Not a requiem
Carlos Celdran ruffled some Marcoses with his performance monologue “Living La Vida Imelda,” which lampooned the extravagance of the nonagenarian from a bygone era.

Not a requiem

ZOETROPE - Juaniyo Arcellana (The Philippine Star) - October 14, 2019 - 12:00am

Past noon Tuesday text messages and social media broke the news of the death of Carlos Celdran, the performance artist who elevated guided tours to a kind of street theater, in Madrid, which is six hours behind his beloved Manila. He would have turned 47 in a few weeks, the reports went.

Celdran had been staying in Spain since start of the year, an exile by choice after upsetting some powers that be including the Catholic Church, as he had been sentenced to one year, one month and 11 days in prison for “offending religious feelings,” based on a provision in the Revised Penal Code, for his “Damaso” stunt in September 2010, when he held up a placard bearing the name of the antihero in Jose Rizal’s novel in the Manila Cathedral while bishops were in congress.

He also ruffled some Marcoses with his performance monologue Living La Vida Imelda, which lampooned the extravagance of the nonagenarian from a bygone era, as well with suggestions during his guided tours that the Imeldific’s firstborn was of a different spawn, gossip from nineteen-kopong-kopong that old-timers knew only too well and spoke about in hushed tones during martial law. The skit was also banned in the UAE for not passing prior scrutiny by Arab police. 

For all his irreverence and ribald antics, Celdran was actually funny, and getting under the skin of authorities seemed to be a natural vocation.

Yet, his guided tours of Manila (particularly Intramuros), were one of a kind and became the talk of the town. Indeed “If These Walls Could Talk” was impossible not to notice, especially for balikbayans and generic tourists wanting a different take on the Walled City. It was really improv theater, which again may have rattled some people who thought the guide should have better kept his opinions to himself. This led to audible gasps from the audience and walkouts as well as attacks on social media, but at least the guy was never boring. He gave new meaning to the term “unjust vexation.”

Now the obits and tributes are all out, and we read of how he got started as a teenage cartoonist contributing strips to the late great Nonoy Marcelo first at BusinessDay near the corner of EDSA and Quezon Ave., later to Port Area where Bos Myawok was head of the Manila Chronicle art department and was putting out on the side the Ptyk newspaper, in broadsheet format but composed wholly of comic strips, spot cartoons, assorted caricatures, the lone text being the editorial written in street Taglish.

Carlos was the youngest of the Ptyk gang, and the story goes that it was in the Chronicle art department that the young cartoonist first encountered weed hidden in a matchbox of Marcelo, the medicinal stuff part of a regular drop-off by the police reporter coming from raids by the predecessors of ninja cops. He was looking for a light for his Philip, which he bought by the stick during his commute by jeep from university in Diliman.

A couple of years in Rhode Island School of Design must have blown his mind, and his experience there coupled with a fine arts degree from University of the Philippines laid out the path for Carlos whose art always defied classification.

He did his Manila tours for more than a decade, earning for him in the process a “Men Who Matter” citation from PeopleAsia magazine, which early on recognized his considerable talent to elevate the noble and ever-loyal, why, he could perform the entire Mass of St. Sylvester all by his lonesome straight out of Nick Joaquin’s storybook. It was a glaring omission that he never got the Gawad Manila given to the city’s favorite sons, not from any of its recent past mayors now hopefully gone the way of the dinosaur.

He appeared in Elwood Perez’s Esoterika: Maynila as a fictionalized version of himself, another shot from left field.

Then last year might have been his crowning achievement, the Manila Bienalle, which located various installations in Intramuros where art stood cheek by jowl with the lumpen and hoi polloi, effectively realizing the maverick artist’s dream of common spaces.

One of the last shorts on Carlos Celdran is the documentary Damaso done by a trio of film students, part of the omnibus Madrid Stories. It details his life in Madrid exile, doing the dishes and shaving his head, strolling along the streets and sketching in the park in broad daylight, a dog hovering nearby. The film ends with the artist vocalizing in the wind tunnel, space between buildings of his apartment complex, a homesick Caruso singing the blues away.

* * *

Before Carlos Celdran died, he was embarking on new tours in Madrid retracing the steps of Rizal. Condolences to the Celdran family including his elder siblings, the newscaster abroad David, and the former jazz singer turned restaurateur Anita, whose band Mother Earth once set to music Joyce Kilmer’s poem “Trees.”

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