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  • Oct 16, 2017

Serendipity and the Streets: Interview with Mark Salvatus

Portrait of MARK SALVATUS. Photo by Sonsbeek.org. Courtesy the artist.

Mark Salvatus, currently artist-in-residence at the brand new, well-equipped Asia Culture Center in Gwangju, is more comfortable outside the studio, as spacious as his workspace may be. You may know him as Boy Agimat, a pseudonym that he shares with the character he used to graffiti on Manila’s streets as a witness to the morphing urban landscape. In 2006, he formed the collective Pilipinas Street Plan, who launched guerilla happenings in the public sphere. Six years later, he formed 98B COLLABoratory to bring together the Manila-based artistic community informally under one roof. Now living between Manila and Osaka, and increasingly airborne between projects and residencies, he tackles notions of inbetweenness, embracing serendipity and the journey as a means of research. ArtAsiaPacific sat down with the artist to discuss his practice and upcoming exhibitons.


MARK SALVATUS, Codes, 2007- , ink and acrylic on paper, 360 × 189 cm. Courtesy the artist.

What are you currently working on at your residency at Gwangju’s Asia Culture Center? 

My plan is definitely to make a new project, but right now I’m still collecting research materials, meeting people, and going with the flow—I don’t have a fixed idea for the outcome yet. I’m in a situation where I’m in constant movement, so I’m interested in boundaries, territories and invisibleness, and I want to look into these aspects of my own life.

My first residency abroad was actually in South Korea as well. That was ten years ago. I did a project called Codes (2007– ), which comprises maps that I found and then effaced with blocks of black ink and acrylic. I continue to collect maps—they change every year and are telling of both the morphing territories, as well as of the people who make them. Korea is a divided territory with imposed boundaries, though the north and south share the same language. I’m interested in this kind of situation because people created these borders, not nature. I’m looking at this idea of a line; how to use maps to divide or to bring people together. I’m gathering information and ideas to do with this.

You were born and raised in the Philippines, but are now based between Manila and Osaka. Has living between two cities impacted your practice in any way?

My wife is from Osaka. Since we got married, we have shuttled between the two cities. I have developed a new way of working because of this. If you stay in one place, you can really get into a work. But for me, I’m always in between departures and destinations. This is an increasingly common phenomenon for people all over the world, that’s why I want to create projects about this interstitial space.

I also look to our son who is two years old and is learning to speak. My wife and I communicate in English; she talks to my child in Japanese and I use Tagalog, so it’s a three-language household. My son might grow up to be very complicated. He calls spiders “fakuleh”—I don’t know where he got this from, but now we know he means spiders. Because of this translation and mistranslation, new ideas emerge. That’s the idea of art—a visual language that changes how we see things in the world.

You currently have a work at the exhibition Sunshower: Contemporary Art from Southeast Asia 1980s to Now,” in Tokyo. Could you tell us about it?

My work Ex/Port (2017) also stems from my new connection with Japan. I’m looking at japanaiserie because my son is half-Japanese. The work is a two-channel video about a jar that was brought from Luzon island to Osaka in the 16th century. Jars like that one changed the history of Japan through this idea of wabisabi developed by Rikyū [a 16th-century figure who influenced the tradition of the Japanese tea ceremony]. In the Philippines, it’s just a normal jar, but in Japan, its value had changed. I’m interested in how these value systems are translated from different cultures and geographies for an object that is at the same time just mud or clay. One projection shows the port in the Philippines where the jar was first exported and the accompanying channel shows the port in Osaka where it was imported. I was also interested in jars themselves as representations of history with multiple sides, as opposed to how we normally see the past from one perspective. 

MARK SALVATUS, Ex/Port, 2017, two-channel video: 11 min 31 sec. Installation view at Mori Art Museum, Tokyo, 2017. Courtesy the artist.

MARK SALVATUS, Notes from the New World, 2015, two-channel video: 12 min 24 sec. Installation view at Jorge B. Vargas Museum, Manila, 2015. Courtesy the artist.

Several of your works seem to be inspired by your family—your solo exhibition “Notes from the New World” in 2015 was anchored in your father’s vinyl records which led you to the Philippine Army Band; your artwork Souvenirs (2015) comprises photographs of various ports taken by your uncle)—and in turn speak of larger, shared histories. Could you tell us more about these works and exhibitions? In particular, in “Notes from the New World,” you mentioned this idea of “creating a new narrative of history.” What would this be exactly? How do you maneuver around history? What is at stake for you?

Right now, I’m living away from my family, but I’m connected to them through Facebook. They’re very active on social media—they know everything about me and vice versa, so even though we’re separated physically, we’re still connected. That’s why I'm interested in these small histories, for example, those of my father and my uncle’s. I think we can learn from ourselves, our family and neighbours. Narratives of the past are usually written by an authority, but people are also part of the picture—everything is connected. The show “Notes from the New World” was based on the combination of personal and public ideas. My father is a collector—that may be why I also gather things and materials that can be good for my future projects—I found an album from the Philippine Army Band among his vinyl records. The group was formed during the Philippine-American war (1899–1902) and was sent to the USA along with indigenous musicians from the Philippines for the world fair in 1904. I wanted to show how the individual feeds into a bigger pool.

