Gerry Tan 

Participating artist, Andi taku e sana, Amung taku di sana / All of us present, This is our gathering, featured exhibition of the Philippine Pavilion in the 59th International Art Exhibition of la Biennale di Venezia.

Gerry works across media from painting, collage, photography and artists books to video and found objects in room-sized installations. His work deals with issues of representation and conceptual plays. He often appropriates reproduced images from the world of art and mass-media in order to subvert hierarchies and give way to new itinerant meanings. In 1982, he was part of the 2nd Asian Art Show at the Fukuoka Museum, Japan and in 1999, he was the representative of the Philippines to the first Melbourne International Biennale. His work is represented in the collections of the Cultural Center of the Philippines, the Singapore Art Museum, the Metropolitan Museum of Manila, Central Bank of the Philippines and the Ateneo Art Gallery. His distinctions include a Fulbright- Hays Grant at SUNY Buffalo, the Barbara Schuller’s Arts Associates Award in Buffalo, NY, 44th Western NY Exhibition, the Juror’s Choice Award from the Art Association of the Philippines and a CCP 13 Artists award from the Cultural Center of the Philippines. He regularly exhibits in museums and galleries in Asia, the US, Europe and Australia. Tan lives and works in Manila, Philippines.

Tell us about how you got started in art.

My earliest memory of making art was drawing and painting as a child and loving it. My father encouraged me to draw. He gave me a blackboard and some chalk, pencils, watercolor and paper for me to paint or draw. Over time, it became my hobby. I also enjoyed doing things with my hands like making toys from tin cans, bottle caps, chunks of wood and other found materials. In my teens, I copied paintings from pictures and cartoons from comic strips. The experience taught me how to handle and mix colors and the satisfaction of looking at a finished artwork.

Sometimes following intuition can be scary because you will need to take so many risks, which society doesn’t agree all the time.

Yes, especially when you are at an age when your livelihood is at stake. It can entail acceptable compromises and that can get stressful. When I was about to take my degree course in UP College of Fine Arts, I had to choose between two majors – Visual Communication and Painting. Visual Communication meant a regular paycheck and painting meant a leap into the unknown territory of romantic poverty. However, I was drawn to painting and realized that I was more comfortable with myself working alone. In my second year in college Roberto Chabet became my teacher in one of my painting classes. His teaching and mentorship convinced me to be an artist and painter.

Do you have any favorite pieces or shows you’ve done?

With regards to my works, I take all of them equally. Everything is part of a process. One thing leads to another and working is a continuous search and discovery. In many instances, things happen by chance. I like what the Catalan artist Salvador Dali said – “an artist must wear a crown of eyes.”

You have been practicing arts for over 30 years now and how you got started when you were younger. Were there any notable people or mentors that inspire you or influenced your practice?

Yes there were two people who were particularly influential to me. One is Roberto Chabet who mentored me and many others at the UP College of Fine Arts. His inclusion of my works in the many exhibitions he curated was very encouraging. Over at the State University of NY at Buffalo (SUNY Buffalo) where I took my MFA in Painting, I had Tony Conrad as professor in Media Studies. Tony Conrad’s teaching and practice were influential as well.

A lot of young artists are struggling to find their voice as artists. How was the journey for you?

It was also a struggle for me but it’s never that hard if you love what you are doing. The way to find it is to continue the journey, come what may. Experiment and look around to widen your visual vocabulary and read a lot about topics that you think is relevant to your work. Looking back, I remember working on a body of works for a group show at the Museum of Philippine Art (MOPA) that Roberto Chabet curated. I just finished a body of 5 or 6 works and it felt like, “I found it.” It is an awareness of being connected to yourself. You feel that you can start from there…a starting point so to speak.

As an educator and as an artist, what is your advice to young artists that are still searching to find their own identity and voice?

Prioritize working and focus on what you are creating. Find pleasure in it. If it becomes unnatural and a painful endeavor for you, then maybe being an artist is not for you. In any case, sometimes it is just a matter of persevering and working relentlessly. John Cage once said “If you find it boring, do it again. If it is still boring, do it again…and again”. Read a lot.

Do you still get nervous at your openings?

No, not anymore but in my early years of practice, yes. During my first exhibition in 1983 at Sining Kamalig Gallery in Pasay City, I was nervous and it didn’t help when a typhoon lashed Metro Manila and nobody came to my opening except some close friends from UP. Since it was my first solo show, not having many people around can mean that nobody was interested in my work so the typhoon became a convenient reason to make me feel better.

How did you put yourself out of that situation and gain the confidence you have now?

