For visual artist Teo Esguerra, residing in Marikina City, the presence of Death is never too far — not least because he lives right by two cemeteries. This is perhaps why the axis of his work revolves around its familiarity, that which, in spite of the years, has remained unsettling. In his latest collection of photographic works, flirted with you all my life, Esguerra continues his contemplations on loss, and the translation of such memories, and all that unseen, uncommunicated, into images.
A painter as well as photographer, Esguerra’s current practice involves painting over his pictures. Imitative of double-exposure photographs, the works can be viewed as having been given a second round at imaging an experience. For the painter Esguerra, the documentary potential of photography is pitted against our notion of photographic or eidetic memory. His paint sheer against the monochromatic photos, only slightly recognizable in form, recalls memories like ghosts.
Along the gallery walls, the artist shares short texts like journal entries with his photographs. Against the grey walls of the space, these are barely legible, almost intent on disappearing themselves.
That memories and our recollections of them are so wont to change, so quick to escape us, is most apparent in Esguerra’s ‘Frames and Fathers’. “I went to my group exhibition first then my lolo’s funeral the next day”, the artist recounts in an entry. Painted on are grey rectangular frames, vacuous and ambiguous as the landscape from which they hang. Left blank, not mounted on gallery walls or a family home, Esguerra captures the fraught process of remembering and forgetting, leaving us — not unlike it has left him — to wonder what those frames had held before time emptied them.
Even in the bleakness of remembering, the artist does not miss the opportunity to inject a bit of humor. ‘Coughin’ pictures a grassy plain and a cloud of smoke emanating from a curious, though otherwise nondescript, block. Next to it, Esguerra relates another memory in an entry: “I jumped for joy when my mother told the 5 year old me that I don’t have to go to school that day”. The grim juxtaposition of the wordplay as a device, matches that of the artist’s naivety as a child, unaware yet of the gravity of grief and death, seeing in it only the relief of a single day off.
The five-part series of photographs in ‘Drowning’ touches on the weight of having a part of oneself die; its accompanying text reads: “Something inside me died last May 9, 2022”. The work is a conspicuous reference to the recent presidential elections — if not the journal entry, then the banners and posters of the presidential tandem hoisted above the sea of supporters. A rising tide sweeps over each image, while a suffocating haze descends, extinguishing all that had once given the artist — and many others — hope.
Titled after the Vic Chestnutt song, famously covered by Bright Eyes, Esguerra’s flirted with you all my life demonstrates the visual artist's poetic sensibility. Like the song, too, the show reads as a dedication to Esguerra’s lifelong companion, his “neighbor”, lined with anecdotes, meanings, even jokes only Death is privy to, haunted by ghosts familiar only to him.
‘flirted with you all my life’ is on view at Vinyl on Vinyl in Makati City.