‘If you’re going to do it, you might as well do it well. That’s all it is.’
WORDS SAM L. MARCELO | PHOTOGRAPHY JONATHAN BALDONADO
Jose Tence “Bogie” Ruiz was a kid of about 10 years old when he glimpsed his future. The year was 1967. The place, Luz Gallery in Makati City, at the opening of the first solo show of his printmaker uncle, Virgillio “Pandy” Aviado, who was on the cusp of a breakthrough that would whisk him away to Spain, France, Morocco and beyond. Mr. Aviado, 12 years older than Mr. Ruiz, was an early inspiration for his nephew.
“He was like a ghost I wanted to get to know,” said Mr. Ruiz, who remembers his wonderment at his uncle’s exhibition as well as the guests dressed in their formal clothes. “One of the things that I cherish is that the first time I ever went to an exhibit was Pandy’s first one-man show. It was the first time I ever saw that world.”
Mr. Ruiz, now 60, has gone on his own artistic journey, one that has taken him to the Venice Biennale and, come February 16, to a Makati City parking garage. While the metropolis was in the throes of holiday-shopping panic, Mr. Ruiz was 10 months into working on an installation for Art Fair Philippines. To be unveiled at the sixth floor of The Link in Ayala Center, Langue Lounge is a giant popsicle — smooth and chocolatey — in the shape of a tongue, sprinkled with hints of the concrete bust of Ferdinand Marcos.
“This is the tongue wanting to lick itself. The tongue is ruling at the moment. Anything that can be said, is said. There’s a fascination with glibness,” Mr. Ruiz told High Life in December. It is prescient, given that he came up with the idea pre-Duterte, pre-Trump, pre-“post-truth” politics. And now? The world finds itself battling Orwellian gaslighting; journalists are told to use their “creative imagination”; and government officials peddle lies as “alternative facts.”
Around this self-licking sculpture, Mr. Ruiz intends to set up 14 electric chairs upholstered in the most luxurious velvet to symbolize how comfortable humanity has become with the idea of death. The dense red fabric, preferred by popes and kings alike, also refers to Shoal, the ship Mr. Ruiz made in 2015 for the country’s return to the Venice Biennale after 51 long years. Modeled after the rusted navy vessel grounded on Ayungin Shoal, the installation was prompted by the still-ongoing debate over the West Philippine Sea. “You’ve got be fascinated by the juxtaposition of the greatest Asian naval power, China, against us, a really poor country giving it the finger,” he said. Flipping the-powers-that-be the bird is a running theme in Mr. Ruiz’s practice, which saw the birth pains of social activism. The political bite is there in his editorial cartoons, in the fashion-as-power Kotillion paintings and sculptures girdled in bourgeois decadence, and in the spiky Kariton Katedrals making pie-in-the-sky promises to the poor.
“To a certain extent, we were feeling market irrelevant five years ago. You had this sense that the only thing that counted was the final bid price. Reaction to history had no more meaning. It was an optical joust: whoever titillated — and whoever justified that titillation as much as possible to people bidding a high price — was valid. Obviously, most of us didn’t agree with that,” said Mr. Ruiz, who has been making art for 40 years.
And then a different kind of validation came knocking, in the form of an invitation to represent the Philippines in Venice. “The conjoined twin of validation is expectation,” said Mr. Ruiz, who felt pressure from his peers — artists who weren’t chosen — and from the general population. “It had better be good or else, you know, ‘shit you,’” he imagined them saying. “That’s the way life works. We live in competitive communities, which is nice but also difficult. I like competition: It keeps us all sharp, keeps us tough. When I was almost cracking under the pressure of Venice, I would go to the bathroom and talk to my dead friends,” he confessed. Dante Perez, who frequently collaborated with film director Lav Diaz, was one of them. “I’d tell them how hard it was. They’d tell me to suck it up. Because I’m still alive.”
Art Fair Philippines is no less important than Venice for Mr. Ruiz. “I do recognize the seriousness of the art fair. Venice has gravitas, sure, but I’m a fan local endeavors,” he said.
“At the end of the day, you tell yourself: if you’re going to do it, you might as well do it well. That’s all it is.”
