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2011-05-09
ROBERTO CHABET
Tony Godfrey

The opening of the exhibition “To be continued”at ICAS Singapore was a strange occasion. This was the first exhibition of Roberto Chabet outside the Philippines where he has lived and worked. Now in his 75thyear he was too ill to attend himself. The basement galleries of LaSalle College which are the largest spaces available to ICAS have never looked better: this was a beautifully installed show. The first thing one saw as one entered was a work composed of plywood panels painted blue and apparently collapsed between trestles: they sat there like butterflies, or like the waves of a sea in a Japanese print. Beyond that were clear, strong works: a row of 10 large coloured panels set out on a shelf, coloured panels with a flag made from camouflage material, a third work with a flood of red fabric on it and an upturned figure taking his shirt off. To the left another work had black panels and a black canoe sticking out into the gallery. There was no hesitation here: the works had the certainty and precision of a confident artist. As one eye scanned around at these and the other works beyond this seemed to be a clear artistic vision, a somewhat dry and austere one perhaps, but a very individual one.  

The opening was full of people enthusing; Charles Merewether director of ICAS made comparisons in his opening speech between his response to this show and the effect seeing the works of Malevich in the Stedelijk Museum had had on him. I bump into Geraldine Javier and she tells me she is so moved she wants to cry. Others seem equally moved... but then I start to have some problems. Doesn’t this work—a mirrored box with smaller mirrors inside it—look very much like the zero objects the Italian Michelangelo Pistoletto made in the early sixties? But this work of Chabet was made in 1994. As someone who has spent over thirty years going round museums and galleries in Europe and the U.S. I start to see a lot of echoes: of American Mel Bochner’s early works, or the plywood works of the German artist Imi Knoebel, works with neon by the Italian Pier Paolo Calzolari - all working in the seventies. I look at the dates of Chabet’s works here and they are in comparison all recent works from 1984 onwards.

Then I am told that all bar one of these works has been recreated by the curators and their team. That bothers me too. It’s not, of course, a new problem in conceptual art. This is not the first exhibition where the extent of remade early works has been a potential problem—Robert Morris’s 1994 retrospective at the Guggenheim or, more recently Marina Abramovich’s 2010 retrospective at MOMA are obvious examples. In theory it shouldn’t matter; after all, those key works of conceptual art, Duchamp’s Bicycle Wheeland Fountainof 1913 and 1917 are only known now through copies he had made many years later.

I watch as a large group of his ex students gather together for a photograph: they are all happy to do so. It is a bit like a school re-union. Standing in front of the 10 panelled work that gives the show its title this is also an homage to their absent teacher, like Henri Fantin Latour’s famous painted homages to Delacroix and Manet where like-minded artists gather round a portrait of the master. Indeed some of the panels in this remade work were painted by them (From left to right the panels were painted by MM Yu, Louie Cordero, Juni Salvador, Nona Garcia, Juan Alcazen, Hubert San Juan, Bembol De La Cruz, Mawen Ong, Bernardo Pacquing, Ringo Bunoan)

The thought strikes me that there is something very academic about this work: problems solved, clear statements, theoretical references. Could we describe it by that ghastly phrase “Teacher’s art”?

So, there I am in this exhibition that is being lauded by many people but feeling somewhat sniffy and undecided. On the one hand this show has come with a lot of hype: a long overdue revelation, he is the father of conceptual art in Philippines, etc. Being English, I do tend to react in a negative fashion to such grand claims, so perhaps therefore I am having doubts: I am concerned that the work is too derivative, that I am looking at copies, not the originals and that it is ultimately academic “teacher’s art”.

Perhaps above all I feel embarrassed—I attempted 14 years ago to write a book on conceptual art that had some degree of global coverage but I had not then heard of him. But neither was there any mention of him in the essay on Conceptual art in South and Southeast Asiathat Apinan Poshyananda wrote for the catalogue of the 1998 Global Conceptualismexhibition in New York. (And, one may add, there were no actual works from Southeast Asia in the exhibition: the region appeared just in the catalogue, probably as an afterthought.) Is there is a need for some substantial rethinking and rewriting of art history?

One of the key claims in that exhibition (which provocatively put Japan in pole position and gave art from North America the smallest of nine galleries) was that Conceptual Art happened differently in different places at different times. There was a delayed diffusion. Or else, one could put it that conceptual art was a response to a number of factors, an ossified modernist art establishment, a craving for communication, a distrust of the fetishized art object, political dissatisfaction, etc. It is the moment when art theory and art history come apart, when “the next thing” is no longer a formal shift but an ontological question: “what is art and why are we making it?”

