Re-imagining the future with Filipino artist Mark Salvatus – interview

Mark Salvatus is taking Filipino art from the streets of Manila to an international future. 

Known for his site-specific interventions and ingenious use of materials, Filipino artist Mark Salvatus opens up about his practice and his view of contemporary art in the Philippines in an interview with Art Radar.

Mark Salvatus, 'True Color', 2012, inkjet on archival paper, 11.69 x 16.54 in. Image courtesy the artist.

Mark Salvatus, ‘True Color’, 2012, inkjet on archival paper, 11.69 x 16.54 in. Image courtesy the artist.

Philippine roots, looking at the stars

Filipino artist Mark Salvatus consistently tackles issues of urbanism and everyday politics through works of diverse media, ranging from drawing, photography, video and installation to interactive projects. Co-founder of ephemeral street art group Pilipinas Street Plan (2006) and of 98B Collaboratory (2012), he is deeply involved with creating avenues for grassroots art movements to flourish.

Manila-based Salvatus received the prestigious 2012 Thirteen Artists Award of the Cultural Center of the Philippines, the 2012 Sovereign-Schoeni Art Prize in Hong Kong, and the 2010 Ateneo Art Award. His works have been included in numerous exhibitions all over Asia, Europe, USA and Australia, and are part of several significant collections such as that of the University of Santo Tomas Museum of Arts and Sciences (Manila), the Ateneo Art Gallery (Quezon City, Philippines), Asian Cultural Complex (Gwangju, South Korea) and the Vargas Museum of the University of the Philippines (Quezon City). He has been awarded with several residencies, the most recent ones being Bamboo Curtain Studio reciprocal residency grant in Taipei (2012), Art OMI International Artist Project Grant in New York (2011) and La Trobe University Visual Arts Grant for emerging artists in Victoria, Australia (2011).

Art Radar sat down with Mark Salvatus to learn more about the behind-the-scenes workings of a prolific artist, rooted in his history but with his sights set on progress and on uplifting the image of Filipino artists in the international sphere.

Mark Salvatus in Melbourne, Australia, 2010. Image courtesy the artist.

Tell me about yourself. What made you decide to pursue art?

I am originally from Lucban, Quezon, and studied Advertising at the University of Santo Tomas. I’ve always known I wanted to be an artist. My town has influenced me to see things differently, but Manila provided me with a wider perspective. Its urban setting has been a source of fascination for the longest time.

You said that your town influences you, but how exactly does that show in your works?

Now that I’ve matured, I don’t think it shows as much anymore. It’s more of the initial influence that exposes you to the different kinds of small town creativities, like the Pahiyas Festival. If at all, it’s in how I’m drawn to community-based projects since I’m from a small town.

You also said that you already knew from when you were a kid that you wanted to be an artist. How and when exactly did you become sure? Were your parents artists as well?

My parents weren’t into the arts, as supportive as they were of me. Since we’re from a small town, museums weren’t exactly accessible either. I’d say my first exposure to art was through colouring books, which I thoroughly enjoyed. Add that I wasn’t particularly good in maths (laughs). I know that people still change when they grow up, but I was just really focused on becoming a visual artist. I sometimes dabbled in other things, but I always went back to it. There was no pivotal point. I was just sure of myself.

Not a lot of kids, or adults for that matter, are that focused. Can you tell me more about how your advertising background has influenced your work as an artist?

Advertising is a totally different discipline from studio arts. What I liked about advertising is that you work with a problem. You are sending or presenting a message to a target viewer. You don’t just think of yourself but also your audience: in the case of advertising, the consumer. Advertising is also more straight-to-the-point. When you go into studio arts, the focus is in learning the traditional ways of making, such as painting and sculpture. But in advertising, your training is more in problem solving. Since it’s something that I didn’t really pursue, these skills are not applied to clients but more on the personal and social issues that I tackle.

Mark Salvatus, ‘My Farmville, Hacienda’, 2010, lightbox, 9 x 17 in. Image courtesy the artist.

Mark Salvatus, ‘My Farmville, Hacienda’, 2010, lightbox, 9 x 17 in. Image courtesy the artist.

Speaking of issues, your works, although never aggressive, always seem to be quite political. Is there a particular issue that you see yourself always going back to?

Every day in the Philippines is political, in the sense that everything around you is connected to something bigger than the individual. I use everyday objects and experiences to present my work in a new context. If presented in a subtle yet humorous manner, these familiar objects or experiences, that are often taken for granted, become think-pieces for issues. So I basically play with familiarity and create a discourse around it by providing a different meaning.

Mark Salvatus, ‘Model Unit’, 2012, hollow blocks and sound, Cultural Center of the Philippines. Image courtesy the artist.

