Words in Art: How does Manuel Ocampo avoid alphabet soup?


CONTEMPORARY FILIPINO ART PAINTING COLLAGE TEXT

Art Radar spoke with the Filipino artist Manuel Ocampo on how he uses words and philosophy as a tool of expression in his paintings. In this interview, Ocampo also talks about the media and art critics, as well as how politics, religion and history play their roles in his art creation.

Manuel Ocampo, 'A responsibility in the name of ideas', 2000, acrylic on canvas. Image taken from artnet.com.

Manuel Ocampo, 'A responsibility in the name of ideas', 2000, acrylic on canvas. Image taken from artnet.com.

Manuel Ocampo on… Words in art

For this article we are exploring the use of text in contemporary art production. When did you start incorporating text into your works?

I got into painting via drawing cartoons as a kid. Actually I have been incorporating words in my work ever since I started exhibiting my paintings. I use multiple words and sometimes unfinished words and letters.

Could you tell me what language means to you? What about the written word?

Language is a means to communicate and the written word is a form of language. Making art is a way to communicate in a specialised way. In some sense, in painting there is a collision between word as image or word as text. But also in painting when one is using text or words they become a formal element that turns into an ornament.

To follow on from that, what does language and the written word mean to your work?

Well, the written word in my work acts in many ways. Sometimes it is used as an ornament and sometimes it is used to inform the viewer about the work. Sometimes it is used to contradict the images within the painting or critique it. I use it to disrupt the pictorial convention of a painting so that the viewer is deceived into thinking that the words can make it more accessible for the brain to catch up with the eye to understand the work. In other words, my paintings are like puzzles wherein the viewer must make up his or her own solutions.

Do the elements of line, colour and texture in your work have anything to do with how or why you choose the text you do?

Actually, they don’t. Words are formless to begin with. It’s only later in the process of their inscription that they gain character and express the body where they [once] belonged – as an utterance. Once this happens, this event, this transmogrification, then we’re in the realm of creation, and thus of mysticism as well. It’s all gone to hell after that….

How do you choose the words that you use for your works? Do they come from, explain or relate to Filipino history: religious, political or philosophical?

They come about rather unexpectedly, surprisingly and unplanned, through a rigorous invocation of being … a mere thought…. What I mean is, they are a by-product of the artistic process, like a long forceful wind that releases imprisoned spirits. Since the origin is somatic, wherever my body is the words become part of that context.

Manuel Ocampo, 'Dolor de Muelas', 1991, oil on canvas, diptych. Image from artnet.com.

Manuel Ocampo, 'Dolor de Muelas', 1991, oil on canvas, diptych. Image from artnet.com.

Your works have been called dark and apocalyptic and reference Catholicism, politics and colonialism. Do you agree with the critics and media who say this about your work? Do you think any of these references come through in your choice of words?

When I choose to make paintings with a limited palette of black and white, people tend to think that I’m being Gothic. But it’s really just about stressing the materiality of the medium. I like to pare down my means, sometimes in order to reduce painting to the level of drawing so that the image won’t get too heavy [with the weight of meaning]. I prefer this economy of means in contrast with symbols, which by de facto are laden with meaning. But in the tension that follows something else happens. Perhaps this is where the politics begins, and so wherever politics rears its ugly head, all our subjective baggage follows, [including] our social interests. But you have to look at it at the material level first, where all politics begins. To avoid a conflict of interests, critics really need to ask artists first before making questionable judgements. As was [once] said, seek and you shall find.

Do you see yourself as part of a group of artists who deliberately use text in their art to get their message across?

In terms of language, there was a philosopher who said, ‘Language is nigh impossible to escape from. It is an indispensable condition of being in the world.’ ‘And so we are caught in the prison house of language,’ said another. So using texts to escape from language, as to turn on itself, becomes another tool in the utility belt of the ultimate escape artist.

How does your use of painting and collage as a medium relate to your use of words?

The medium allows the ineffable to gain the form of meaning. Otherwise, there is only chaos.

Manuel Ocampo on… Artworks

  • Karl Marx Ejaculating (1996)
  • Dear Satan, it’s time to kill God’s son again. XXX. (2001)
  • Ha ha, What does this represent? Ha ha, What do you represent? (2002)
Manuel Ocampo, 'Karl Marx Ejaculating', 1996, oil and varnish on canvas. Image courtesy the artist.

Manuel Ocampo, 'Karl Marx Ejaculating', 1996, oil and varnish on canvas. Image courtesy of the artist.

In the 1990s you created Karl Marx Ejaculating, a painting which contained German words such as “blut”, “zeit”, “aesthetic” and “ideenkreis”. What inspired the use of these words?

I forget specifically where the German words came from but if I can remember correctly they came from an Oskar Schlemmer painting, a German painter from the Bauhaus.

The white paint splattered all over the canvas represents the ejaculation. From the ejaculation come all these words like labels on top of microscope slides. I just wanted to present an absurd image in a specific period in history when modernist painting was severely disrupted, and one can think of the whole scope of the Second World War which led to the eventual failure of the modernist grand narrative. Marx and Germany were protagonists in this eventual decline.

An example from your works containing only words is Dear Satan, it’s time to kill God’s son again. XXX. What inspired you to create this work? Why did you choose the text that you did?

Using text is a striptease act that plays with the promise of an engaged communion ending, rather, in the embarrassing shape of limp non-realisation. It is like an attempt towards transcendence that leads only to going down in flames. [The text acts as a] reminder to eliminate what confuses, to get back into being real.

Ha ha, What does this represent? Ha ha, What do you represent?, from 2000, also contains only words. Can you explain the inspiration behind this work?

