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Objects of struggle in Kiri Dalena’s art

Video installation from Kiri Dalena’s “Arrays of Evidence” exhibition

This is a belated review, but maybe given the monstrosities that have transpired and the manner artists have been responding them, could still be relatable.

In Kiri Dalena’s exhibition titled “Arrays of Evidence,” a neon sign illuminates 1335 Mabini’s main gallery in a queasy orange-red. Affecting an auguring and grisly mood in the otherwise dark room, the sign quotes Brecht: “In the dark times will there also be singing? Yes, there will be singing, about the dark times.” In front of the neon are round lumps of small glass shards, arranged in a straight line — an actual array — that create minimal-like glass islands from the gallery’s entrance to the window at the other end of the room. The walls are lined with similar-looking glass shards, neatly arranged and spaced so as to create a pattern, the repetition and order of which reminds one, again, of cool minimalist wallpaper.

These shiny scraps are, as the exhibition notes state, “... pieces of clear broken glass from cemeteries and other places...6,000 shards, laid out across empty space, (is) a reference to the continuously growing number of people killed under the current administration’s war on drugs.” This disclosure of facts is repeated in the adjacent room where a black and white video of Melfe Ebalang is projected onto a wall. In the middle of a rice field Ebalang sings: “We can’t even afford fish paste. Rice is very expensive, copra is very cheap... When everything is tallied the government awaits to take the remainder to the municipal hall...” In the background one can make out the dim silhouette of human figures slowly working in the fields. It is Ebalang’s voice and the camera’s shallow focus on her face that breaks the tidiness of the exhibition. Her singing flows into the entire space.

Grain appears again in the next room where 635 rice-shaped gold pieces are collected in a small pile on top of a plinth. 635 is the most recent count of “Filipino peasants and farmers killed or assasinated in the past 15 years in the course of asserting their rights to land and food.” An incandescent bulb lights it from above. The work is titled, “After Mebuyan” referencing the Bagobo deity Mebuyan, whose rice grains scattered all over the earth portend our fateful deaths and inevitable descent into Gimokudan, the underworld. Mebuyan’s home, according to one account, is made entirely of gold where one can live for a second time.



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Dalena’s intentions in “Arrays,” as in most of her work, seem to be articulating her position in the political network. The contestations are done in earnest. Yes, the objects seem to be embodiments of difficult and horrific situations, and yes, they are presented in attractive but, conceivably, meaningful ways. Perhaps this is not too far removed from some of the artist’s earlier installation pieces where she has also flooded rooms in red neon light (see “Watch History Repeat Itself” from 2010) and strategically positioned figures and objects on the floor and on the walls (see “The Present Disorder is the Order of the Future” also from the same year, and “Washed Out” from 2012). The techniques are familiar and honest but there is a nagging sense that the artist has, without much resistance, been recapitulating the approaches she has taken in her generally well-received solo presentations in the past. What other directions might these approaches take?

The materials (i.e., the statistics, the subjects rendered, the discourses on sustenance) in “Arrays of Evidence” are contained within struggling objects: their elegances and difficulties make them charged and polyvalent. The objects struggle with the burden of distended contexts, material and cultural histories and the contingencies of curation. But this struggle does not manifest. Or, when it does, the artist doesn’t seem to go so far as to, for example, challenge her own position and predilections in her work or complicate the relationships of the different contexts contained in her chosen objects.

For instance, one could contemplate neon, a much-vaunted and eventually canonized substance — it is, after all, a gas — of conceptual art and the garish glow of Malate’s old neon signs and perceive not just facile parallelisms, but the anachronism of employing a dead commercial medium in white cubes in Malate and, for some reason, all over the art world like a glowing zombie lurking in the spaces of contemporary art (Hong Kong’s M+ has even begun “collecting” neon). Or one could concentrate on Ebalang’s singing and distill questions from her song which most of us (I refer to an “us,” with an implicated “I,” referring to myself as an “informal” member of mainstream media) are predisposed to overlook if not occlude: what does she mean when she sings “...the government awaits to take the remainder to the municipal hall...”? Who and what facilitates this taking? And what becomes of the taken afterwards?

Closely connected to Ebalang’s participation is Dalena’s collective engagement with RESBAK (Respond and Break the Silence Against the Killings — a collective of artists). While these collaborations are provocative, their roles are not keenly integrated into or explored in the exhibition. How are they positioned within this exhibition and its arguments? And how do these agencies assess and respond to these arguments?

Dalena’s work offers an initiation into some difficult questionings, laying down precursory propositions — indeed “evidences”. But these brutal times demand not just the singing but an interrogation of the song. A laying bare, as opposed to a mere laying down, of the world’s present injustices and atrocities (this “laying bare,” however, must also be seen as circumscribed largely by the “limits” of our reception. It can never be enough.). While Dalena’s objects fastidiously aim towards a target, the crucial corollary to scrutinize these targets and unsnarl them from tenacious obfuscation becomes even more immediate — targets along with the trigger, the gun, the gunman, and so on, agencies that operate, assassinate, harass, trivialize and rationalize clandestinely, like murderers and their sycophants, in the dark.

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