MANILA, Philippines -- Imagine standing in the middle of an urban landscape pullulated with towering buildings, crisscrossing bridges and highways, unnerving cacophony of car engines, obtrusive signage glaring with neon lights, lofty billboards with half-naked women endorsing products, harried faces and footsteps scurrying on busy streets, stray cats and dogs walking and sniveling along the squalid pavements and alleyways.
Now, in a more claustrophobic ambience, imagine standing in the middle of a 20- square-foot art gallery filled with conspicuous images, signage and neon lights, albeit some art pieces are confined either within glass boxes or behind transparent acrylic panels. Texts and images become alive through the three-dimensional objects, coiled neon lights on the wall, and projected video on the floor.
Some images may conjure up nostalgia and decay. For instance, an emaciated bonsai tree bereft of leaves, a stone engraved with Latin words, or a sepia photograph of children sitting on the rocks by the sea. Other images may elicit psychological tension, like a wooden religious statue without a hand, an airplane about to take off, or a neon-lighted typeface that reads “perfection” with unlit letter “n.”
How such poignant imagies create poetic and conceptual landscapes in the human mind and senses is the ingenious creation of a literary iconoclast -- poet and conceptual artist Cesare A.X. Syjuco.
A Brief Glimpse on the History of Conceptual Art
In an 1885 foreboding novel “Thus Spoke Zarathustra”written by the proponent of existentialism the 19th-century German philosopher Friedrich Nietzsche (1844 –1900), a madman cried: “Gott ist tot!” or “God is dead!” Thereafter, that controversial avowal of God’s death would change the course of man’s perception of God and the world, and, later, reshape the history of art and literature from a spiritually- centered quest for beauty to a more concrete affair in the secular world.
In 1917, three decades later after Nietzsche’s stark criticism on Christianity through his novel and philosophical writings, another ‘death’ was foretold and this time, the imminent death of classical art in the form of “urinal.” Precursor of conceptual art the French artist Marcel Duchamp (1887 –1968) transformed an ordinary readymade urinal into an objet d’art titled “Fountain” signed with his pseudonym “R. Mutt.”
From there, Marcel Duchamp paved the way for modern and postmodern art movements throughout Europe, America, and Asia, particularly the theoretical development of conceptual art. American artist Joseph Kosuth would later acknowledge Duchamp’s important role in conceptual art when he said that all art, after Duchamp, is conceptual in nature because art only exists conceptually (1969 essay “Art after Philosophy”).
But Conceptual Art did not emerge as a movement until the mid 1960s, with the notion of elevating and transforming any idea or concept into an artistic form using found and readymade objects, as auxiliary devices to the theoretical and conceptual approach of art making. Conceptual art, per se, subverts the conventional form of aesthetics with limitless possibilities –- dynamic, transformational and interactive.
Contrary to Dadaism and Surrealism that defy reason with emphasis on chance and the supremacy of dreams, conceptual art celebrates reason and sensual perception, imploring the participation of the audience to deduce and complete the meaning of any presented works (assemblages or installations) by the conceptual artists.
Some well-known practitioners of conceptual art across the globe are Robert Rauschenberg (1925 –2008), Solomon "Sol" LeWitt (1928–2007), Walter De Maria (1935–), Robert Smithson (1938– 1973), Lawrence Weiner (1942–), Joseph Kosuth (1945–), Jenny Holzer (1950–), and Damien Hirst (1965 --), to name a few.
In the Philippines, the forerunners in their own respective styles and tendencies are David Medalla (residing and creating his art in different continents), Roberto Chabet, and Cesare A.X. Syjuco, among other senior and younger generation of artists who are swinging between painting or sculpture and conceptual art.
Different Neon Texts by Cesare A.X. Syjuco (Photo by Danny C. Sillada).
Perhaps, one of the powerful and influential bodies of works in the Philippine art scene that span three decades of art making, which is more than any Filipino contemporary conceptual artist could ever produce in his or her lifetime, is Cesare A.X. Syjuco’s works. His art is the crossbred of visual art and literature, mimicking literary texts and mass media campaigns.
Although Cesare A.X. Syjuco refuses to be labeled with any aesthetic style and genre, his artistic practice is the embodiment of conceptual art -- socially relevant, jarring and intellectually confounding. His works are reminiscent of an American conceptual artist Joseph Kossuth. But unlike Kossuth, who uses an open space to designate the elements of his works, Syjuco uses a defined space within space to collocate the binary elements of his compositions in a cohesive and logical manner.
