SIMRYN GILL, Vegetation, 2016, Black-and-white llfochrome print, 40 × 400 cm each. Courtesy Utopia Art Sydney.

Soil and Stones, Souls and Songs

Also available in:  Chinese  Arabic

Soil and stones, as geologic materials, are the essential building blocks that compose the vast areas of the earth fragmented by the abstract and arbitrary demarcations of geography. Within the context of the exhibition “Soil and Stones, Souls and Songs,” they also symbolized the spirits of the diverse communities who have built their homes both with and around such natural elements.

Held at the Museum of Contemporary Art and Design in Manila and organized by San Francisco- and Paris-based Kadist Foundation and Para Site Hong Kong, the exhibition contained a rich and overwhelming collection of works from the past few decades, ranging from collage-like paintings, biomorphic drawings and mini-sculptures to expansive murals, conceptual videos and archival documents, by more than 30 international artists.

Despite the range of issues the artists sought to address, the show’s focus was the morphing identity of Asia brought about by the seismic pressures of imperialist policies, ecological destruction and the global market. It was a look into how these forces resonate and ripple to transform the consciousness of millions, and eventually warrant artistic experimentation and development of new forms, practices and processes that express and reflect the realities of an anxiety-ridden present. Different strategies were seen throughout the exhibition that conveyed the multifaceted nature of such topics, which extended beyond the aesthetic forms of particular pieces to the utilization of the museum space itself—the latter of which saw amorphous configurations that defied the rigid categories of theme and chronology.

On Sacred Land (1983–84), Peter Kennedy and John Hughes’s historical yet stylistically experimental video on Australian Aboriginal land rights, stood by the museum’s entrance near two of Simryn Gill’s black-and-white photographs of bald palm trees from a series ironically titled “Vegetation (2016). Another two photographs from the series, portraying a man whose face is obscured by leaves, appeared on the museum’s mezzanine. As a commentary on the environmental devastation caused by the palm oil industry, Gill’s works were contrapuntal to a nearby section dedicated to a case study on agricultural and aquacultural practices in Hong Kong, curated by Para Site’s Qu Chang.

Other works on the mezzanine included José Maceda’s Ugnayan (1974) and Udlot-Udlot (1975), two neo-avant-garde musical compositions revolving around ideas of community. Evident here was the two pieces’ resistance toward being fully assimilated into hegemonic canons of (western) Modernism. As was posited through Maceda’s works, submission isn’t the only path to adaptation. In Kawayan de Guia and Dominique Zinkpé’s frenetically hybrid assemblages and paintings, disparate codes were juxtaposed, offering the notion that “nativized versions of modernisms”—as worded in the exhibition’s catalog—are formed not through sheer mimicry, but via appropriation and refraction.

The catalog also references the intertwining of history, culture and territory that is embodied in soil, and a certain level of sanctity that such factors bestow upon it. A case in point is the increasing Sinophobia among Mongolians, which is deeply rooted in the historical contrast between Chinese agriculturalism and the Mongolian people’s “nomadic respect for the untouched soil.” This was partially reflected in Mongolian artist Tuguldur Yondonjamts’s idiosyncratic and methodical drawings, etchings and prints, which acerbically tackled the socioeconomic changes taking place in his native country as a result of excessive mining, whose biggest consumer currently is China.

To be confounded by the complex, milieu-defining interplay of factors was unsurprising, although this was hardly the point of the exhibition. Instead of merely being awestruck, the show urged viewers to guide themselves through these turbulent times by distilling even a modicum of sense from our immediate and wider surroundings.

It therefore seemed appropriate that the poster for “Soil and Stones” featured Mariana Castillo Deball’s untitled laserchrome print, depicting a single gray mask with its backside on view, hovering against a glossy, vermilion background as though shielding the observer. It’s no secret that appearances can deceive, and for us to truly understand our environment and know ourselves, we must reach deep beyond the surface. In the case of “Soil and Stones, Souls and Songs,” this exploration was materialized through potent stories and glimpses into the diverse sentiments shared within and among various nations.