Frankly speaking, I still feel like a student sometimes. I am still riddled with self-doubt and that’s what pushes me to the edge. However, after doing many solo shows and group shows over the years, I somehow got over the fear of public exposure or experimenting with untested ground. It’s a matter of getting used to it.

I have seen your work before the Biennale, and the medium has a very wide range. What is your favorite medium and what excites you the most?

I don’t have any preferred medium because it all depends on my ideas. If the idea calls for the work to use dust, then that’s what I use. I usually explore and exhaust possibilities on the materiality of a medium. However, no matter how different the results are, there is an underlying thread that runs through them. The underlying consistencies that is not perceived immediately is what excites me most.

What is your preferred time of the day to work?

I usually work at night like 6 to 11 in the evening when it is quiet and cooler. I usually work with music in the background to create texture in the air, like a soundtrack. However, I can also work in the morning from mid-morning till early afternoon. It depends. I don’t wait for inspiration. I get inspiration from working. I sometimes build up momentum by doing small works like collages to warm up for bigger works.

What is your favorite music genre?

I don’t have any preferred genre. I listen to classical, rock, jazz, experimental and so on. It depends on what I like to hear at the moment. I also like to hear silence.

Sometimes I listen to cheesy songs to keep updated on it. It is like looking at artworks –  I don’t only look at good ones. I also look at “bad” ones because a work can be so bad that it’s good!

It is nice to have a wide range.

Yes it does. Perhaps it jibes with the wide range of media and the different methods that I subject them to.

Do you draw inspiration from the music? What are your sources of inspiration?

Sometimes. Inspiration can be overrated or too romanticized. 

As I mentioned earlier, I just work and find inspiration in work. It’s like warming up a car. When it’s warmed up, you go. I don’t consider myself different from a plumber, an engineer, or a scientist. I work for the same reason that they are working, granting that it is their true calling. I read somewhere that our role in this life is to share our true selves to others so if you are a carpenter, try to make a good bed to rest on and take pleasure in it. I always try to make a good work to look at.

So how did you come up with the work in Andi taku e sana, Amung taku di sana / All of us present, This is our gathering? What led you to create Renderings and Speaking in Tongue?

It was serendipitous journey. 6 years ago,  was invited by friends to a town called Miag-ao, which is two hours away from IloIlo City. Miag-ao is known for its pottery and weaving industry and they produce a type of cloth called hablon. We went to a weaving house called Indag-an Cooperative and as I was entering it, the drone-like sound of weaving captivated my attention because it reminded me of minimal music. Inside the room were bulky pedal looms and weavers weaving in unison. They looked like an orchestra of weavers to me. The sight made me envision a concert at the CCP Main Theater where many weavers are weaving together and filling the air with a cacophony of weaving sounds while churning out heaps of textiles on the stage. I thought, “What if they are weaving the sound that their pedal looms are creating? After giving it some thought, I realized that I needed a professional musicologist to render sound into musical notations in order to materialize sound into cloth that can also function as  a musical score.

A month later at dinner in a friend’s house, the mother of my friend asked me if I am doing any new project and I told her about my idea and my need for a musicologist to make it happen. To my surprise, she told me that she has the person for me in Felicidad Prudente who can be contacted in UP College of Music. So I contacted Fe Prudente and after some discussions, she decided to collaborate with me on the project. The initial step was a field trip to the Indag-an Cooperative in Miag-ao to record in video, a weaver at work and the sound of her weaving. When the notations and the patterns for weaving were done, we went to Baguio to look for a weaver. It was quite an arduous search because all the weavers we met are used to commercial methods that required us to order in bulk and we need just a single cloth that is finely woven from a unique pattern. Finally someone led us to the curator of the Cordillera Museum in UP Baguio, Dr. Ikin Salvador, who in turn, brought us to Sammy Buhle in Ifugao. After discussing the working process with Sammy Buhle, he decided to give it a try. To my surprise, Sammy’s weaving came out so well and to my liking. From then on, we repeated the process of video recording, making the notations and patterns and weaving them into long textiles.

You had this idea of weavers weaving the sounds of the weaving process. What made you think of creating these renderings?

It was natural for me to think in that direction because a lot of my work like Skateboard Painting and Mirror Painting are characterized by their self-referentiality and layered process of transcription and representation. The materials undergo different interfaces and they loop back.

In Renderings and Speaking in Tongue, there are also these simultaneous translations.

Yes, and this is the reason that I paired Speaking in Tongue with Renderings. 

The Speaking in Tongue video sets the tone for the multi-tiered translations and reiterations in Rendering that will occupy the main space of the Arsenale.