Mark Salvatus, ‘Model Unit’, 2012, hollow blocks and sound, Cultural Center of the Philippines. Image courtesy the artist.

You seem to discuss a variety of topics in your works. Is there something that ties all these projects together?

More than similarity of style, medium or topic, the connecting factor throughout my projects is my process. I’m more discourse-based. The goal is to create discourse using mere everyday materials. For instance, the use of cement blocks in my recent exhibition at the Cultural Center of the Philippines, I incorporated different layers: there’s the socio-political, since I’m talking about capitalism or urbanism; then there’s the personal aspect which tackles the idea of aspiration of an individual. The work itself can be considered an installation or something site-specific or interactive. But unlike the traditional ways of creating, these different layers allow discourse. It is also automatic for me to consider the location of the work, whether it be in a gallery or a mall or a field. I always look at it as a part of the work itself.

And this is the personal aspect to your works?

Yes, because it’s what I’m exposed to now that I’m living in the city. So that’s probably the main grounding for all my works, since artists work with their immediate surroundings. I don’t really want to call it reactionary but it’s a reaction.

Mark Salvatus, 'Model City', 2012, multi-media installation, cut-outs from collected property developer brochures, CCTV camera, audio and single channel video projection. Image courtesy the artist.

Mark Salvatus, ‘Model City’, 2012, multi-media installation, cut-outs from collected property developer brochures, CCTV camera, audio and single channel video projection. Image courtesy the artist.

Click here to watch Mark Salvatus’s video ‘Model City’ on youtube.com

Going back to the topic of your process, since your materials are very specific to your projects, I’d like to know, does the project dictate the material or the other way around?

First, I consider the context or the concept and the material follows. I just look around for the materials and I play with the medium. For example, my series on the Model Unit (shown at the Cultural Center of the Philippines, 2012) and the Model City (shown at the Ateneo Art Gallery, 2013) work with the same theme expressed in different materials. The focus is urbanism and how you see things in the city. So discourse is not only for particular exhibitions, but an ongoing process.

Mark Salvatus, 'Haiku', 2012-2013, Duratrans lightbox, video and sound, Art Basel Hong Kong 2013, The Drawing Room Contemporary Art. Image courtesy the artist.

Mark Salvatus, ‘Haiku’, 2012-2013, Duratrans lightbox, video and sound, Art Basel Hong Kong 2013, The Drawing Room Contemporary Art. Image courtesy the artist.

Click here to watch Mark Salvatus’s video ‘Haiku’ on vimeo.com

There was also Haiku, a video of collected photographs of graffiti tags, which was shown alongside Model City at the Ateneo Art Gallery. Can you tell me more about it?

Graffiti has a goal: to present their works on the streets, as a form of empowerment. Since I have a background in street art I collected these graffiti texts. For me, it’s like a talking wall. Putting it in the style of a slot machine we encounter them randomly, as in when we pass by them in our daily lives. It’s poetry. It might be nothing on the wall, but when presented as a video or through photography, it becomes more.

Let’s go back to when you were doing graffiti yourself. What was your main motivation? Perhaps that can shed some light on why you call it poetry.

I started being a street artist because it was hard to find venues for my projects. Galleries were not yet ready to show my works, especially before when street art wasn’t that accepted. So it’s not mere ego or territoriality, it’s more putting your work in front of a wider audience. That’s how this idea evolved and why we started Pilipinas Street Plan.

Pilipinas Street Plan (PSP): how and why did it start?

It was in 2006, me (BoyAgimat) together with Okto and Def started an idea of forming a community of street artists, a way of presenting street art in Manila and the Philippines. We were thinking of the possibility of changing the urban aesthetic of Metro Manila, at the time that MMDA (Metro Manila Development Authority) was colouring the whole city in bright pink. Pilipinas Street Plan was also aimed towards empowering artists to present their ideas in public, side by side with images of corporate brands and faces of politicians. Before we knew it, it then became a movement that inspired different collectives to create their own activities. PSP archives street art through its blog. They also do talks, workshops, events and exhibitions.

BoyAgimat tag on the streets of Manila. Image courtesy the artist.

BoyAgimat tag on the streets of Manila. Image courtesy the artist.

 Do you still do graffiti? What are the collective’s current or future projects?

PSP is still very active and doing different activities in different cities around the country. Now, Jood, another street artist, is the one coordinating different activities of the collective. The main goal is to form a community, which isn’t as in demand now because a lot of new collectives have started as well. Personally, as an artist who started in the streets, I moved on to the next phase of my endeavors. I think my works need to mature and explore more,  but it doesn’t mean I forgot all about it. Like with the “Wrapped” project, which is rooted in my beginnings in graffiti, as it is focused on making a mark. I wanted to insert a new way to make it more valid and discursive, especially in the process of inviting people into the circle.

