Mella Jaarsma in rare Manila performance art residency

INDONESIA PHILIPPINES PERFORMANCE ART RESIDENCIES

In light of her vast experience and the strength of her practice, multidisciplinary artist Mella Jaarsma, along with Melati Suryodarmo, Bea Camacho and Racquel de Loyola, was invited to take part in a performance art residency hosted by Manila Contemporary.

From left to right (All details): Bea Camacho, 'Enclosed II', 2010, video still; Racquel de Loyola, 'Mebuyan Project', 2007; Mella Jaarsma, 'The Trophy (Animals Have No Religion)', 2011; and Melati Suryodarmo, 'Alé Lino', 2003. Image courtesy of Manila Contemporary.

From left to right (All details): Bea Camacho, 'Enclosed II', 2010, video still; Racquel de Loyola, 'Mebuyan Project', 2007; Mella Jaarsma, 'The Trophy (Animals have no religion)', 2011; and Melati Suryodarmo, 'Alé Lino', 2003. Image courtesy Manila Contemporary.

Art residencies in Asia, particularly Southeast Asia, are relatively uncommon, and performance art residencies more so, making the Manila Contemporary initiative a notable move toward nourishing a vital field in contemporary art. Running from 4 May to 5 June 2011, the project was a first for the gallery, and was intended to facilitate dialogue, collaboration, and knowledge production within the practices of the participating artists, as well as performance art in the Philippines, Indonesia, and Europe.

Jaarsma’s contribution was a work called Animals Have No Religion (2011), which consisted of four elaborately constructed costumes that formed two pairs. The first pair was composed of satellite dishes, radio antennae and a type of coral traditionally used by fishermen in Indonesia and the Philippines to ward off evil spirits; red leather garments, from the sleeves of which wooden feet emerged, made up the second pair.

The residency included an artists’ talk and a workshop programme and culminated in an exhibition entitled “Absence“, which ran from 4 to 26 June 2011. Models wore Jaarsma’s costumes during the opening night while silently performing with the artist, whose actions included the consumption of pieces of dried mango that had been cut into animal shapes and placed on an overhead projector, casting beast-like shadows.

A pair of costumes made from satellite dishes, radio antennae, coral. From 'Animals Have No Religion' by Mella Jaarsma. Image courtesy of Manila Contemporary.

A pair of costumes made from satellite dishes, radio antennae, coral. From 'Animals Have No Religion' (2011) by Mella Jaarsma. Image courtesy Manila Contemporary.

In evaluating Animals, Philippine art writers expressed pleasure and a certain degree of befuddlement. Terence Krishna Lopez of Bulatlat.com said the work “gave … the impression of a theme park at a certain level,” while Aya Yuson of GMANews.TV said that it “raised questions that in turn raised our hackles” and “may even have questioned the absence of spirituality in a world of technology.”

Drawn from Jaarsma’s observations of religious life in the Philippines during the month-long residency, Animals investigates the relationships of human beings to other living things, particularly as expressed in worship and ritual. In some respects, visually and conceptually, Animals Have No Religion appears to resemble another of Jaarsma’s works, The Trophy (Animals have no religion), which was inspired by Raden Ayu Kartini, a Javanese aristocrat and pioneering women’s rights advocate who believed that the world would be more peaceful without religion.

A pair of costumes made from red leather and wood. From 'Animals Have No Religion' by Mella Jaarsma. Image courtesy of Manila Contemporary.

A pair of costumes made from red leather and wood. From 'Animals Have No Religion' (2011) by Mella Jaarsma. Image courtesy Manila Contemporary.

While Art Radar was unable to reach Jaarsma for comment on her residency experience, Eva McGovern, curator of “Absence” and the Head of Regional Programmes at Valentine Willie Fine Art (of which Manila Contemporary is a branch gallery), generously granted an interview, excerpts from which follow.

What drove Manila Contemporary to establish a residency for performance art? How does it tie in with the objectives of the gallery?

Manila Contemporary is known for supporting a wide range of artistic practices, including painting, drawing, sculpture, installation and video. We [also] try to support alternative and experimental activities as best as we can. [One of these is] performance art, [which] usually takes place outside of the gallery system, at festivals and other venues.

Manila Contemporary wanted to provide a platform for a wider and more gallery-based audience [to access] this rich and diverse medium, [as well as] to showcase the different approaches and breadth of experiences of the selected artists.

Both the gallery and the participating artists felt that it was a rewarding and positive experience [that led to the development of] new friendships. We are currently working on plans for another residency project in 2012.

Pieces of dried mango cut into animal shapes and placed on an overhead projector. From 'Animals Have No Religion' by Mella Jaarsma. Image courtesy of Manila Contemporary.

Pieces of dried mango cut into animal shapes and placed on an overhead projector. From 'Animals Have No Religion' (2011) by Mella Jaarsma. Image courtesy Manila Contemporary.

What is the state of performance art globally? How is performance art developing in the Philippines?

Like all practices that are not mainstream, the state of the scene is very much dependent on who is assessing it. … As with many alternative practices, visibility is always something that needs to be improved, and this can be achieved through exposure, promotion and critical discourse….

From my perspective, performance art in general [remains] typically on the margins because it demands more from an audience in terms of engagement,… [it] necessitates [greater] dedication and imagination…. In the Philippines, the scene is still growing and will hopefully go from strength to strength with more support from audiences, a greater frequency of events and sustained practice by artists.

What were some of the important issues concerning performance art that arose during the artists’ talk and the workshop programme?

An interesting point [that came up was that of the documentation of performance art]. Performance is time- [and site-]specific, and a piece is only truly experienced by those who are present while a piece is being performed. However, in order [to facilitate a wider] dissemination, an artist can video and photograph their work. This is an important consideration in terms of archiving and preservation; wider audiences, the media and art world professionals [will] have a resource to refer to when discussing an artist’s practice.

The quality of [the archive] is important in terms of capturing the essence of the performance. It may also function as a possible commercial product – in the form of editions, [for instance] – that can sustain the artist’s practice, … [which is not] traditionally commercially oriented.

This then led to a discussion on how to survive and sustain practice as a performance artist, and how to create useful documentation to footnote projects.

The crowd at Manila Contemporary during the opening night for "Absence". Image courtesy of Manila Contemporary.

The crowd at Manila Contemporary during the opening night for "Absence". Image courtesy Manila Contemporary.

How did the audience respond to the opening of “Absence” on 4 June 2011? More specifically, how did they react to Jaarsma’s Animals Have No Religion?

We were thrilled to have a full house on opening night, with audiences engaging with all the works with delight, curiosity [and], of course, with some hesitancy and confusion, [owing in part to the audience members’] immediate proximity to the performers.

Animals [Have No Religion], which involved Jaarsma and her models moving slowly throughout the space, proved interesting to witness in that people were forced to engage with the piece, or they tried to disengage in order to converse with one another.

Jaarsma’s work is a complex, provocative take by a distant observer on the nature of religion in the Philippines, a predominantly Catholic nation.

More on Mella Jaarsma

Jaarsma is a Dutch national who, with her husband Nindityo Adipurnomo, founded Cemeti Art House in Yogyakarta, Indonesia. Since 1988, Cemeti has actively promoted and stimulated practices in the contemporary Indonesian art scene and abroad through exhibitions, workshops, and residencies for artists, curators, writers, and researchers. Jaarsma’s work has also been shown widely both locally and internationally, and some pieces have been acquired for important public collections, such as the Singapore Art Museum and the Queensland Art Gallery in Australia.

JS/KN/HH

Related Topics: artist residenciesperformance art, Manila art venues

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