Arguably, one, if not the, strongest programs that Art Fair Philippines offers annually is its lineup of special projects. Each year, artists are invited to take charge of a special exhibition and hold a solo presentation. Previous iterations of the fair have scattered the special exhibitions with the gallery shows, yet for this year, all of the special exhibitions were on one floor, in dialogue with each other.
The 2019 fair special projects held a mix of young and senior artists. Some were tributes to artists that have passed, and most were a testament to a lively artistic career or potential. The featured artists for this year were Ray Albano, Fernando Botero, Ian Fabro, Olivia d’Aboville, David Medalla, Christina Quisimbing Ramilo, Mauro Malang Santos, Ryan Villamael, Oca Villamiel, Liv Vinluan, and MM Yu.
Much of this lineup was a draw to approach art as an act of participation. David Medalla’s work, A Stitch in Time, was an invitation to sew personal effects onto large suspended pieces of fabric; Christina Quisimbing Ramilo’s work Forest for the Trees was an archive of scrap wood arranged like a library, allowing people to scribble titles onto these pieces; Ray Albano’s Step on the Sand and Make Footprints was a simple command to leave a trace onto something as movable and ephemeral as sand in a carpark.
Amidst all of the large, impressive gestures of Boterisms or immersive installations, a quiet voice stood out the most. MM Yu’s Subject / Object was an unassuming, yet highly dense work that felt both familiar and unfamiliar. While other presentations felt like grand declarations, Yu’s work was a whisper, an open secret.
A narrative without words
For years, MM Yu’s practice has involved amassing visual archives of day-to-day life. Yu has extensively documented exhibitions and artists since the early 2000s. Her work entails compulsively documenting the mundane and everyday and it has since formed an expansive archive of transitional homes, landscapes, shops, and colors of the city.
Subject / Object proposes a “narrative on Philippine visual arts without words,” with Yu exhibiting countless documentation of artist studios alongside various found paraphernalia. She purposefully does not annotate each object or photograph, and as viewers we are left to guess who she had been visiting or who had owned what object. Looking through all she had shown, I found it amusing to recognize images of artists whose houses I had visited, or photographs of incomplete works that I had once seen already exhibited. While without any real direction or timeline, Subject / Object is more than the art history, but a documentation of friendships between her and artists, showing that these connections that make up the art world are composed of friendships built over years of collaboration.
Higher ticket price
Every Art Fair seems to host various kinds of discourse between the art world and the public. From critiques and commentary regarding taking selfies with the art, to “respecting” artwork, the discourse evolves every year that the fair is up. This year, there seems to be a focus towards understanding how to support local artists. Recent critique on the fair stems from the raising of ticket prices at more than half minimum wage. While this has turned off a number of people from attending the yearly event, many still consider their attendance an act of support—despite ticket sales not actually translating to concrete monetary support given to artists. Most of the time, galleries become the mediators between the Art Fair and the artists. These galleries are ultimately responsible for renting a booth at the fair for artists to be able to exhibit through them. Exhibiting artists do not receive the money spent on ticket sales, and neither do galleries.
Even more confounding is the difficulty shared by some artists to attend the fair at all. With heightened security, there have been reports of bouncers accosting and interrogating artists and art handlers trying to enter, despite having the appropriate IDs and documentation. This instance alone is telling of the fair’s unconscious biases and preferences. While some may claim that mere attendance to the fair translates to supporting local artists, it seems that there are clear dissonances between such ideas and the way that artists are being treated.
Perhaps this attitude in thinking of attending the annual fair to support artists is misdirected. Yu’s work reminds us that supporting artists is a commitment rather than a single, expensive gesture. Though not all of us are fortunate enough to have befriended and grown up with artists, it is better to express your support of artists through support of their initiatives (whether for profit or not) outside the grand Art Fair. Supporting artists lies especially in the support of their projects done apart from major institutions, through self-publishing, independent exhibitions, and more.
Yu’s Subject / Object is powerful because she shows relationships that take place and take shape in menial interactions. Anecdotes can be traced to the various objects on Yu’s shelf. Yu’s work is not about herself as a compulsive documenter. Her collection of photographs and objects express a gesture of dedication towards artists, and reminds us that Philippine art history is not about major market players, but about the artists and the community behind them that fuel it.