Manuel Ocampo, 2008, Theoretical Mermaid, acrylic on canvas, 165x122cm (photo courtesy of: http://www.uplandsgallery.com)
Manuel Ocampo, A Painting For A Proposed Monument To Art's Triumph Over Reality (Green Guy In Toilet), 2008, acrylic on canvas, 182x112cm (photo courtesy of: http://www.uplandsgallery.com)
Manuel Ocampo, Untitled (Department of Kitsch Recovery Pogrom), 2008 2009 acrylic on canvas, 46x46cm (photo courtesy of: http://www.uplandsgallery.com)
Manuel Ocampo, A Painting For A Proposed Sculpture For A Monument To A Crucified Minimalist Sculpture, 2008, acrylic on canvas, 182x122cm (photo courtesy of: http://www.uplandsgallery.com)
Manuel Ocampo, The Aesthetizisation of Desublimated Fantasies Rendered Impotent By Unredeemable Gestures, 2007 huile sur toile, 200 x 200 cm (photo courtesy of: http://www.nosbaumreding.lu)
Manuel Ocampo, The Aesthetizisation of Desublimated Fantasies Rendered Impotent By Unredeemable Gestures, 2007 huile sur toile, 200 x 200 cm (photo courtesy of: http://www.nosbaumreding.lu)
Manuel Ocampo, Explorer from Outer Space, Space, Space, 2005 Acrylique et encre sur papier, 76,2 x 154,4cm (photo courtesy of: http://www.nosbaumreding.lu)
Manuel Ocampo, Karl Marx Ejaculating, oil and varnish on canvas, 60 x 48 in. / 152.4 x 121.9 cm., 1996 (photo courtesy of: http://www.artnet.com)
Manuel Ocampo, Dolor de Muelas, 1991, oil on two canvases, diptych (photo courtesy of: http://www.artnet.com)
Selected Interview: Manuel Ocampo
By Igan D’Bayan, Philippine Star, 2009
PHILIPPINE STAR: What was the inspiration for the Pablo show? How did you arrive at the “Jeckyll and Hyde” aspect of the artworks? Is there a symbolist significance behind each object, or do we as viewers have to interpret the objects as a whole?
MANUEL OCAMPO: I have two working aphorisms for the Pablo Gallery show: “A picture is just a pathetic attempt to do justice to an image” and “Lack of originality is made up for by craftsmanship.” Of course both are tinged with irony. The first one refers to the exhaustion (according to postmodern theory) of aesthetic strategies in the task of making a picture today — and with picture we mean storytelling or the narrative. Painting is perfectly suited to storytelling in terms of its durational process and compositional highlights, although it is communication without words. And we can’t argue with this because we have centuries of religious storytelling courtesy of painting to back us up. However, nowadays what typically happens is we end up with an image — and with image we mean information.
To cut the long story short, what we have is just the surface and not the substance. Or worse, what we get are merely “infobytes” that are easy to contextualize into comfortable labels and commodifiable as stock ideas. Like for example predictable work that can be tagged as “Identity Art” or “Social Realism” or “Relational Art” or “Photorealism,” so on and so forth.
Therefore to cover up the lack (this is the second aphorism), artists tend to just focus on the obvious and what’s easiest to do (especially when talent is natural), rather than really putting art through a wringer. And so, I wanted to kick out all the stragglers in my paintings, put them out of the picture plane, and bring them to our own brutal reality.
Detritus (your word) are all existential residue of the every- day. They are abject remains of our presence. Hence, I would rather consider the displayed ignominious objects as reliquaries of our essences rather than trash. Maybe this is another jab at the bridging of art and life cliché. The “Jeckyll and Hyde” condition of the works in the show touches on this dual nature of painting, or the “picture-equals-image” problem perspective. By putting the aesthetic event behind the surface of the painting (i.e. events being dictated by objects rather than illusions), then maybe this will challenge the viewer to look at and experience art even more.
How’s that for keepin’ it real?