You mentioned that you chose Sammy Buhle as the weaver for this project. But how about the other communities where you recorded the sounds of the weaving houses? There are Miag-ao, Antique, Maguindanao, South Cotabato, Davao, Kalinga. Why were these communities selected? Was it intentional to have a north to south representation?

Yes, the north to south representation was intentional in order to give ample representation to the different regions in the country where weaving communities exist. The main thing is to capture the sound of the different looms around the country and to materialize them into textiles by Sammy Buhle (except for one that will be woven by Sammy’s mother in  backstrap method). I chose Sammy because he is the only weaver from among many who is open and skilled enough to weave the specifics of the different patterns. The selection of the weaving communities were done in consideration to their accessibility and their significance as weaving centers.

Visualizing Sound was previously shown in the Vargas Museum and now, it is the Philippine Pavilion in the Venice Biennale. Were there any changes with the exhibition? Was there a change in narrative?

The narrative is still the same although from 4 cloths that fit the spaces in Vargas Museum perfectly, the number was expanded to 12 cloths to work with the much larger space of the Philippine Pavilion in the Venice Biennale. However, it doesn’t end with the installation at the Venice Biennale. We can still exhibit an expanded or a smaller version of the work and still retain the same narrative for a long as we have the right space to exhibit them.

Is there any reason why the textiles are positioned in that way? We usually see textiles hanging on a wall or in vitrines. Why are they suspended and flat on the wall without platforms?

They are displayed like that because we didn’t want the textiles to look like  archaeological artifacts or to convey the idea that they are traditional weaving patterns. The intent was to show that they are woven transcriptions that are part of a many-layered process of transcription, translation and reiteration. To underscore this, we included the notations and patterns inside a vitrine in one section of the pavilion.

What was your process in visualizing or sketching Fe’s notations?

Fe sketches the notations and I translate her notations into colored patterns, making sure that the time segments that Fe did is not altered. The colors  that I choose for the patterns were based on their salient quality or to codify the sound made by each performer in the pattern. This can be seen in the first reiteration of the Metro Manila cloth. In the case the cloth that Sammy’s mother wove in backstrap method, the colors took after the colors of her body because back-strap weaving uses a contraption that is attached to the body and turns it into a loom for weaving. I took the cloth as an extension of the body. 

Before the pattern is woven by Sammy, the three of us discuss the details of the weaving patterns including the color scheme and size of the cloths. Each pattern is repeated at least 3 times to denote continuity.

It was not a linear process. It was very dynamic and there was a lot of back and forth.

It is like making a vocabulary of sound notations that can be woven. For every sound, we assign a particular form that Fe arranges into notations. As for the process, it basically goes from sound to notation and pattern to weave and back to sound. The nature of the process suggests that it can continue infinitely.

You developed a rhythm of the whole process, eventually it became natural.

At some point the process develops a certain rhythm although it can also be disrupted by the complexity of sound source like in the reiteration of the Miag-ao cloth where 8 musicians performed from it. With 8 different sounds, Fe had to notate 8 different weaving sounds and put them together that resulted in Sammy weaving a very large cloth that almost occupied the whole space of his weaving house.

Where did the symbols of the notations come from?

The symbols of the notations come from our interpretation of the sound from aural information to visual information. It is like creating signs. The tones of the patterns codify the loudness or softness of the sound. We also consult Sammy if the symbols are doable in weave. Sometimes Sammy suggests minor revisions.

Did visualizing notations stem from anywhere in your practice? Or is this the first time?

This is the first time in weave but the idea of transcribing one medium into another is not new to me. Previously, I did a work that involves transcribing time into metric units. The time units were materialized into colored poles to represent each visitor in the gallery and the time they spent inside the empty gallery. To do this, I installed a time clock in the gallery for the viewer to log-in and log out of the gallery. With help from a mathematician, I reconfigured the colored-coded time cards with into rows of colored poles on the wall of the gallery. Thus, I created a physical form of time, which is invisible. The work is called Doing Time.

What challenges did you experience while doing this?

The first challenge was rendering the sounds and sketches in a structured and “precise” way. For that reason, a professional musicologist was needed in order for the notations to have the right structure. The time segments is a crucial element. 

The second challenge was to find the best weaver who can weave the patterns into cloths with right proportions and fine texture because the tones of the elements in the cloth matter.

I’ve had the opportunity to talk to Sammy and Fe, who mentioned that improvisation played a large role in their practice. Can you say it was the same for your work?

