The Whole World of Buen Calubayan

Louise Anne M. Salas, March 1, 2021

By Louise Anne M. Salas

 

The artist’s works for the exhibition Antimemory Antiarchive appear like a synthesis or a culminating project of sorts. To get a grasp of Buen’s oeuvre, one would need to revisit his archives, his art works, and his biography—which could be construed as being one and the same. His recent works bear traces of his past projects and hint of a future trajectory. Like an organism growing or a figure condensing to reveal its ground, Buen’s work is a compendium of ideas in progress and a copious record of his life. Taking on the arduous task of producing and keeping documents for over a decade since his first forays into archiving, Buen confides that he has reached a tipping point. In his research notes, the reader will likely find the artist’s poignant reflection: one cannot experience the fullness of life while in the thick of documenting it. The theorist Mike Featherstone similarly observes that “life increasingly becomes lived in the shadow of the archive.”[1] Anticipating the loss of memory, there is an impetus to focus on its preservation, or the creation of a trace for future reference. But what about the record-keeper? Who casts a gaze on him? Buen notes that the attempt to remember everything is habit forming. As one ventures to capture memories, the opportunity to live in the moment is diminished, or lost altogether. In a world where record keeping-devices have become relatively accessible, sophisticated, and where the parameters on what constitutes the “archival” have significantly expanded, so too did the tendency to gather almost indiscriminately. Commenting on the mechanisms of remembrance that grew exponentially in the 21st century, the words of memory studies scholar Andreas Huyssen might as well resonate to the artist’s apprehension: “memory fatigue has set in.”

 

Scoping the World: Archiving

 

Buen’s practice echoes an “archival impulse”[2] where historical information from seemingly inchoate records are interpreted, re-connected, and made visible as art. The materials that Buen has accumulated over the years are hand-drawn records and sketches of movements, lecture notes, readings, prints with annotations, and conceptual diagrams which have filled up envelopes, folders, and boxes and lined the shelves of his home in Manila nearly to its brim. Some of these notes appear as overlays to the artist’s landscape studies in the series titled Antiarchive (Series of 10, Assemblage, 2020).

 

Buen’s diligent, mostly analog record keeping practice exposes his labor as an artist and as a cultural worker. His research notes are many and varied. Some appear to be rendered in haste like spur of the moment ideas, reactions, and scribbles which differ in complexity. Some are annotations of daily routine while others reveal a more developed scheme, like a calendar with hatch marks and faint writing illegible to the viewer, a timeline of exhibits, a flow chart that analyzes the ecology of the art world, or a detailed map of a work-in-progress, for instance, the artist’s website. The latter signals us to Buen’s expanding definition of the archival, which includes digitized materials made available on the world wide web. It is timely that the website was activated during the early stages of the global pandemic in 2020, an unprecedented period when quarantine and physical distancing measures were enforced and many artistic platforms worldwide relied on virtual modalities to implement its programs. We could think of this website as the artist’s response to his evolving practice and in turn, a growing audience which is partly a result of his consistent engagement with the international art scene.  This is testified by his participation in residencies and exhibitions abroad through the years, which are comprehensively inscribed in his timelines. Aptly titled Vanishing Point, the website is a reference to Buen’s earlier work which synthesizes his artistic research on perception, landscape theory, and world-making. We could even consider this website as another iteration of Vanishing Point. One would only need to peruse the diagrams that Buen made over the years to realize that his works connect in a highly relational way. Each work builds up on another, leading the viewer’s gaze towards a certain direction, in the same vein the vanishing point projects toward the horizon. We could trace his magisterial Biowork (2015) to Fressie Capulong (2012), Biography (2013) and Bionote (2014), incremental projects that heavily relied on Buen’s personal archives.

 