Were there guests baffled at the installations? Or did they just accept everything hook-line-and-sinker because, well, you are Manuel Ocampo?
I don’t know what the viewers think of my work, I’d like to know, but I think that people don’t openly accept whatever I do. On the contrary, they look at what I do through a pinhole.
When I put chewing gum and toppled beer bottles and kitty litter as my work in a gallery, people are ready to dismiss the work as Manuel just f**king around (nang-gagago lang). They say: “Because he’s Manuel he can do whatever…” What they fail to understand is the context surrounding the show and the work. Those aforementioned works were part of a group show about mapping so what I did is something akin to marking territories like a cat, etc.
Making art is like marking out one’s territory or space, or territorial pissing. I wouldn’t do those things if they don’t have any place to be there to begin with. It’s a hard balance to keep your work marketable and at the same time be critical and make work that is part of the discourse surrounding what’s happening in art at the moment.
What is it like to be part of the LA scene that American critics have categorized — unjustly, injudiciously — as “lowbrow” art?
If we were to include into “lowbrow” art the type of work that incorporates tattoo craftsmanship, punk DYI expression, outsider graffiti, and other popular design for the masses, then the term “lowbrow” can be unjustly (to use your word) bad. And unjust, because those types of work are valid forms of aesthetic expression within their own context. In another period, when “global” was another code for being American, the word “lowbrow” was called kitsch. And if we try to recall Clement Greenberg’s now- forgotten critical essay “Avant-Garde and Kitsch,” he would warn us about the impending clutches of the lowbrow. Because lowbrow/kitsch is what causes impurity to the purity of art while it contaminates the culture of fine art with the vulgar stain of commerce — or in other words, if your art sells out it’s kitsch.
See, for example, the work of Thomas Kinkade who is the so-called “Painter of Light.” No matter how much he sells, he will never be part of the institution of (high) art. In that sense highbrow art is actually discriminatory in its rarefied goals, and lowbrow art lies outside the narrative of high culture and is thus marginalized. I don’t think it’s like that anymore. In fact it’s the reverse.
Nowadays it is the lowbrow that has become the oppressor, because of the triumph of capitalism, and the highbrow is the one that is cowering on the side. Not everyone gets an oil-on-canvas painting anymore, but a tattoo everyone does. So kitsch/lowbrow can be political in that sense because of its popular appeal and accessibility, but one has to be mindful of “for what.”
The LA art world acknowledges my work but I always have to think about the context I’m in, meaning does the art world in general see my work as being exotic and “Other” hence — by default — marginalized? What if I turn things around and use the very signs and language that “they” use and try it out “my way,” will it then still be perceived as work by the “Other”? Interesting, isn’t it? And so we begin to think of who really owns culture and “for what.”
Do you still feel (now that you’ve made a name for yourself in America, Europe, Australia, the rest of Asia — practically the whole world) that you are an outsider? What do you rebel against in your art nowadays?
After so many ways of proving oneself either by action or by words, people still perceive you from the outside, which is of course only human. But you do become aware of where people are coming from, once more, in terms of context. This insight gave me the reason to return to the Philippines and see things in proper “context” so to speak, and not as an outsider as I was abroad but part of a larger whole. Living in the Philippines now I see my role in reverse, that of acting as an “inside man” causing change (or rebellion) from within.
Did you get flak for something like, say, “Islamic Disco Painting”? Angry e-mails or death threats, perhaps?
No death threats or angry letters, none at all.
Is there any taboo that you haven’t taken on yet?
I’m not into breaking taboos.
It is hard to live in Manila and not be affected by the goings-on in government. What do you think of the President’s decadent Le Cirque dinner in New York, or the National Artist Award brouhaha?
I don’t think about the current government that much, it will just ruin my day, make me depressed and ask myself why am I living in this country. As far as I’m concerned, the National Artist Awards died a long time ago. It’s already an embarrassment to be a called a “National Artist.”
