Ray Albano: Homo ludens, a playful man

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By Sam L. Marcelo, Associate Editor

RAYMUNDO “RAY” ALBANO is described by those who knew him as a “homunculus,” a “deformed clubfoot who walked with a limp.” The words aren’t meant to be cruel. They are said with affection, fond memory. Even Mr. Albano poked fun at his scoliosis, calling himself the “Quasimodo of CCP” — that is, the Cultural Center of the Philippines, where he succeeded Roberto Chabet as museum director in 1970. It was a post that Mr. Albano held until he died in 1985 at the age of 38.

Judy Freya Sibayan, a conceptual artist who is curating a special exhibition on Albano for Art Fair Philippines 2019, was in her early 20s and fresh out of college when she worked as one of Albano’s curatorial assistants in the 1970s. “One thing I really appreciate about Ray is that he was very playful. He was a Homo ludens — a playful man,” she said. (“Homo ludens” is a term borrowed from Dutch historian Johan Huizinga who wrote a book of the same title in 1938, in which he tackled play as a “cultural factor in life.”)

An offshoot of her autobiographical installation art performance in Calle Wright in 2018, the show mounted by Ms. Sibayan focuses on Albano as a graphic designer who worked hands-on with the printing press, just one of the many, many, many hats he wore in his brief but brilliant lifetime (“brilliant” is a word that comes up several times in the conversation).

Around 60 posters designed by Mr. Albano, selected from Ms. Sibayan’s archive, will be exhibited along with a reinstallation of Step on the Sand and Make Footprints, a work which, for all its simplicity, was awarded an honorable mention at the 9th International Biennial Exhibition of Prints in Tokyo, held from 1974 to 1975 at the National Museum of Modern Art in Tokyo and Kyoto.

Step on the Sand and Make Footprints, in this iteration, consists of about three inches of sand in a space measuring six by six meters. It is an adult-sized sandbox meant to be stepped on. As Mr. Albano said when talking about the piece: “A foot print is… a print.” Part smart-alecky joke, part amazing, Step on the Sand and Make Footprints is the perfect introduction to Mr. Albano’s mind.




“It’s the most brilliant work in terms of printmaking,” said Ms. Sibayan. “To make a footprint is the most simple definition of making a print. At the same time, the work was a performance, it was collaborative, it was participative performance. The playfulness of the work showed the ludic aspect of Ray Albano’s artmaking.”

The posters, on the other hand, demonstrate the spontaneity of Albano’s graphic design. Ms. Sibayan remembers the time Albano waltzed into their office and picked up a bouquet of baby’s breath that had been languishing on an office desk. Off to the printing press he went, turning the flowers into a photogram, the space between idea and execution almost nonexistent. “It was yellow-green — a hard color to work with — but it came out as luscious avocado” she said of the baby’s breath poster, which, sadly, is not part of the collection of prints on display at the fair. “He understood color. He understood photography. He understood how image and text worked together.”

Experimentation was a key part of Mr. Albano’s pedagogy. He brought his team to Romulo Olazo’s studio, where they spent afternoons tearing things apart, and reconstituting bits and bobs of stuff into collages, which would then serve as collagraph plates for inking and printing. The gung-ho attitude perpetuated by Albano sustained Ms. Sibayan and her cohorts during exhibition installations at the CCP, when nights ran long and no one slept because work needed to get done. Albano, who practically lived in the CCP, would play “American Pie” on the piano in the Main Theater to keep spirits from flagging.

From those experiences, Ms. Sibayan learned one great lesson from Albano. “To problematize is to create. Therefore, there are no problems that can stop you from doing things because problematizing a work is itself the work. A problem is not a problem: it is the work. There is just the freedom to look at something and say, okay, how do we figure this out?,” she said. “That made us fearless. Ideas were a dime a dozen. If one didn’t work, we moved on to the next.”

‘A KNOT IN THE MESHWORK OF THE PHILIPPINE CONTEMPORARY’
Mr. Albano’s contributions are also being kept alive by Patrick D. Flores, curator of the Jorge B. Vargas Museum and Filipiniana Research Center at the University of the Philippines Diliman. There was A Time to Unlearn, an exhibition curated in 2016 by Mr. Flores at The Metropolitan Museum of Manila, which featured the breadth Albano’s creativity through examples of his writing, whether poetic or critical, and his art, which took many forms.

Mr. Flores also included Mr. Albano — through the publication Raymundo Albano: Texts, an anthology of Mr. Albano’s textual works — in the inaugural project of the Philippine Contemporary Art Network (PCAN), an organization that aims to “coordinate a range of interventions in contemporary art in the Philippines and to cast a sharper profile for it on an inter-local and trans-regional scale.”

