Text by Terence Repelente
Portrait by Pinggot Zulueta
It is nearly impossible to fully dissect Alwin Reamillo’s ongoing exhibition at Altro Mondo, “Pian o Fort e,” especially in a limited space such as this one. With a form, which can be described as “rhizomatic,” a philosophical concept by French philosophers Gilles Deleuze and French psychoanalyst Félix Guattari in their Capitalism and Schizophrenia (1972–1980) project, Reamillo’s bricolage is one thing and many things all at the same time. The rhizome, an image of thought based on the botanical term, is the central metaphor of Deleuze and Guattari’s philosophical book, A Thousand Plateus. A book that tackles a huge range of philosophic, scientific, psychological, and political subjects, and, like a rhizome, is nonlinear, it has no traditional beginning, middle, or end, and isn’t meant to be read in chronological order.
Likewise, Reamillo’s exhibition, an assemblage made of assemblages of images, metaphors, symbols, and even sounds, connects root-like threads of ideas that jet off in multiple directions, in different speeds, and different intensities. He uses a myriad of materials and imageries like crustacean shells, butterflies, moths, grasshoppers, matchboxes, medicine cabinets, sewing machines, and large objects like found action figures or disused pianos. For him, art is not just an art, as in not just a “fixed” thing, but a process—an imminent process, moving, flowing, connecting. “My works are always, in a way, evolving, always in a state of flux. There are small objects, but they are deployed within a larger work, a constellation if you will, which I always keep in a provisional state,” he says. “Conventionally, a painting is finished when framed, its process is done the moment you hang it. But I’m interested in challenging audiences to view art in a different way.”
Reamillo also wants his audiences to consider how a given space and architecture, especially with installations, can be fully used in the context of presenting work. In this exhibition, he made use of some unconventional space at Altro Mondo in its indoor overhang, where his pieces are scattered like a locust swarm, like wall vines, like crabgrass—like a rhizome. “I want the body of the viewer to be physically and emotionally engaged in my work, like they’re part of the installation. That way, it becomes immersive. There’s whole new appreciation, instead of just being locked in a fixed point.”
The exhibition interestingly opened with a jazz performance by the Tago Jazz Collective. Jazz, a music genre and a unique art form that relies on improvisation and rhythmic urgency, can also be described as a rhizome. But what brought interest to Reamillo is the music genre’s history as an early way for African slaves to communicate with each other. This opens up a huge aspect of Reamillo’s work, his politics.
Art-making is a form of direct democracy,” says Reamillo. He calls the country, in its current state, a sad republic. And, for him, art is a way to respond, a way of transforming things. It is also a way to situate our current national condition within our historical, colonial, and sociological context. One notable aspect of his exhibition is the use of populist icons and personalities such as President Rodrigo Duterte, former president and dictator Ferdinand Marcos, former first lady Imelda Marcos, and Chinese Communist Party secretary general Xi Jinping, and symbols of culture and ideology such as German sociologist Karl Marx, Italian philosopher Antonio Gramsci, and National Hero Jose Rizal.
An intriguing part of the exhibition is a wall piece titled Jose Rizal, Eroe Nazionale, which depicts Rizal with a toothbrush mustache, with different Nazi symbolisms like the swastika and the iron cross. A play on the age-old “Rizal as being the father of Hitler” urban legend, this is Reamillo’s humorous way of deconstructing heroes. “I’m interested in the deconstruction of heroes because they are ideological representations of the state and the national self,” he says. “Rizal is always framed and depicted in the heroic posture, like Christ, a sacred icon. So, I appropriated the popular story and mixed it with a touch of pop culture. I re-animated him on a piano wing as a deconstructed hero, as a symbol, within the present context, which, for me, can explain our fascist tendencies.”
Reamillo dwells a lot about fascism in his exhibition. For him, the re-emergence of fascism also signals of the decline and crisis of capitalism. He says, the system under the dictates of capital is in a state of atrophy, already in its late stage, which explains the fascist language and the fascistic violence of the state. But he believes that the Philippines already has a long history of fascism because of colonialism. “There’s always that power structure within class systems in our history and fascism is always used by the state to maintain that,” he says. “Hindi pa tayo kumakalas. Fascism is alive today.”
Aside from deconstructing figures and heroes, Reamillo uses a lot of old texts and archival images to bring a sense of historical accuracy and factuality, and then he deconstructs them. “In a general sense, if you look at the Philippine society, it’s like myth, a work of fiction,” he says.
As an artist, Reamillo believes his role is to look at society in different ways, to tell and retell stories. “I believe art can serve as a weapon. And while I don’t necessarily disagree with the notion of a more militant form of resistance especially in the face of a re-emerging fascist regime, I believe art in itself can carry a revolution,” he says. “An individual who speaks, who creates art, in their own symbolic language even with conflicting messages or ideologies— that’s the revolution!” Instead of cursing the darkness, according to Reamillo, the artist must use the transformative power of art to generate ideas that can propel people to action. “The artist works in a symbolic way and with these creative gestures I hope one is able to engage others critically. The challenge for me as an artist is to always create compelling images, which can also be meaningfully experienced in many ways. And with hope actively provoke people to think. That is what’s important.”
Not only does Reamillo bend the traditional form of art in his rhizomatic style of exhibiting his works, he also defies the traditional definition of art and society as a whole. He rejects the traditional notion of art just being a commodity for those who can afford it. Growing up in the family piano workshop, which he now looks at as his first “art school” that shaped his early years as an artist, he was used to seeing different hands working together, meticulously assembling various components of a complex musical instrument. That is why, as an artist, a significant aspect of his artmaking is grounded in the relational and social processes with groups of people and communities.
In a much larger picture, borrowing from German artist Joseph Beuys, Reamillo looks at society as a sculpture—a social sculpture—that is continuously being molded, shaped. “A society is a living organism. Construction workers, doctors, farmers, street sweepers, cooks are all part of it, we are all artists,” he says. “We all have the capacity to be creative human beings, to be part of creating that bigger social organism called society.”