Lightbombs Founder and Director Zoe Peña talks about her passion for Filipino contemporary art.
From 30 April to 30 May 2014, Lightbombs Contemporary in Hong Kong is holding an exhibition of Filipino contemporary art entitled “New Natives”. Art Radar talks to Zoe Peña about the state of Filipino art today, the challenges of representing a niche art scene in Hong Kong and the concepts behind the exhibition.
Lightbombs Contemporary is an art advisory based in Hong Kong, founded by Filipino Zoe Peña in 2011. Involved with the management and logistics of art projects, Lightbombs also holds a yearly exhibition at its 2500-square-foot space in Hong Kong. From 30 April to 30 May 2014, Lightbombs is holding “New Natives”, an exhibition featuring 28 established and emerging contemporary Filipino artists, whose works explore notions of displacement, identity and transnationalism.
The show brings a microcosm of the complex Filipino art scene to Hong Kong, covering the current movements of Filipino artists around the world. The exhibition includes important artists such as:
- Noberto Roldan, who exhibited in the travelling Guggenheim UBS MAP Global Art Initiative “No Country” show;
- Stephanie Syjuco, whose works are part of the permanent collection of the Whitney Museum;
- Gary-Ross Pastrana, who is part of the Singapore Art Museum’s collection;
- Mark Salvatus, who was awarded the 2013 Sovereign Asian Art Public Prize Award.
Art Radar spoke to Zoe Peña about how Lightbombs was conceptualised and launched, the development of the Filipino art scene in recent years, the challenges of working in Hong Kong and the concepts behind “New Natives”.
The story behind Lightbombs
You have been working in the arts for quite some time now. What is your background? When did you move to Hong Kong?
I graduated from the Fine Arts Programme of the Ateneo de Manila University in 2010. Specifically, I was a Creative Writing and Arts Management double major. And so, I’ve been working in art ever since.
[I moved to Hong Kong] in 2010, right after I submitted my final paper. It was all very fast. In the Fine Arts Programme in school – it was a young programme – there was a lot of space for students like me to make the most out of the curriculum, whether it was taking internships or jobs as part of our training in school. One of those jobs was an exhibition put up by Osage gallery in Hong Kong. And so before I graduated I already knew I wanted to come to Hong Kong.
Since 2005 I have been working with some great artists, curators and galleries back in the Philippines. I used to write and help them out with exhibitions.
And then you founded Lightbombs in 2011?
Yes, for a year [after moving to Hong Kong] I worked in a little gallery, but I’d rather not talk about that, it takes away from what we do now. But I worked in the art scene as well here in Hong Kong, and I actually also wrote a little bit for Art Radar so this is quite cool for me!
Lightbombs is your ‘child’, you’ve said; do you have any professional partners involved with the gallery?
Yes, my husband is my partner. He is American, but he has lived in Hong Kong on and off for the last 15 or 20 years, so this is his home. Lightbombs was founded after I left my gallery job. It was an organic process, because a lot of the artists that I worked with before started contacting me, and so the collectors that I used to work with before started contacting me as well about certain artists. To be able to bring them together was a nice place to find myself in.
And Hong Kong was an organic choice: there was the job offer, then I got married… So life brought me here and I think it keeps me here. I’m happy, I get to do what I love to do here. And Lightbombs, with regards to Filipino artists, was an organic process as well.
So does Lightbombs strictly represents Filipino artists?
Well, no, I mean ‘strictly’ is a bit of a strong word. For the past two years – this is our third year – we dealt with art from Australia and New York because these were artists that I worked with in the year that I first moved to Hong Kong. So it just made sense to keep working with artists that I knew.
And then it was a natural progression to have this [project] centre around Filipino art, because I am Filipino myself and my passion, my love, lies largely in the talent that is found in my motherland. And now that our focus is on this, I am very proud that through Lightbombs I am able to share what I love with Hong Kong and the rest of the world.
What is your mission as a gallery or an art space?
We are not a gallery, we are an advisory. Most galleries have an exhibitions programme throughout the year, we don’t. We do one big exhibition a year. This year “New Natives” is what we are producing. The rest of the year focuses on introducing the work to collections and collectors in a more private and intimate way.
Could give us some highlights from the last three years at Lightbombs, for example the past exhibitions you have held?
