Art Radar speaks to emerging Filipino artist Issay Rodriguez about her artistic practice on the occasion of her latest solo exhibition.
Known for her clever use of cyanotype, Manila-based artist Issay Rodriguez reclaims a forgotten cultural heritage by rediscovering its former glory in her interactive exhibition “Capitol Gains” at First United Building Community Museum in Escolta.
A continuation of the artist’s interest in fusing cyanotype printmaking, photography and illustration to capture the changes in Escolta, Manila, Issay Rodriguez’s “Capitol Gains” presents dreamlike landscapes that weld historical photographs and the artist’s current experience of the place, as well as interactive pieces and a box filled with a playful collection of memorabilia from her research.
“I wanted to learn more about the building which is said to be a ‘heritage jewel’ hailed by many artists, architects and historians working in the field,” Rodriguez shared.
The exhibition features colouring sheets and an analogue film projector that allows guests to build on the young artist’s work. People are given blank film strips that they can draw on, and put in the projector afterward. It is some sort of “shadow drawings” that allows people to make their own “mini films” in a space that used to be a movie house.
The artist recounted that when she asked the residents in the area about the theatre they gave mixed feedback, making her more curious about the history of the place. Because of this gap, she thought of letting other people add onto the experience by allowing the visitors to add on the work that she exhibited through the projector and colouring sheets.
Meshing the data that she gathered from the community’s collective memory with her personal experience and the visitors’ engagement has resulted in multi-layered portraits of the past.
A 25-year- old artist, Issay Rodriguez has already exhibited both in the Philippines and abroad. A UP Fine Arts graduate, she was sent to École nationale supérieure des Beaux-Arts Paris as an exchange scholar and has exhibited her works in Venice, Hanoi, Ho Chi Minh City, Jakarta, Manila, New Delhi and Paris.She will be participating in different shows and projects for the rest of the year.
Art Radar visited Issay Rodriguez and interviewed her to learn more about her current show and practice.
When did you start using cyanotype? Where did you encounter it?
In 2014, I did a series of cyanotype prints for a two-man show in 1335MABINI gallery called “REFRAIN”. The GENESIS series allowed me to deliberately consider the use of both digital and analogue technology to shift from previous works like light installations and light boxes. premise of the work is to create a dialogue with Iya Regalario who primarily worked with a popular drawing technique in Baguio wherein she draws using a magnifying glass while the wood is burnt strategically by the sun. I thought of exploring a similar process, which is cyanotype printing (also using the sun to create an image) where the process creates an interesting mix of the man-made and the natural.
I made sunprints of abstract sand patterns made from DIY chladni plates playing different healing pitches. That was the first time I used the said medium. It was difficult to source the material that time. It would not have been possible without the help of professional photographer Gilbert Ebba who gave me the chemicals.
During the 20th century, people used cyanotype because it’s a low-cost way of printing blueprints that needed to be replicated a lot of times. How about you, why are you drawn to this process?
I am drawn to use the said medium for its many potentials… and limitations.
How did you get your residency in Paris? How did it help you as an artist?
It was actually an exchange student programme between the UP College of Fine Arts and the Ecole Nationale Superieure des Beaux-Arts made possible through the auspices of the French Government. I heard that the programme has ended having sent its sixth and final scholar last school year.
I guess, it has helped me a lot in terms of my artistic growth where my view of the ceilings became higher, the soil larger, the world bigger. Aside from all the imperative touristic artistic opportunities this escape has provided me, I met people who continue to significantly inspire and support me from afar.
Your works seem to have the same colour: blue. Is that intentional?
Thank you for asking the question and letting me explain myself. (laughs) People sometimes ask me, “Do you still do those blue things?” It’s actually amusing to get that remark. But, actually, a lot of my other works aren’t blue… But YES, my use of the said colour is intentional, partly. I guess it’s also because of the materials’ inherent colour. UV light on white paint and chalk looks optically blue, the lightbox works were supposed to evoke the feel of night sky (and I didn’t like black for that so much) and the inherent colour of cyanotype without other interventions, is blue. Well, I think I like the colour and right now, I couldn’t imagine my blue works not blue! I guess, as long as the colour of the work points to the right message, I’m going to use it.