My work is mainly to conceptualize the work. The concept provide a structure for the work, like a template.  It directs the execution of the work where improvisations and translations come into play. During the execution of the work, we communicate with each other as necessary and translating words are essentially based on our professional and personal backgrounds. Therefore, embedded in the work is also a layered transcription of knowledge and culture.

Let’s transition to Speaking in Tongue. Was there any particular reason you chose the Kalinga sogna? What drew you to this tradition?

Again, it was serendipitous. One day Fe texted that she was in Kalinga Apayao where an ongoing gathering in the community had Joe Pangsiw chanting. 

By instinct, I asked her to take a video of the chanter and focus the camera on the mouth. I knew that I could use it but at that time I had no inkling how. I guess it was intuition working. So she took a video of the chanter’s mouth using her phone camera and sent the recording to me. Later it occurred to me that it can be a video piece and connects with the weavings if the chant is transcribed into notations and painted.

With regard to Speaking in Tongue, why did you choose squid ink as the medium?

Aside from it being non-toxic. I also like the metaphor and paradox of the squid ink because in translating, meaning is not completely conveyed. Something is revealed and something is lost or concealed. When the squid emits blank ink, it reveals and conceals itself in it.

When you say something that something is revealed and something is concealed, you recognize that there is always lost during the translation.

Yes that is what I mean, something is lost but a new meaning also appears. I guess this also relates to my collage-based paintings when I translate collages into paintings – they can appear similar but the collage loses its quality as printed matter as it is translated into a painted image.

The essence lies under the surface. What can you say about translation in Andi taku e sana, Amung taku di sana – with Renderings and Speaking in Tongue? Arvin mentioned that translation is one of the key elements of the exhibition. Do you agree?

Yes, from the chanting to the weavings, the exhibition explores the complex intersection between translation and representation, as forms are transformed and reiterated into other forms and opening them to new possibilities of translation.

Going back to the direct translation, Andi taku e sana, Amung taku di sana directly translates to All of us present, This is our gathering. It implies being present and a commitment of being at a certain place and time. These words are part of a sogna done by the community so all of them will gather to come together. Do you feel that this reflects what the world or the Philippines need today? To come together to communicate and talk about all the things happening in the world like pandemic, climate change, war, the upcoming elections. How do you think the exhibition relates to all of these things?

I never meant it to function like a call for a meeting to talk about world events or to resolve some urgent issues. I was more interested in how the sound of the chant can be translated into visual form. However, the chant, being  a call to gather, became relevant in the context of the Venice Biennale where people from around the world gather to commune and celebrate art.

What message are you trying to convey with your work presented in the Philippine Pavilion in the Venice Biennale?

There is no singular message that is conveyed by the work. However, in connection with the biennale, I would say that the works has implications in two key themes of the biennale – the presentation of bodies and their metamorphoses and the relationship between individuals and technologies. The notion of bodies metamorphosing can be gleaned in how sound gets translated and reiterated across mediums to create new possibilities of transformation. Using technological apparatuses like the video camera and television to record and reproduce images were also essential in registering our thoughts as artist and collaborators as we imagine new ways of working together to realize the work. This could be an apt metaphor for imagining new ways of coexisting amidst differences and the upheavals of our times.

With the source sounds coming from traditional weaving houses, presented in contemporary form, how do you think this might impact the public’s perception of contemporary and traditional art?

Often, I have been responding primarily with everyday objects and mass-media technologies. Expanding my work to include how artistic production, appropriation and reproduction can be related to the domain of traditional arts like weaving marks a broadening of my interests and practice. I guess the exhibition can impart to the public’s perception that traditional art like textile doesn’t have to be an inert practice. It can evolve or renewed with the times.

In three words, how would you describe yourself as an artist?

A tinkerer, a thinker, a daydreamer.

When it comes to making art,  how do you know when to stop?

Instinct tells me so. You develop this by experience. Sometimes time finishes it. I may put a work aside if in doubt. After 3 months or 3 years, I look at it and declare that its done.

On that note, this interview is almost done. We all know that the Venice Biennale is the oldest, most prestigious, and biggest art exhibition in the world. What does it mean to you that your work is being presented at the Biennale?

It means a lot to me especially because I am able to put my work in the world stage and no less than the Venice Biennale. It is a rare and great opportunity to gather with other artists, art professionals and the general audience from around the globe to discuss and celebrate art. I look forward to it.

We are now looking forward to the Venice Biennale – hopefully we find common themes that threads our exhibition with other countries’ exhibitions.

How the different national pavilions materializes the theme of the biennale is something to analyze and take note of. The coexistence of the many national pavilions under one roof amidst differences and commonalities of gender, nationalities, ideas and so forth, show how solidarity and understanding can be achieved through art.

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