has chosen to transfer copies of the various positions in fencing that Luna illustrated in one of the originals Reamillo chose to hang in the gallery.

Titled “Escrima,” this work is testament to the activities indulged in by the Filipino members of the Propaganda Movement in Europe at the time. Juan Luna and his brother Antonio Luna (who would become General in the Philippine Revolution) were skilled fencers and they in fact taught their Filipino peers the art of fencing. Juan Luna, as hot-blooded as he was, wasknown to challenge many men to duel, including Europeans who might have disparaged the political position of his peers. Rizal—friend, compatriot, and fellow Reformist at the time, was a member of the fencing club and he christened it “Indios Bravos.” Reamillo includes on this wall a crab shell with the word “MAGPARAMI” on it. Go bble forth and multiply.

A radical analysis of the phenomenon of our population ‘hemorrhaging’ in unrelenting waves of emigration [the artist Reamillo himself has been an Australian resident for quite some time now] is the idea of the Filipino as ‘virus.’ We are known to adapt well to any environment, profession, or culture in the service of regular financial remittances to our families back home amounting to as much as $13 billion a year, virtually assisting the government in its attempt to keep the economy afloat. Discussing his predilection for having “contradictory things existing within one space” so that that space is “ever-mutating,” Reamillo cited the writings of cultural theorist Homi Bhabha. The sacrifice and resilience of Filipinos dispersed practically all over the world could qualify as Bhabha’s identified subversive element within a dominant culture.

Bhabha lists as subversive formulations ‘mimicry, sly civility, colonial nonsense, and above all, hybridity.’ The Filipinos’ relatively high threshold for the ruthless impositions of cultural differences in some 200 countries where they choose to migrate is demonstrated in how they manage to mimic the ways and mannerisms of the cultures they’ve adopted—including the languages; the laws that protect and the laws that oppress or neglect; the crossfire of war; and the very unfamiliarity of everyday things such as food, holidays, music, mode of dress, ad infinitum. The fissures of these various bi-cultures (hybridities) take root wherever the Filipinos land but also eventually find their way home—in practice, in expression, in sufferance, in balikbayan boxes. Reamillo, pointing out that almost all the crab shells he has used have no claws, remarks impishly that he likes to refer to such strategies of mimicry and sly civility as ‘armless subversion because the crabs bear no arms.’ Mimicry is an attempt to “hold up a mirror” to colonial and postcolonial realities. Reamillo adds that “harnessing the mimicries can be a cultural weapon.” Bad copies, such as the largely asinine noontime versions of Western variety shows, become weapons against ourselves.

Image transfers on crab shells call to mind those seashells carved with palm trees or little colorful boats inside bottles. And Duchampian ‘assisted readymades’ in the form of tarp duplicates have been tampered, embellished, or vandalized—here randomly punched with holes the size of 25-centavo coins, there polished clean with sand paper right where the subject’s face should be so as to leave a pixilated halo of whiteness. These are approaches that lean toward kitsch. Reamillo cites the Mona Lisa postcard that the Dadaist Marcel Duchamp retouched with a moustache. This mimicry is itself now lodged in our dictionary of icons. In this light, the work of another cultural theorist, Susan Sontag is worth considering. In her seminal “Notes on Camp,” she cites the following:

To name a sensibility, to draw its contours and to recount its history, requires a deep sympathy modified by revulsion.

The whole point of Camp is to dethrone the serious. Camp is playful, anti-serious. More precisely, Camp involves a new, more complex relation to "the serious." One can be serious about the frivolous, frivolous about the serious.

Camp -- Dandyism in the age of mass culture -- makes no distinction between the unique object and the mass-produced object. Camp taste transcends the nausea of the replica.

Reamillo states that within a museum that represents power—an infrastructure that is part of the “ideological state apparatus, parody and humor are important strategies in discussing that very power.” Between Sontag’s observation that Camp “incarnates the victory of ‘aesthetics’ over ‘morality’ and of irony over tragedy” and Bhabha’s assertion that “the thing which has been colonized becomes human during the same process by which it frees itself,” Reamillo’s crabs are the vessels of the evolved kitsch.

