Friday, March 12, 2010

Lost in Translation

chaka adjusted
National Historical Institute chair Ambeth Ocampo, National Museum director Cora Alvina and chef Aleth Ocampo in Cha Ca La Vong, Hanoi, December 25, 2009

Cu Chi Tunnels
Tourists queue to fire assault rifles after a tour of the Cu Chi Tunnels.

On Christmas Day, I bumped into historian Ambeth Ocampo with his large family and National Museum director Cora Alvina in Hanoi, in a ramshackle, rickety restaurant called Cha Ca La Vong. The main dining area is on the second story, on a floor of wood boards that shakes from mere footfall. A massive altar is suspended on one wall; it heaves with brass urns choked with burnt out incense sticks. The green walls are so sooted over, the effect looks almost deliberate.

In most other instances, the setting would turn away people. But this is Cha Ca La Vong, 105 years old. Very few restaurants in the world survive to this age. Certainly, none of them survived on a single dish, as Cha Ca La Vong has.

There's only one item on the menu: fish. First bowls of fresh herbs and cold rice noodles are brought to you, then sizzling in a skillet over a live fire on paraffin bricks, collops of white fish in oil made yellow by turmeric. Into the skillet, you toss at will fresh chopped scallion and dill. When cooked enough for you, spoon the fried fish and veg onto white noodles, eat with fresh herbs and peanuts. Scrumptious.

For some of us, Cha Ca La Vong is one of the world's best restaurants, in that elite list of those worth traveling to find. Tragically, it seems many don't get it and think of it as a place that was built to trap their money.

"Total rip off," cries kimjennifer of the USA in a member review on the Lonely Planet's entry on the restaurant online. "Tourist rip off!!!" concurs singalingaling of Singapore, both of whom were in parties they say were charged VND (Vietnamese dong) 100,000 or over US$5, an exorbitant amount by Vietnamese standards.

As soon as you sit down, a member of the famously surly staff hands you a laminated strip of paper expressly declaring "We only serve one dish" at VND40,000 or a little over US$2.

"The place was awful," rues singaling. "And just imagine the carbon monoxide released from the tables with burning charcoal." "A fire trap!!" echoes wizemen2, who titles his entry "It's rubbish". Paying VND100,000 for food scraps worth maybe VND500 is to me a restaurant making hay while the sun shines," elaborates the latter. "Only twice the amount asked at this establishment for a feed of scraps will get you a fine buffet at a five-star hotel, with a range of over 100 different dishes, so how does that make sense?"

What doesn't make sense to me, however, is why wizemen2, singalingaling or kimjennifer should at all venture out of the five-star hotel where a celestial plenitude of food from all corners of the globe comprise the greatest value for tourist dollars. Indeed, why leave the first world at all?

For many travelers from the first world, the planet is kind of like Universal Studios, a series of vacated sets from some dramatic old story. It isn't really very moving as such—just a bunch of rubble or overgrown trees—but it's important for one's social standing to be able to say that one has been there. It's just really annoying when the service is bad, the staff doesn't understand you, it's hot and there are unexterminated bugs about.

Born only in 1975, Ho Chih Minh City recounts the violence that brought it into being in the War Remnants Museum, a restrained, fair and heart-breaking depiction of an unspeakably cruel and dishonorable war in photographs with brief captions. Just outside the city are the Cu Chi tunnels, the 121 km underground network that helped the Viet Cong defeat the Americans. The tunnels are a major tourist destination today. Bus loads arrive constantly and the hordes are led with great organization through various destinations along the network. The tour is factual, it does not belabor or proselytize.

It can be unnerving, however, because throughout you can hear nearby gunfire. At the end of the tour, you can buy a cartridge of M-16 bullets to fire in a shooting range with the drawing of a rabbit on paper as a target. Those bullets are frightening. They're huge and pointed, and it's easy to imagine them ploughing into live flesh.

"They should make the target an American," I said loudly. How some people glared. Surely by replacing the rabbit with a drawing of an American the history of the place would have been more frankly told, the lessons of history more viscerally reiterated. As it is, the white men gleefully make a beeline for the guns with their sons. "I shot the rednecks," I said again loudly after having photographed the line.

