Art Writing and ‘Stilled Lives’

  • by Lyra Garcellano


It was in 2002 when I made the work Stilled Lives. The installation is composed of a world map and eight meter-long steel rods built to look like branding irons. At the end of each rod is the letter X, standing as the symbol for wrong. Each rod is positioned on the map, on what I imagined the G8 summit of that period had listed as the countries needing “immobilizing.” 


After 9/11 in 2001, geographical movements were instantly halted and harsher immigration laws imposed on those whose mobility was already restricted to begin with. And just like that, everyone of color became tagged as the “wrong” person to exist. I still recall stories of art grants and visitors’ and cultural visas that were suddenly suspended and/or denied. Nations like the Philippines and Indonesia were branded “undesirable” and those outside these countries’ elite 1 percent were dismissed and prevented entrance through their gates. Twenty years later, and largely due to the pandemic, we hear the heavy sound of gates being locked again.


When the familiar frameworks of our day were upended in 2020, many of us realized that this pandemic is in conversation with the death of what we once knew. Our lives were again beyond-our-control immobilized. It was a fast, furious and unmerciful demise of our carefully planned life strategy to fulfill personal goals and aspirations. It was the end of “dreams” that some of us had learned to (unfortunately) pursue and cultivate within a neoliberal template.


As lockdowns  intervillage, intercity and international borders  became the norm, we belabored the semantic understanding of the word essential as everyone philosophized (lobbied for or argued against) the differing interpretations of the hierarchy of needs. Webinars and Zoom meetings highlighting or even downgrading the necessity of basic human rights nagged at us when we wondered what our next step would be.       


Pragmatically, we just needed to convince ourselves and others: All will be well, we just need to keep our heads above water. Heads above water meant making every effort to be visible within networks of superstructures that we hoped would help us (and others) move equitably along the circuit. We desperately still need to be out there even as jobs, gigs, sidelines, projects, hustles and regular sources of livelihood have started dwindling or permanently stopped. But when much of the linkages that we are familiar with begin to corrode or clog and cut us out, sometimes there just isn’t enough ethical space, or reimagination, to push us through. So, we change directions. Or at least we try to.


But as days, weeks, months, and now a year have passed, we painstakingly (still) attempt to make sense of what is left of our role as artists (or as cultural workers, etc.) or even as human beings. Periodically, we think of our (ir)relevance, and just as we shakily try to regain a semblance of our (perceived) value, we wrestle with our increasing obsolescence as an individual (or as part of a community). At our lowest points, our value in the general population has been reduced to something as basic as a quarantine pass.1


Thoughts on mortality and dead-ends have, by now, attached to the collective internal discourse. Our varying involuntary cries for help leak out through our social media-translated existence with posts of images of old oeuvres and former victories that cling to us like past lives. And despite our self-discipline (or lack thereof) in curating the best possible ways to represent our coping mechanisms in this long season of optics, we find ourselves trapped in this heavy air that seems to whisper: What legacy do you leave when you do not make it?


The last two years have been chronically humorless, to say the least. Our stilled-invisible-muted- lives truly haven’t been fun, funny or memorable, with family members, friends, colleagues and personal heroes giving up the ghost.


They didn’t make it. Those shocked at being left behind haven’t even begun to comprehend these fatal blows, and yet they are obliged to deal with unresolved feelings, with unfinished business.      


As we honor the departed with our love and grief, paying tribute and remembering — the light that they shined and the guidance that they provided — we also cannot help but think of our individual and solitary finite state. On days we remain trapped in our households (lucky are we who have homes), we take notice of what we will eventually leave behind. Will the objects we made be worth something to our families?  Will the narratives that speak of us offer inspiration or validation to the living? Or will our creations be lost in the trash heap and be of no social and critical value in the end?            

 

Back then in my history class, the professor said, while pointing to a pile of readings stacked on his desk, that such materials wouldn’t matter if nobody ever read them. I’ve translated my understanding of his remark to mean that if no one sees your paintings, listens to your music, reads your prose, or views your films, then they just steadily cease to exist.


There is a paradox to what is actually happening within our stilled lives — there is much to do but often there is little that we can do. And while we seem to live in slow motion, we are also scrambling after time. Maybe we will survive others or others will survive us.  And while we redefine priorities and gather together even when forcibly cocooned (to resist the oppressors, for instance), we find ourselves accosted by our entire life work and left to wonder about its (in)significance. Will it even have an audience of one?


There was a time (maybe last year) when the appended phrase to messages or conversations was hopeful: See you when things get better. But now that we are in that state of almost apocalyptic loss, my ideas of a utopian future are turning opaque. In many ways, life does go on. Hatefully and tragically, with or without us, it always goes on.


The physical parts of Stilled Lives no longer exist. They have been lost for many years. A photograph of the installation in a journal is what remains. Maybe someone will look at the journal and remember. Or maybe that collection of art writing will also be part of the stack of things on someone’s desk that no one reads.


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LG


[1] A Quarantine Pass is given to one person per household and those holding it are the only ones allowed to venture out of their houses for essential reasons. Non-holders are basically on house arrest.


On Art Writing is an ongoing series of opinion essays based on the prompt of what the role of art writing is today, as understood by contributing art writers, researchers, and journalists. Lyra Garcellano's is the second piece.

  

Lyra Garcellano’s research centers on the investigation and critique of art ecosystems, and her output is often presented in installations, paintings, moving images, comics and writing. She is particularly interested in how prevailing economic models impact artistic practice. She is a graduate of interdisciplinary studies of the Ateneo de Manila University and holds a BFA degree in studio arts and an MA in art theory and criticism from the University of the Philippines.


She is also a co-founding editor of TRAFFIC, and the Teaching Exhibitions zines.


Lyra's MIKI BLUE toons — a sideways commentary on (art) world and stuff — quietly float around in social media.


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