RINGO BUNOAN: In Advance of the Things We Cannot See

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Seeing is the grand decree by which we hold on to, as Kant has put it, it is the most superior to all other senses. It is a rule of order. Objects achieve their place in this world through the power of their appearance—color, shape, and beauty. When we say that we have found a sight to behold, we do not, for a minute, doubt its presence or its value. But with the absence of an object to place our sights on, our comprehension of the thing in question remains wanting, just as a blind person substitutes sounds, touch, and taste for the images in her dreams, while the person who can see accommodates for herself the traces and clues left, and then constructs it through imagination.

In art, we can say that at some point it has been a demonstration of substitutes. When Marcel Duchamp revealed one of his earliest readymades, In Advance of the Broken Arm, an ordinary shovel acted as a substitute for everything an artwork ought to be back then. A substitute for the supposed creative process in the materiality of a sculpture or painting, a substitute for the craftsmanship involved, a substitute for an idea he wished to convey.

As tribute to Duchamp's legacy, an exhibition was held recently in Singapore entitled Marcel Duchamp In Southeast Asia, where most of the artists who represented the region showed objects in the same breadth as Duchamp's anti-retinal attitude towards art. But a particular work by the artist Ringo Bunoan pushes the idea a little further by filling the space with the scent left by burnt incense, which she now re-stages at Mo Space's Project Room. The empty room's condition becomes a substitute for the visual, a substitute for the artist's ideas, memories and experience. The lingering scent of the incense is entirely a product of a self-imposed ritual, which can be traced back to Bunoan's actual quest during her travels in Nepal, Thailand and then back to the Philippines. In one of her trips she met a backpacker who was en route to India hoping to find Sai Baba, an enigmatic guru, and as they parted ways the backpacker left her with the awareness of one the most sought after scent in incense culled from nag champa flowers that bears the same name as the guru's, which since then, she had grown accustomed to using after coming back home.

Upon entering the room, we know that she has left us with an object, the remnants of an activity, a process—the ritual of burning incense. The room's aura has become the substitute for the artist's presence. Though most artworks and performances that are purely olfactory claim to have become an alternative to the material world, Ringo's work is still very much rooted to the different relationships we have with objects. The emptiness of the room is a canvass in itself, where she has left an imprint. The scent has become closer to language, a kind of abstract utterance, while the whole message is enveloped in the mist. We are still looking at an artwork not antithetical to say, a painting or sculpture, but the difference lies in how we forge a relationship to the way we experience it, the way it enters our senses. It allows for a more subjective reading, when sight is at an equal standing with all the other senses.

Ringo Bunoan's In Advance of the Things We Cannot See demonstrates the themes that are common to most of her works: its being ephemeral, esoteric, and how it directly engages the audience. And while its mystic nature may present a kind of bafflement, it should not be mistaken as a simple ploy to undermine our visual capacity and the ever-reliable judgment we uphold through seeing. Our natural response to look, is for her the most integral part. It has become a way of cleansing, of clearing out of all obstacles, in the way the incense is used for a spiritual offering. Because instead of simply looking we begin to search—where can I see it? And as with Duchamp's shovel, the room has become the readymade for the passage of one's presence.

Essay by Cocoy Lumbao

In Advance of the Things We Cannot See opens at Mospace on November 24, Saturday and the exhibition will run until December 30, 2012. The gallery is open daily from 11am to 8pm. For any inquiries please contact us at tel nos 8567915, or mobile no 0917 6683951.

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