Since when has an artwork created so much scandal and controversy since Mideo Cruz’s “Politeismo”, now on exhibit at the Cultural Center of the Philippines?
It is a mish-mash of religious and worldly iconography that has divided viewers. The art world in general applauds the expression of the artist’s personal vision, while some Roman Catholics are indignant, with some lay Catholic groups even considering filing charges against the artist and the CCP to “stop (sic) the exhibit in 48 hours or face the legal consequences.”
In the case of “Politeismo”, religion + art does not necessarily equal religious art, the kind of art that fills our museums and private collections—exquisitely-carved wooden mild-faced saints in robes with eyes lifted to heaven or carrying their eyes on a plate; paintings of miraculous scenes, Christ on his cross, or Mary stepping on a serpent, its fangs embedded in her white foot, her head wreathed in stars or roses.
Mideo’s art brings these deities and saints to the level of humans. And why not, one might say? That is the risk run when the object of worship is depicted as human. In this instance, the sacred + religious = sacrilegious, as its detractors claim.
The outrage stems from prevailing cultural attitudes which insists on respect towards religion, especially the dominant Roman Catholic Church. In his paper “Filipino Values: Determinants of Philippine Future” (1990), Dr. Serafin Talisayon identified religiosity as one of Philippine society’s core values—“maka-Diyos, spirituality, religiosity, belief in miracles, devotional”. He also cites a Tsukuba University study (1980) that places the Philippines on the top of a list of countries and their spiritual/religious beliefs, followed by India, Brazil, and the United States.
Tagged with the label “Asia’s Only Catholic Country”, many Catholic Filipinos feel they have to live up to that.
On the other hand, US-based Filipino art collector Victor Velasco points out works of art such as “Politesimo” is created to a great extent in other countries. He mentions the issues “…Andres Serrano, Piss Christ, American Family Association, National Endowment for the Arts, Senators Helms and D’Amato; also Corcoran Gallery of Art, Robert Mapplethorpe; also Dread Scott Tyler and “What is the Proper Way to Display An American Flag?”
Of Mideo’s work, Velasco says, “I think the show is beyond Catholic images or iconography. It instead deals with every type of ‘idolatry’. Hence, [the incorporation of elements such as] Mickey Mouse, Fernando Poe, Jr, Imelda Marcos, Obama. Is PNoy anywhere in the wall—he, who was voted into office mostly for being a symbol? It focuses on how symbols and images are potent (i.e. powerful therefore dangerous) devices in creating, conjuring, and perpetuating beliefs and worships.”
Velasco put me in touch with the controversial artist himself. Here’s our question-and-answer exchange, over Facebook, on the issue:
Q: “What is your reaction to the negative comments to your art—“blasphemy”, “sacrilege”, and so on?”
Mideo Cruz: “I’m still astonished about the entire incident because the particular artwork inside a gallery became an effective, provocative tool, [whereas] every artist [knows the reality] that very few people come to an enclosed gallery space.
“It is an existing work [of which] various versions were already exhibited, first at the UP Vargas Museum in 2002, at Kulay Diwa Art Galleries in 2005 wherein the exhibit was also featured in a Spanish TV, and in 2007 at the Nexus group exhibition in Loyola Heights, Quezon City. It is a part of a music video done in the same year, which is being aired until now. Similarly inspired projects were done in Zurich, Switzerland; Taipei, Taiwan; Sardinia, Italy; Hong Kong; China and; Vancouver, Canada.
“As a visual artist, the images I create contain more explanation than my words. Images are open to various interpretations on the basis of the viewer’s perspective, maturity, and imagination.
“I cannot please everybody. I cannot tell them exactly how they will look and translate my work but may I say, please don’t stop on the surface; if you will close your eyes upon seeing the images, there are more things to see.
“Sometimes we need to realize that what we are looking at is the mirror of our society and of ourselves. The uproar might be the unconscious denial of seeing ourselves truthfully in the mirror. The realities in our society are the real blasphemy of our own image, the blasphemy of our sacred self.”