After the tour, the buses—all brand new and gleaming—like a Universal Studios caravan, wend their way to a nearby restaurant, a tile-roofed open-air structure in traditional archiecture in the middle of fish ponds. Many of the busloads go there just for a place to sit; lunch is brought to them in large styrofoam boxes containing oranges and apples, chips and deli sandwiches, while the rest of us enjoyed the restaurant's cuisine which included freshly caught fish from the surrounding ponds.

Lost in Translation, the title of this entry of The Philippine Spectator, comes from the name of a terrible film by Sofia Coppola, the daughter of Francis Ford Coppola, who once made a film about the Vietnam war in the Philippines. In Lost the protagonist Bill Murray mopes for days at the Grand Hyatt in Tokyo, unable to make sense of the natives, who all appear ludicrous, like bugs chattering senselessly.

Sunday, October 11, 2009

Dick it to Them

YESTERDAY evening, the art gallery Mo Space opened Stick it to the Enemy, an exhibit of stickers. The invitation asked guests to bring their own stickers. Manila's avant garde responded enthusiastically. In attendance: Jayson Oliveira, MM Yu, Poklong Anading, Lena Cobangbang, Pow Martinez, Louie Cordero, Romeo Lee, Ringo Bunoan, Pardo de Leon, and I cannot remember who else. Also there were photographers Frankie Callaghan and Paul Mondok, Green Papaya's Peewee and Donna Roldan, and of course Mo Space's David and Mawen Ong.

Mawen is herself an artist—her last show was at Greem Papaya—and it was part of the internationally acclaimed artist Manuel Ocampo's objective in bringing Fil-Am artists to the Philippines in July to show them an impossibility in the US, artist-owned galleries. In the Philippines, this includes not just Mo Space but Green Papaya and Mag:Net Katipunan. Atop the flagship of the designer furniture chain Mawen owns with David, Mo Space does not need or care to make a profit. As such, it is a bastion of the most experimental art.

At Stick it to the Enemy, the stickers ranged from the expressly vulgar to the labor-intensive and refined. There was a bunch of French kids sticking chewing gum into lacy patterns on the wall. With a wet hand, one of them grabbed me and said, "Look, I made this." Never one to discourage the making of art, I said, "Good job," despite the saliva on my arm. Someone had brought in a huge plant crawling with snails decorated with stickers. On a glass door, someone displayed a large cut-out sticker that looked like simultaneously like a cartoon and an abstract. It was a thrilling moment of communal creativity, a window of subversion that could be shared by adults and children alike.

One sticker was a picture of a vagina with lines pointing to its different parts identified under the image. Some of the artists were assigned different parts. Poklong had the pubis, Pow the clitoral hood. Misogynistic? Yes.

Pow is a great beauty. He looks like a Donatello--not the Ninja Turtle, you understand, but the Florentine sculptor of the Renaissance, the one who did the pedophillic David, the diametric opposite of Michelangelo's. Pow's stickers were all Filipino beefcake, guys in various states of undress  striking sultry attitudes. For guys like Pow, the beefcake represents the outer edge of their desire, the point of its abjection,

In their territorialization of the vagina, however, Poks, Pow and the rest of the gang were in a space Eve Kosofsky Sedgwick inventively called the homosocial.

"Tangina n'yo mga boys," said Lena as she and Donna ran down the stairs. She had passed the hat around for a booze run, and she found herself having to go do the buying herself.

Monday, October 5, 2009


 From top: Jericho Rosales, originally uploaded by mlq3; 'Jericho' by Barnett Newman, 106 x 112 1/2", acrylic on canvas.

JERICHO is a work of Barnett Newman, one of the greatest, most influential modernists. Although his work looked like pure abstraction, titles indicated a preoccupation with myth, notably Jewish lore. Vir Heroicus Sublimis (Man, Heroic and Sublime) is a key piece in the collection of New York's Museum of Modern Art. It is a huge canvas in blazing red with the artist's trademark vertical stripes (or "zips") running down at four intervals dividing the plane into almost-but-not-quite symmetrical patterns.

