On Shifting Perceptions: Artist Interview with Lesley-Anne Cao and Pam Quinto

At the MO_Space main gallery, glass tanks are set up in rows across the floor, holding not species of fish, but artifacts of the mundane. Submerged in water are hand-bound books with photographs laser printed on water-proof paper, depicting intimate scenes of unknown places and people, as well as various ephemera archived from a life lived. Passing freely through the ears is “A fountain of gardens, a well of living waters, and streams.” A score composed by collaborator Itos Ledesma, the music invites with a slow drone, and surprises with a sequence of dissonant chords after several measures. Closest upon entry was a book with tablets of glass for pages. The text read as if jotted from a dream. A part of one page reads, 

Black and white fish in mall

atrium sharing pool with a bright

red gem from unknown person,

pocket, maybe finger or ear. 

In the interview below, Lesley-Anne Cao, the artist of this exhibit titled “A song plays from another room,” shares how her practice is informed by her also being an archivist, interested in ways of circumventing threats of deterioration and loss. On the far right is Gallery 2, where Pam Quinto’s exhibit ‘Tender Hours’ further jolts the senses awake using images and objects dressed in shades of blue: evocations of sky, ether, streams of light. There is a hand-written note on white, folded paper written in blue-ink script. She writes to a beloved,

Sometimes I think about those wee hours of the morning, my body, my soul still languid… I may still be dreaming, but I am also awake with you, my dearest, to reach that small death that makes us feel most alive.

Perhaps here she describes a certain death of the ego, when we witness the mystery and expanse of sky, or even more intimately, when we submit ourselves to loving. In the exhibit, we also find Masshiro porcelain stones, big and small, huddled together like a family of pekin ducks by the lakeside. They take the form of free-form oblongs, emanating a sweet scent with notes of vetiver, rose, rosemary, and Bulgarian lavender with drops of patchouli to resemble the smell of rain-soaked earth.

Both exhibits invite us to look; to become present through raw bodily sensations activated by light, music, and scent. Natural elements are rendered new, even become foreign to our senses, because of their documentation and distillation through artistic form. Reality is deconstructed and dispersed — photographs of the mundane refracted by light, the sky rendered in different modalities — as though for us to experience its elements with renewed faculties. Thinking back now to when I entered the exhibit, I had to literally and figuratively draw the black, flimsy curtains of place and perception. I spoke to both Cao and Quinto at length about ideating their exhibits, perception, the role of the personal/impersonal in their work, and more.

Exhibition view of 'A song plays from another room.'

(L-R, Background): A song plays from another room (Doors and windows), A song plays from another room (Beds), A song plays from another room (The back of).

(L-R, Foreground): A song plays from another room (490 flowers, 67 A. Mabini), A song plays from another room (Film ends).

Zea Asis: 
Each of your works pay attention to the mysteries and elusive realms of consciousness, in the subconscious and during rare, subliminal moments of peace. They embody in distinct ways the synesthetic language of such experiences - both of dream and of dream-like states. What was your process like in ideating the exhibit? What were your routines/rituals in creating the work? And how does the unconscious, your intuition play a role in your art-making?

Lesley-Anne Cao: ‘A song plays from another room’ came from a conscious place, actually. One thread in my practice is the consideration of natural spaces and external forces in working with both personal and collective archives. My work explores how the material we collect and value, sometimes detritus/fragments of lived or natural spaces, can be transformed by social, material, or environmental interventions. 

Since 2017, I’ve also been working as an archivist for Green Papaya Art Projects through the support of Asia Art Archive. The extremes of our climate, along with the lack of institutional infrastructure for culture, are not conducive to the care and preservation of artworks and archival material. As both an artist and archivist, this reality has informed my practice in that I am interested in ways of subverting these threats of deterioration and loss by choosing to work with materials and presentations that embrace these external/environmental forces instead, or that question notions of proper care and engagement.

In 2018, I took part in an outdoor exhibition organized by Para://Site Projects for which the curators Abbey and Mariano Batocabe warned us of the possibility of rain that June. This led me to the idea of creating a tarpaulin book that belonged outdoors, that made sense on the ground, in the rain and the sun, containing photos related to flora. I am still continuing this project of book works meant for the elements, set underwater, or designed to be themselves transparent.

I try to orient my work towards the potential for germination, deterioration, or adaptation to different or contradictory states. This entails frequent collaboration with people working in film, music, literature, textiles, digital technologies, stone and metalwork, among others, but also with non-human actors, often beyond my control.

Exhibition view of Tender Hours. (Left to Right): Blue Lace Agate, Head in the Clouds, Untitled, Moondrop, Becoming O, & Arriving, Always.