The most radical juxtaposition of original vs. duplicate employed by Reamillo is that of the famed Luna painting, España y Filipinas (or Mother Spain Guiding Her Daughter the Philippines on the Road to Progress, 1897). An allegorical painting that symbolized the advocated representation to the Spanish Cortes by the Reformists, it is itself quite kitschy with the contrasting costumes of Mother Spain and Daughter Philippines (red and blue) and the staircase that leads to a glow of light (the sun) so that these elements might allude to the Philippine flag. Add to this composition flowers strewn on the steps of the staircase and you’ve got an image that reeks of schmaltz.

Reamillo lays down on the floor the mirror image of the life-size tarp copy as if to approximate the legend of Narcissus. Used as a prologue in Paulo Coelho’s The Alchemist, the metaphor of Narcissus’s vanity is extended to, or reverberated by, the lake that itself turned into a lake of salty tears. The lake had wept so much over the death of Narcissus not because of his fatal transformation into a flower after his endless contemplation of his own beauty. The lake had never noticed his beauty and said, “I weep because, each time he knelt beside my banks, I could see, in the depths of his eyes, my own beauty reflected.” Here, Reamillo is crystal clear about the farce of annually commemorating Philippine Independence Day. His sentiments regarding the chokehold of “Catholicism and capitalism” on this nation seem embodied in the false vanity that has killed both the boy and the lake. The delusion of our manufactured sense of self (of nationhood) has become the very poison in our midst.


Take my hand

I'm a stranger in paradise

All lost in a wonderland

A stranger in paradise

If I stand starry-eyed

That's the danger in paradise

For mortals who stand beside an angel like you

The artist Tad Ermitaño has digitally altered Tony Bennett’s rendition of the song “Stranger in Paradise” by rendering its sound more ‘gramophoney.’ The synthesized voice of an ‘artificial man’ reading out in a monotony the lyrics of the same song thru a simple Text-to-Switch program is then added as an audio layer to “cut the sweetness” of the song. This is but one example of the aesthetic dialectic that Ermitaño applies to his video installation titled Eisenstein’s Monster.

The classic song and the robotic words lure you into a gallery full of Felix Resurreccion Hidalgo bocetos or studies on paper. On the wall directly across from the gallery entrance, a huge screen hemmed in by a frame of 20 flickering TV monitors features Ermitaño’s video loop of “found images and found sounds” that he has altered, collaged, animated, montaged, expanded, and expounded in a simple narrative. Scanning images from the very sketches by Hidalgo in the same room, Ermitaño alters these ‘found images’ by cropping them, reorienting them, circumscribing them with new ‘roles’ as well as forms, and splicing them together in a particular sequence to cobble together an allusion to the story of Frankenstein’s “monster.”

The loop opens with a scan of Hidalgo’s sketch of what looks like a castle. Ermitaño alters it slightly with an underlayer of moving dark clouds and animates it with a soundtrack of thunder and howling wind. Cut to a black-and-white photograph of a castle interior, a picture frame on a wall in this photo shows a Hidalgo sketch of a man in a coat. The cropped scan of this man is spun a bit on its pivot to change his orientation such that his original position of seemingly falling backwards now looks as if he is lunging forward over something.

Won't you answer this fervent prayer

Of a stranger in paradise?

Don't send me in dark despair

From all that I hunger for

Cut to another Hidalgo sketch of a bald man with a naked torso lying prostrate, with the man in heavy coat hovering over him as if operating on him. These two Hidalgo scans are juxtaposed against a backdrop scan of what looks like a lab. From this ensues a series of staccato cuts to various scans of Hidalgo’s studies of bodies and body parts, now and then jolted with highlighted chalk/crayon lines and shadings accompanied by sounds of short-circuit zaps. The flat illustration of the bald man incrementally incarnates flesh and eventually “plumps” out, twists outward at the waist, and rises.

I saw your face and I ascended

Out of the commonplace into the rare

Somewhere in space I hang suspended

Until I know there's a chance that you care

A brief intercut of blinding white and the new man, virile and agile, runs off in sure, confident strides.

But open your angel's arms

To this stranger in paradise

And tell him that he need be

A stranger no more

Formally analyzed, there are three color registers in the video narrative: the sepia of Hidalgo’s studies that are more than 100 years old; the muddy grays of the found photo images of interiors that Ermitaño lifted from the Internet; and the quicksilver platinum of the “new man.” Sound-wise, the artist sets up the narrative with the standard soundtrack to creepy movies (sounds also lifted from the Net) but then segues to the electronic, pop, funky, and experimental with Bennett crooning—finally ending with the hopeful verse: “stranger no more.”

