Random Numbers, the new exhibition by Filipino artist Rodel Tapaya, depicts a chaotic, dense reality where a multitude of fragmented objects and living creatures entwine and decompose. Inspired by Filipino and Mexican mural painters, but also by surrealist artists, Tapaya draws a carnivalesque portrait of the Philippines and, beyond, of our contemporary societies driven by excesses and never-ending consumption.
Born in 1980 in Montalban, in the Philippines’s Rizal province, Tapaya is known for his neo-traditional paintings inspired by Philippine mythology, folk tales and beliefs, which he converts into allegories for our times. Scrap Paintings, the artist’s new series of works, is a departure from this, instead focusing on the concept of disaggregation. The nine paintings presented at Tang Contemporary Art are based on relatively small collages from magazine cut-outs, mostly from the National Geographic, that the artist enlarges and turns into acrylic works on canvas. He uses different coloured whiteboard markers to erase some pigments from the original images, playing with their glossy surfaces and printing ink to obtain various textural effects. This primary material is thus transformed into abstract forms that have partially lost their identity, a process that the artist defines as “subtractive”.
Tapaya had the idea of pushing the technique of collage further in 2018 while he was preparing an exhibition in Manila. Originally, he was planning to create figurative collages, but as he was working with pieces of paper, he realised that their forms were similar to the heterogeneous material people use in the surrounding slums to build homes and shelters. “The concept is about slums and poor people living in crowded spaces,” he says. “I am like a scrapper, collecting images from magazines and making sense of this available material to create an environment that looks cluttered, chaotic and complex, as if it reflected a fear of empty space.”
Tapaya remembers growing up in such an environment. His parents sold smoked fish and he had to buy newspapers in a junk shop to wrap them. He would cut out images he liked before bringing the magazines to his mother, pasting them in what became his first art book. With the Scrap series, the artist experiences again the gesture of collage from whatever he can find, although he deconstructs the images and recomposes absurd scenes, in which their original topics and figures are hardly recognisable. Layer after layer, he accumulates forms, colours and textures, as if this process of accumulation will hide the fact that these shapes, objects and figures are half-broken, disintegrated or decayed. The large format of the paintings strengthens the feeling of a useless, anarchic excess.
In most of the paintings, unidentified objects and ghostly human faces are shown melting, like Salvador Dali’s watches in The Persistence of Memory. The idea of decay is at the core of this new body of works. With the current ecological crisis, Tapaya sees not only our environment but also ourselves slowly collapsing in a symbiotic movement. In the painting The Couple (2021), two workers seem to operate an industrial machine against a cold, metallic background. One, at the back, is represented through vivid brushstrokes that give the impression that he is disappearing. The face, hands and feet of the second worker are on fire, while his legs liquefy. Their respective bodies intertwine with their environment and the machine to the point that they all become one. Similarly, in Even the longest day has its end… (2021), a dismembered, yellowish human body with a sleeping child nestled in his arms is recessed in a fragmented car carcass, the whole of it encased in an abstract nighttime seascape. Although some familiar forms are recognisable, their outlines are either open or embedded within each another. For the artist, human beings belong to and participate in the gigantic scrap heap that the world has become.
Among this jumble of fragmented forms, there is no hierarchy, no order. The painting Random Numbers (2021), which gives its title to the exhibition, exemplifies the chaos that links people and objects. The work refers to a popular illegal Philippine money game, jueteng, introduced by the Spanish during colonial times. In the work, a man, whose face seems to have been ripped off, is about to bet on a combination of numbers, hidden behind a wall of red bricks. Today, many poor people continue to play the game in the hope of getting rich quick. According to the artist, the practice is backed by the police and by the government as it involves a massive amount of money. As such, it embodies corruption and the absence of the rule of law that would be necessary to engage in political or any other kind of change, including ecological.
Despite these dark topics, the paintings are paradoxically rather joyful. Some mutant individuals turn into comic animals or flower-like creatures, and the general palette is bright and colourful. The series could be read as a gigantic, grotesque carnival or as a way to keep going amid this general crisis.
Perhaps a more solid component of Philippine culture, and a figure of hope, is portrayed in Grandmother’s Tale (2021). An old, seated woman is represented on the left part of the painting, her eyes closed as if she were sleeping. Her name is Lola Basyang and she is a well known figure in the Philippines for telling children stories in the 1980s and 90s through a series of books and television programmes. On the right of the painting, a young girl has climbed on a ladder and, although her face is not depicted, the viewer can sense that it is inclined toward the grandmother. She was probably hoping to listen to a story, but there is a great deal physically separating them, including a shadowy, mysterious black silhouette striped with red lines. The viewer is tempted to ponder if the older woman is dying, as her face has already turned yellow. In the Philippines, many traditions, and the art of storytelling in particular, are on the verge of extinction, with the threat that ancestral knowledge will disappear.
Tapaya has been collecting ancient tales for many years, especially from his native province. His earlier works were based on folk tales compiled by ethnologist Damiana Eugenio and on precolonial narratives by historian William Henry Scott, but he continues to be inspired by anthropologists, in particular by the work of Felipe Landa Jocano, a Filipino researcher who spent three years living in a slum to observe the social and cultural behaviour of his neighbours. For Tapaya, transmitting these stories and showing the beauty and complexity of Philippine culture is also the role of the artist, who can thus contribute to the local production of knowledge. This exhibition is a great opportunity to do so.
塔帕雅多年來一直在收集古代傳說，特別是來自他故鄉省份的。他的早期作品取材於民族學家戴米安娜·尤金妮歐所編撰的民間傳說以及歷史學家威廉·亨利·斯科特撰寫的殖民時期之前的故事。同時他持續受人類學家的啟發，尤其是菲律賓研究者Felipe Landa Jocano的作品，後者曾在貧民窟住了三年以觀察鄰里的社會和文化行為。對塔帕雅來說，傳播這些故事，呈現菲律賓文化的瑰麗和複雜多元是其作為藝術家的職責，為本土知識生產做出貢獻。而今次的個展就是一個好機會。