Do you collect works by other artists? What do you think of the local art scene? Is there a marked improvement?
Besides making my own art, I also collect the works of others. Of course I like the work that I buy, and the reason behind it cannot be put into words except by saying that it’s a matter of taste. By collecting them I contribute to the art community and the economy as well, but more important than that I get to support a struggling artist and encourage his/her production in the future and hopefully introduce an audience for that artist when nobody is looking as of yet. Why? Because I’ve been in that boat, and support and encouragement is key to an artist’s development. What did The Doors say about being isolated? “People are strange when you’re a stranger, (faces look) ugly when you’re alone.” (Laughs.)
Seriously, though, the local art scene is very small and incestuous, there’s not a lot going on in terms of dialogue and support. Most collectors and dealers see artists as just artisans. There is a hierarchy that’s tough to dismantle and the “ma’am/sir” mentality is appalling. But that’s the culture and that’s why a lot of artists here are socially inept. The tendency of most local artists is they can’t see (for whatever reason) from a distance, which is another term for being critical, and by critical I don’t mean being judgmental, or worse, aping academic concepts of criticality. True, those concepts facilitate, but as tools not as dogma.
For me, criticality means just assessing the situation, thinking for oneself, and doing what’s necessary. Anything else is just theory, and not practice. I hate to say this, but I miss the days when the galleries were in the malls. When there was an opening you’d see everybody and the art was much more daring. Now that the market in art has greatly improved everyone just wants to be the next auction star — all Gerhard Richter look-alikes or worse: like buff naked guys with wings in ballet poses, but only in tasteful black, white and grays. And now you don’t see anybody; everyone’s in the studio making huge, ambitious paintings to fill the warehouse galleryspaces and auction houses.
Of course collectors snap them up like sizzling sisig, because they’re so well painted, and we tend to equate good works of art with the labor involved in making it.
Don’t you find it amusing when critics use highfalutin critical language to make sense of your artworks, when you parody and expose the hollowness and inscrutability of highfalutin critical language in the titles of your artworks? Do you believe critics when they proclaim, “Painting is dead!” Do you think painting will ever die, or is it dead already and what we see in galleries is something like George Romero’s zombies?
But I was serious with those titles! I wasn’t kidding anybody. (Laughs.) I have a work that says across, “Criticism will have no effect.” Another one disparages, “Everyone loves a theory guy.” These slogans are actually ways of exorcising the painting from bad critics. And as long as painting is able to use criticism for its own purposes then it will never be dead. What did Jorg Immendorf say? That “the enemy of painting within painting is its own best friend.” Or what about Albert Oehlen? “To critique painting by painting means” furthers the life of painting. Therefore, according to Kippenberger, “You are not the problem, it’s the problem maker in your head.”
PHILIPPINE STAR: How did your show with Jean-Michel Basquiat in 1994 come about?
MANUEL OCAMPO: My very first dealers in New York and Los Angeles (Anina Nosei and Fred Hoffman respectively) were Basquiat’s first dealers, too. And in 1994, Real Lussier, the curator of the Art Contemporain de Montreal invited me to have a two man-show with Basquiat. Basquiat died in 1988 at the age of 28 and I was 28 in 1994. They probably thought I was continuing Basquiat’s approach to painting as there were some connections in the way we utilize texts on top of our images, and how there were visible erasures and unformed shapes on top as a device or decoy for creating meaning in the painting (but we all know that’s just moonwalk as paradox). And also the way we’d deal with issues of being “niggers” made us, in a sense, kindred spirits.
This was around the time that multiculturalism coming from post-colonial theory was just gaining ground or, I should say, becoming of market value in the art world. Writers thought I was the maximum meatball machine or the post-colonial torch bearer but I’m more interested in just the sound of one shit clapping than illustrating academics’ theory of rectum dialectics and their fascist chicken joy marinated with fermented three-day rock ‘n’ roll saliva.
So, I tried to detach myself from that program altogether and become a sausage flaneur and the painter of latte.
