By Carlos H. Conde
MANILA – Did media’s coverage of the controversial art exhibit of religious icons at the Cultural Center of the Philippines, which has since been shut down by the government, contribute to the firestorm that is now consuming the country’s art community?
This question came to the fore at Thursday’s press conference held by artists and art educators at the University of the Philippines in Diliman, with one speaker in the panel, Karen Ocampo-Flores, singling out a report by the ABS-CBN current affairs program “XXX” as having set the tone of the ensuing controversy that forced even President Benigno S. Aquino III and his administration to step in and urged the CCP, the country so-called “sanctuary of the arts,” to be more circumspect the next time it chooses artworks to be exhibited.
According to Flores, who resigned on Wednesday as a member of the board of directors and head of the visual arts department of the CCP that organized the exhibit, they had had disagreements within the CCP about “Poleteismo,” the art installation included in the exhibit Kulo that has scandalized many Filipinos, particularly the conservatives and the Catholic Church.
“There were complications within the CCP,” Flores said, when asked by InterAksyon.com if her department had prepared for the worst even before the controversy erupted. “What prevailed from within was the pressure to immediately remove” the installation, Flores said, referring to “Poleteismo” by Mideo Cruz, a multi-awarded artist whom the CCP recognized in 2003 as one of the country’s best “13 artists” and whose previous work had been exhibited in other venues here and abroad.
Artist Mideo Cruz at the press conference in UP Diliman on Thursday. Artists say the report by “XXX” of his work was out of context. (Photo by Ayi S. Muallam)
It came to a point that, as Flores admitted during the press conference on Thursday, “there are indications that (something) from within (the CCP) led to the ‘XXX’ report.”
In that report, which was aired on July 18, a woman complained to “XXX” about Cruz’s installation that, according to her, so offended her that she cried when she saw it. In “XXX,” reporters or producers use hidden cameras to capture illegal or controversial acts. It used a hidden camera for its report on the exhibit, giving the impression to the viewer – unintended or not – that the exhibit was a seedy, clandestine activity.
It largely featured the complaint of the woman and the tirades of former Dagupan Archbishop Oscar Cruz, who described “Poleteismo” as “sick and sickening,” and Etta Rosales, the chairperson of the Commission on Human Rights, who described it as the “product of a troubled mind.”
It had an audio interview with Mideo Cruz that lasted for a few seconds, as well as an interview with Flores who emphasized the need to educate the public about the arts so they can better appreciate works like “Poleteismo.”
Former CCP artistic director Nicanor Tiongson says artists and journalists should work together to fight censorship. (Photo by Ayi S. Muallam)
The “XXX” report also made it seem that Cruz’s work was the only artwork featured in the exhibit when, in fact, Kulo also had the work of 31 other artists, all of them recognized in their own right, not just by the CCP.
But what offended Flores and the other artists about the “XXX” report was not only the allegedly sensationalized manner in which it was put together, but also the premise to the report – that the exhibit was ultimately about the controversial Reproductive Health Bill.
“Kulo” had nothing to do with the RH bill, Flores emphasized on Thursday. The bill, she said, was never taken up in the interview Flores had with Pinky Webb, the host of the “XXX” episode.
And yet the “XXX” report was framed on the RH bill controversy, using the details of the religious images and the representations of the male genitals, Flores said, suggesting that because the RH bill in itself was controversial, the way “Poleteismo” was depicted in “XXX” added to the fire coming from the religious sector.
(In the installation, a wooden ash tray with a phallus – the kind anybody can buy in places like Baguio City – is attached to a picture of Jesus Christ. In another, a large crucifix had a protruding red penis where Christ’s groin would have been. Cruz had said that he used the penis to depict the use of the phallus as a symbol of power. His “Poleteismo,” he had said, is meant to challenge the culture of idolatry among Filipinos and what this culture signifies in the way Filipinos, for instance, deify pop culture icons like Fernando Poe Jr. and sexy stars.)