Last year, we were quite quiet because we were conceptualising for “New Natives”. This is a big exhibition and so we wanted to take our time to focus and really finesse the idea. But Lightbombs does help out with other projects for people, and this is what kept us busy last year.
We helped put together Dan Findlay’s and Alexandre Charriol’s solo exhibitions in Hong Kong. The year before that [we consulted with] a fashion label Waldmann to conceptualise HEX, which was a collaboration between artists and the clothing company.
Representing Filipino art in Hong Kong
You said all or most of the artists that you represent at Lightbombs are artists that you have worked with before. What is the proportion of emerging and established or mid-career artists that you represent?
Yes, most of them [I have worked with before]. Lightbombs, while it is a commercial entity, handles things mostly driven by gut and the heart. So with regards to profit, with regards with the business part, while it is a very big reality – in that an established name will pull in more sales than an emerging name – this is something we don’t focus on.
We [the artists that I work with and I] share a curiosity. I find I have a great understanding of what they do. And, because they know who I am, and they know what Lightbombs is about they have a great understanding of what we do. I mean, when you work with artists, there is a trust that needs to happen. So it doesn’t matter if you are emerging or established, if [trust] is not there I think it would be tricky, on my part. I don’t know about the rest, but that’s the way we do things.
And then, the term emerging is such a vague one when it comes to Filipino artists because the scene back home is an insular one. They are emerging to the rest of the world, but they have been active for a long time and are established in their respective scenes. But, I suppose to an international audience – which is what we are dealing with when we bring something to Hong Kong most of the time – the show is a combination of both.
I am very excited to have artists like Norberto Roldan, Gary-Ross Pastrana, Ringo Bunoan and Stephanie Syjuco, who are established. But I am also thrilled to be able to continue to stand by artists like Dex Fernandez, Zeus Bascon, Jed Escueta, Christina Quisumbing Ramilo and Pancho Villanueva, who are not less established, just younger. I think it [being more or less established] also depends on how the artists want to steer their career.
At the time when you moved to Hong Kong and then set the space up, how was the demand for Filipino art? And how has it developed over these past three years of running the space?
There wasn’t a strong demand for it three years ago. And up to now it still remains very niche. Three years ago there was a buzz, I think. But we don’t listen to these things. We are aware of the buzz, but again it doesn’t play a big part in what we do. We love Filipino art and this is what we do. We promote it and we champion it in Hong Kong.
It just so happens that at present there is an increased curiosity in what is going on in the Philippines art-wise. I think this comes out because of the great numbers churned out by some Filipino artists in Hong Kong at auction houses. And there are some great galleries in the Philippines that have moved out to other countries. And it [Filipino contemporary art] has just been tipped as the next up-and-coming thing. There is a curiosity, and it’s coinciding with our advocacy, which is a great thing.
You mentioned some galleries expanding out of the Philippines. Could you name them?
Yes, Silverlens and The Drawing Room, which are great galleries that I love. They are in Singapore. Osage in Hong Kong is also a strong supporter of Southeast Asian art and has done some very good exhibitions of Filipino contemporary art.
What are the challenges of working in Hong Kong as a young space representing a niche art scene like Filipino art?
I think Hong Kong is the true city of possibilities, I don’t know anywhere else where Lightbombs could thrive the way it does besides Hong Kong. But like anything in art, we encounter challenges and perhaps the real estate market posits itself for businesses. Hong Kong is a very expensive city.
Regarding our business, it’s tough introducing Filipino art. It’s a challenge, but no matter how niche it is, it’s a privilege to be able to do what we do. This is art that I studied in school. This is art that I lived with. These are artists that I know. This is what I’ve done ever since [school] so this is what I am most comfortable doing.
The Filipino art scene at home and abroad
How would you say the art scene in the Philippines has developed in the past decade? What are the main elements that make it particularly interesting and are specific to the scene?
I think what’s exciting to me is that media-wise there is a lot of experimentation with new types of media –video, sound and photography-based works.
I suppose that the most notable thing is the globalism. It’s making a big splash these days with some amazing galleries, like I mentioned before, venturing out to different countries. I love what they do. What I mean to say is that there is a lot of culminating interest outside of the Philippines, which is very exciting to me. I like feeling this collective curiosity for something new.