Mark Salvatus, ‘Wrapped: Koganecho’, 2011, Voices of Town: Koganecho Bazaar, Parallel event of Yokohama Triennale 2011. Image courtesy the artist.

Why was the project called “Wrapped”?

It came from the idea of preserving memories, but at same time highlighting the project’s being temporary. It is also about collecting and archiving personal materials from different people. It can also be seen as coming from cave paintings, which shows how drawing on walls is something every organic and natural for humans. One can’t expect everyone to be open to writing on the wall, so my project is an invitation to do so. You initiate a process and provide a venue for ideas to be explored.

98B COLLABoratory at their space in Escolta. Image courtesy the artist.

How about 98B COLLABoratory? Can you tell me how it started?

98B is the address of my studio apartment in Cubao. It started with friendship. We are now twelve in the team with diverse backgrounds in visual art, design, music and literature. It started as a gathering. The idea was to have a place where artists can hold different types of events, be it a talk, a bazaar or a simple dinner. In short, I opened up my studio to weekly events and possible collaborations. This is why we also have the COLLABoratory or a laboratory/space to work together. My wife and I thought of this as an alternative venue in presenting art that can be considered more like home. Last July 2012, we moved to a new space in Escolta. We still have a library, shop, monthly market and artist talk, and a residency programme, among other things.

Saturday Market organized by 98B in Escolta. Image courtesy the artist.

So far, you have initiated two community-based organisations. Is it because you think there is a need for it, especially in such market-oriented times?

I definitely think it’s essential. 98B has worked with various initiatives like Green Papaya, Sipat Lawin and Planting Rice. But it really depends on the individual artists if they want to get involved in the community. Most of us in 98B also came from other artist collectives, like Tutok, Artists Arrest and Pilipinas Street Plan, so as is it gave us a perspective on how communities and artist initiatives work. My only observation is that now there is no struggle anymore for artists. Before there was that crucial questioning after schooling: what should I do? Where should I go? There seems to be no need to form a group or a support system nowadays.

Just to play devil’s advocate, can you really blame these kids? It’s not like they chose to be born when there are more galleries and everything is more accessible.

But they can choose to know and do better. It’s really different, because now it’s really the market dictating the art world. The market is as important as it supports and sustains one’s practice. But if the artist’s focus is in creating good works and not in pleasing the market, only then will great things come. It will not be easy but it’s more rewarding.

I believe there’s a timeline to things, be it in art, society or life in general. And the community just responds to that need. That’s why we started 98B. It’s currently overwhelming that there are so many galleries, but we continue to look for a place where we can just share and talk about art and everything in between. A community is something very raw, very organic, very grassroots, and so much can be done through that. Even we were surprised how international curators, institutions and individuals contact us for projects, research and collaborations. Perhaps because it’s more honest and grounded.

Speaking of trends, where do you think the Philippine art scene will be in three years? Will it be more community-based or more market-oriented?

I’m not sure about the term “trend” since the term implies the market more than anything, but I get what you mean. Based on my observation, it can be  exciting but scary at the same time. I think market-wise it will continue to grow because of the interest at the moment, but as history has informed us, we might fall into over-saturation or overproduction. And then it will be time to assess the entire situation, particularly the quality of works produced and how art from the Philippines is represented.

For me, in the next three years, Philippine contemporary art will be more represented globally. Filipino artists are traveling more, doing residencies and participating in international exhibitions and biennales. Local galleries are also well represented in art fairs. Also, there are more young curators and art writers. Local collectors also help the local art scene with their support. All these alongside artist-run initiatives and community-based projects take part in making what the scene is today.

But who dictates how Philippine art is represented abroad?

I think artists should dictate where it should go next. But then again, in the latest top 100 most powerful people in the art world, the list was mostly dominated by collectors and gallerists. Curators only came fifth and artists are I think even tenth. So really, at the moment, the market is really powerful. Not to say that’s not useful, as we need the market to sustain the flow of production. But maybe we need to educate ourselves more about it.

But who would do the educating? Where is the community supposed to look for hope, so we avoid making the same mistakes as our predecessors?

I think it really comes down to community-based groups, simply because they are the producers. And I’m really happy about 98B, because we started without money. As much as possible we want to be sustainable by doing different projects and working with different disciplines, but only when everyone’s more focused on what the vision and mission is. For 98B, it’s to make art more accessible, but in presenting it in an alternative manner.

Talks at 98B COLLABoratory in Escolta. Image courtesy the artist.

Do you think there is a negative side to all this?