Ermitaño favors the tension of opposing sensibilities: “the rough and grotesque alongside the sentimental and sweet;” the new with the old; technical study against lyrical spontaneity; the handmade sketch subjected to computerized alteration; and faded meanings with new functions. There is a ‘storyboard sequence’ to the central narrative but the scanned images of other Hidalgo sketches, including those of Hidalgo’s signature, flicker around the large screen in random order. The random scans on the 20 monitors register in a warm wash of varying tints of orange and each monitor emits its own electronic hiss or buzz depending on the age and make of the secondhand TVs that were themselves randomly purchased by the museum for the artist.

Content-wise, Ermitaño speaks of Frankenstein’s monster as “an innocent, romantic figure” that serves as a metaphor for his video installation comprised of selected scans of images whose meanings may have “decayed” over time. To him, decay is just one form of change and he therefore decided “to initiate a process of growth—another form of change—to grow new meanings in preexisting work.”

Frankenstein’s creation, unnamed in the original novel, was referred to by his creator as “daemon,” “monster,” “fiend,” and “wretch.” But Ermitaño’s fascination with what he calls “the central myth of our age” has made him view the creature as “an innocent, romantic figure” that represents “rebirth and coming of age.” He notes that by “irradiating a roomful of Hidalgo’s drawings with a new narrative” with a large, electronic video installation, the work itself becomes “a parable of surgery and resurrection…in the real world.” And by changing the title from Frankenstein’s Monster to Eisenstein’s Monster, referring to the Russian director whose style of montage revolutionized filmmaking, he draws another layer in the metaphor of accessing “new meaning borne through the cut.” In this regard, he departs from both Tan and Reamillo whose strategies involved duplication and reverb; Ermitaño reproduces by stitching together the crop, the splice, the cut, the slice.

While Ermitaño has deliberately purged the image sources of their intended characterizations by Hidalgo, it is worth noting the interesting historical significance of the two main figures. Ermitaño’s Frankenstein was based on Hidalgo’s Fernando Bustamante; while Hildalgo’s dead Limahong was transformed into Lazarus, the ‘new man’ in Eisenstein’s Monster. Bustamante and Limahong were both curious personages in Philippine history but—like the Monster himself, Ermitaño’s work is like an exquisite corpse of disparate elements—the former was a figure from the 1700s; the latter, from the 1500s. Bustamante was the Governor General ruthlessly assassinated along with his son by marauding friars who resented the state official’s crackdown on Church-abetted corruption. Limahong was the Chinese corsair who attempted and failed twice to wrest control of the archipelago from the Spaniards within the very first decade of Miguel Lopez de Legazpi’s arrival in the Philippines.

Both figures are testament to the tug-of-war control over the Philippines between the Chinese and the Spaniards.[iv] The friars who were suspected of masterminding and even executing the assassination of Bustamante were reported to have been accompanied by a number of Chinese citizens, some of whom even testified to having witnessed the murders but claiming to have not known the real identities of the priests directly involved.

And both episodes marked attempts of the natives—the “Indios”—to gain their own independence. In the case of Limahong’s initial assault on the Spaniards in 1574, some 1,000 native Tagalogs on their bancas actually tried to seize the bewildered Spaniards by surrounding them, taunting, throwing insults, and mocking them about the inevitable end of their relatively young rule since the memories of the natives’ humiliating subjugation were still quite fresh.

In the case of Bustamante’s bloody death—he was attacked with machete and sword, hogtied and dragged down a staircase, and then stabbed twice, the details of that ignominious day had been buried over time but served as symbolic goad for propagandists to declare the ‘friarocracy’ as the true enemy of the people. Bustamante’s assassination was indeed resurrected in two forms, in the novel La Loba Negra (Ang Asong Itim) attributed to Padre Burgos’s authorship (an illustration of liberation theology in our history?) and in Hidalgo’s courageous execution of the painting La Iglesia contra el Estado / El Asesinato del Gobernador Bustamante y su Hijo.

A 1971 reprint of La Loba Negra expressly acknowledges the Lopez Memorial Museum for the loan of reproductions of Hidalgo studies that Ermitaño himself ‘resurrects.’ Because of the heavy indictment against the Catholic Church, the actual painting could not be exhibited for a good century. So the year 1971 is worth noting since it predates and perhaps facilitated its first ever public appearance at the National Museum in 1974 interestingly marking the preeminence of a regime associated with martial rather than ecclesiastical law.