Could you expand a bit more on the international visibility and status of contemporary Filipino art and artists at this stage?
Definitely, Filipino art and artists are very visible, [and are] considered very exciting. Philippine contemporary art is making the news and is very buzzy. But art is a fickle industry; I would love for people to really reach out and enrich themselves with the back stories of each artist they fall in love with because that’s what I think makes art and artists last in this very, very trendy time. This is something we underline greatly in Lightbombs: one must immerse oneself in the artist’s practice.
At this time, who are the most internationally well-known artists from the Philippines?
Recently, the Filipino Department of Foreign Affairs announced that the Philippines will be participating with a national pavilion at next year’s Venice Biennale. There has been much speculation and discussion on the open competition application format, and the fact that the curator is unknown in the Philippines. What do you think about the Philippines participation in Venice? Do you also have comments about the curator and other issues that have arisen? How do you think being in Venice will benefit the Philippine art scene?
I think it’s fantastic they’re joining and I think that it’s cool there is an open call for artists to apply because there is a lot of talent that gets sidelined, because of politics, just like in art scenes everywhere. So it’s nice to have this even playing field. With regards to the curator, I am also unfamiliar with her and the Philippine contemporary art landscape is something that I think one cannot really know unless one is really immersed in it. I think that might be a challenge to the curator. But I don’t think this is impossible to overcome. I’m very excited to see it unfold. The Venice Biennale is an institution in the art world and it’s nice to be able to be part of it.
It’s just a great platform. There is an audience one doesn’t reach unless they are in the Venice Biennale. I definitely think it will shine the spotlight on what is going on back home. I definitely think there will be more visibility and interest, with regards to actually getting people to come see it. The Philippine art fair will probably help with that as well.
I suppose an open call is quite fair, because we don’t know who she [the curator] is. I think that giving a fair chance to everyone is a great way to do it. I suppose that people have their preferences of who should be in there and there are some very obvious frontrunners – which I won’t name – but it’s always nice to see something surprising.
“New Natives” in focus
Talking about the “New Natives” exhibition, how did you come up with the concept and what is the idea behind it? What does the title of the exhibition specifically mean or refer to? What is the message that you are trying to convey through this show?
I’ve been obsessed with concepts of home, concepts of distance and geography since I moved out of my parents’ house. There are a few ways in which one can understand “New Natives”. One is the displacement that currently moves the country, people leaving, people choosing to stay, and notions of transnationalism.
I think technology also plays a big part in this, with the world being quantified in a very small perimeter, which is your computer or your smartphone, I mean, everything is there. The economy is thought to be better, and so the youth, instead of leaving, are actually choosing to stay in the Philippines. And I think this is a new kind of displacement, coupled with the old understanding of displacement, that some of the artists in the “New Natives” roster deal with through their art.
Another way one can understand “New Natives” is that in the art world I feel that one’s identity these days is hardly connected to geography. One’s identity is connected to the work one does. So everyone is actually a native.
There are 28 artists in the show, quite a large number. You mentioned before that you select the artists with your gut feeling and also because you worked with them before. But how did you select them for the exhibition in particular? What ties them together, besides nationality and culture?
It was still a very organic process. I started with the existing roster, which is Christina Quisumbing Ramilo, Jed Escueta, Dex Fernandez, Maya Munoz, Pancho Villanueva and built it from there. I really wanted this to be a project in which I worked with artists I knew I loved, most of which I have worked with before and some even training under. We were going to stop at 22 artists, but I was in Manila in February for the art fair and I fell in love with many of the artists’ works and I had to add them to the list. So I am very happy they all said yes, and I feel very honoured that all these artists are giving time and trust to the show.
Tying them together I think is this displacement, this tackling of displacement and identity, being an artist in a time when Filipino contemporary art is gaining momentum in a very international way.
Do they all live and work in the Philippines, or are they spread around the world and based elsewhere?
In this show, most of them are based in the Philippines, but Stephanie Syjuco is based in San Francisco and so is Michael Arsega. Gel Jamlang is based in Baltimore, Arnel Agawin and Bobbit Segismundo are based in Hong Kong.
Going back to the theme of “New Natives” and the artists that you have selected to represent the Filipino art scene and its variety of artistic practices: is it possible to have a complete “survey” (as you call it in the press release) of the contemporary Filipino art landscape with such an exhibition? In what way is this show a representative survey?
