The body bears all in Julie Lluch’s latest collection of works, Chronicles on Skin, on view at Galerie Stephanie.
A tableau of stories, spanning the history of the Filipino people, from its struggle against the Spaniards to the present realities of strife and oppression under new regimes, Chronicles on Skin demonstrates a mode of storytelling prolifically adapted and developed by the artist throughout the course of her career.
As a product of intertextuality, Lluch’s Chronicles guides viewers through myriad narratives, some historical, some mythical, posing the overarching question of veracity. There is a double-edgedness to Lluch’s approach, as she attempts to meld the narratives of falsehood propagated by the former and current administrations, lived realities of the Filipino people, and Filipino folklore. In her Chronicles, we see a portrait of a nation and peoples at odds with mythologies both heroic and detrimental, as it grapples with a heavy history and searches for a way forward.
Photographer Raffy Lerma’s famed Pieta image of Jennilyn Olayres and her partner Michael Siaron, itself a product of intertextuality, appears in various pieces. Across other torsos, momentous revolutions, from 1521 to 1986, are intricately recounted, while references to Juan Luna’s Spoliarium are woven throughout the collection, recalling Lluch’s own story as she follows on from her monumental Irresistible Grace: In the Time of Plague presented back in 2020’s Art Fair Philippines. Jose Rizal’s Noli me tangere is subverted in ‘Touch Me’, a standout among the full-length torsos included in the collection. Enveloped in swathes of red and black, the figure sticks out most notably for its gaping wound across the right rib. It is also the only body featuring the presence of another: a ghostly white hand prying the wound open. All of these fragments of history mark the skin like tattoos, as Lluch resists their erasure from the annals of history and people’s memory. However, there remains a poetic grace and fluidity in the forms, as Lluch reminds us of the lives and work of artists, activists, and friends Kerima Tariman, Ericson Acosta, and Adi Baen Santos.
Lluch’s works demonstrate how art tells stories, especially those stories that make and mark us.
However, Lluch, as a sculptor, adds a layer (or, quite literally, dimension) to the story. The human body is twice contextualized from the narrative. Taken out of the flat picture plane, rendered in the language Lluch has perfected in her practice, she then brings the body to the present, to occupy space—our space. Us viewers do not simply witness it as an image—the body itself bears the stories it has lived and seen, to be understood in the context of the present. Sturdy and vigorous, they embody the epic defined as much by resilience and survivance as by struggle.
In a time where the transmission of stories faces revision, miscommunication, erasure, and a host of other issues, Lluch’s works put hers and our agency to tell such stories before anything else. The sculpted bodies are free to tell these, unbound by any limits of linearity, stasis, or agenda, and so are we viewers privileged to read and witness history unfold on our own terms.
As she presents complete painted works for the first time, Lluch offers a solution to a problem put forward by Lessing who suggested that “At best the painter can select the central moment which sums up a story and implies its beginning and its end; yet the story must be implied, not stated, since it is not possible for a static or unmoving entity to unfold in time, as all narratives must” (quoted in Bryson). The belief that an image is atemporal is subverted totally in Lluch’s sculptural works; here, the story isn’t preserved in a snapshot, but moves along and across the bodies. As Bryson then argues: “In actual experience, looking at an image is a radically temporal process, which changes from moment to moment… Each act of looking attends to a different area of the image and discloses a partial view, as vision transits through the image in endless stops and starts”.
That the female form is nowhere to be found but in the artist’s Georgia series holds a mirror to the contents and literal interpretation of history: the story of man, of mankind. Lluch has been asked about the predominance of the male body in her works before, and has responded with the same awareness and critique of the patriarchal norms that persist even today. As she does in this show, drawing attention to the female by its absence—its presence most manifest in Georgia, who is given a room of her own, towards the end of the gallery and past the main view where visitors may not think to wander into much less stay lingering. What do these say about the state of representation in Filipino contemporary art practice? Lluch seems to ask.
Indeed, the woman is present. Lluch can be found, literally, in every piece. As the personal meets with the historical and mythical, we are made aware of her presence, her central role in retelling and shaping narratives; here, she also assumes her place in the history of art, beside (and in spite of) Picasso and Luna.
One of the only women sculptors in the country, she is met though unmoved by the physical demands of sculpture. This much is seen by the unchanging if not only evolving materiality and form of her works throughout her career. Chronicles on Skin makes more apparent the steadfastness of her work and, with that, the vitality of the stories she tells.
Chronicles on Skin continues at Galerie Stephanie in Mandaluyong City until April 3.
Images courtesy of Galerie Stephanie.
Bryson, Norman. ‘Intertextuality and Visual Poetics’, Style 22.2 (1988), pp. 183-193.