Q: “When you conceived this work, did you think the majority of Filipinos were ready for this kind of thing? Or did you go ahead knowing that there would be many negative comments?”
Mideo: “Michael Steiner, the Swiss movie director, used to tell me “Your works are not really for a Filipino audience, they may not be ready to see those images.” But when we will be ready? Some philosophers say that we are now leaving the era of post-modernism; the world now is talking about same-sex marriage and here in the Philippines we are still talking if it is morally right to use a condom. We are now the only nation that doesn’t have a divorce law.
“Next year the physicists in Geneva are expecting some new discoveries from the 70 million “god particles” from the Large Hadron Collider. Who would dare to do something outside convention if we will be afraid to go out of the box? We wouldn’t know that the sun is the center of the solar system if Copernicus was afraid to be tagged a heretic. People should not be afraid to introduce things outside the norm; the dialectics must continue and we should not be afraid of change.”
Q: “What is the majority of comments that you have received overall—more negative or positive?”
Mideo: “At first a lot of the comments were threats and personal attacks, which only strengthened the points of my work, but lately, some arguments are [shaping up], and personal attacks are dwindling down with more substantial arguments. I see everything as positive and the comments on blogs, social networking sites, and other media as an extension of the work in CCP in a newer context. This might be similar to how an artwork behaves and changes when transform to a document such as photograph and video. It is another kind of experience in perceiving the work. A lot of artists and people from the creative industry from here and foreign countries are now showing their support.”
Q: “With this controversy, what would you say are the prevailing or dominant attitudes in the country when it comes to works that touch on religious matters?”
Mideo: “That’s where I started trying to understand the making of the sacred and how the people contribute to that. Then I reconstruct it with parallel meanings relevant to our life as people. It really depends on the audience how they perceive the images, there are various reactions of course.
“Most of the people who reacted violently haven’t seen the actual work nor tried to read the signifiers more. Or some saw it first on TV where it already directed them to where they will focus their mind upon seeing the images. They are in another context and not in the context of an art space wherein the experience they will gain is open for critical discourse.
“One integral part is we are so afraid to use the phallic, whereas it is part of our ancient culture. Even in our own language it is a taboo to mention it.”
Q: “Would you do this again—continue creating these kinds of works?”
Mideo: “The worst thing for an individual is to be affected by intimidation and stop doing the things he believes in.”
Q: “Do you have plans to show these works abroad? Or, what would be the fate of these artworks—are they for sale? If yes, do you already have a buyer or buyers? Do you think there are Filipino art collectors who would buy these kinds of works?”
Mideo: “No plans yet to show it again inside or outside the country. I have been collecting these ‘relics’ since I was in secondary school, so most of these things will remain in my vault. A couple of years ago there were some local art collectors who showed interest in one of the work exhibited—the cross titled “Relic”—but [negotiations] didn’t prosper and I wasn’t that interested to give it up that time. I already sold some fragments of the installation I did in Zurich in 2008.”
I personally believe in freedom of expression. Stifling a country’s artists stifles its soul. Art is a reflection of the zeitgeist, and Filipinos in general are questioning the continued and pervasive influence of the Church in our society and culture. Witness the spirited debates on the reproductive health and divorce bills; on the vehicles given by a government agency to seven bishops. Not only are the clergy and their assumption of moral ascendancy being questioned, but also those who seek to impose their Catholic beliefs on others, such as the Alabang Village homeowners’ association officers who sought to bar the sale of condoms in their area, a move met with opposition and derision from fellow residents.
Mideo and other artists who do similar work are exploring the way religious beliefs have become embedded in our culture. Where is sacrilege there? The Church feels threatened; how different is this from Rizal’s time, as he portrayed in his novels? I saw photos of the artwork under fire, and I consider it pretty tame compared to what’s out there in the world.
I’d say we’re just catching up. Welcome to the rest of the world, Philippines.