The text is an appropriation on the comedy of errors between interpretation and intention, where laughter is used to conceal discomfiting moments of incomprehension.

Manuel Ocampo, 'Haha, what does this represent? Haha, what do you represent?', 2002, oil on canvas. An example of the artist's use of words as image. Image courtesy the artist.

Manuel Ocampo, 'Haha, what does this represent? Haha, what do you represent?', 2002, oil on canvas. An example of the artist's use of words as image. Image courtesy of the artist.

Manuel Ocampo on… General art creation

What are you trying to achieve or communicate through your art?

It is a misunderstanding that art needs to communicate, or is about communication. It is our hapless attitude to place subjective attributes to things inanimate, or give meaning to nothing. It’s such a wonder no one else has been crucified.

What experience do you want people to take away from your work? How do you want people to feel and think when viewing your works?

It is quite impossible for me to predict [moreover] dictate how viewers should react to my work. That would be unfashionably bad and sad. There is always a probability that a joke can be misconstrued as an insult, and vice versa. So a work of art is like love, you take it for what it is, warts and all, as beauty belongs in the eye of the beholder.

Do you only draw your inspiration from politics and religion? Or do you take it from elsewhere?

Don’t get me wrong, politics and religion have never been my bedside companions. They are just hitch-hikers on my way to the studio. And the road to the studio can have many bifurcating paths, meandering like a cat, to make the journey to become what all this is about.

How long does it take to create a typical artwork? How long did it take to create your largest work? Your smallest?

I actually don’t think in terms of measured time when I make work. It’s not like going to the office and punching time cards because the process is always going back and forth [in time], making and unmaking, waiting and doing. And so in the end, when the work can be said to be actually done, you feel somewhat reborn again, only after suffering many deaths.

Critics have said that your earlier works were made to examine Western colonialism through allegory and metaphor, but that now your works display simple imagery. Do you agree with this statement? What do your later works reflect on?

The most simple of things can be the most complex. This goes back to my preference for [using an] economy of means to get the point across rather quickly. We are now at [such] an advanced stage in artistic thought and means of production that we don’t really need to pussyfoot on conspicuous craft, received ideas, or shallow strategies. Naivete can also be used as a weapon.

Manuel Ocampo, 'Counter wish of the exotic', 2010, acrylic and varnish on canvas. Image from artnet.com.

Manuel Ocampo, 'Counter wish of the exotic', 2010, acrylic and varnish on canvas. Image from artnet.com.

Why do you work with both painting and collage?

Well, painting is a compressed surface containing all expressions of being, while collage, on the other hand, is a dimensional addition to an otherwise surface expression.

What emotions do you think your paintings evoke?

I don’t know what emotions they would evoke but I’m out to conjure up certain ironic statements as to the predicament of art in the beginning of this century.

Will you continue to work with text in your art practice?

I’ve always imagined doing a project with text where the composition is not dictated by a consciousness, to get rid of authorial mandates and emancipate meaning from administered use. But then I worry that it might just turn into alphabet soup.

More on… Manuel Ocampo

Manuel Ocampo was born in Quezon City, part of Metro Manila in the Philippines, in 1965, and he lived in the country until the age of twenty, spending one year at the University of the Philippines. Los Angeles became his next home, and he lived there for ten years, attending California State University in Bakersfield for six months before dropping out of school altogether.

His parents were supportive of his artistic ability. His father, a writer, would “bring me art books all the time” and his mother “encouraged me to draw.” He didn’t accept that he was an artist, however, until he “started exhibiting in galleries regularly.”

Manuel Ocampo, 'The Holocaustic Spackle in the Murals of the Quixotic Inseminators III', 2010, oil on canvas. Image taken from artnet.com.

Manuel Ocampo, 'The Holocaustic Spackle in the Murals of the Quixotic Inseminators III', 2010, oil on canvas. Image taken from artnet.com.

Strangely, his proudest moments are not connected to the artwork he has produced but to his curating experience. In this interview, Ocampo stated,

I am proud of two shows I curated, one in Berlin and one in Manila. The Berlin show was called “Bastards of Mirepresentation“. It was a group show of fourteen Filipino artists. And the other show was called “Painting with a Hammer to Nail the Crotch of Civilization“. It was a show of wall paintings with tattoo images which the participating artists contributed.

He continues,

Sometimes I think I have changed [in my art practice] and sometimes I am still doing the same thing as I was doing twenty years ago. I am far busier now and I am more involved with practices outside the studio such as running a gallery and curating as well as collecting and being active in the art scene here in Manila.

Click here to read Uplands Gallery’s extensive collection of biographical details on Manuel Ocampo.

Philip Rodriguez has directed a one-hour documentary about Ocampo, Manuel Ocampo: God is my copilot, which chronicles the artist’s rise to popularity and his mistrust of the art world that embraced him.

Watch an excerpt from the documentary (1m:09s) below or on YouTube.


About our “Words in Art” interview series

We have already spoken with Indian new media collective Raqs. Who will we be profiling next? It could be any one of the following artists: Sujata Bajaj (India), Wenda Gu (China), Josephine Starrs (Australia) or Hung Keung (Hong Kong). To find out more about what these artists have to say about words in art, please continue to follow our series over the coming weeks.

We would like readers to note that we hope to provide an insight into, rather than a comprehensive study of, the feature of words in art. Also, as we are focusing on a specific geographical area, Asia, we realise that this in no way represents a world-view of the concept and we welcome comments from readers regarding the use of text and words by artists living and creating in areas outside of the Asian region.

So, tell us what you think about the use of text and words in contemporary art. Go on, leave a comment below.

JAS/KN/HH

Related Topics: words in art, interviews, Filipino artistsdefinitions

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