Known as “Literary Hybrids,” Syjuco explores multifarious combination of literary and art references through his collocated “texts” and “visual” images. In the form of ‘media-collocation,’ he meticulously gathers selected elements (texts, images and objects) for his composition, meld and interlock them together within glass boxes or rectangular transparent acrylic panels, with the exceptions of neon lights and video projections that have found their respective spaces on the wall, floor, or ceiling.
By fusing literature and visual art, his opus is an acerbic commentary on global culture, politics, commercialism and technology, imbued with witty intellection, irony and humor.
The Quiddity of ‘Concept’ and ‘Object’ in Conceptual Art
Cogito Ergo Sum by Cesare A.X. Syjuco (Photo by Danny C. Sillada).
In his 2010 exhibit, The Ancestry of Stone, at Gelleria Duemila, Cesare A.X. Syjuco carved “Cogito Ergo Sum” on a semi-flat stone and encased it inside a glass box. On the frontal surface of the glass is a phrase that reads: “:It means I love you in Greek. : No, Stupid. It’s Latin. : Whatever.” Judging from the two inscriptions both inside and outside the box, one can deduce an ostensibly out of context statements with no correlation at all.
A closer look, however, reveals a subtle yet humorous way of anticipating the viewer’s reaction in case they fail to understand the Latin text inside the box. Their anticipated response is subliminally fed in their mind through the readymade answer outside the box. In this regard, the text serves as a point of reference (terminus a quo), vis-à-vis, to the text inside the box (terminus ad quem).
On the contrary, although both textual contents within and outside the box are both syllogistic concepts of the artwork yet, either one can become an “object” referring to each other’s symbolic meaning, depending on the subjective interpretation of the viewers. Although, the artist has already laid out the concept of his art yet, he also considers the ‘variables’ of interpretation: How the different viewers of diverse backgrounds, for example, might perceive his work as a whole.
By providing a readymade answer outside the box, the artist wittingly engages the viewers to think beyond the ‘quiddity’ of an object and examine how it represents the concept of his composition. ‘Quiddity,’ by definition, comes from Latin “quidditas” (root words “quid, quis” or “who/what”), which refers to the “whatness” or “thingness” of an object or concept before it is used as a symbolic representation.
The ‘quiddity’ of an object, as employed by this writer in conceptual art, is independent of the concept, but when it is used and conferred upon with artistic value, the object transforms its “whatness” and assumes a new epistemic meaning. What precedes the object is the main concept or idea of an artwork. Hence, the ‘quiddity’ of an object is always relative and variable congruent to the “concept” that it represents.
But even the quiddity of any object or concept can assume its own locus when presented as an objet d’art contingent upon the ‘primum intentione’ (objective) of the artist.
For instance, in Marcel Duchamp’s urinal, the artist blatantly presented the object as a work of art, no more no less, bereft of any symbolic meaning. In this manner, the quiddity of urinal becomes both the terminus a quo and terminus ad quem, the literal and the symbolic, the subject and the predicate. Considering its novel and innovative presentation, Duchamp’s urinal has become both the material and final cause of aesthetics in its highest form, comparable to the renaissance and classical art or any contemporary art, for that matter.
In Cesare Syjuco’s “Cogito Ergo Sum,” he uses the quiddity of objects, e.g., stone, glass box, and ‘auxiliary text,’ to amplify his concept in a transformational and interactive manner. Similarly, the textual contents inside and outside the box interchangeably complement and play both as “concept” and “object,” depending on the construal of the viewers. What is outside the box can be an auxiliary object to signify the concept inside the box, or vice versa.
For the viewers who are familiar with philosophers, they can immediately tell what inside the box (“Cogito Ergo Sum”) signifies by associating it to a French philosopher and mathematician René Descartes (1596 -1650). And, of course, “Cogito Ergo Sum” means “I think, therefore I am,” known also as a ‘Cartesian doubt,’ a methodological skepticism in rationalizing the truth of one’s existence or the truth in relation to God.
But for the viewers who are alien to both philosophy and Latin language, the text inside the box can be abstruse and inconsequential. While the text outside (:It means I love you in Greek. : No, Stupid. It’s Latin. : Whatever) provides a readymade answer to the ‘what and why’ of the artwork as it percolates through their mind and senses. In fact, what is written outside the box is surreptitiously intended for them in a cynical manner.
Hypothetically, to put it in a dialogic conversation, imagine three best friends discussing about the text (Cogito Ergo Sum) inside the box. Friend A says ironically, “It means I love you in Greek.” Friend B who feels intelligently superior among the three replies, “No, Stupid. It’s Latin.” But friend C, who does not give a damn what friends A nor B thought, exclaims, “WHATEVER.”
Arguably, that is precisely the point of the artist!