MAKING HIS WAY INTO THE WORLD
During an early afternoon lull in sculpting Langue Lounge, Mr. Ruiz — with his shorn head, his goatee, and his stentorian voice — stood over a sink while dressed in a red gingham apron that stopped well above his knees. The dishes won’t do themselves, he apologized. The plate he was scrubbing didn’t care that he was part of the Philippine Pavilion at the 56th Venice Biennale, or that he was an Araw ng Maynila Awardee for New Media, or that his CV includes exhibitions in France, Australia, and Korea. “You do realize that some artists will not dare touch dishes, for fear of injuring their auction hand?,” he said.
Domestic chores dealt with, he sat, sans apron, in one of the chairs he designed himself to fit his six-foot-tall frame. Lesser mortals who sup with Mr. Ruiz at his table, a 90-year-old antique made from solid narra, must get used to the awkward feeling of their feet dangling over the floor. Over cups of “national bourgeoisie” coffee — a mix of local instant classics Cafe Puro, Blend 45, and Great Taste — the 60-year-old artist reflected on his practice. “I prefer the word ‘practice’ over ‘career,’” he said. “A practice means that you make your way into the world. A career suggests that life will unfold for you according to a prescribed pattern.”
The basics: He was born in 1956 in Manila and nicknamed “Bogie” — after Humphrey Bogart — by his grandfather Arturo G. Roseburg, the editor of Pathways to Philippine Literature in English. Incidentally, it was also Roseburg who christened Mr. Aviado “Pandy,” owing to his resemblance to a panda bear.
When Mr. Ruiz entered the College of Fine Arts at University of Santo Tomas, Manila, in the 1970s, students were absorbing the influence of Robert Rauschenberg, Bruce Conner, and Jasper Johns. Monogram, Rauschenberg’s stuffed Angora goat encircled by a tire, baffled Mr. Ruiz, who thought: “Son of a bitch, what kind of art is that.”
His mother agonized over his desire to become an artist and his choice of painting as a degree. The number of “serious” galleries dwindled in 1976, after Marcos issued a presidential decree that broadened the anti-subversion law of 1957. Impressions, Luz, Hidalgo, Bleue — Mr. Ruiz ticked them off on his fingers. Being an artist was rebellious, cool. It meant choosing the road less traveled since everybody back then had to be lawyer, chasing the same laurels (the European car, the house in a fancy subdivision).
Since then, the infrastructure has evolved. There are enough galleries to support a homegrown contemporary art fair, which means there is a demand for contemporary art, which, in turn, means that fresh-faced artists don’t have to worry about where their next meal is coming from. Neither do they have to worry about landing in jail for criticizing the government.
“The young people seem to enjoy it. They say, ‘what the heck, it’s a nice time to be practicing,’” said Mr. Ruiz. “We envy them a bit because the amount of money they make at their age — oh, my god — we were just dreaming of it.” He added that his contemporary, Renato Habulan, summarized the quibbles of his generation during a conference held at the Cultural Center of the Philippines: “When we were in our 20s, all of the older people told us to wait until we were 50, that was when you could probably become a bit of a master and people would pay attention to you. Now that I’m 50, my kid, at the age of 25, is making more than I am.”
There was no rancor when he shared this. Money, fame? “You should forget those things when you’re practicing. If you think about them, you’ll be destroyed. Think about art.” Still, he won’t deny that these autumn-of-life accolades “feel nice.” “Every little incremental success is always a vindication. What can I do except say ‘I wish you came along 25 years earlier, when my shoulder wasn’t frozen.’ But what to do? What can you do? You’re just lucky to be alive. But I honestly wish it happened earlier.” he said.
“Like it or not, we’re doomed to obscurity. That has never been lost on me. So while I’m still alive, I’m going to enjoy it. The art has to outlive you and if it means anything, it will have something to say until later on.”
He let go of any certainty he had about anything 15 years ago. And five years later, at the age of 50, he had “R. Schwarzkogler” tattooed over his rib cage to remind of him of the Austrian performance artist whose shocking work revolved around pain and healing. As coffee cups emptied, talk ceased. Mr. Ruiz began wiping the vinyl sheet covering his antique table. “It makes my housekeeping easy,” he said, slipping into philosophical domesticity. “Now I belong to a roster of sorts, until I have to wash the dishes. One has to live life and do what life needs.” And sometimes, what life needs is a rack of clean dishes.