Between a Rock and a Hard Place
Curated by Gwen Bautista
When thinking about the phrase “Caught between a rock and a hard place,” the final scenes in Lino Brocka’s 1975 masterpiece, “Maynila, sa mga Kuko ng Liwanag” come to mind. The film closes with an angry mob chasing after the main character, Julio, after he had killed the murderer of the woman he loves. He tries to escape the wrathful crowd but gets wedged at a dead end. At this point, the camera zooms in on Julio; his face registers terror, fear, anger, and resignation. The end credits roll as the film fades and transitions to a view of a white-blue sky. Brocka’s depiction of Manila as a city full of people clawing into its harsh light is violent, raging, and necessary. When choices are bleak and stark, some of us continue to fight against these inevitable courses of action— tooth and nail, with all our might. Meanwhile, the rest are unburdened as we try to break free by moving inside the set perimeters of wretchedness and conditional peace. We tread and tread until the illusion of safety becomes breakable and shattered.
The exhibition examines images, objects, settings, and memories in deliberating one’s response to a dire situation. Often, we become obsessed with resiliency as we think of survival as a reward for living through problematic conditions. Between a Rock and a Hard Place is an introspection into the reality of these entanglements. As Susan Sontag puts it, “All struggle, all resistance is — must be — concrete. And all struggle has a global resonance. If not here, then there. If not now, then soon. Elsewhere as well as here.”
Assemblage is a way of thinking that involves anticipating a coherent composite from the accumulation of existing stuff, bits of life, and chunks of reality. In “Cereal Killer,” Van Tuico sifts through a personal accumulation of objects/fragments and playfully puts them together. He dissects the parts of a desire-making factory, the cereal box, and adopts its form with its branding, nutrition labels, and “prize inside” into an organizing system for these accumulations.
Cereal Killer satirizes this industrially produced vessel of artificial happiness and hollow sweetness, a death’s head maw of sugar.
Van Tuico gleefully thinks of art as food prepared, processed, and packaged, something to take in and digest. But unlike Campbell Soup Cans, viewers break through the facade of packaging to fully view the coordinated mix of bric-a-brac of his version of cereal box contents. Through transparent panes on the face of each box, ingredients can be seen. Each is a mise en scene of fertile disarray for viewers to figure out. The whole scene of the box upon box is a spoof of the commercial theater of goods on grocery shelves.
The possibility for play is essential to the imaginative process that made Cereal Killers and to their reception. Toys, partial game boards, and playfully constructed miniatures signal an invitation to touch. Movable and adjustable pieces invite inspection by hand but only allow deciphering by sight. Adding to this irony is the announcement of a toy prize inside, one that is also denied to the viewer. All of this suggested real play is only made true by purchase or commerce.
Allure and denial set the stage for the cereal box, which has been turned into a container of charged meaningfully personal objects. These pieces from life are charged with memory and delightful humor, even if most viewers will never know these backstories. They are nevertheless a guiding principle for Tuico in selecting objects for use.
What may be familiar, however, is all that throughout Cereal Killers is a re-examination of core interests, idioms, surfaces, and materials of Van Tuico’s artistic practice. There is, for instance, the persistence of weathered surfaces – the exploration of painterly qualities of objects. This consistency of self-reference throughout all the boxes acts like a grid. It can expand to accommodate the addition of newer boxes, a factory-style line creation of boxes that can be stacked and shelved endlessly.
It was Daniel Spoerri who proposed combining a grocery store and art gallery where each avocado, pear, yam, and bottle of olives would be labeled “Attention: Work of Art.” Van Tuico’s nutritional labels on Cereal Killers set this up in a more tongue-in-cheek way. The nutrition label on the typical supermarket box of cereal is an essential design element in its dazzling distraction from the truth. It throws the gullible off from the ploy of empty calories. Van turns this on its head.
Like the gathered objects from life that serve as the new contents of the cereal box, this list of nutritional facts is revised and filled with the deadpan humor of mundane statements that seem to suggest the regenerative value of artistic activity but also point to its absurdity, almost reminiscent of Dada. He even posts his own photo, as a missing child as if to joke that he lost himself or his mind in this game a long time ago, a commitment to playful fun.