Ermitaño’s reanimation of these historical figures, while superimposing a totally different narrative, nonetheless truly resurrects the impact of what they represented because museum visitors are compelled to view them in a different light. In jogging our memories, the awakening of Eisenstein’s Monster upends the term memento mori which is a reminder of our death as Ermitaño’s “new man” heralds new meanings.


Rough work, iconoclasm, but the only way to get at truth.

--Oliver Wendell Holmes

How does one pin down Truth when one of its conceptions is that of a seven-headed animal?

“No icon is immune to the grip of fetishization,” alerts one wall in the gallery devoted to the idea of Rizal as an icon. Underneath this wall text is a vitrine with memorabilia and objects illustrating the iconhood of Rizal, among them a box of matches and a T-shirt emblazoned with a picture of Rizal and the words: “Ang kabataan ay kinabukasan ng Rock n Roll.” An excerpt from Mike de Leon’s Bayaning 3rd World is looped on three TV monitors within the gallery. Rizal as an icon is tackled in the film in the various forms that Rizal’s image has been used, including a satirical take of Rizal as deodorant, “Para di ka amoy-Indio.”

In the sport of iconophilia, Tan, Reamillo, and Ermitaño mined the meanings and functions of icons differently. That an icon is hapless prey to fetishization suggests that the idea of Rizal or that Reamillo’s Luna becomes an object—of desire, of commodification, of political symbology, of mythology. If the icon is prey, then its consumers are its predators.

Let’s analyze the institutional threshold that Reamillo could not transgress. The museum mandate made on the score of prohibiting the inversion of O’Farrell’s copy of Luna’s self-portrait was in consideration of the demographics of its most regular visitors. The seniors who frequent the museum particularly to view these masterworks have nearly equated O’Farrell’s copy with Luna’s original—if not with Luna the artist altogether. The sanctity bestowed upon the legendary artist by his faithful viewers has determined the sanctity of the existing simulacrum of his lost self-simulacrum. This states that the power of an image as icon lies in the eye of the beholder and it is understandable if gatekeepers tend to feel beholden to the powerful. After all, the constituency that a public institution would naturally accommodate first is its most devoted public.

In Ermitaño’s case, he brandished the artist’s license to mold his medium into a brand new work. He transformed Hidalgo’s sketches of historical figures into characters of a totally different narrative. Beyond the grafted plant, his cuts and transplants created a form so divorced from the rationale of the original. Realizing that icons can and do lose their hold on popular imagination [after all, who still thinks of either Bustamante or Limahong?], Ermitaño seems to say that images are fair game for drastic reinterpretation and therefore malleable in the hands of artists.

Eisenstein’s Monster has a creator, and Ermitaño demonstrates that the artist can willfully fashion meaning out of any medium. The power of forming or transforming icons is wielded by the auteur. The notion of the museum as gatekeeper here stipulates that had the museum not given him access to, and relatively free rein over its collection, Hidalgo’s untouched studies would not have allowed for their new incarnation in Ermitaño’s own interpretation.

Like Dr. Frankenstein himself, the artist breathes life into the image or object. And in the cosmology of icons, the love of art can manifest itself in the lover’s iconoclastic refashioning of the very loved, such as in Robert Rauschenberg’s Erased De Kooning Drawing.

Rather than erase Luna’s seascape, Tan’s own iconophilia instead inspired him to compulsively copy and recopy it. He was reading WJT Mitchell’s What Do Pictures Want?: The Lives and Loves of Images while working on his installation piece. Navigating the terrain contested between auteur and reader, Mitchell’s book adds a third contender. The art object itself takes on the subjective case in the grammar of power—the power to be autonomous of its maker and the prerogative to need, demand, desire from the viewer a particular regard. In short, images—by having their own lives and loves—can in fact compel their consumers to behave in response to their implicit wiles that can be independent of the creator’s own intention.

It is interesting that it is Tan’s work that is most inscrutable. The staggering silence of The Moon in Prison Trance distills the image-ness of the Luna painting but can on the surface be confounding. It also deliberately conscripts museum visitors as both object and voyeur in its surveillance system. The much-ballyhooed gaze—be it male, female, young, old, anointed, or prejudiced—here is subverted. The deadpan ‘expression’ of Tan’s 12 reproductions of Luna’s small seascape seems to gaze back blankly at the viewer’s eye-level gaze—12 times at that and then exponentially when the viewer looks at either of the two monitors.