You said that one of your goals in ”Capitol Gains” is to get to know the history of the place, so you could better situate yourself in the context of the heritage. How are you planning to add on to the ongoing artistic narrative being woven as you go in and out of Escolta after your show?
As I have said before, the show was a by-product of a larger experience. Actually, having the show mounted at the museum does not provide a finality. In fact, while working on the project, I realised that I am in the middle of developing a sort of commitment/dialogue. As the energies inside the museum waned after opening night, I knew that I couldn’t / shouldn’t stop there.
In terms of the Capitol Theater-related project, in fact, I am a bit scared. But, maybe, trying will not go unwarranted. Tomorrow is another day of work at Escolta.
The show was just a very small portion of the life, the relationships I am starting to find myself in since I got there (as a 98B member). I don’t actually know where it will take me. But I will be here as long as I am allowed to serve a purpose. If I may be permitted to say it, I am actually excited about an ocular visit to the Capitol Theater… Finally, I would get to see the insides soon!
In Ethnography, researchers get to know their subjects through participant observation and other indirect methods to see people’s behaviour on their terms, not the researcher’s. Ethnographers don’t tell people that they are being observed. While this observational method may appear inefficient, it yields more authentic results because you see the people as they are in their natural habitat.
When you were asking people about the cinema, did you tell them that you are doing an art project, or was acting like a normal curious person lost in Escolta? Why did you choose this process? What was the effect of your method on your final output?
I know and respect the work of the people who work in a similar field and cannot possibly claim that I work in the same manner that they do. I used to work at the UP Ethnomusicology Library and witnessed how a rich archive of audio material and musical scores can influence an artist/musician. In 2013, I was helping out curator Dayang Yraola for a project called Maceda Projects 2013: Listen to my Music. Here, I scanned printed material, laid out their catalogue, watched people working at the digital archive, answered and made phone calls, found a hidden nipa hut and bald trees in Jose Maceda’s and Jonas Baes’ musical scores, ate hopia and drank Taiwanese tea from their pantry. Also, here, I saw the difference between the actual fieldwork done by the experts and contemporary artists using the archival material to produce work that is more anchored to the forms they propose.
When I was working on “CAPITOL GAINS”, I did not particularly want to employ a specific method. There was no structure. It had been different every time. I talked to different people not knowing how or which data will be transformed into an artwork. For the people who worked in the Capitol Theater building (whom I have met before while doing errands outside of the project, if that is even important for others to know) I didn’t have to say why I was there. In fact, my intentions and questions evolved along the way. I just kept asking and doing things wherever they can lead me. Some respondents knew that I was working on a project related to the Capitol Theater. It was an intuitive thing to deal with. I only ask or say things when I think I need to say things further.
Bottom line, I was being very honest to them by telling them that I wanted to know more about the subject. What I had been more careful about was to lose their trust. So I don’t poke them too much. I don’t want them to say things they weren’t willing to say. I didn’t want to disturb the people doing business there. I didn’t want to give the security guards an impression that I was being a security threat or nuisance so I followed where the line was drawn. I was there to eat, to have my photo taken, to get a haircut, to make copies of my drawing, to watch horses running on a TV screen amidst a crowd of people who also wondered why I was there. For what it’s worth, I should say that my involvement in the neighbourhood is an ongoing thing.
If in any case that it can qualify, maybe, I was doing qualitative research. Also, appropriation of found material was important to me. If not for the these records from Lou Gopal, Isidra Reyes and Ed Simon, my renderings would have been impossible.
In addition, I also find it interesting that a person who attended the opening night was eager to share his own memories of the place. (Though I haven’t really talked to him about it yet). But during that moment, I knew that opening the works to the public was just the beginning and there’s still much work to be done.
