(click image to enlarge)
What has one voice
In 4, 2, 3, Don Salubayba stops for a moment, or three, & takes his bearings. He looks at childhood—his own, as well as that of his young children. Then he looks at where he is now, as an artist who is also a son, husband, & father. Then he looks at the future.
Applying his customary sweeping lines & dripping, diluted colors onto three large panels, Salubayba meditates on the riddle which has seeped into Filipino consciousness so deeply that, especially when asked in the vernacular, it is easy to forget that it has origins in Greek mythology:
“What has one voice & yet becomes four-footed & two-footed & three-footed?”
The question in the vernacular is structured so that time takes precedence over the voice:
“What has four feet in the morning, two in the afternoon, & three at night?”
In the myth, the Sphinx posed this riddle to every traveler seeking to enter the city of Thebes. Those who failed the test were devoured by the asker, who was half-lion & half-woman. When Oedipus solved the riddle, the Sphinx leapt to her death.
The answer to the riddle is, of course, man, who crawls on all fours as a baby, walks on two legs as an adult, & is supported by a cane as an old man. Morning, noon, & night represent the cycle of man’s life, made up of two parts which are ascending (infancy-adolescence, youth-maturity) & a third which is descending (old age-death).
In the Greek version, the key word is foot, a metaphor that is emphasized in 4, 2, 3 with the image of steps that is strategically placed in a different area in each panel. With the leg & foot standing for founding, erecting, & lifting, the metaphor underlines how a person’s life is wrought by labor, as it is by movement—from here to there, from down to up. Occupying most of the panels are drawings of big blobs of energy—the chi—containing various images that are transferred, drawn, or painted in varying proportions. These blobs resemble heavy lumps of flesh, & recall the declaration of the Italian poet Eugenio Montale, who had served in the infantry during the First World War: “While waiting for the man of tomorrow to be born, the man of today reacts to the altered conditions not by standing up to them or endeavoring to resist their blows, but by turning into mass.” The legs under these masses are barely discernible, & they alone suggest the heroic creature that bears them.
4, 2, 3 is a straightforward depiction of the insight borne by the myth. Even the choice of images, like the Salary Man in the second panel & the crow in the third, are familiar expressions of the universal experiences of youth, adulthood, & old age. As in one of Salubayba’s recent shows, Syncopated Simulacra & Other Hallucinatory Flashbacks, which tackled how artists & audiences receive images of canonic artworks from the West “& how we navigate around an inherited past,” 4, 2, 3 is also an attempt to wrestle with art-related clichés: Can’t we, really, make any more artworks about the story that has already been depicted many times before, in poems, films, & paintings? Can’t we go on using obvious metaphors & references in our representations of knowledge that is likewise inherited?
“A cliché is a safety valve by means of which art protects itself from the danger of degeneration,” wrote the poet Joseph Brodsky, & Salubayba loosens the valve with a subtle, tongue-in-cheek defiance of the institution that dictates not only what cannot be done, but what else can be produced within its walls. He sowed stock images all over the narrative in an attempt to create something unfamiliar, if only in the form of visual aggression. In the process, the artist got to ruminate on why images like that of a shiny leather shoe or of gnarled hands are considered clichéd or on how they are not, if after all they work, at the least, in the visual level.
Salubayba protects the work from close dangers by responding to the riddle in the vernacular, so that both insight & artwork become relevant to the public that they mean to serve. The words strewn across each of the panels—pangarap, hinaharap, & kaganapan—do not just serve as compositional devices but help represent the subject of the work as, by default, but also specifically, Filipino. If we relate 4, 2, 3 to the title & preoccupation of another of the artist’s past show, Lamat: Alamat ng Pilipinas, we might ask: Who, then, is this Filipino who walks with four, two, & three feet at different times of the day? Who is represented by familiar icons like the carabao or the turn-of-the-century tindera? What are his or her specific conditions, today? The work does not regress precisely because of its insistence to relate to issues of identity as such.
