Arts & Leisure

By Jasmine Agnes T. Cruz, Reporter

Something different in a museum

Posted on January 14, 2015

WHAT DOES an art exhibit with no objects look like? The answer can be seen at the University of the Philippines’ Vargas Museum. It’s current exhibition, Forces at Work, involves a sub-show entitled Holdings, curated by Merv Espina, where concepts instead of objects are on exhibit.

FORCES AT WORK’s sub-exhibits: White Noise with Bru Sim’s Disposables I, II, III and IV, Derek Tumala’s video mapping and sculpture called Unhabitat: A Transient Fault in the System, Yumiko Ishihara Hoshiba’s Paper Cup Wall, The Axel Pinpin Propaganda Machine’s sound installation Bakod, and Vermont Coronel II’s paper cutouts Border Number 1, 2 & 3.
New ways of presenting exhibits and new curatorial practices are showcased in Forces at Work which features four emerging curators: Mr. Espina, Con Cabrera, Ricky Francisco, and Mayumi Hirano.

Forces at Work presents Mr. Espina’s Holdings; Mr. Francisco’s Still, which reflects on catastrophes; Ms. Cabrera’s White Noise, which puts a spotlight on oppression and protest; and Ms. Hirano’s The Lizard Says You’re a Liar!, which tackles the intersection of local beliefs and scientific knowledge.

The project is a result of the Curatorial Development Program, a workshop held by Vargas and The Japan Foundation, Manila (JFM) since 2009. Every two years, the program selects emerging curators from the Philippines and Japan, and through workshops, it helps enrich the participants’ curatorial practice, which largely involves conceptualizing an exhibit and working with artists.

In the past, only one curator was chosen per program, but in 2014 there were four. They underwent curatorial workshops by Patrick Flores of Vargas, Mami Kataoka of the Mori Art Museum, and Yukie Kamiya of the Hiroshima Museum of Contemporary Art. The curators were also taken to Japan, and, along with emerging curators from Indonesia, Malaysia, and Thailand, they explored cultural institutions, museums, galleries, and independent artist-run spaces in Yokohama, Nagoya, Kanazawa, Hiroshima, Fukuoka, and Tokyo. This project is part of a larger program -- the Japan Foundation’s Run & Learn: New Curatorial Constellations, which involves emerging curators from the Philippines, Indonesia, Thailand, Malaysia, and Japan.

In Holdings, Mr. Espina works with Japanese artist Yoshinori Niwa and the Working Artists Group. Mr. Espina is trying to sell the right to name a pile of garbage in Manila. This art project is a commentary on the Philippine law prohibiting incineration facilities, which forces people to turn land into unlivable areas piled up with trash. To articulate this, Mr. Niwa, with Mr. Espina’s help, decided to engage the public by asking them to place bids, and the highest bidder will win the right to name a pile of trash. The participants emphasize that they are serious about this: they have a lawyer, have placed ads in newspapers, have office hours at the museum (10 a.m. to 4 p.m. Tuesdays and Thursdays), have a kiosk outside the museum used to accept bids, have held press conferences and talks, and are present on the Web through social media ( and blogs (

The bidding ended on Jan. 13, but there will be talks on the results of this project in the coming days. During a talk on Dec. 11, Mr. Espina said that the top bid at the time was P1,650.

“I wanted to challenge the idea of what an exhibition is,” said Mr. Espina. “I wanted for it to not be a static space. There has to be some element of reaching out to the public.”

A structure made of paper cups, a stream of white paper cutouts cascading from the ceiling to the floor, and videos projected on fragmented cardboard boxes displayed together with irregular silver objects and a basin used for washing clothes -- these are the items in the exhibit White Noise. The show’s curator, Ms. Cabrera, said that she started her project with the question “How do mainstream artists respond to social happenings?” Though she says she dislikes the term “social experiment,” her project can be considered as such.

Ms. Cabrera brought artists into impoverished communities in Quezon and Mandaluyong cities and they were asked to make art in response to what they witnessed. Payatas was a challenging place for “sheltered” artists, said Ms. Cabrera, but this was exactly her point. Knowing this, Ms. Cabrera is always there with her artists during the integration, to assure them that the experience was new to her as well, to articulate what she felt and saw, and give them time to breathe and digest the experience.

“I have to be with artist in the process,” she said.

The Dec. 11 talk also discussed how curatorial practice is developing in the country. There, for example, the emergence of artist-curators and curators who did not undergo formal study.

“I think the term ‘curator’ is becoming widespread. It can be anybody,” said Ms. Hirano, explaining that this is something that she realized based on what she sees in the Philippines. “Curators are playing the role of facilitator.”

When asked to assess this trend, she said, “It’s good to have both independent curators and artist-curators, so that there will be a diversity of exhibits.”

A curator can also be a person who is in a position to activate a community as seen in Ms. Cabrera’s practice. She said that as a lecturer in Kalayaan College, she had the ability to make her students participate in making installations. In this way, the community becomes a resource that the curator can tap.

Artist-curator Mr. Espina said that the role of curator was not something that he actively looked for, but it was a responsibility that was thrust upon him. He began as an artist, but opportunities led him into this new role. “There’s a different dynamic between artist and artist-curator,” said Mr. Espina, explaining that because he is an artist, he has an “insider point of view.”

“I treat artist the way I want to be treated,” he said.

Mr. Francisco said that though he began as a museum curator, in charge of the institution’s collection and tasked to put shows together using its pieces, he didn’t formally study curatorship.

As a curator, he said he treats the artist like a friend. “I give them free reign until they question the authority of institution,” he said. “That’s when the negotiations start, but it is done within the bounds of trust and friendship.”

Mr. Francisco recognized the developments in the curatorial practice. “Now the landscape is changing because many artists are doing the role of curators,” said Mr. Francisco. “So how relevant is the curator in this sense?” But then he said he would not answer his own question.

Forces at Work runs until Jan. 28, at the Vargas Museum, Roxas Ave., UP Diliman Campus, Quezon City. For details, contact the museum through 928-1927 (direct line), 981-8500 loc. 4024, e-mail to, visit or like and follow @UPVargasMuseum for updates. Contact the Japan Foundation, Manila at 811-6155 to 58 or visit

Events related to Forces at Work:

• Holdings Talk and Film Showing by Yoshinori Niwa, UP Film Institute Videotheque, Jan. 14, 2 p.m.,

• Holdings Condition Reports of Working Artists Group’s Collections Management Service on Jan. 20, 2 p.m.

• Holdings Press Conference #2: Selling the Right to Name a Pile of Garbage on Jan. 21, 3 p.m.

• White Noise Artists talk with Vermont Coronel II, Bru Sim and Derek Tumala on Jan. 22, 2:30 p.m.

• Holdings Public evaluation of Working Artists Group’s Collections Management Service Jan. 23, 2 p.m.

• Still Artists talk and film screening by Michelle Hollanes Lua, Jake Vamenta and Boyet de Mesa on the film Remembering Sendong (a film shown in the 2012 Singapore Biennale) and the multi-site/multi-city performance Kalig-on in solidarity with those affected by Yolanda, on Jan. 28, 2:30 p.m.

• Working Artists Group’s Collections Management Service is from 10 a.m. to 4 p.m., Wednesday and Friday. E-mail them at