What really happened at the Dokumenta show in Kassel, Germany in 1992? What particular work did the organizers censor? And how did you initially feel about it? Looking back, how has that event affected your art career?
Well, it’s been 17 years since that happened and my memory seems to have escaped me. All I can remember was that I was censored because of the swastikas in my work. I’m aware that they were being shown in Germany. I’m also aware of the laws prohibiting the display of this symbol, and that is why I was wondering why the organizers chose these particular works. But after all that, my works were shown and that was that. It’s the media who wanted to make a big deal about it. They were trying to rile up something… saying stuff like “I was invited as an American but treated as a Filipino,” or something to that extent. I wanted to tell the media to just f**k off! But I got swept up as I was young and naive and I was manipulated into making statements that I was oppressed, and that I was being treated badly and so on and so forth. The media exploited this situation to criticize something. I don’t know. Maybe (chief curator) Jan Hoet’s drinking problem, or the organizers’ lack of organizational skill, or the overblown budget. I don’t know.
The media always wants a spectacle for no other reason than to create spectacles because they sell.
Was that the only incident of that nature?
Another was in 1993, at the LA Arts Festival where I was accused of being derogatory towards Filipinos. I was asked if I could participate in the Filipino-organized contingent of the festival. I was asked via SIPA (Search to Involve Pilipino Americans). The people running SIPA are friends. I agreed and made banners of Filipinos roasting dogs instead of lechon. So, to make the long story short, it was a controversial exhibit just to get back at the media, or specifically at the mechanism of the media. The controversy was televised, was in the papers. With Fil-Am community papers writing insults at me and despite all the brouhaha, I arranged a forum as a communal healing session and I changed the banner from dogs being roasted to dogs and their owners at the beach having fun frolicking in the sand, while chef Emeril is barbecuing in the background. Everyone approved of the new politically-correct banner.
The forum was broadcasted on radio, and afterwards a get-together for some food was held at the Municipal Art Gallery at Barnsdall Park in L.A. People from the community and the media attended, and then I served them dog-meat lumpiang shanghai without them knowing it. They loved it. It was a success.
One Fil-Am, one of my detractors who was responsible in alerting the cultural director about my racist sloganeering, was there eating with a smile. In the beginning of the session he yelled at me that Filipinos don’t eat dog meat. At the buffet table — as I was facing him, and as we were holding our paper-plates, eating together — I told myself: “Well, you’re eating one now.”
What about here in the Philippines?
An incident involving the media was in 2003 with “Lee Almighty,” a collaboration with Romeo Lee at the old Mag:net ABS-CBN Loopgallery space. No controversy, just good ol’ clean rock ‘n’ roll fun. This time the media was partly complicit in the ballyhoo. Realizing that Mag:net was inside the media system itself, and that Rock Drilon invited me to show at his gallery, I seized the opportunity to once again collaborate with the media meatball machine.
For the show I wanted to explore the Filipino people’s fascination with the cult of celebrity. Why do you have to be mestizo to be a celebrity? Why do you have to have a good physique to be a star? Why do you need to be a good singer to be able to sing on TV, etc.? I wanted to challenge those criteria, so I teamed up with a celebrity who doesn’t fit those standards: Romeo Lee, “Mr. Wild Thing” and “King of Ukay-Ukay” himself. The goal was to get the media to pay attention to Lee as a star not as a freak. It was a fun poke at the celeb-star system.
For my next project I am planning to campaign in nominating Ricky Reyes for the National Artist Award in sculpture, visual arts, architecture, fashion and theater.
What do you think of the local art scene? Is there a marked improvement? How does it feel strolling down the SM Art Walk and seeing other galleries abloom with flowers, landscapes and derivative abstracts on display and on sale at astronomical prices?
There needs to be a lot more going on than just the gallery scene, which is created by the market. I feel it’s just wrong to call this the “art scene.”
