Nowadays, it is not odd for artists to use varied media to create their artworks. We live in an age where painters can also make sculptures, designers can create installations, and musicians can also be video artists, and then some. There is a prevalent sense of freedom, but also the constant hovering of creating meaning and finding relevant theories behind one’s work.
This truth seems to resonate with multi-discipline artist Marc Gaba. Gaba did not fancy himself an artist in his early years, in spite of dabbling with theatre in secondary school and teaching himself how to paint in college. Trained in a very competitive science high school and equally challenging medical course in university, Gaba began his formal transition into the arts when he took up English Studies after forgoing his dreams of becoming a physician. He received his second university degree, but not before receiving a Don Carlos Palanca Memorial Award for Poetry. He went on to receive a number of fellowships and other awards, as well as an MFA in Creative Writing, with an option to pursue his PhD in the same field. But it did not take long before the artist required yet another medium for his predilections. Gaba went on to mount his first solo exhibit, integrating the creative process involved in poetry into the visual arts. He’s presented nine solo shows since, while still actively pursuing and incorporating his interests in poetry, design, art history, architecture, and classical music, into his art.
For his first exhibition at the Cultural Center of the Philippines (CCP), Gaba presents a series that sheds some light into all of the artist’s interests and influences, and hopefully allow viewers to get some insight into how things work in this modern world. Surface is an exhibit composed of sixteen lightboxes and a music element. The series began in 2008 out of a prompt to come up with artworks for a show about maps. That first set was composed of four works and was exhibited in Map Ruminations. The second set in the on-going series was shown in 2010. Surface marks the third and the second to the last set in the series. It is also the series with the most number of artworks.
In its infancy, Surface was created from Gaba’s musings about how maps are made. Paraphrasing the artist in an interview, he thought about how the cartographer often takes on a top-view perspective, as though one had to be up the moon or to pretend as one is the sun to make maps. Gaba wanted to create his own “maps” from a macro point of view, because to him, cartography, in its simplest sense, is about stable points. He wants his works to ask viewers, “If you were on the ground and all of us are on the ground, how would you map the world now? If you were trying to find your way in your own life, how would you map your life? If you were trying to find your way, how would you locate yourself and feel the motion of it?”
While working on that first showing of Surface, Gaba also thought about how he often works in series, which is an important aspect of his artistic practice. This is seen not only in Surface, but also in his works Postcapitalism and Interior, two of many of his works which are also in series format. He believes that if there is no end to a series, it will be not interesting to him. There had to a beginning and an end for him to pursue the art project, which is where Bach comes in.
The artworks in Surface each correspond to one variation in the renowned, if not infamous, classical music piece entitled “Goldberg Variations” by Johann Sebastian Bach. Thus it is a series composed of 30 pieces in total, one for each of the 30 variations. Gaba explains that each artwork in Surface is created based on a listening of each variation, and how he feels the artwork interacts with the variation.
Legend has it that “Goldberg Variations” was written for someone with insomnia. It has grown quite notorious not only because of how difficult it is to play, but also because of the mythology that surrounds Bach. Gaba would like to think that the late composer can only finally rest once somebody can play “Goldberg Variations” perfectly. While not the primary goal of this exhibition, the artist will invite a classical pianist to interpret one variation, the aria, in particular, for its opening reception. An audio recording of the live performance will be played in the CCP’s hallway gallery for the duration of the exhibition. The aria was selected in consultation with the pianist, and is quite apt given the artwork of that particular variation. Surface Aria features a small grouping of sheep peering out a bedroom window against a constellation-filled sky, as if inviting or waiting for the viewer to enter.
Generally classified under fine art photography, the variations are composed of collaged images that were once autonomous of each other. Most, if not all, of the images used were taken from the Internet. The two main elements of the night sky on top and dark waters in the bottom half of the frame is consistent in the entire series. The dark sky is made of mythological maps showing the different constellations. The images of water are taken from famous scenes depicting the sea, particularly famous artworks such asThe Great Wave at Kanagawa by Katsushika Hokusai, who also often worked in series, as well as images from 19th century English painters such as John Constable and J. Mallord William Turner. The other elements in the work are meant to constitute a kind of “islanding,” some made to form a wide landscape while others showing a more close up, almost portrait-like view of the chosen subject.
While working on the series, Gaba is on a continuous search for elements to use, but he says that most often, like a poem, sometimes it starts with just a phrase. Some of the elements are also taken from important works in Western art history such as The Raft of Medusa by Theodore Gericault in Surface Variation 15, as well as the corpse from the painting The Menaced Assassin by René Magritte. Also of note is Gaba’s inclusion of the ladies often seen in Fernando Amorsolo paintings. In Surface Variation 3, he has the seated lady holding a bowl of fresh popcorn, while in Surface Variation 28, the bathing beauty is washing clothes in the middle of a coliseum with Mark Rothko’s abstract expressionist paintings hovering across the sky above her. Other images used are that of things commonly seen in social media such as sleeping babies and cute animals like polar bears and dogs, as well as more controversial images such as that of two men kissing and an image of two naked figures taken from a Japanese woodblock print made in the traditional Ukiyo-e style. The artist’s creative process includes thinking about the elements and what they evoke in the collages, while still keeping (and listening) to their designated variation. Each lightbox is an ambiguous story in itself. It is almost impossible to see all the nuances and minute details in one viewing. But formally speaking, the artist defines each work as a study on balance.
To Marc Gaba, Surface is a form of psychological cartography, his individual poems to moments. They are about dreams, lullabies, writing, literature, imagination, and epistemology. But from a timelier point of view, each diorama or tableau in the series is also about the Internet. This is one of the reasons why the artist chose to exhibit them as lightboxes, mirroring the various screens used to go into the World Wide Web. Each box is an interfacing of the actual world and is a window to and of information. Which is quite apt given that Gaba is a renaissance man of the more modern variety.
M.R. Estrada, 2015
Photos by Francisco Cabuena and Noeny Gatarin