Bearing this in mind certain aspects will reappear each time conceptual art happens: language, everyday materials (neon and plywood), work that can be remade and doesn’t rely on the “personal touch” of the artist. The press release for this show emphasizes that Chabet went to America: of course he was influenced by what he saw there, and of course what he taught his students was influenced by that. (If you know anything about English Art history this is not new: many artists came into their own only by going abroad and seeing a lot more art: Sir Joshua Reynolds in Italy in the eighteenth century; Sickert in Paris in the nineteenth. Travel, one could argue, gives you information, and information gives you power and freedom.) That he was a conduit for ideas from the U.S. is beyond contention. What is in contention and which this exhibition and its first sequel do not demonstrate is how much those and other ideas were transformed and recontextualized in Manila.  

First sequel? The next show in the ICAS truly was an homage or festchrift. (Festchriftare academic books in which a group of academics have each written an essay in honour of some esteemed elder colleague.) Thirty artists, all ex-students of Chabet at the University of the Philippines (UP) were included. This too was an elegantly curated show with beautiful works by Feliz Bacolor and Jet Melencio. As if echoing poetically the Chabet show properly Bacalor shows a Philippines flag fluttering from a broken flagpole in a fan induced wind while Melencio’s tables echoed the blue waves of Cargo and Decoy.Even as I write, another show of Chabet and another show of work by his ex-students have opened in Hong Kong. Eleven more Chabet shows follow these, all in the Philippines. This is a very curious way to present an artist overseas for the first time: with an exhibition that focuses solely on one aspect of his work, (his plywood pieces) with very substantial claims for his importance—‘widely acknowledged... most influential....highly regarded’ as the press release goes but with as yet no catalogue!

Is this approach purely because there is no exhibition space in Manila that had the space or facilities or will power to do the full retrospective exhibition that is clearly needed and justified? Or is this a more circuitous or lateral thinking process? Is this a way of seeing the work properly again for full reflective viewing? (Geraldine Javier wanted to cry because having seen all these pieces in small temporary spaces it was so grand to see them gathered together and well installed. It was like a long overdue reward for fifty years of hard and under-acknowledged work.) 

So, is the work derivative? It is influenced by earlier conceptual art, but would seem to involve both different variations, and adaptations to a different context. He has a unique voice—there is a dignity to his work, a forthrightness and an aesthetic calm. In the context of the Philippines it is clearly highly original. Do we have to rewrite art history? (Of course: we always have to rewrite art history.) Should it be included in global surveys of conceptual art? Or, in other words, if we are being asked to consider him as an artist whose importance goes beyond the Philippines, what do we say? Until we have the full documentation and have seen a broader range of work, especially earlier, I could not truly give an answer. In an exhibition of conceptual art seeing it as a global phenomenon yes, he has to be in; in an exhibition that looks at conceptual art via traditional art history chronology (e.g. who did what first) probably not—he is too late.

Does it matter that the work is remade? No. It was made with ready-made materials (plywood in the regular 4 by 8 size; the paint always came straight from the can). As always with such work the museum or collector is buying the research or patent, not the personal graphic marks of the artist.

Is it teacher’s art? Sure, it has the feeling of a demonstration, but that is a characteristic of much conceptual art. It is intelligent art: the figure in the work entitled Pierois from Piero Della Francesca’s Baptism of Christin London—it is a figure undressing in preparation to be baptised by Jesus. A curious and evocative quote—blown up to life size. Again the reference to cargo cults in CargoandDecoyis a rich one. But—and it is a big but—surely very few people get such arcane references without being told?  

I will allow myself a speculative generalization: the difference between Filipino and Indonesian art is due to, firstly Catholicism and secondly a greater knowledge of conceptualism for which Chabet is both a conduit and a highly articulate provocateur. In the early work of Jim Supangkat and F. X. Harsono the conceptual fixated on the political or ideological. In Chabet it is focused much more on the nature of art and art making. Does Filipino art start with Juan Luna or Roberto Chabet?

But these are speculations and questions: what is important about the exhibition is that it raises more question than it answers. My final questions would be “if he is truly so dominating a figure why aren’t all the younger artists trying to kill him off in true oedipal or agonistic fashion? Whatever happened to the anxiety of influence?” As with any festschrift there is no hint of criticism or counter argument.

Clearly we need to have a much better sense of how conceptual art entered Southeast Asia, how it transformed itself here and how it has influenced subsequent generations of artists. Clearly Chabet is an important figure, but whether he is the “King of Southeast Conceptual Art” is another matter. We need a lot more written information and debate. We don’t need an uncontested coronation, we need a good argument! (And I rather suspect Roberto Chabet would agree!)

 

Caption:

Roberto Chabet , Cargo and Decoy, 1989/2010, plywood

___________

Tony Godfrey is Director of MA in Contemporary Art Sotheby’s Institute Singapore. His most recent book Painting Today was published in November 2009 by Phaidon Press
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