Serendipity and found materials also seem to play a large part in your practice. Why are you drawn to this method of working?

I try not to work as a studio artist; I like to walk a lot and go out and observe. This is my process, with this idea of movement, I travel, go out, encounter different things. I’m very influenced by the poem Found by Goethe. The first stanza goes: “Once through the forest / Alone I went / To seek for nothing / My thoughts were bent.” As human beings, we all have goals in mind, but for me, the surprises or accidental encounters along the way are important. I want to have this moment where I stumble on the right connection with whatever it is that I am interested in. I still believe in this magic, like love at first sight.

MARK SALVATUS, Souvenirs, 2013, over 100 selected photos found on the laptop of the artist’s uncle, taken during his last voyage as a seaman (2008

MARK SALVATUS, "Boy Agimat" tag, 2005. Courtesy the artist.

In 2006, you co-founded Pilipinas Street Plan, a community of artists focused on ephemeral works that unfold on the streets in the forms of happenings, graffiti and posters; can you tell us more—what drove you to bring together this community? Do you see it as part of your artistic practice?

I was interested in the changes in Manila, the city being a densely populated and rapidly transforming metropolis. You can see this contrast of construction, destruction, rich, poor—and the urban landscape really struck me. That changed my practice as an artist; I learnt to deal with the street and the outside. I didn’t have a studio, so the street was my place to work and play. In 2004 I started to do graffiti under the pseudonym Boy Agimat. I drew this eye-like character; a witness to the city’s changes. Through the course of doing this, I met a lot of street artists. We began to gather and formed a community, because we wanted to share ideas and connect with others. Street art is the biggest art movement in the world, because there isn’t a geographical base, it’s in all the big cities, in every other country, so it’s interesting to have this community because we share the same language, which is the street. It led me to work with found materials. Being a street artist also changed my perspective on territories, boundaries and the divide between public and private. I learned to create an instant language. The community is still active, but it’s changing. Street art is now very mainstream and fashionable.

MARK SALVATUS, still from Pure, 2014, video: 15 min 19 sec. Courtesy the artist.

Did this also inform your performances and ephemeral works such as Pure (2014), where you pour bottled water back into lakes, rivers and springs, and Whisper (2011)an instruction to hang windchimes on trees inspired by Yoko Ono?

Yes, I wasn’t trained as a studio artist in university. I’m more concerned with creating energy rather than meaning, because meaning is specific, but energies can be different, depending on viewers, their perceptions, the place and situation, so it’s more human, more alive.

In 2012, you set up 98B COLLABoratory—could you tell us about the project and how it relates to your artworks? 

98B is an extension of my art practice, even though it’s a different program, a different way for me to present myself as an artist. My wife and I were looking for a place where we could have friends over to talk, have dinner, and instead of going out, we invited people to my apartment. The number of the apartment was 98B. Through these casual discussions and dinners, we came up with the idea of converting the apartment into a shared space, not necessarily one for art, just a regular meeting place for friends—people who want to share ideas, or hang out. So we developed this with different activities, like dinners, talks and flea markets. That’s what I’m talking about when I speak of energy. The activities create energy, not meaning—there was no question of what the purpose was, it was just needed for one or two hours, for a change in perspective.

MARK SALVATUS, Gates, 2015, cardboard box, board, silent HD video projection: 21 min 49 sec. Installation view at 1335 Mabini, Manila, 2016. Courtesy the artist.

You currently have a work at the 6th Thessaloniki Biennale of Contemporary Art in Greece as well. Could you tell us what you are presenting there?

I’m showing Gates (2015), a video installation depicting gates from around my neighborhood in a never ending loop of opening and closing. The idea came from Dan Brown’s 2013 novel Inferno, wherein the heroine was in Manila and said, “Welcome to the gates of hell.” Now, because of [Rodrigo] Duterte, Manila is hell. I’m interested in how simple objects and images can create different kinds of energies, like a simple gate can be used to say you are welcome, but at the same time, you are not welcome. It represents this kind of boundary between public and private, and the divide between different classes. I wanted to explore this in a humorous way.

Humor is a very big part of my work—it’s a significant part of everyday life. [Slavoj] Žižek said you can only tell bad jokes to the ones you love; I only make jokes because I’m sincere about what I do. It’s tricky because many people say that we are now living in a time where you can’t tell if our world is a joke or reality. For example, Trump: is this a joke or a reality? Duterte? Is this a joke or reality? Humor is not for fun only, its a way to readjust the things around you. That’s why I make art: to understand myself and the people around me.

Chloe Chu is the associate editor of ArtAsiaPacific.

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