Cesare A.X. Syjuco’s ‘Literary Hybrids’
As the forerunner of ‘Literary Hybrids,’ Cesare A.X. Syjuco’s artistic practice can be described as the fusion of literature and visual art that includes styles, techniques, and genres. “I am an experimental poet first and a visual artist second,” says Syjuco. “But I write mostly for the walls and not for the page, and that’s where the boundaries between the two get crossed.”
Instead of confining literature in books or any traditional mediums, Syjuco deviates from the normative practice by blending the two fields of aesthetics, i.e., visual art and literature.
(1) “There are no hierarchies in the problem politics, “ (2) “Serial Killers: the Monogamy of Their Thinking," and (3) “Let’s Talk about the Anti-Christ" by Cesare A.X. Syjuco
Poetry or literary passages can now be seen on the wall, floor or ceiling through video projections, stylish typeface, posters, acrylic panels and neon lights. Never before has the combination of “texts and images” been edified on the wall, as if Syjuco was creating a sacred altar for everyone to pray, nay, relish and meditate upon the empirical and the metaphysical gospel of his art.
The following texts with images poignantly leap toward the audience: (1) “There are no hierarchies in the problem politics.;“ (2) “Serial Killers: the Monogamy of Their Thinking.;” (3) “Let’s Talk about the Anti-Christ., :It looks like a dog to me., :Don’t let that fool you, stupid.;” (4) “She is parallel to her rectum at all times... unwavering in resolve.;” and (5) “He’s out there somewhere., : If we could find him we could kill him... then there’d be no one to kill us., :If we could find him he wouldn’t be out there.” Brief but potent passages, they haunt, confound and titillate the human mind and senses.
‘Is it art or is it literature?’ A question that may perplex the audience, but that is exactly what the ‘Literary Hybrids’ is all about, blurring the lines between visual art and literature to create a higher form of aesthetics.
Knowing the background of the artist as a poet, his works can be understood from the perspective of the viewers, as either visual poetry or poetry in space, a composite of texts and images confined on the wall. Or, in a more poetic description, ‘writings on the wall’ infused with carefully chosen elements and devices to magnify the empirical and metaphysical concept of the artist.
“Whether the piece is art or poetry doesn’t quite matter anymore; why attempt to contemplate further if the appreciation is already present,” wrote Johnina Martha Marfa in her 2010 article “Cesare A.X. Syjuco: Visual / Verbal Icons” (Manila Bulletin).
‘Literary Hybrids’ and Aesthetics of Collocation
Cesare A.X. Syjuco is meticulous in assembling the elements of his art, from the selection of printed images to the style and color of typography on transparent acrylic panels, from the specific dimension of glass boxes to the detailed bending and coiling of neon tube for wall hanging.
A Shadow Is Never Blacker Than A Shadow, exhibited at Galleria Duemilla in 2011, by Cesare A.X. Syjuco (Photo by Danny C. Sillada).
Rather than lenient and arbitrary, he intelligently lays out the form and concept of his oeuvre in an elegant and cohesive fashion. He is, in a way, the master of ‘media-collocation’ (aesthetics of collocation) in melding and arranging the aesthetic elements in an almost fanatical manner. Media-collocation, as a device and technique, is critical to his works because it outlines the logical structure and content of his art.
‘Media-collocation’ or ‘aesthetics of collocation,’ as coined by this writer is not an artistic style or genre but a device or technique to bring the elements together within the composition. The etymology of “collocation” comes from Latin word “collocates,” past participle of “collocare,” which means to place or to set side by side in a place or position. Hence, ‘media- collocation’ is the juxtaposition of two or more elements or mediums, arranged sided by side in a single or series of textual and visual presentation.
There are two kinds of media-collocation: deductive and inductive. Deductive collocation is to produce the same textual or visual image from the same subject and arrange the selected element(s) either in a linear or logical sequence. While inductive collocation is to extract a symbolic image from textual or visual sources, and place the element(s) side by side with the referential subject as integral part of aesthetic form and structure.
Cesare Syjuco uses both inductive and deductive collocations in a diverse and complex manner. His ‘media-collocation’ elicits a discursive interpretation of the binary elements from referential (object) to the main concept of the composition. The collocated elements, i.e., texts, images and three-dimensional objects, complement each other to form a strong symbolic presentation: subliminal and suggestive, witty and intelligent, Freudian and existential.
How Dead is Very Dead, exibited at Nova Gallery, 2011, by Cesare A.X. Syjuco (Photo by Danny C. Sillada).
For instance, in “Weapons of Mass Destruction,” during a 2008 exhibit “2 Minds, Many Madnesses” with his wife Jean Marie Syjuco at Mag:net Gallery, he carefully arranged a series of framed artworks with corresponding texts and illustrations on the wall. Here, the artist employs a ‘deductive method’ by arranging the elements of his subject in a logical and linear progression. The textual content of each picture is interchangeably designated with odd sound that belongs to either one of the referential objects (animal or insect).