By no means inseparable from the aforementioned works is Employee 55 (2010-13) where Buen’s daily performance as a visual artist and cultural worker effectively coalesced.  The title is crucial because it exposes his identity as Museum Researcher at the National Museum of the Philippines. It is a “project devised to frame Calubayan’s institutional employment as art.” Primarily in charge of collections management in the Fine Arts department, Buen subjected himself as “an anthropological specimen” where he negotiated his roles as both artist and museum employee. As an artist, the records that he produced and accumulated were honed by his habitus as a museum employee. By inscribing his daily work experience in quantifiable terms, expressing them as ‘race laps’ and eventually framing these records as art, the labor of the artist is revealed within the context of an institution that he simultaneously undermined. This work leads us to archival discourses that correlate record-keeping with surveillance and power. According to Featherstone, in the 18th century, the archive functioned as an “apparatus of social rule and regulation.” The accumulated records in the archival repository enabled the government to monitor its population, as unique files were maintained for each individual within a given territory. Identities were summed up as information, thus empowering those who have access to this knowledge, such as government authorities. On the other hand, the archive as an institution is considered as a “site of memory.” Like museums and libraries, the archive supported the goals of nation-building. It was possible to construct the narrative of the nation and underscore its legitimacy by way of the archival records that are perceived to be bearers of historical, and therefore authoritative information. The archival repository enabled the population to believe in a shared identity or a sense of belonging to an “imagined community.” This quick detour prompts us to think about Buen’s role and motivation in the process of archiving for he is at once the producer of the trace, the archivist in charge of inventory, organization, storage, interpretation, and exhibition of materials. Assuming all these tasks while being the subject of the record, the artist dis-places power from the institution while being held under its supervision. Deliberately framing the archives to re-present his own life/world, we witness the artist emphasizing his agency against a daunting and seemingly infallible establishment.

 

Making Sense of the World: Landscape/Pedagogy  

 

Speaking of framing, Buen avers that he adheres to the logic of the timeline and the visualization of his life as “one big art project.” His more recent works where art and daily life bleed into each other reinforce this claim.

 

For this exhibition, Buen continues his elaboration of the landscape as discourse. The paintings titled Anti Memory (Series of 4, 2020) resist representation. These are composed of feathery surfaces built up by exciting patches of color and dynamic strokes. Unlike traditional landscapes which are regarded as “objects of nostalgia,” we can hardly identify the picture as a referent of a particular time or place. Illuminated like plein air painting and the paint occupying every inch of the picture plane, the pieces evoke a semblance of infinity. It is uncertain where the movement begins or where it ends, its limits merely suggested by the borders of the wooden frame. The theme recurs in other works, particularly Buen’s landscape drawing in the accordion book, where a terrain’s latitude is revealed. It might be worth mentioning that this drawing traces back to a similar work (Eternal Landscape, 2012) drawn on a long tissue paper roll, suggesting fragility and disposability on the one hand; perpetuity on the other. In these pieces, paint and graphite appear to grapple with confinement. Ideas of continuity, cycle, and therefore history are ever palpable. They are illustrated in Buen’s diagram titled Ground and Perspective, where an enlarged infinity symbol bisects layers of a U-shaped curve akin to a vessel. In this drawing, memory work is presented as a cyclical process through its interface with time, movement, and systems of mediation. A concave down curve is positioned at the top part of the diagram with the label ‘landscape.’ The positioning of the elements in the illustration invites us to assume landscape not as a natural view but a way of seeing that has become naturalized.

 

According to WJT Mitchell, the expression ‘look at the view’ is an offer to look at landscape and “ignore all particulars in favor of an appreciation of a total gestalt, a vista or scene that may be dominated by some specific feature, but not simply reducible to that feature. … The landscape imperative is a kind of mandate to withdraw, to draw out by drawing back from a site.”[3] Viewing landscape in its wholeness calls to mind the Steiner philosophy that advocates the engagement of the “whole child” in the learning process: “heart and hands, as well as head.” In the artist’s exhibitions for the past two years where he frames housework as art, illustrations on human development based on Steiner’s philosophy have been elaborated, particularly the refinement of the child’s ability to sense the world as they reach a particular age. Buen’s exploration of ideas pertaining to child rearing, human development, and pedagogy form part of his biography as a parent and as a teacher of perspective drawing in a Waldorf school.

 

For all the artist’s references to mundane acts and daily life, there lies a great ambition to comprehend broader schemes and ecologies, this time through an avid investigation of memory’s “structure and systems of storage.” Buen’s works in Antimemory Antiarchive evoke the desire to gain a panoramic view, to gather obsessively in order to obtain a semblance of integrity, and to imagine progress as a holistic undertaking.

 



References:

 

[1] Featherstone, Mike. “Archive.” Theory, Culture & Society, vol. 23, no. 2–3, May 2006, pp. 591–596, doi:10.1177/0263276406023002106.

 

[2] Foster, Hal. “An Archival Impulse.” October, vol. 110, 2004, pp. 3–22. JSTOR, www.jstor.org/stable/3397555.

 

[3] Mitchell, WJT. Landscape and Power. U of Chicago Press, 2002, vii-viii.

 


About the writer

 

Louise Anne M. Salas is an Assistant Professor at the Department of Art Studies, University of the Philippines, Diliman where she teaches courses in general humanities, Philippine art, and curatorial studies. She is currently pursuing research on women artists in the Philippines and New Zealand as a PhD student in Art History at the School of Humanities, University of Auckland.

 

60 
of 64