As what Salubayba considers to be a deeply personal work, 4, 2, 3 serves as a kind of tapestry produced from the artist’s introspection on life &, consequently, on history. Yet the absence of any concrete reference to a (preferably traumatic) history that would serve as the context of the subject’s life seems like a gaping hole about to suck the bursting blobs of matter. What are woven, instead, into this tapestry are images of & by the artist’s family (the princess & dinosaur in the first panel were actually doodled by the artist’s children). The process renders 4, 2, 3 as a reflection not on how one’s life is a continuation of, but how it is itself, history; it locates the subject within a universal (because it is abstract) kind of world via concrete, specific images of home.
4, 2, 3 calls to mind Dominique Ingres' Oedipus & the Sphinx (1867), which the French artist worked on at three periods of his life—he painted the first version at twenty-eight, the second at forty-six, & the third at eighty-five. In the first version, the Sphinx looks at Oedipus straight in the eye, unthreatened, as if the young artist who was both creator & spectator had just started to meditate on the topic of the work. In the third version, the Sphinx's face is turned towards the viewer, her eyes wide & round with terror—as if the artist, in his old age, had, like Oedipus, triumphantly answered the riddle & finally understood what it was, the life he had just lived.
Time is an important factor when considering these two works. Ingres worked on the riddle for a lifetime: in the first version he looked towards the future, in the third, he looked at the past. Salubayba, meanwhile, worked in the present, on the present by reenacting the very theme that dominates the second panel: he simply got actively engaged in the, first & foremost, physical act of making an artwork, & labored with the weight of stereotypes & guesses, of dilemmas & hopes, on his back.
Salubayba relied on textual semiotics when reflecting on something yet uncertain, as in the third panel. Hinaharap is the Filipino word for “future,” but taken as a verb, it means the act of facing or confronting something. The poetry of pangarap (dream), kaganapan (actualization, also the last stage of a pregnancy), & hinaharap lies on how these words disrupt the linearity of the given narrative. Symbolists apply the number three to the sequential ideas of creation, conservation, & destruction, which can be said to correspond to youth, adulthood, & old age. But as various forms of creation, conservation, & destruction actually occur in all periods of a person’s life, so do the acts of dreaming, conceiving & realizing, & confronting or struggling. Thus, texts and images occur both progressively & synchronically in Salubayba’s grand triptych on the life of an artist observing life. For instance, while the third panel mostly concerns decline & death, it also includes symbols of fecundity like that of the moon, or of the flower in full bloom.
Andre Gide's Oedipus frames the answer to the riddle more philosophically: “Yes, there is only this one same answer to those many & various questions [by the Sphinx]; & … this one answer is: Man; & … this one man, for each & all of us, is: Oneself.”
The artist is, of course, not (or not necessarily) Oedipus who, upon answering the riddle, also set upon his tragic fate of marrying his mother & killing his father. Unlike Oedipus who has vanquished the Sphinx, Salubayba makes it possible for the viewer to respond to the riddle as well. Three wooden benches with four, two, & three legs each are placed in front of their respective panels, making it welcome, if not necessary, for the viewer to mull over each aspect of the riddle quite comfortably. In the quiet gallery, the viewer is not threatened by any bones & rotting flesh from those who have failed the Sphinx's test, whether in the actual surroundings or in the pictures in view. The uncanny absence of violence or poverty or lurid death in 4, 2, 3 seems like a lost attempt to represent the Filipino’s life as something that is as universal as the insight from the myth, even if universal sometimes, & sometimes persistently, comes to mean an anaesthetizing kind of history.
& yet the viewer is given the advantage of looking at 4, 2, 3 at a time when the ideas of absolutes & grand narratives, as well as their implications, have long been questioned, as have any notions of a unified self, or of preordained fate. 4, 2, 3 asks a little bit more of the viewer in that she is asked not to ask what the artwork “says” about life, but to ask, quite urgently, how she must engage in life, in history, precisely so that she can claim that one voice for herself. The viewer is asked to look at 4, 2, 3 not as the answer to any immutable question, but an answer from which she can, & should, invoke her own riddles. ϕ
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