The texts and images can be seen and read as follows: (1) If it grunts like an ox, (snail), (2) If it quacks like a duck, (mouse), (3) If it bleats like a sheep, (grasshopper), (4) If it squeals like a pig, (lion), (5) It must be bum yeggs, (eggs). Then, in a hypothetical proposition, he arrives at the conclusion in the sixth frame by saying, (6) “It could mean a World War!”
As if in an ominous and playful manner, the artist engages the viewers with a seemingly absurd question: What would happen if a mouse quacks like a duck, a lion squeals like a pig, or a grasshopper bleats like a sheep? Although, the syntactic propositions defy the logical principles, there is but one reality that the artist wishes to convey -- the weapons of mass destruction and its imminent peril to humanity.
In another compelling work of the same show titled “Divinities,” a rectangular one-meter acrylic panel is vertically attached on the wall backlit by fluorescent light. On the transparent surface is an almost invisible caption running upward parallel to the vertical fluorescent bulb. At a relative distance, the acrylic panel appears to be an ordinary installation. However, at a closer inspection, the object signifies more than what it represents.
Human perception and judgment can sometimes fail to see the detail, and, in this case, to know the truth behind the transparent acrylic panel. Unless the viewers are keen enough, they will notice a very tiny inscription that says, “God Speaks to Cesare.”
In this work, the artist uses an ‘inductive collocation’ to test how sharp and observant the viewers are in understanding the concept of his work. For God, as the artwork signifies, can be everywhere, speaking to anyone in any form or manner, not just to Cesare. The parallelism of collocated elements are obvious, (1) the inscribed texts (God Speaks to Cesare) and (2) the fluorescent “light,” an allusion to the bible that refers God as the “light” of the world amidst the darkness of evil.
Conversely, Cesare A.X. Syjuco’s compositions through media-collocation are neither abstruse nor irrational, leaving the audience defeated in translation. On the contrary, most of his works are like a riddle to be deciphered or decoded by a perceptive mind. Finding the answer or the message of his work in the process is a plus factor. It is not only intellectually rewarding, but also a fulfilling phenomenological encounter of art as a revelation of reality.
The salient question that the audience must ask to understand ‘conceptual art’ as a linguistic concept embedded in the object: What is the role or significance of the “object” in relation to the “concept” of the artist? In the parlance of literature, this can be answered based on (1) “connotation” (what does art suggest or imply), (2) “denotation” (what is the point of reference, e.g., object vs. concept), and (3) “intention” (what is the ‘primum intentione’ or the main concept of the artist).
The Person, The Man, The Poet-Artist Called ‘Cesare’
Contrary to the incisive “texts” and “images” of his art, Cesare A.X. Syjuco emanates a charming personality dashed with an aura of paradox and mystery. But behind that archetypal persona, lies a very delicate human soul – warm, sensitive and compassionate – a true ‘gentleman’ of grace and nobility.
Cesare A.X. Syjuco reading his poems (Photos by Danny C. Sillada).
His strong sense of traditional Filipino and family-centered values, cum the unwavering support of his wife and children, provides the bastion of his being and his creativity. He treasures long-term friendship and, like a child watching a circus for the first time, he applauds and appreciates the artistic feats of his friend artists and colleagues with awe and sublime smile on his lips.
As an artist of extraordinary accomplishment, he belongs to a ‘Post Po-Mo Renaissance Man’ (rare and eccentric individuals who engage in various aesthetic disciplines) whose creative output goes beyond the visual representation – he can be read, heard, and seen through his poetry, art, music and live art performances.
His artistic genius, in general, tiptoes on the footsteps of Beat Culture: non-conformist, unexpurgated, unassuming, and spontaneous in context and substance. He does not only create an avant-garde aesthetics, he shapes and fashions an underground artistic subculture that characterizes an intrepid and progressive environment.
The mordant message of his works addresses the contemporary condition of global society with such blatant intelligence and sardonic humor, as if it were imminently spoken on the street by a disillusioned preacher, hounding and pounding the passive bystanders to make amends and embrace their own humanity with others.
You Have Died Here by Cesare A.X. Syjuco (Photo by Danny C. Sillada).
Cesare A.X. Syjuco’s contribution through his ‘Literary Hybrids’ is a distinctive development in Southeast Asian art movement, worthy of study in the academe, museum, and any institutions that promote and support a sophisticated breed of conceptual art across the globe.
~ Danny C. Sillada
*Published in Manila Bulletin Lifestyle (Arts & Culture), March 26, 2012, p. E1-2