As minimalist as the presentation is, it is virtually a maze of mirrors. And in a world of reversals, it is not surprising that Tan’s favorite cartoon is that of Ad Reinhardt’s illustration of a derisive museum visitor pointing a finger at an abstract painting with a line that taunts: “HA HA! What does this represent?” The cartoon punchline has the painting throwing the question back at the startled viewer, pointed finger included, “What do YOU represent?”

The role of the museum is not insignificant in the trade of icons—no matter who/what is the rightful sovereign in icondom. This couldn’t have been better illustrated than by the furor provoked by the centennial exhibition on Frida Kahlo that recently opened at the Palacio de Bellas Artes in Mexico. Attended by Felipe Calderón (the newly installed president whose victory is widely contested by many who believe that the election was really won by the leftist Andrés Manuel López Obrador), the exhibition is currently being protested by various groups not just for Calderón’s attendance but for the supposed curatorial suppression of the history of Kahlo’s explicitly political activism.[v]

The Lopez Museum’s initiative in encouraging contemporary artists to perforate in order to aspirate the perceived or actual vacuum of critical museum viewership will perchance enlarge the audience base—the market of art ‘beholders.’ Revolutionary change itself is the dramatic crux of incremental variances. Reamillo’s compromise to invert just the tarp copy of the copy is one such incremental step toward what Cedie Vargas (Lopez Museum Director) refers to as an effort to negotiate a means of access to contemporary art language for the museum’s older audience. Dime a Dozen incites an updated reading of the Lopez Museum collection amongst the museum’s regular iconophiles and invites new audiences to participate in questioning and defining the very power of icons—indeed for the love of it.

[i] In The Archetypal Filipino (1980), Nick Joaquin discusses the significance of Luna’s signature as a signifier of his assertion of Filipino pride:

The operative word here is: identity. Picture the epiphany. From a culture of mostly anonymous ballads, mostly anonymous sculpture, mostly anonymous drama, mostly anonymous music and mostly anonymous architecture, there suddenly rises a group of artists known by name because they proudly sign their works. An identity, a Philippine identity, was being established by these painters of the early 19th century…

…[T]his proclamation of pride in being one’s own self, was first made by our painters, when they began to sign their works. And that’s why I would say that the Filipino as painter was the First Filipino. He was the first to exemplify, both in himself and in his works, those virtues that were said to be lacking in the Indio; and by making those virtues define the identity of the Filipino, he advanced the process of our evolution from Indio to Filipino.

Within less than two decades of Joaquin’s essay, the significance of Luna’s signature will have devolved into the question of its authenticity when it was found on many of the ‘found’ drawings by Luna, since it is not usual for artists to sign their studies. These drawings, serendipitously found and celebrated in the coffee table book marking the Philippine Centennial, have thus become the signifiers of Luna’s dive from that of having defined “the identity of the Filipino” to mere market product (perchance ‘pirated’ at that). From advancing “the process of our evolution from Indio to Filipino,” have we then reduced this same Filipino icon to sheer peso sign?

[ii] In “The Vestige of Art” in The Muses (1996), Jean-Luc Nancy writes:

The vestigial is not an essence—and no doubt this is what puts us on the track of “the essence of art.” That art is today its own vestige, this is what opens us to it. It is not a degraded presentation of the Idea, nor the presentation of a degraded Idea; it presents what is not “Idea”: motion, coming, passage, the going-on of coming-to-presence.

[iii] It bears noting that Reamillo—a master of visual, phonetic, and textual puns himself—alludes to Luna’s Noli Me Tangere illustrations in the line from his artist statement/verse, “Ang buwan ang buan.” Luna signed the illustrations with the initials JB. From his Latinized signature “LVNA” inspired by his academic training in Rome, Luna’s political awakening has clearly moved him to “Philippinize” his signature for these illustrations since JB stands for the deliciously rhythmic Juan Buan.

[iv] Just as the Chinese had either fought the Spaniards or conspired with the Spaniards over control of the Philippines, it is also crucial to note that the Chinese have also fought for the assertion of the Filipino identity. Hidalgo, himself a Chinese mestizo, was one of the students at the University of Santo Tomas known to have called the attention to the friars’ excesses and abuses. Almost all the students involved were Chinese mestizos.

[v] http://www.fresnoundercurrent.net/node/666