It’s not really possible. If we are going to talk about survey in its essence, it’s not possible to have a complete survey of something that isn’t done, that isn’t finished. So this is just an offering to the audience of some of the things that have been moving the Filipino artists to create art.
In the text about the exhibition, you mention that you want to present “the canon of Filipino contemporary art” to local Hong Kong audiences. Could you expand on this notion? What is the canon of Filipino contemporary art?
There have been other shows before, but I think this it the first show that focuses on contemporary Filipino art as it is today. And when we say ‘canon’, we don’t mean to exclude all the other incredible talent that exists. But this is what we can offer to the curiosity shown in Hong Kong. These are artists who are in their own right representative, or are even at the helm, of the current practice in Filipino contemporary art.
So I think one will be able to understand… I mean, it is hard to understand an art scene. Who really understands an art scene? But definitely audiences will be able to enrich [themselves] with what is going on in the Philippines.
It’s a very good variety of working and relevant artists in the Phillippines, in different times of their career, but it definitely is not a complete survey. There are surveys for different things and a complete survey is difficult to appropriate here, because the history of the Filipino contemporary art scene is not finished.
Could you give us a few examples of exhibition highlights and outstanding works that can explain and represent some of the peculiarities of the Filipino art scene, through the concepts and ideas often explored by artists and the artistic styles employed?
I think this exhibition goes beyond pinning down a “general peculiarity” of the Philippine art scene. Art scenes are complicated animals. The works in this exhibition, though, showcase the way artists tackle the concepts of displacement and home, what is familiar and unfamiliar – because in the country at the moment, given technology and the rising presence of a Philippine contemporary artist to the international art world – there’s a certain untethering and floating when it comes to talking about what contemporary art from the Philippines is like.
However, I think there is emphasis on the tongue-in-cheek and the playfully vulgar like Dex Fernandez’s Happy Schizocouple and Neil Arvin Javier’s embroidered paintings.
There is a push on very sound conceptual art that manifests itself viscerally and beautifully in a traditional form like Costantino Zicarelli’s Beyond Evil series, which are ink blot-like drawings, and Gary-Ross Pastrana’s Time-Thought=Action digital work. Assemblages figure in a number of the artist’s work as well, which I find very poetic since these are mementos found in everyday life.
Artists like Norberto Roldan, Christina Quisumbing Ramilo and Pancho Villanueva breathe new life into forgotten materials – whether a piece of metal, an old teabag, a glass vial – and they become incredible stories, if not discourses on topics like religion, spirituality, loss and contentment.
Projecting into the future
What do you envision for the future development of the Filipino art scene? What are your plans for the future of Lightbombs?
With regards to the Filipino art scene, I just hope that it keeps moving forward. For Lightbombs, I hope to keep doing what we do, because we love what we do!
Will you be collaborating with other institutions and art spaces internationally or will just keep concentrating in Hong Kong?
We have been working towards that [international collaboration] and it might manifest in the next couple of years. We have a lot of things to work on right now and championing Filipino art in Hong Kong has given us a lot of opportunities to collaborate with other people in the next five years. The timeline is only solidifying itself slowly and these are things that we can’t really talk about just yet, but we are very excited.
C. A. Xuan Mai Ardia
- Manila’s mean streets: The Filipino Street Art Project – part 1 – April 2014 – Art Radar brings you Part 1 of a three-part series focusing on Filipino Street Art Project in street art scene in and around Metro Manila
- Philippines to attend Venice Biennale 2015 after 50 year hiatus – March 2014 – The Philippines is about to return to Venice Biennale after an unbroken 50 year absence
- Making the case for yet another fair: 2nd Art Fair Philippines – interview – February 2014 – Art Radar talks about the Filipino art scene and art market with Trickie Lopa, Co-founder of Art Fair Philippines at its second edition this year
- Art and queer ideas from Bangkok and Manila: Radiation – in pictures – February 2014 – What is queer identity in Southeast Asia? 25 international artists reflect in “RADIATION: Art and Queer Ideas from Bangkok and Manila, Un-compared”
- Art after the storm: Filipino artists respond to Typhoon Haiyan – January 2014 – Filipino artists respond to the devastation caused by Haiyan, organising a variety of events
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