Now there’s the art auction scene. Frankly, I hate the auctions; artists should have a deep mistrust in any auction. What we have here are galleries calling artists to make something for the auction (houses). The auction artists are like cows happily going to the butcher shop. It’s also interesting that there are very young artists whose works are selling at auctions for tremendous amounts of money, and I’ve never heard their names before. They have no exhibition history, and people are buying their stuff and you know it’s just speculation.
Who are currently your favorite Filipino artists?
If the world would consider Dan Flavin as a Filipino artist, since he uses the florescent tube (which was invented by a Filipino,) then he would be it. But jokes aside, at present among the post-painters I would mention Argie Bandoy and Jayson Oliveria. I like the way they’re rescuing abstract painting from the dregs of interior-decorator kitsch, corny spirituality, and high seriousness into something dangerous and tasteless, as well as obscene, funny, clumsy, and full of bad design and glaring missteps. If there is such a thing as abstract-jologs then their work would be it. I like Gerry Tan’s work in the way he reflects on paintings methods of anticipating and redefining its relationship to digital reproduction. He’s introducing new aspects and parameters into how we can use painting to question the digital barrage that is infiltrating our consciousness.
Robert Langenegger’s and Romeo Lee’s works are undoubtedly nihilistic yet there is an insane cheerfulness to their approach since their paintings are fantastically made-up jokes. It is astonishing, for example, how much the series of motifs employed by these artists overlap with those found in Rabelais’ Gargantua and Pantagruel. In the works, we encounter a humor of the immediately physical, and references to the topics of nourishment, digestion, sexuality, misery and death.
I would also like to include the video works of Poklong (Anading). And the photos of MM Yu and Lena “D’hyena” Cobangbang.
Who are the Filipino artists whose works you find abhorrent?
There are really no Filipino artists whose works I find abhorrent. I’m just puzzled by the hype surrounding the so-called “realists” — the type of works that are predominant at art auctions nowadays. I find their stuff retrograde and unimaginative. I’m also turned off by Social Realist paintings. I find the politics behind it naive and at times hypocritical. The way they are painted and the content, too, doesn’t appeal to me. How many depictions of farmers, workers, raised fists, chains, fat cats, evil businessmen and corrupt politicians can we take?
Social Realism is just a “look.”
Do you consider yourself apolitical?
I would say that I’m very political and moralistic, yet I have distaste for dogmas and ideologies. So, as opposed to what other people might think, I do give a shit, I just don’t do rallies or protests. I think those events are useless; I hate crowds and what ends up is just a picnic or, worst, people bringing their guitars so they can have a sing-a-long.
Are you irreligious?
Although people classified as irreligious might not follow any religion, not all are necessarily without belief. Such a person may be a non-religious or non-practicing theist. In particular, those who associate organized religion with negative qualities, but still hold spiritual beliefs, might describe themselves as irreligious.
I studied in an all-boys Catholic school for 12 years and I would say that those were the most traumatic years of my life. A religion based on fear and guilt is not a good foundation for kids. And this gave me profound skepticism towards organized religion.
Nevertheless, Catholicism gave me a lot of material to work on. My take on the abject, bodily fluids and excreta was inspired by Catholicism’s perverted repression and double-standard take on the basic functions of the body.
What do you think when you see other Filipino artists ripping off your style? Do you get flattered or appalled?
It’s okay. I’ve ripped off other artists, too. I’ve stolen ideas, and people have stolen from me. I’m all for it. That’s the way things get created. That’s how culture grows. When there’s an amazing idea, you take it and run with it. I mean, you’re going to take it someplace else than the source, anyway. There are a lot of artists who’ve worked on that, specifically.
One of my favorite writers is the Comte de Lautréamont, and much of his writing is constructed from plagiarized texts. Who would claim that his work is no different than what he plagiarized?
What do you think of Damien Hirst, Jeff Koons and Tracy Emin?
