“It might be unconscious, but this is what we are: dislocated, and translating the dislocation of our everyday life into our art practice.” — Isabel Aquilizan
WORDS JOSELINA CRUZ | PHOTOGRAPHY AT MACULANGAN
They come back and forth, crossing the Pacific, slowly setting up and establishing a new home—a new home where home used to be. Alfredo and Isabel Aquilizan have, for most of the past 10 or so years, been traveling around the world putting together large-scale installations from Moscow to Kanazawa to Venice and Auckland. Their exhibition history is like a laundry list of biennales across the globe interrupted only by survey shows, smaller group and solo shows in Brisbane and Manila and everywhere in between.
I recently asked Freddie (Alfredo) and Isabel about this, and what was once in early years discussed with excitement and expectation, now slides more easily into conversation: “We don’t really think too much of it anymore, I guess it’s just the next exhibition.” And perhaps it is. They’ll be in an exhibition in Taiwan and New York in 2017 and will be part of the coming Art Fair Philippines. But now, for a brief period, they’re back in Los Baños, Laguna—where most of their artistic and personal lives started—hard at work turning what used to be an old fruit juice factory into a studio, and a home, for the future. Despite having moved to Brisbane, Australia, with their five children in 2006, both Isabel and Freddie look forward to returning.
This criss-crossing from country to country, city to city is an itinerancy in keeping with their art practice, one best described as site-specific collaborations. More often than not, they are invited to propose projects, especially the large-scale ones; often, these engage a community or communities to complete the work.
Early on, their work In God We Trust, a stainless steel jeep patterned after World War 2’s Willys Jeep, was included in Hou Hanru’s section Z.O.U (Zone of Urgency) in Francesco Bonami’s 2003 Venice Biennale (Bonami invited several curators to reflect on his thematic “Dreams and Conflicts: The Viewer’s Dictatorship”). For the Aquilizans, this jeepney was a site of collaboration and highlighted this fact by recognizing the object as having been produced not just by several hands, but by different groups. They brought together jeepney artists who applied the decorative appliqués on the body, the jeepney assemblers, as well as the artists who collaborated on the project.
For the Aquilizans, the melding of these creative resources was, and is, very specific. This is an aspect of their practice which they see as key, an important thread in their work is to bring groups together towards production. This is something you will see again and again in their work, and they insist that their work comes from “interdependence,” not only on each other but deeply on the context they find themselves in. “Each time we get invited to work on a show we have to consider—and, in fact, work with — the site, the space, the resources, even the curators and their assistants. We are conscious that we have to think of these factors when preparing our proposal,” says Freddie. Isabel agrees. “The logistics of producing our work is highly dependent on the context and the people we find ourselves working with. There have been times when we’ve been faced with situations, wherein we’ve had to do the search for the objects themselves, with the opening looming on us, like in Moscow, where we had to go around looking for sleds ourselves. Despite this [collecting of sleds] having been written out in our proposal.”
They arrived at The Manege in Moscow to a massive space assigned for their installation, with hardly enough material to work with. “Since our work is highly dependent on context and community, we need to have a sort of engagement with the site, to have the institution connect themselves to their locality via our projects.” Isabel shows some exasperation when relating past projects with situations like these, and Freddie acknowledges the challenge that come from these.
Their move to Brisbane necessarily influenced their practice, but not to the extent that their artistic language shifted. A curator asked Freddie his thoughts on how their move to Australia might affect their work, to which he replied: “I just might start painting landscapes.” There is a wry sense of humor in Freddie, while Isabel, the more pragmatic of the couple, takes her husband’s sometimes very flippant replies, in stride. This reference to landscape painting may have become more than a jokey reply by an artist whose works mostly deal with large-scale installations.
Almost four years in Australia, they were already working on the Mabini Art Project, which deals with landscape paintings, or, more precisely, cheap, kitschy tourist landscape paintings showing off orangey Philippine sunsets, and overly green fields with the requisite water buffalo. For this body of work, the Aquilizans source material from the streets of Mabini, buying hundreds of tiny landscape paintings done by several Mabini painters, but also working closely with one of the Mabini artists (a label often used to discredit a mediocre work) to produce one of the main pieces.
This project is, in fact, a conceptual gesture that reflexively examines their own practice: By inviting a Mabini artist to enlarge the ubiquitous tiny canvas landscapes onto a canvas several meters wide, and developing a trajectory that explored the other side of authorship. Whereas their straightforward proposals for communities to gather individuals to become one of the many authors of the final installation, the Mabini Art Project suggested its polar opposite.
With the massive landscape painting done, and with the agreement of the artist, the Aquilizans proceeded to frame areas of it, editing the surface to turn these into many more paintings, referencing both abstraction, realist and expressionist renderings. This was installed salon style, resulting in a wall of paintings seemingly authored by different artists.