The introduction of the TV report went thus:
“Tila lumalalim na ang isyu tungkol sa RH bill. Mula sa simpleng debate, ngayon ay idinadaan ng ilan ang kanilang pananaw hinggil sa isyu sa pamamagitan ng iba’t ibang artworks. Isang ehibit sa CCP na may kaugnayan sa isysu ang pinatutukan ngayon sa XXX ng isa nating kababayan. Tila lumampas na daw sa freedom of expression ang mga artists na may gawa ng mga artworks doon at nababastos na raw ang imahe at paniniwala ng mga Katoliko.”
(“It seems the issue on the RH Bill has now deepened. From a simple debate, some are now expressing their views on the issue through different artworks. An exhibit at the CCP about the issue was brought to the attention of XXX by one resident. It seems, according to her, that the artists who created those artworks have crossed the line beyond freedom of expression and that they have dishonored the images and the faith of Catholics.”)
Its opening video were of pro- and anti-RH bill rallies, giving the impression that the whole report is about the issue. Nowhere in the report, however, did Webb establish the connection of the exhibit to the RH bill debate.
National Artist Bienvenido Lumera (left), Buen Calubayan, co-curator of Kulo, and Karen Ocampo-Flores, former head of th CCP’s visual arts department. “Media shaped the public’s view of Poleteismo,” Lumbera says. (Photo by Ayi S. Muallam)
Not a few artists at the press conference on Thursday expressed dissatisfaction with how the media reported on the exhibit and handled the controversy. At one point during the briefing, while most journalists present were milling about Cruz taking his pictures and trying to interview him, the emcee of the event, Roselle Pineda, an art educator and an official of the Concerned Artists of the Philippines, urged the journalists to listen to the discussion and try to understand what was being said.
Perhaps no other person has been so affected by the press’s handling of the controversy than Cruz himself, who has been evading the media, refusing to be interviewed despite the repeated pleadings of journalists. Online, Cruz is being bashed relentlessly, with comments in the social networks and in blog posts calling him all sorts of names and wishing him dead. Commentator Marc Logan, an ABS-CBN talent, suggested in his column in Abante that Cruz should be made to drink muriatic acid. Friends say Cruz has been stressed out for days now.
“Facing the media is often traumatic for artists,” said Iggy Rodriguez, one of the 32 artists whose exhibit was included in Kulo and a spokeman of the artists’ group called Palayain ang Sining. “The exhibit has been taken out of context,” he added.
Cruz is known for his irreverent work, many of which tackle religion and worship. “I wanted to provoke people into thinking. I titled my work ‘Poleteismo’ which loosely translates into ‘many beliefs’ or ‘many deities.’ Throughout history, humanity has grown to create new gods and these are not always religious figures but concepts and objects. Some have taken to worshipping money; some see politicians as godsend. People create idols and these idols whether or not they’re deserving of idolatry or worship affect our lives and how we function and see the world,” he said in an interview with the online publication Bulatlat.com.
Cruz started work on “Poleteismo” in 2002 and it has been exhibited in other venues, such as the Vargas Museum in UP Diliman and at the Ateneo de Manila University. In both exhibits, nobody raised a howl about its “blasphemous” content. Then again, “XXX” did not air reports on those two exhibitions.
National Artist for Literature Bienvenido Lumbera, in the press conference at UP, said the media certainly played a role in shaping the public’s view on “Poleteismo.” The media, he said, “were swayed by the arguments of those critical” of the artwork. “Instead of focusing on the whole exhibit, and instead of talking about freedom of expression, the media lost its distance from the religious organizations and the bishops who are against ‘Kulo’,” Lumbera said.
“There’s the perception that the media are being less than cooperative in clarifying the real issues at hand, a perception that the issue has been sensationalized so that people could no longer see the important principles involved in this case,” said Nicanor Tiongson, former artistic director of the CCP who now teaches at the UP College of Mass Communication.
“In this case and in all cases involving culture, the media must always be sensitive to all cases of censorship in the arts,” said Tiongson, who later cited several instances of censorship in Philippine movies “which are often due to moral and religious reasons.”
Artists and journalists, he said, “are interested in searching for the same thing and that is that truth. They need each other because the suppression of one is sure to lead to the suppression of the other.”