Filed under: First Amendment Issues, The Big One
Editor’s note: This article from ARTINFO brings to mind Joey Skaggs’ Crucifixion Performance.
As a young artist living on the Lower East Side of New York City, Skaggs created a two hundred pound sculpture depicting a naked rotting skeletal corpse with a human skull, barbed wire crown of thorns, long human hair, and a metal penis dangling between the legs to protest the hypocrisy of the Church and man’s inhumanity to man. From 1966 to 1969, on Easter Sunday, Skaggs dragged the crucifix to various locations in New York City causing a range of violent reactions and police actions. The crucifix was destroyed by the public.
What is Philippines-based artist Mideo Cruz going to do now that his native country’s former first lady Imelda Marcos personally demanded that an exhibition of his work to be closed? Cruz’s installation “Poleteismo” at the Cultural Center of the Philippines plastered the walls with a dense assortment of political and religious imagery — as well as reliquary-like boxes and a large crucifix affixed with a dildo. It sparked the largest uproar over free speech of recent memory in the country, making international headlines, and leading the show to be shuttered amid rage from offended Catholics. Such was the uproar that even shutting the show wasn’t enough: an exorcist was called in to cleanse the space of “Poleteismo”‘s taint.
Cruz’s work has been branded little more than “shock art,” but the artist — who says he lived in Williamsburg, Brooklyn for a time in 2009, incidentally, at the PointB Worklodge — has a different take. Following the closure of the show, Cruz talked to ARTINFO about the meaning of “Poleteismo,” explained his take on the country’s political climate, and laughed at death threats from “people who call themselves Christians.”
Can you describe your piece and your inspiration for creating the artwork that has caused so much controversy?
My installation serves as a mirror for a life full of opposing realities. It is meant to reflect on how we construct our imagined realities. These kinds of displays of images are commonly posted on the worn-out walls of every house, and can be found in impoverished areas. Things are posted like certificates, medals, photographs, calendars, posters, pictures of celebrities, politicians, and others, as a way to decorate the space or to affect how others perceive us. The details of the images in my installation are full of metaphorical ironies based on my personal doubts about my society.
The Philippines was named after a Spanish monarch who had a great passion for collecting religious relics. I’m also a pack rat who collects my own relics. Most of the items here are from my vault collected since the early ’90s. And sadly, these relics are the images I see that our culture is creating. We need to realize that this is the mirror of our society and of ourselves. The uproar it [“Poleteismo”] created might reflect people’s unconscious denial of seeing themselves truthfully in the mirror. The reality of our society is the real blasphemy, the blasphemy of our sacred self.
When the show was being organized, did you think your piece would cause a stir?
With the usual art audience, probably, yes — but I did not think that it would become something this widespread. Some people, particularly the mass media, took the show out of context, distorting images that had to be actually experienced. Derogatory terms were used to create a fragmented view of the work for the audience, rather than encouraging an experience of the work as a whole.
How did you find out about the controversy that followed the exhibition’s opening?
I was out of town when the media started calling me over the phone. At first I mistook this for a prank by some journalist friends. Then, as events unfolded, the media began to treat matters as if what was happening at the gallery was criminal. The controversy was blown up as if something out of the ordinary was taking place at the Cultural Center of the Philippines.
Given the reaction to your piece, do you feel that the Philippines are a good place to make art?
Things are hard for art, but also it’s hard just to live. It is a dangerous country, with 85 percent of the population being conservative, and that same rate of poverty. We are the only country in the world that doesn’t have a divorce law, and to this day using a condom is still a moral issue.
In art, with the recent controversy about my so-called blasphemous images, the media has played a major role — instead of educating their audience, they sensationalized the matter to get higher ratings. Mediocrity is always dangerous. Still, overall it is a good thing that discussion is happening now across the country. Now people know that these kinds of issues exist. This is a good beginning for future discussion. In some of the forums that have been organized responding to the controversy, you can see young people debating the old leaders of the church, and you can be proud of how these young people have stood their ground. This is a good indication that we have a good and intelligent generation in the future.
Do you feel constricted at all in your art making because of the climate in the Philippines?
Not really. What happened recently may be exceptional. The institution needed a sacrificial lamb for their sins. I’m an accidental victim of their atonement. The media loves it. The real threat now is about security from Catholic devotees who want to hurt me. It’s a bit ironic, actually, receiving threats from people who call themselves Christians.
It’s good to work in the Philippines because I love the texture of the place. Most of the materials I need are right around the corner. There might be some shortcomings, but things in general are not so difficult to handle. There will always be restrictions wherever you go, I think. Here the difficulty, as I have experienced it, is the danger of the mediocrity of the discourse, and the fact that you might end up in a casket.