This is one of the several trajectories to enter this piece; there are among others the reference to Philippine art history (Conservatives vs. the Moderns, 1955), and when it was shown at the Sharjah Biennial in 2013, addressing migrancy in the Middle East. To quote Freddie: “As a migrant, I began to see landscape in a different way… I set to use the Mabini paintings for my works—landscape paintings that are familiar items of [sic] my memory… that also evoke landscapes of my childhood.” (Fekri, 2013)
The shift in their work was indeed only a change due to their geographical position. While living in the Philippines, their work explored ties of those who moved away; looked at the banal detritus of certain communities whether these be toothbrushes or flip-flops. With their own migration, they began to document their move, while casting an eye toward “home.” Isabel, for her part, says that “it might be unconscious, but this is what we are: dislocated, and translating the dislocation of our everyday life into our art practice.” And indeed, what images do they conjure up in their installations but those of the in-between spaces occupied when moving places? The 140 balikbayan boxes given to them by friends and family in Brisbane, to be sent back home to Manila (ironically, this work has been traveling for seven years—struggling to find its way back “home”), thousands of little airplanes (built by visitors and the immediate community during the span of an exhibition), an upturned boat from which hundreds of squat houses dangle.
But beyond these visual representations of the moments in-between moving from one place to another, the Aquilizans are more keen to focus on what their practice—one which is clearly identified with social and community engagement—hinges on. “Some people might say that such a practice stems from a very ’90s idea,” Freddie says.
In fact, it does work within the category of relational aesthetics that Nicolas Bourriaud theorized in the late 1990s. Relational aesthetics is, in a nutshell, “a set of artistic practices which take as their theoretical and practical point of departure the whole of human relations and their social context, rather than an independent and private space.” The Aquilizans are clearly part of this, along with artists such as Carsten Höller, Rirkrit Tiravanija, Navin Rawanchaikul and a host of others who continue to work in this manner of seeking to draw out human relations from specific contexts.
A PLACE FOR ENGAGEMENT
Once upon a time, in Mt. Makiling, both the Aquilizans were part of the faculty of the Philippine High School for the Arts—Isabel taught performing arts and Freddie, fine art. During their time there, they had among their students Kawayan de Guia, Maria Taniguchi, and Nona Garcia. The couple speak fondly of them, while treating each of these young artists as professional equals and respecting their individual successful practices. And much like proud parents, they are sometimes in awe of their past students’ critical global successes. Isabel affectionately refers to them as anak, an endearment she usually reserves for her own children. These are indeed solid attachments to home. This is another reason, as they’ve told me several times, that they are building their retirement place in Los Baños.
Back in Los Baños, where they wake up early to go swimming everyday, they’re setting up The Fruit Juice Factory with the help of out-of-school young adults in the area. They’re literally building, with each one being taught how to mix cement and lay it. Freddie laughingly informs me over Skype that the presents they’ll be receiving from their children this Christmas are sacks of cement.
He then turns serious when explaining the idea and the impetus for The Fruit Juice Factory. “We’re looking to creating a certain situation where things can happen, a space where people develop ideas, and perhaps make these happen.” Isabel pipes in from the background: “It’s like a place where everything can happen, interacting with the local community, educating them even. It’s a place where production, much like a factory, can happen. A place importantly for engagement.” The concept was hatched years ago, in 2010, during the biennial in Liverpool through their Passage project. They had always questioned the idea of authorship, and asked if, perhaps, their nominal “Alfredo and Isabel Aquilizan” needed to be re-thought.
The spaces and contexts where they produced their installations were always seen as itinerant “studios,” different spaces, different people, different materials, but always the concept stemmed from their proposals. All these disparate communities needed, in a sense, to belong to something. Thus The Fruit Juice Factory, the collaborative idea, then only after, a space for collaboration.
I ask if The Fruit Juice Factory will take over Alfredo and Isabel Aquilizan. They’re not really sure, but I don’t think it will. “I don’t think we can define what The Fruit Juice Factory is, or what it will be. People need to get used to the idea of what it is trying to do, before it can even be defined or accepted,” says Freddie.
I hardly get the chance to see them when they’re here. And when I do go to Brisbane, they find themselves in Manila. During a dinner with them before they left (for where? at this point, it doesn’t really matter) they were telling me of their daily morning swim in Los Baños. “We discovered this local heated swimming pool, and we go there first thing, it’s our form of exercise,” enthuses Isabel, but her eyes widen and her laughter erupts when she details the other early morning regulars at the pool, mostly older people in their late 60s and 70s, who dip their creaking bones in the warm water rather than swim, of a lady all dressed up in her rash guard offering massages, and a number of other characters of the local pool.
For this couple who travel almost constantly, flitting from context to context, creating situation after situation to extract characteristic impulses of the site through engagement with its community, this observation is the thing that makes sense. “We never lose sight of the local context, as in all our projects, we become part of it.”