Pam Quinto: Tender Hours all started out with a nugget of Blue Lace Agate. I started photographing it in attempts to capture its aura, as well as other blue crystals that I’ve been collecting. Then it slowly grew into a blue study. I kept gravitating towards these soft blues, towards readings on blue. I wanted to go beyond the surface level of the color, so the foundations of the project was built on Gaston Bachelard’s Air and Dreams and The Poetics of Space, Maggie Nelson’s Bluets, and the chapters on The Blue of Distance in Rebecca Solnit’s A Field Guide to Getting Lost. From there, it was a matter of distilling those philosophies and reveries into the physical realm. How would I capture the gesture of how a “Blue sky moves like an awakening”? What does blue smell like? Ano ang halimuyak ng pagtatagpo ng bukang liwayway at takipsilim? How could I distill the blue of distance into a painting? Distill a memory of a moment that in my mind’s eye was tinted with the color of dawn?

The process of building the show required that I take breaks at dusk or wake up at dawn, which was when I would collect images for Head in the Clouds. That routine was grounding for me. It helped me to be more mindful and present. Sculpting the porcelain Becoming O pieces was also meditative for me. Being in the flow lends an expanding of consciousness, which in turn helps you articulate certain intuitions. In attempting to articulate the roundness of being, it made more sense to employ imperfectly round forms, objects that were rounded out; because being is never fixed, it is always becoming. This led me to the idea that tenderness and softness take time, like rocks being softened by a river. I suppose it’s like a chicken or the egg kind of thing. 

Head in the Clouds (Exhibition view, detail). Lenticular prints (50 pcs.) 40 x 60 inches. 2021.

There are recurring sensibilities and praxis that inform how I discern within my practice. I follow the trajectories of the ideas that I feel compelled to pursue and uncover the underlying whys through the process of conceptualizing and making the works. The conceptualizing period is such an invisible yet crucial labor in my art-making process. I think it was Ocean Vuong who said that having a theory of practice is so important no matter what you do, “If the ‘work’ is the flower we harvest, then theory is the soil. Tend to the soil well, add to it, nurture it, give back to it, and the flowers will grow inexhaustibly. They will grow with ease--as if they were meant to.” You cultivate your practice and sensibilities; it all then burrows within your subconscious, which then feeds your intuition. There’s a certain consciousness or an expanding of consciousness that I find both in conceptualizing and when I’m fully immersed in the processes I undertake. It’s all an endeavor to find the words and the forms that would give language to the unconscious, whatever is going on under there.

Zea Asis: A delicate, gossamer-like quality permeates both exhibits. The frailty of glass and refraction of objects submerged in water; lenticular photographs that change with the viewer’s every movement — these suggest the precarious nature of reality and how the absurd and the surreal influence or infiltrate our perceptions. The present, for example, is often distorted by work alienation and para-social interactions online and in mass media. How does that seeming dichotomy between reality vs. perception figure into your work? What do you hope, if anything, viewers will experience through the exhibit?

Lesley-Anne Cao: I don’t consider reality and perception as a dichotomy. I can’t claim to be able to concretely define what reality is either. Doesn’t perception occur in and rely on one’s sense of reality?

Lesley-Anne Cao. (L-R) A song plays from another room (Segment of stream). 6-page engraved glass book, metal ball chains, acrylic book holder, 33 x 55 x 20 cm. 2021.

A song plays from another room (Pictures). 6-page engraved glass book, metal ball chains, acrylic book holder, 33 x 55 x 20 cm. 2021.

In my work, I try to create openings for certain ideas to float. I use objects, space, and atmosphere — with deliberate but open-ended modulations — as vessels/sites for these transmissions. I often relate my work to magic in that, though I modulate specific conditions, it ultimately relies on the core element/s being anchored on the familiar and instantly recognizable in order for the one experiencing it to be especially aware of their present or their perception of particular things or phenomena. I am interested in how we expect them to behave, occur, or hold value in certain ways and in how we see them or behave towards them when they’re refracted or dispersed.

You mentioned glass and its frailty — glass made sense in this exhibition as one central element because though we associate it with fragility, we also know it can be strong enough to hold water or to endure being handled — without having to think, we recognize these qualities in this material instinctively. Glass carries contradictions: often meant to be imperceptible but materially expresses weight, color, and texture; it is also technically an “amorphous liquid,” never quite setting into a solid. We have similar instinctive knowledge of water and its contradictions too. Most people can recognize a book, and books are interesting to me because they are both personal and cultural, carrying with them specific but different notions of care and engagement. Like glass, mirrors, water, and music, they’re also agents of transmission and the dispersion of space and time.

Pam Quinto: My practice is driven by this inclination towards the tactile. The phenomenology of a work, how it’s encountered is imperative for me. I somehow feel like there are things that are lost in translation when a work is transposed onto the screen; there are experiences that cannot be replicated onscreen as opposed to seeing a work in the round. As you mentioned, the lenticular prints move with you, but the experience isn’t quite the same as if you view it just as a video. The moving body and wandering eyes are part of the work. The details that viewers would fixate on may vary. And the scent is something subjective as well, which triggers individual memories.

Arriving, Always (detail, exhibition view). Latex on playboard. 48 x 96 inches. 2021.

Becoming O. Japanese Porcelain and ceramic stain. Variable dimensions.

Blue Lace Agate. Lightbox. 16 x 21 inches. 2021.

