It was the curator’s walk-through. Some sixty visitors took small, cautious steps up the wooden staircase to the mezzanine floor of the Calvo Building*. Their excitement from visiting installations in under-utilized buildings in Escolta, Manila was still audible in the contours of words exchanged and visible in the way briskly moving bodies accommodated each other.
Waiting for the chattering to quiet, Fiona Lee sat down at a small table, on which two palm-sized radios were placed. On the wall at her back, extending into the long corridor, were brownish historical photographs of the neighborhood – its river, its dwelling.
On the floor near the leg of the table was an empty stainless steel pot. The lid was half open, clinging onto the rim of the pot, making a murmur which became audible as the human hub bub gradually faded. The tiny vibrations were not aggressive like steam would push out from boiling water, but they were anything but easy. Restrained by incessant fits, the pot was an awkward misfit in the calm of the place.
Lee took up one radio, extended its antenna, stood up and opened the door to a carpeted room. Facing the door at the far end was a light, thin, and elongated cloth, on which a blurry image was projected. A closer look showed how the image was in fact natural light from the outside, gathered through a convex lens into the room. The room was a camera obscura. Facades of stone mansions, coconut trees, tricycles roaming asphalt concrete roads…touched the cloth, changing as time was slowly whiled away.
Sounds, too, began to gather. The radio Lee had been holding started picking up signals from hidden transmitters she had set up: horses galloped past, a rooster called, while birds chirped in the background. All these were recorded during sunrise in Manila, marking each one of Lee’s days in the residency of Transi(en)t Manila of Project Glocal.
As we walked out of the room, the morning of Manila fell out of tune. Noise replaced signal. Tension arose between a sense of loss and anticipation. Anxiety, uncertainty, and curiosity were simultaneously evoked.
Lee then led us into the corridor. We paced our steps past glass cases lined up on the left and the right. With many curiosities feasting the eye, the crowd began dispersing, until the radio picked up new signals – first, songs, as we walked past colorful movie posters from the 1940s to 1960s; then, some whirl of activities in a department store, with an occasional Christmas tune at a distance seeping through. In between, again, the radio was out of tune.
Then, we arrived at a wall full of portrait photographs of smiling women, many of whom with faces whitened by make-up. Lee told us these were beauty queens from pageants of decades old. She was going to find a cultural critic for an interview to address the white supremacy, when circumstances brought her instead to a cosmetic store, where she had a conversation with a sales person (with the help of a Tagalog translator), who had equally strong views against the routinization of whitening as defining beauty in Filipina society of a recent past. The last signal we picked up was at the far, dead end of the corridor. It was a live radio signal. The day I listened, the radio host was speaking about a design competition in a mix of Tagalog and English. One half step away from the signal, the radio fell out of tune.
This is not the first time Lee shows interest in the immanent and at times imperceptible material processes ongoing in our ordinary lives. In the Delight series (since 2010), the hissing of light bulbs is amplified to transform the source of light into a source of sound. In The Last Scene (2011), the application of the process of freezing and thawing to a door handle bestows upon the door a capacity for transition while suspending its normal function of spatial separation. In the more recent catch the wings of meteors (2014), Lee brings into audibility the electromagnetic waves perpetually present in a social space – a cafe, where our social identities are produced without regard to the robust materiality always already surrounding us.
What is different in the Calvo Building installation is that Lee, for the first time in her artistic practice, is engaging with human language spoken, sung, and embedded in rich and complex histories. On the one hand, one might see this as the artist discovering a new challenge in her practice, creating a kind of ambivalence that she had to force out of the pot – that awkward misfit – to free herself. On the other hand, one might say she has adapted the artistic language from the field of robust materiality to human speech, so that speech, too, presents not established meanings in social life, but as sonic material with discernible grain in the spectrum of signal and noise. If to every sound is a silence that is “not the absence of signal, but the absence of a space articulated outside of the experience of listening as such” as Daniela Cascella proposes, Lee’s artistic disposition may even be regarded as a longer journey of researching on how silence could be crafted out of sound. No matter, that Lee has to respond to objects and sites loaded with historical meanings is both a source of her qualms as well as a catalyst for her growth.
Lee told me several times the pot was very important in the installation. If it were not there, she said, she would not have felt right. As to why, she didn’t quite have words for. What we did talk about was what made an art work complete in general. Rather than a certain manner of outward finishing and polishing, we find an occasional protrusion out of nowhere, or a strange occurrence of inconsistency somewhere, contributing more to its integrity. Lee didn’t feel complete yet with the work, and she is allowing her reflexivity linger into the future.
We walked out of the metal gate. The guard called her by name to say goodbye, and put the lock up to close for the day.
*The Calvo Building, in Art Deco style, was built in 1936 and inaugurated for commercial purposes two years later. It houses a private collection of artifacts as a reminder of the historical significance of Escolta. It occasionally opens to tour groups by appointment or when there is a Saturday market in Escolta.
First published in AM Post, March 2015