By Cindy Yeo
Walking from one screen to another in Ryan Trecartin’s installation, I hear faint strains of a familiar song. Initially, I attribute it to the various headphones around the room, or the speaker in the corner. Further observation denies both hypotheses; the speakers play softly sounds of explosion while the headphones emanate the nasal, modified pitch of the characters’ voices in the Trecartin videos. The music must be from another work then. The curator should really note the sound contamination, I think to myself before wandering towards the other room, like a snake under the hypnotic spell of my charmer. The strangely familiar music—what song is this? I know I know it—has managed to pique my curiosity.
A short, narrow hallway separates the two rooms. A warning that the exhibit is graphic in nature and the text that precedes it give me certain expectations. Yet, drawing closer to the doorway, the outline of a human figure standing before a garish hot pink wall gives me an increasing sense of foreboding. No text or warning can prepare me for what I am about to see upon entering the room.
My first reaction is one of shock and horror. Barely three steps into the room and I am surrounded by three sculptures of male human figures with what could possibly be hundreds of weapons stuck into their bodies, and wounds with flesh and bones sticking out (and is that a part of brain I see?). I physically recoil in disgust and horror, immediately exiting the room to re-read the text (I was always the squeamish type). Upon the second reading, the pieces appear to fit, and I bravely take the plunge again, with the company of a friend. I am almost tempted to just walk away and forgo this installation, but the spell of the charmer is not broken, merely disturbed. More than often, we find ourselves drawn towards what disturbs us the most.
The horror does not go away upon my second entry. Careful to keep my distance from the sculptures, as if afraid one of them might come to life and attack me, I examine the room. Paintings hang on the walls; a videoke machine stands towards the far corner. One of the ‘men’, whom I didn’t notice immediately, looks like he’s been flung against the wall; another is flat on his back; another stands defiantly in the middle of the room; the last—and the nearest to the entrance—is on all fours, with a hand outstretched, as if reaching out to me for help. Every one of them has a variety of objects stuck into (or sticking out of) their bodies, as well as multitudes of lacerations. They appear to be either in the throes of death, or zombies come back to life to seek redress for a brutal injustice. Clearly, the concept of zombies is not surprising as nothing evokes horror more effectively than things that refuse to be killed. As the text suggests, they represent the victims of the “My Way” killings.
The artwork is based on a backdrop of violence in the Philippines, specifically an urban myth about a spate of killings sparked off by anger towards poorly-sung renditions of the Frank Sinatra hit, “My Way”. It sounds absurd to me at first, but further research will confirm the severity of this issue to a Filipino, especially in a country where karaoke is one of the nation’s favorite pastimes.
Although it is hard to take my eyes off the grotesque figures, I slowly start to take in the surroundings and see the intricacies that lie behind the artwork; this artist does not solely rely on the shock factor to get his message across. I can walk away and choose some other piece to explore more closely, but co-existing with my repulsion is an intense fascination. Many incongruities exist within the artwork, and it soon becomes a pleasure to spot and marvel over them.
The glaring pink walls and bright lights seem almost inappropriate to the brutality presented within the room. Yet, is the very installation not a spectacle? Cordero does very well to make the audience complicit in the horror he presents, and that is what many political commentaries seek to achieve. By deriving pleasure from its aesthetic quality, viewing it as an artwork rather than a real issue to be addressed, we have made ourselves accomplices to the absurdities that go on in Filipino society, despite the geographical distance. This also reflects the subject matter—American pop culture has traversed physical boundaries to poison the minds of the Filipinos.
Cordero’s desire to make us all complicit is apparent. The title of the work, My We is neither just a play on the title of the Sinatra tune, nor merely a mockery of the Filipino accent. It puts the emphasis on community, on “we”. He separates himself from neither killer nor victim, and we are unable to do so as well. Not all the weapons that adorn the bodies of the men are what we consider conventional weapons. They include broomsticks, plungers, toilet brushes… Anyone can be the killer; men, women, rich, poor, there is no distinction.
Other than the graphic treatment of the human figures, traces of aesthetic beauty that are easier on the eyes and mind are visible. Various paintings hang on the wall, a reminder that we are still in a museum, still involved in the whole spectacle, and that even the most grotesque representation of an eyeball hanging out of a socket can be art. Forcing myself to look more closely at the battered men, I realize that my initial disgust was hasty. What the scars and lacerations on the bodies expose is not blood and gore, but bursts of pretty colors. What Cordero, like many great artists through the course of history, challenges is the very subject of beauty itself—can aesthetic beauty reside within (literally in this case) the disturbing, grotesque and downright ugly?
The videoke machine is the most interesting thing about the exhibit. It stands by itself in a corner, yet it is the most essential element. The screen shows Filipinos at a karaoke, singing badly to “My Way”, as one would expect. However, there is one part of the video where we get a karaoke version of the song, with words flashing across the screen. It’s an invitation—we, too, are welcome to sing. Noticing the microphone at the side of the machine and later realizing that it actually works is a fun moment. I am still slightly too discomforted by the exhibit to touch anything, but my friend gamely picks up the microphone and gives it a whirl (try only if you are alone in the room). We dissolve into laughter, and realize how sonorous the room is. Our laughter echoes; perhaps we should not be enjoying ourselves at the expense of such a serious subject. After reading news reports of the killings in retrospect, I realize that it is indeed meant to provoke our thoughts and emotions, as the urban myth has impacted Filipinos so greatly that karaoke bar owners have removed the song from their selections entirely. Yet, in another country, we can easily pick up a microphone in public (an art museum, no less) and massacre a song as cruelly as we wish, without a second thought.
The design of the machine, however, is incongruous with the bits of momentary amusement it might bring. The skulls that adorn the side of it seem more appropriate on the covers of heavy metal albums than on a harmless videoke machine. It reminds us how something we see as innocent and fun can bring about violence and death.
For the ignorant, uninvolved Singaporean student, it is a progressive journey in one artwork. I pass from repulsion to acceptance, to amusement, and then to an understanding and appreciation of its finer details. This one work illustrates the point that art critic Lee Weng Choy made about the Biennale—that it requires from us time; time to fully examine and appreciate it. My We is an artwork through which one can be a part of and gain experiences; it is truly admirable.