These are legitimate artists raising issues particular to their circumstances or context. They are descendants of Warhol, albeit a generation removed. I like the way Hirst challenges the market and addresses questions pertaining to the validity of galleries as opposed to the opposite — the validity of artists. The shows he does are big media events and quite scandalous. Same goes with Koons and Emin — although they’ve softened up a bit.
How do you feel about German artists such as Jonathan Meese liberally peppering their paintings with swastikas and religious iconography (things that you did way, way before them)?
I think he’s a great artist. I like his work. Jonathan Meese is a self-proclaimed culturalexorcist. And being German, the swastika and the Christian cross is part of his history that he is exorcising, albeit with deliberate irony and slapstick, of course.
There might be some similarity formally as you could also compare him with Basquiat’s pictorial construction. But you know Anselm Kiefer has used those symbols (the cross and swastika) as well, although with such revolting heavy handedness. Meese’s style has more likely emerged from the work of a lesser-known older German artist named Andreas Hofer. His vocabulary ranges from Christian, Satanist, astrological or mythological symbolism, to recollections from art history — like Malevich’s “Black Square,” which he quotes with a pair of vampiric fangs added.
Also without any discernible preference, he juxtaposes figures from Hollywood, pop culture and comic strip with icons of Modernism or sci-fi, and confronts elements of horror from Western mass media with the disgraced, banned stylistic features that mark the art of the Third Reich.
Hofer might have been familiar with my work when he was studying in London in the ’90s since I exhibited in London at the Saatchi Collections in ’92 and at Delfina in ’98. Hmm… Now I wonder.
Are you planning or already creating artworks for your next show? What’s the concept?
Yes, I will be having a show at Finale. Not sure if it’s in November or December. The concept for the next show will be based on the cat I live with and his territorial markings. Since the beginning of this year, I have lived with an un-spayed cat, Pancho, and he has peed on a lot of things I have lying around my house. Now I have decided to move him into my studio and let him pee on whatever is in my studio. Whatever object Pancho pees on will be the work that will be shown at Finale. I imagine the show will smell of cat pee, so not only will the show be visual, but there will also be an olfactory dimension to the exhibition.
What do you collect?
At the moment I have a cold so I’m collecting snot rags. I once did a show with framed snot-filled tissues in Frankfurt. The show focused on attempting to invoke Hegel’s Phenomenological Spirit. In the show I had installed hammocks, hookah pipes with hash, porn magazines, different kinds of wigs, and the floors were littered with all these painted adages taken from high art and low art, from philosophical ruminations to lumpen superstitious sayings. They were painted on plywood boards and were scattered all over the floor as if you just happened to stumble on an earthquake disaster site, or a construction site, or some destabilized foundation making it hard to traverse the gallery.
So, the show was partly making a joke on or playing around with Hegel’s conception of knowledge and mind (and therefore also of reality) as the notion of identity in difference (wigs). That the mind externalizes itself in various forms and objects (snot, mind trip, sex) which stand outside of it or opposed to it. And that, through recognizing itself in them, (you are the snot because it emanates from you and your body is the rag) is “with itself” in these external manifestations. So that they are at one and the same time mind and other-than-mind.
I don’t know. The show didn’t make sense to me.
Anyway, back to the collection question, I’ve been collecting pirate DVDs, discarded parts of plywood from construction sites, bent nails and socks with holes, and modernist design pillows and cups and saucers from Shopwise.
Do you watch the evening news? Do you watch Wowowee?
I don’t watch TV. It gets on my nerves. I get my news from the Net or from friends. I don’t watch Wowowee. I’m involved in this project where I’m supposed to collaborate with well-known Fil-Am artist Paul Pfeiffer, and international cult figure David Medalla.
As my idea, I want David — this perspicacious, eccentric Fil-Brit artist — to be a contestant on Wowowee. I want to see how he’ll hold up among the people. With Paul I’m asking him to design suits for vagabonds (taong grasa).
What do you do when not painting?
I went to see a psychiatrist. He said, “Tell me everything.” I did, and now he’s doing my act.