Jericho is most likely to refer to the ancient city in the Jordan plains, one of the oldest continuously inhabited settlements on earth. It is famous in the Christian and Jewish worlds for its walls being brought down by the trumpets and shouts of the Children of Israel under the leadership of Joshua after they emerged from 40 years in the wilderness after escaping Egypt. The story is told in the Old Testament in the Book of Joshua (1-6).

Before besieging the walled city, the Jews sent to spies who hid in the house of a prostitute ("harlot" in the King James version) named Rahab. She made them promise to spare her and her family when they took the city. The Jews killed everyone else in the city but spared her and hers and brought her to Israel.

And they utterly destroyed all that was in the city, both man and woman, young and old, and ox, and sheep, and ass, with the edge of the sword.
   But Joshua had said unto the two men that had spied out the country, Go into the harlot's house, and bring out thence the woman, and all that she hath, as ye sware unto her. (Joshua 6: 21-22)
 Newman's Jericho is "zipped" just a little off the middle, slightly to the right of the triangle's apex. It is then a little off kilter, so that it has innate instability, and at any moment might be knocked down.

Sunday, September 27, 2009

Coron, Mon Amour

Tagbanua youth guards the entrance to a freshwater lake on Coron Island.

ONLY HALF A CENTURY AGO Palawan remained at the very precipice of the Philippines, the destiny of lepers and hardened criminals. It later became the barrier of containment for the miserable fleeing tyranny in Vietnam, Laos and Cambodia. What has kept the province on the psychical outer edge of the archipelago, however, has helped make it today the preserve of an irretrievably lost world, a Philippine Shangri-la.
National carrier Philippine Airlines now has a regular flight to Busuanga, the principal northern island of Palawan. Previously, only Seair flew there. Increased demand for quick passage to this formerly remote destination—notably from foreign travelers—has put Busuanga on the commercial flight map.
Busuanga is part of the closely scattered Calamian group of islands. So far its chief attraction to the world outside has been for divers: the 12 Japanese ships sunk by the American Navy in its waters towards the end of World War II. In their ocean-bottom graveyards, the ships are cathartic, hair-raising places to swim through. But the islands—notably Coron, the ancestral domain of the indigenous Tagbanua—have many other attractions as well—paradisiacal and dramatic, once-in-a-lifetime, Bucket List destinations.

Friday, September 25, 2009

The heart is where it hurts, everywhere

Mabanengbeng is a small, agricultural barrio in the province of La Union. On rare occasions, they hold a dapil, a celebratory juicing of the sugar cane harvest. At a dapil I was invited to, the farmers had festooned the horns of the carabao pulling the mill for the cane with flowers and ribbons. Some of the women of the village sang songs. In the attached video, note how distinct the vocal effect striven for.

The chorus the women sing begins, "Anay, anay, pusok," which means, "Aray, aray, puso ko." I can't think of any sufficient way to translate that into English. A transliteration would be, "Ouch, ouch, my heart," which simply doesn't capture the plaintive elegance of the original. I think even the Tagalog translation sounds a little funny.

Some Filipino farmers have found a new use for outmoded video and audiotape--as substitutes for scarecrows. Unfurled, they shimmer when the wind and sun hit them.

On another farm in La Union, children employed the material in an installation. Twigs and audiotape, dimensions vary.

Tuesday, September 22, 2009

Like an Ejaculation

From top: Clay vagina by Julie Lluch; clay monster by Bathma Kaew-Ngok; National Artist Bencab with Wig Tysmans; collectors Hetty and Paulino Que with Duemilla gallery owner Sylvana Diaz.

It was over in what seemed like a flash. Yesterday's opening of The Ring of Fire, an exhibition of contemporary works of Southeast Asian ceramic artists, commenced with the smashing of a clay palayok filled with sampaguita. Then there was a dramatic crescendo of Edru Abraham's magnificent Kontra-Gapi band or Kontemporaryong Gamelang Pilipino, which fuses traditional kulintang music with electric guitars (bass played by crush-ng-bayan Ira Cruz), modern drum and synthesizer. Then the guests thronged the exhibit, enthralled by the range and artistry of the works in clay. Then it was all over. It was frenetic and celebratory.