I don’t think so. The only thing that I think will hinder all this progress that we are aiming for, is in how the individual is somehow sacrificed when the focus is solely on the community. There have been a lot of artist initiatives, but when the careers of the individual start blooming the tendency is to focus on their own practices. So that’s what we’re very focused on at 98B: how will we survive and be sustainable? This is why we made 98B into 98B COLLABoratory, which means its focus is not on the art but the community and team building itself. It just so happens that most of us are artists. We try to incorporate as many creative projects that tackle business and architecture, which are far from just fine arts.

Is the community really strong where you grew up? Because it seems that you’re tackling this from ground up.

Yes, very much so. Because I’m not from the city, so as an outsider, I get to view it in a different way. It is also why I am always looking for or am set on creating a community, because this is a new place for me, as is for other Filipinos creating grassroots groups abroad. You start small, but always in the context of the contemporary and the now. So it’s applicable and adaptable.

Let’s go to your residencies. Can you tell me more about it? How has having gone through numerous travels influenced your work? Would you advise this to aspiring artists?

I don’t think it has influenced my work, as much as it has my working process. It has taught me to work outside my comfort zone. Working in a different environment can open up different perspectives. It is also a chance to meet other artists and people related to art. So definitely, yes, I would advise it to young artists. I would also advise them to focus. The opportunities come but you, as an individual, have to focus on what you want.

Like me, my first residency was suggested by the great Sid Hildawa. From there, things just fell into place. At that time, I was still teaching at UST [University of Santo Tomas]. And it was then that I really decided to become an artist. Even if it was the more unstable option, you just really have to learn to work around things. In this case, my background in advertising really helped.

 What have your travels abroad taught you?

What I learned so far is that when you cook adobo, suddenly everyone who is in the residency program will love you (laughs). It was also surprising how there are still people abroad who view Filipinos as mere domestic helpers. Some of them are even saying that I’m the first Filipino artist that they’ve met. But you can also look at it in a more optimistic angle, in how residencies allow representation for our country. You give it a voice that otherwise would have never been heard.

Do you have a favourite among all your residencies?

My residency in Japan, where I did another version of the “Wrapped” project. I also met my wife there.

Mark Salvatus, ‘Shipments’, 2013, wood, rope, paper, light, steel, Roppongi Art Night, Tokyo, Japan. Image courtesy the artist.

Mark Salvatus, ‘Shipments’, 2013, wood, rope, paper, light, steel, Roppongi Art Night, Tokyo, Japan.
Image courtesy the artist.

I remember that other exhibition of yours in Japan, where you tied up paper forming a boat of sorts. I really liked that.

I was invited for that project. The idea was to create an installation in the shopping district of Tokyo. I noticed that people in Japan in general are quite focused on material things. The remnants of which are the receipts that are just thrown away. So I collected them and used the idea of Omikuji, which are random fortunes written on strips of paper at Shinto shrines and Buddhist temples in Japan. A very familiar image for the Japanese. So when they saw it, the goal was to make them think and to turn the object into something more than what it initially was.

In spite of all the places you’ve been to and seeing how much better it is abroad, you still keep on choosing to come back? Why is that?

Well, I never really left for that long, so I’ve always been rooted here. It’s only for a month or so. And all my travels are for getting experience more than actually looking for something better. And even if I had a choice, I would choose to be based here. It’s fun, everyone I know is here, and besides, you can always get inspiration from the problems.

You say you get inspiration from the problems. Do your works show a solution? Or is merely a presentation of the problem?

Not solutions, but possibilities. It’s really questioning, as the issues I discuss are not the type that you can easily answer. It’s often open-ended, providing the possibility for discourse.

Mark Salvatus, 'Secret Garden', 2009-2011, Visual Arts Centre, La Trobe University, Victoria, Australia. Image courtesy of artist.

Mark Salvatus, ‘Secret Garden’, 2009-2011, Visual Arts Centre, La Trobe University, Victoria, Australia.
Image courtesy of artist.

You are very grounded in being local and yet there is an international quality to your works, in that they can stand alone in whatever country and still be applicable and relatable. Not to say that you don’t have a brand, as it is still very identifiable as a Mark Salvatus project, but the works are strangely able to stand on their own. There’s a complexity to them.

It’s because I work with the concept or the discourse rather than the material. That is the goal, to go beyond showing the Philippines with just exoticism. Filipinos are one of the largest diaspora group in the world, but they still carry it over even when they are in other countries. Nationalism or nationality is not merely geographical but personal. I like being rooted but without it being too obvious, without really showing the roots. Not that it’s wrong to use traditional imagery, but I like being more conceptual about my nationality. And as much as possible, I want to excite myself (laughs). But the bottom line is still the same. Since I am more process based, I don’t want to be stuck with the same image.

I think being global and rooted work together. You need to be one in order to be the other and vice versa. Being international is in the language anyway.

Iris Ferrer

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Related Topics: Filipino artists, interviews, graffiti, installation, Manila art spaces  

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