Did the people who were involved in your research see the show? What did they say?
Some of them did! I loved the smile on *Kuya B’s1 face when I turned on the old slide projector during the opening night to show the kung fu shadow drawings! The sample strip was dedicated to his memoirs of watching a kung fu movie in Capitol Theater during the days before it closed down. He (actually WE) didn’t initially know how his contribution to my research will take shape… then his story became an inspiration to the work “CENTERSTAGE”.
I used to combine a cyanotype print of an old panorama with my own version of it rendered in graphite. For me, the materials also spoke about the inner sentiments of the images rendered. I saw that beyond the relationship of the material (cyanotype) to the subject matter (architecture in an urban landscape as oppose to its prior use which was to replicate, one of the few people who got to see a film at the Capitol Theater before it closed down, architechtural drawings in the past); it also behaved like memory.
Though it may be a permanent copy of an image, the material fades in time when exposed to sunlight… but then returns to its rich blue-ness when allowed to be (re)stored in the dark. I found this idea very romantic. Along with the thought that rendering the present panorama in graphite meant that the image could also, possibly, be erased (and redrawn) any time despite its permanence… reflective also of the fact that the present could actually be altered through human agency.
CENTERSTAGE covers my initial attempt to “collapse” my cyanophite2 works where the drawing + print element is still present but in a reconfigured way. This time, I created a cyanotype print of the interior of the Capitol Theater and placed it on The Wall where people can project their own stories. It’s like inviting them to watch a short film/ group of slides they have made themselves. So, I set up an old slide projector and left some bleached filmstrips where people can draw. The present or maybe even the future comes from them… just like how artists invest their time and efforts in Escolta to revive it through the creative efforts done at the foreground of the backdrop which is this heritage business district – also then a/the home to early architectural masterpieces and cinema.
You told me that the art resident at 98B said that your work is some kind of 360 degree view of Escolta and you really liked it. Why did he say that and why did you like it? Were your surprised with the feedback?
Yes. I actually didn’t expect that feedback. For me, I was just doing my work and knew it was clearly in its early stage. But while asking me to write about the show, he mentioned that I was actually tying together what the other two respondents where writing about – architecture+heritage and art+community.
What kind of discussions did your show open up in the community? What else were your favourite guest/visitor feedback and experience?
Every time a guest comes in, I try to give them a tour. And every time this happens, a new dimension of the project comes to the surface. I appreciate the different feedback I get from people especially those who know this place and those that don’t but share a typical fascination and/or appreciation with things that had passed. There was a particular curator from Australia who dropped by the area to check out the things going on in here. I was interested in the way he had actually seen an interplay of the forgotten, obsolete or outdated forms of technology between the permanent exhibition and my show.
I also liked a conversation I had with Mayumi Hirano, co-founder of 98B and curator, upon seeing “CAPITOL GAINS” a few weeks ago. She pointed out that probably, the current fascination of artists, or of people in general, on old forms of technology and traditional means of creating art probably stems from a balancing act of taking things to a slower rhythm… where I think things are done more manual to escape the digital dose of technology that envelopes post-modern life today… where artists involve themselves with a creative process that’s more “masochistically” laborious in nature to create a contrast with the dominant culture of the instant.
Before the show opened, someone asked me why I chose to work on the subject if I didn’t actually have my own memories of the place because I was a millennial. She also asked about how I felt about the theatre. Did I feel sad about what had happened to it..? I answered honestly and told her I am far from being eligible to feel this way but was actually more leaning onto the side where I can feel hope instead of saddening/painful loss.
Do you think mentors are important for an artist to grow in his or her craft? Do you have a mentor? Who? Or a community or group is better?
I found myself having too many actually,in the past. (laughs) I used to work in different (senior) artists’ studios and have humbly received their generous suggestions and advice. I was (and maybe still) like a sponge! But when I had started to lose the time to spend in their ateliers, or when I got replaced and stopped seeing them, I realised I had been a bit “lost” listening to too many voices. Of course I never regret any of these because they have given me indispensable tools for the trail to find my own path. After a while, I actually saw debris of their influences in my works.