A note on PCAN’s project: Albano was part of an ensemble that included Jess Ayco, Junyee, Abdulmari Imao, and Santiago Bose. Raymundo Albano: Texts is a wonderful collection that showcases how lucid Mr. Albano’s writing was. Here is an excerpt from his essay on modern art: “A painting should teach us to see, even if it strains the eyes sometimes. It should make us aware of similar signals in our day-to-day existence and only abstraction — its necessary meaninglessness — provide the pure experience.”

This conversational tone, so different from the epistaxis-inducing register of International Art English, suffuses the publications he launched, among them Marks, a unicorn of a magazine that had only three issues, and Philippine Art Supplement, a bi-monthly journal that served as an important intellectual platform during its run.

In an e-mail interview with BusinessWorld, Mr. Flores wrote: “Albano was a knot in the meshwork of the Philippine contemporary. And he was an important one, because he did not only cause things to turn, his practice in itself performed the turning. He did art, he wrote, he curated, he administered an arts space, he lectured, he programmed activities, among others.”

At various international summits and conferences attended by his peers, Mr. Flores has been speaking of Mr. Albano’s practice and his place in art history. To shortcut the process of understanding Mr. Albano’s impact and to map its reverberations, one is tempted to resort to the written equivalent of an elevator pitch: If Chabet is “arguably the Father of Conceptual Art,” is Mr. Albano, at the very least, arguably its co-parent? It was a reductive question that merited a slap on the wrist from Mr. Flores, who replied: “I stay away from this project of fathers. It is retrograde and no thoughtful art history can dignify the gesture; it is a statement best left to fan clubs and groupies. It distorts and corrupts art history and only financializes those who benefit from the privilege to proclaim through the circulation of objects and careers in the market of commodities and recognitions. One day it is archive; the next day it is auction… On the whole, Albano’s contributions lay in his practice at CCP in which he internalized the bureaucracy to co-produce the contemporary and to reflect on it with intelligence. Surely, not everything or everyone was included in this conception of the contemporary, but he tried to probe the materiality of possibilities. It was through the material that the political and the social would find presence. Having said that, some expressions of the social and the political could simply not be absorbed in this metabolism. Albano was aware of the limit; he tried to complicate the threshold.”

Hovering in the background of this conversation is the fact that Albano worked at the CCP during the Marcos years. Mr. Flores, at a conference titled “The Roles and Responsibilities of Museums in Civil Society” organized by the International Committee for Museums and Collections of Modern Art (CIMAM) in Singapore in 2017, addressed Mr. Albano’s role, at the height of Martial Law, in a state-sponsored art institution — the pet project of Imelda Marcos that manifested itself as a Brutalist building dedicated to the First Lady’s love for “the good, the true, and the beautiful”: “I will not use the word ‘complicit’; instead, I would say he was ‘co-implicated,’” Mr. Flores said.

He elaborated in his e-mail to BusinessWorld: “We have to rethink the way we conceptualize concepts like critique or freedom of expression by analyzing the kind of power that operates and the kind of agency that responds to it. We have to realize that the CCP was a complex organism. That it was Imelda’s playground is a caricature from which these binaries seem to stem.”

These are big thoughts — thoughts that a casual visitor to Art Fair Philippines might not have time to process while stepping on the sand, making footprints. Let us remember, then, Albano’s playfulness: he who was Homo ludens, the hunchback of CCP.

According to Mr. Flores, it is important that the general art-loving public should know that Mr. Albano “understood what it meant to be so many things at once and was generous enough to work with others.” He continued: “It was this sympathy and intelligence that made him generate interesting work. He was not just a partisan of an ideology, a minion in a cult, or personnel from government. That said, he was intensely engaged with how things could be instrumentalized by ideology, cult, or government. The very reason he did what he had to do: to enhance the immunity of the material.”

The Ray Albano Special Exhibition, curated by Judy Freya Sibayan and co-presented by Silverlens Galleries, is on view at Booth SE2, Level 5, of Art Fair Philippines 2019, which is open to the general public from Feb. 22 to 24 at The Link, Ayala Center, Makati. There will also be a lecture — “Nonon Padilla and Judy Freya Sibayan in Conversation on the Art Practive of Ray Albano on Feb. 24, 2-4 p.m., Level 5 of The Link. Tickets to the art fair are P350 each. Visit artfairphilippines.com for more information.

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