Playtime for the inner child: A look into Khavn de la Cruz’s art practice

There was a time when everyone in my small world of aspiring artists knew of Khavn (pronounced “ka-vin”) de la Cruz, but didn’t know where to view his work. Pretentious as we were (thank God it’s past tense), we talked about cinema theory and attended master classes we barely understood, name-dropping artists whose works we had never seen.

Khavn was often one of them.

So here I am, college a distant memory and bills an immediate concern, in a cafe across a university and Khavn walks in for our scheduled interview. He’s wearing his signature funky eyeglass frames (sometimes two spirals, this time, a set of zigzags), sporting a topknot over a bald head, very Tokugawa ronin, and I approach, “Khavn?”

“Bro,” he offers his fist for a matter-of-fact bump.

Installation shot of 'Nardong Putic S.J.'s 'Faune de Filipinas’ (1837)' at Gravity Art Space from March.

After graduating college in 1995, the auteur is no stranger to the struggle of finding rare films, trawling the libraries of universities and cinematheques, and befriending other aficionados for their collections.

That’s changed now, as Khavn notes: “Everything’s online,” hinting at bootleg copies in websites using rotating URLs to dodge cyber cops. I did catch his historical magical realist Balangiga: Howling Wilderness on Netflix last Christmas. I hope it’s still there.

Even then, de la Cruz now observes that algorithm-driven curation gives people more of what the A.I. thinks they want, potentially limiting opportunities to explore other worldviews and ways of seeing and being.

Kung ano’ng kinasanayan nila as film. ‘yun lang ang film para sa kanila (People tend to stick to what they already know as film, that’s all what film is to them)” he muses on the lack of exposure to other ways of seeing the world despite the apparent democratization of digital media and the internet.

But it’s all part and parcel of an artist’s life, De La Cruz acknowledges, on one hand, relative obscurity at home, and on the other hand, being a multi-awarded internationally-recognized filmmaker. Yes, ego is there, he tells me, and we concur with a laugh, but it’s also about expressing yourself and if you’re lucky enough, finding equally crazy people who look forward to each expression.

Last March, De La Cruz exhibited an installation and concept show called Nardong Putic S.J.'s 'Faune de Filipinas’ (1837) at Gravity Art Space. Its title is inspired by the 1972 gangster action flick Nardong Putik (‘Nardo of the Mud’), de la Cruz takes the mud literally and envisions the living space of a person made out of mud.

Here, he used his allotted space to offer a glimpse of Mr. Mud’s life: A bed there, a collection of books (and human organs, naturally) here, an altar lit by candles with framed photos of Mud People, artworks, a chess set with Mud Soldiers, ephemera like newspapers, and, at one end of the room, Mr. Mud himself, defecating into a chamber pot. Watching over the scene are movie posters of Nardong Putik and a statue of another Mud Person on a pedestal. Quite meta.

Despite being known as a filmmaker for more than two decades, he slips easily into many shoes. De la Cruz also releases music and his writing has appeared in literary publications.

He signs his emails off with variations of “stay wazak,” which can be translated as wasted but also as shattered, destroyed. “Sometimes you have to destroy something to create anew, after all,” he muses as our drinks arrive. His works touch on themes like one-sided history and oppressive systems but also have a touch of whimsy and childlikeness—sometimes ultraviolent, sometimes surreal, always playful.

I ask if he lets his two kids watch shows like the ones he creates. “Oo! Kaya andiyan ako para gabayan sila. (Of course! And that’s why I’m with them to guide them),” he beams. “Mahirap takpan ang katotohanan sa mga bata lalo na’t matanong sila. (you can’t hide reality from kids, curious as they are, but you can help them process things.)”

He has always followed where his curiosity would lead him. He picked up many skills and hobbies during his school days starting with piano. In college, he shifted across disciplines in Ateneo de Manila, starting with Computer Engineering, then moving to Development Studies, before shifting for a third and last time to Interdisciplinary Studies where students mix two courses. Here, he merged Literature and Film.

Somehow, creativity was a major theme in whatever endeavor Khavn would choose, but he’s skeptical of glorifying The Artist: “Lahat naman tayo may creativity, depende lang sa environment kung bubunga siya lalo o hindi. (Each of us is a creative, it’s really up to the environment if it will flourish.)”

He has many projects up the pipeline for 2023 and the coming years.

He plans to develop the lore of putik and run more such exhibits in more galleries. He’s working on new music. There’s a film apparently starring John Lloyd Cruz and a German actress. And another film based on national hero Jose Rizal’s unpublished third novel.

The polycreative believes in following one’s inner tiyanak. He likens it to fellow filmmaker Kidlat Tahimik’s follow your duwende, that is, allowing our subconscious, here represented by Philippine mythological beings, here, an ambivalent dwarf, there a carnivorous demon baby, to express itself, with art being one such expression. Many people, the artist believes, walk around dead inside, having betrayed their tiyanak.

“Tila ba may kamote hanging from a stick sa harap ko, at gutom ako, so sinusundan ko ‘yung kamote. May tiwala ako sa kamote. Magtiwala ka sa kamote (It’s like there’s a sweet potato hanging from a stick in front of me, and I’m hungry, so I follow the potato. I have faith in the potato. You have to trust the potato),” he philosophizes on the thing Chinese thinkers call wu-wei or un-self-conscious action grounded in a deep trust in our ability to adapt anywhere.

Parang nagkasala ka sa sarili mo if hindi mo sundan ang tiyanak (it’s like you’ve sinned against yourself if you don’t follow your tiyanak),” he recalls. “Minsan, hindi naman talaga ganoon ka-lalim, minsan may pagkaing gusto kong subukan, pag-sunod din ‘yun sa tiyanak (But it’s not always that deep, sometimes trying new food is following the tiyanak,” he laughs.

Sala or sin is a word I haven’t heard in a long time, given how secular my world has become since leaving Catholic school, and, come to think of it, the notion implies harming one’s relationship with something, someone divine.

“Art is one of the things that shows us there’s more to the world than what’s on the surface. Magpatuloy ka lang kahit walang pumapansin (Continue what you’re doing even if no one notices),” after all, one’s first fan is oneself.

Magkasala sa sarili, sin against oneself, I mull the thought, the experience, over as de la Cruz finishes his coffee. He has to be somewhere, maybe at the Duwende Kingdom, maybe at the grocery.

“I’ll go ahead bro, it was nice meeting you,” de le Cruz extends his fist again.

Now, if you’ll excuse me, I’ll be learning how to navigate Vimeo on Demand to view more of Khavn’s work.

When Pao isn't writing about art, he's trying to be a cat-whisperer.