The ontology of a space and being present in a space hits differently, and in different ways depending on the viewer’s perception. (But, of course, there are works that work well if it’s intended to be seen on screen if you take the ontology of the digital or virtual space into account.) That being said, I don’t necessarily see reality and perception as being on opposite ends of the spectrum. They’re interlinked and influence each other. How we perceive things is mostly subjective and is shaped by our respective realities; our realities are in turn shaped (or limited) by our understanding of the world and what we envision it could be.

I had hoped for a gesture of an exhale to happen when you step into the space of Tender Hours, which was one of the reasons why I was quite protective and quiet about this project. I wanted to somehow capture the intimacy of solitude. There was this sense of tranquility that I felt I needed to find — and find through the whole process of building this phenomenological study of soft and liminal blues, of the spaciousness of presence and the roundness of being. I hope viewers were able to feel that sense of calm that I was looking for and looking to manifest through the works, and perhaps even a sense of wonder.

Zea Asis: Dreams are intimate and private experiences. Most often, we are only spectators to the way things unfold, not unlike witnessing how the clouds shift and morph in the early morning. These occurrences sometimes become stuck as images in our minds. It’s poetry. How do the deeply personal, even the silences, influence your work in general? Moreover, what is the value of slowing to a halt, of standing still, curving ourselves toward the mystery of our lives, like questions unanswered?

Lesley-Anne Cao: As a female artist often incorporating photographs, writing, and various crafts in my practice, there’s a tendency to read my work as coming from an intimate or personal place, but this is almost never my intention. 

A song plays from another room (Beds). 32-page hand-bound book (laser print on waterproof paper), book stand, glass tank, water, mirrors 60 x 40 x 35 cm. 2021.
Exhibition view. Foreground: A song plays from another room (490 flowers, 67 A. Mabini). 120-page hand-bound book (inkjet print on transparency), glass tank, water, mirrors. 60 x 40 x 35 cm. 2021.

To me, the text and photographs in these books function as a means to populate them based on (1) subjects that deliberately point to spaces and time outside of the defined parameters of an exhibition and (2) recurring subjects from years of casual film photography, subjects that I chose for this specific group of work because they give the sense that anyone could have taken them. The way I assigned their individual titles (each in parentheses after the exhibition title because the exhibition is one work) was also a way to help distance them from myself, deliberately straightforward and organized into collected material for the books: “Pictures”, “490 flowers, 67 A. Mabini”, “Beds”, “Doors and windows”, etc.

My work is not about anything in particular. I tend to emphasize working towards questions without any singular answer, work that is always an ongoing negotiation, and sustaining interest in what I don’t yet know.

Pam Quinto
: Speaking of dreams, the idea of the Blue Lace Agate lightbox in a blue show came to me in a dream.

In general, my practice is deeply rooted in the personal. There’s this sense of vulnerability and intimacy ever-present in my practice. With certain things that we tend to keep mum about, my instinct is a bit of the opposite. I tend to dissect the private, the intimate. Art-making is my way of processing whatever it is I’m going through, as an attempt to articulate it and perhaps find kinship in others who might find that the work resonates with them.

In silence, you’re sort of forced to face and confront certain things you try to avoid or distract yourself from. You have no other choice but to process them, no other direction but to go through. I suppose that’s why some people find silence terrifying. But silence is also potent in that it eventually quells the turbulent surface of our experiences and racing thoughts. It allows you to go deeper, to where there’s stillness. That’s where the expanding of consciousness finds you. So I think it’s important to carve out some time for silence and solitude, especially when there are a lot of things going on, which can be quite overwhelming. I need those moments of stillness to ground myself, and at times empty myself out, decompress, and recharge to make space for new things, new ideas to come in, or sustain my drive. It’s more difficult to work efficiently and think clearly when running on fumes.

'A song plays from another room' and 'Tender Hours' continue at MO_Space Gallery until December 11, 2021.

Lesley-Anne Cao is a visual artist based in Quezon City, Philippines. Her practice is a series of divergent processes that explore the interplay of materiality, exhibition making, and fiction. Her work makes use of recognizable materials — books, plants, debris, precious metals, and money — towards the actualization and presentation of fictional objects and environments. To visit her artist website, click here.

Pam Quinto is a visual artist, curator, and writer. Her interdisciplinary practice articulates a sense of intimacy and vulnerability in which remnants of memory, sympathy to the human psyche, and thematics of the feminine are seen and felt. Through an embracing attentiveness to process and intricate details, Quinto foils logics of production and objectifying material. She navigates tensions between creation and destruction by mingling craft and experiment, and subverts viewer roles through works that invite interaction and participation. She is also the founder of Parcel Exhibitions, an alternative exhibition modality developed in response to the arts immobility caused by the pandemic, which seeks to sustain the intimacy of physically experiencing art. Click here to visit her artist website.

Zea Asis is a writer, a contributor for CNN Philippines, and author of the zine, Strange Intimacies: Essays on Dressing Up and Consumption. Tap here to buy her a coffee.

This article has been edited for accuracy.