Now that's a show.

Guests included National Artists Bencab and Arturo Luz, with respective partners Annie Sarthou and Tessie Luz, poetess Virginia Moreno, master photographer Neal Oshima, writer and style icon Karla Delgado Yulo, photographer Wig Tysmans, Ateneo Art Gallery director Richie Lerma, Lopez Museum director Cedie Lopez Vargas, collector Paulino Que with wife Hetty, Duemilla Gallery owner Sylvana Diaz, plus all the ceramic artists who participated in the exhibit, notably Jon and Tessie Pettyjohn, Hadrian and Camille Mendoza, Julie Lluch and Pablo Capati, among the Philippines based.

The show runs up to October 4 only, so plan on going soon.

Saturday, September 19, 2009

A Fine Evening in Hell

From top: Across the River Styx; Constantino 'Cos' Zicarelli

I REALLY wasn't invited to an event last night called Hell, which I thought was an art exhibit opening. (It was and it wasn't.) The night prior, at the opening of Geraldine Javier's sold-out exhibit, The Swank Style editor Jerome Gomez introduced me to artist Constantino Zicarelli. (By the way, we all know who bought the Javier worth P1.2 million. Tangina, ang laki pala ng sweldo.)Mr. Gomez told me that Mr. Zicarelli was opening his own show the following night.

At around 7pm yesterday, I was going crazy in the office. I texted Mr. Gomez if he was going to Mr. Zicarelli's opening, and, even though I am normally very punctilious about invitations, if I could go with him. Mr. Gomez replied in the affirmative. Although I had made a deliberate attempt to delay, I arrived at the event well before Mr. Gomez.

The venue turned out to be Mr. Zicarelli's own residence in Quezon City, a townhouse in a quiet neighborhood. The gate of the home was left open onto the street for the occasion. On the facade, in bold all-caps a backlit sign read: HELL, not the most neighhborly of welcomes, to be sure, although cheerily colored.

"Naku," Mr. Zicarelli greeted me. "Hindi ko alam na dadating ka. Nakakahiya!" The truth of the matter is it was I that should have been hiya for making the intrusion. Mr. Zicarelli explained that it wasn't really an opening but a marking of his birthdate a few days before, and that"HELL" was supposed to have been included in an exhibit at Mo Space but somehow failed to.

It might as well have been an opening because in attendance were many artists, collectors, writers, among them Jayson Oliveira, Poklong Anading and MM Yu, and the potter Pablo Capati.

On the front door was tacked a statement about the show by the artist's friend, Angelo Suarez:

Daddy, I have cum home

The religious who subscribe to the hegemony of heterosexuality maintain that gayness--especially upon the consummation of the "homosexual act"--can lead one to hell. Homophobics who find their way here, to Constantino Zicarelli's exhibition wherein the declaration that this is hell conceptually transforms his home into hell, should thus beware: It is likely they are standing next to a faggot.

I was so glad I came.

Mr. Zacarelli's Isabela-based Italian father, Mr. Zacarelli pere, happened to be visiting. I do not know if Mr. Zacarelli fils had the title formulated for the occasion, but I do know that he is not, as they sometimes say in the vernacular, "a gay." Mr. Zacarelli fils was once romantically paired with a beautiful artist, female. Together they made one of the most handsome couples in artlandia. That is not the evidence of course, but basta, as they say in Italian and Filipino, hindi siya bading.

Charming, solicitous, self-effacing and--above all--interesting, Mr. Zacarelli fils inhabits a Filipino heterosexual masculinity that can only be found in the world of art. The argument of course is based on the theory that there are a multiplicity of masculinities, ranged according to a hegemony.

Mr. Capati, whom I had the good fortune to fall into conversation with that evening, is another case in point. On one occasion, the potter who grew up in Japan served a tempura lunch for Mr. Gomez and me, in an orchard, on vessels he had made himself, with ground plum and Japanese pepper. Hitsura ni Martha Stewart.

I was glad I came, because apart from Mr. Gomez, what other faggot would everyone else be standing next to?