Right now, I can say that I am a bit more independent and I found myself learning from people in a different set up where things are more lateral. Needless to say, for Capitol Gains, I am very thankful to have worked with the curator of the community museum in the person of Marika Constantino. She had spent so much patience and time to entertain my sometimes potent sometimes stupid questions and ideas along the way I worked for the show. As a person, I could also say that I keep on changing and I work towards the direction where I think I can be closer to be who I am or need to be.
I know that you are just new to a community-based practice. How is it so far? Could you compare it with your practice before? How is it transforming you?
I am not an expert on these and know very little about it so I cannot really say a lot. But, venturing into this practice means learning to do it also along the way. I guess, art or images and objects in general can be deceiving as Roberto Roldan would say. Sometimes, they can be too arbitrary and sometimes that can be more effective because it generates more points of discussion than creating one that is too direct and obvious. But with passive consumption of art, this will not be possible.
There is one artist I truly admire for a particular work. She claims to be very apolitical and makes works that are a bit open-ended if not discussed. Her work can be experienced quite differently in different levels from a child sinking into the blue sand particles of her installation in innocent wonder to lay onlookers experiencing the soothing effects on their feet drenched in sand ( I can only imagine!) to people who truly know the geographic and political history of her partially recognised state called Kosovo. The artist I am talking about is Flaka Haliti and admiring her for her work “Speculating the Blue” for the 56th Venice Biennale.
Another challenge maybe would be making yourself abreast with current events and reading up more on history. I remember a researcher from Singapore I met through 98B earlier this year saying to me “When you do research, make sure that the things you know shouldn’t end with data you can just get from Google.”
Another challenge that discussing history using art would be making the subject/topic more interesting. I remember Suzy Sulaiman speaking about DA+C during her artist talk ROOTS, ROUTES and the RHIZOMES. She mentioned that using art to discuss history takes the boredom out of studying history. Community-based art practice presents the challenge of being and making efforts to be rooted in a place. This means, without them I couldn’t possibly produce work effectively but it also means that the work that I do will not be made in vain. For me, it also provides an artist an opportunity for positive extroversion they can handle, which is a good but rare thing to find.
I remember saying that I was new to this approach. I have just started and know very little about it. I did not wake up one day wanting to do it. I just organically fell into this and felt that maybe it’s something worth using my time with. Time will tell how much it has transformed me. For now, I think it’s enough to say that it makes me more extroverted!
I love your use of an outmoded film tech in your show. Are you planning to explore other old forms of technology in your future show? As an artist, why are you going back to these forgotten forms, instead of experimenting with new ones?
I do not know if that would be a primary consideration for my future works. But as long as it is necessary to deliver a message, maybe I still would. I guess today, materials and tools are of secondary consideration to call a work contemporary. For me, choosing to tackle new/contemporary concepts, issues and intentions are more important. Choosing to deal with these materials is an unimposing statement to express the importance you find on the values and sentiments these objects reflect, a context one could borrow to communicate a message to the audience of today. Another reason why I moved to this direction where I am able to deal with outmoded forms of technology and traditional means of creating art was to create a balancing act-moving and thinking fast and slow in different occasions needed as a means of coping up with life. (Also because I found it unreliable and too difficult to work with digitally printed and electrical material)
I am currently working on another project which makes use of mechanically made embroidery. I am fascinated with the dexterity that the artisan I am working with displays as he renders difficult repetitive images that can easily be done anyway with a digitally-dictated embroidery machine. I am fascinated with the process that happens in between when he brushes on blue dots out of a punctured film to create guide marks on the fabric he is working on. I’m planning to make a series of works out of this observation to honour the things that come in between final products and the invisible and washable histories of an object. By the way, these blue dots where made of “tina” or powdered laundry bluing dissolved in kerosene, which is a fascinating domestic artefact for me.
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