This article is republished in honor of Leo Abaya who passed away on May 26, 2021. The article originally appeared in Art+ Magazine Issue 59 (Nov-Dec 2018).
Leo Abaya reconciles the disparate nature of statistical data with its context in his Demograpi, atbp. exhibition at Tin-aw Art Gallery.
Text by Duffie Hufana Osental; Images courtesy of Tin-aw Art Gallery
Data is often thought of as contemporary currency. We collect, read, and interpret volumes of data in our lifetime, but often without examining its underlying foundation. Causality statistics of a storm, for instance, cannot convey the grief of a single loss of life. In our handling of data, we have assumed the habit of removing ourselves from its context.
Artist and scholar Leo Abaya attempts to reconcile these disparate ideas in an attempt to unearth notions of identity in his new exhibition at Tin-aw, titled Demograpi, atbp.
In his notes, curiously called Data from Hell, curator Patrick Flores said that the artist is “…keenly aware of the staggering statistics that pervade the current social and political climate.” Interestingly, the genesis of the exhibition primarily surveyed anatomical aesthetics, in an exhibition originally entitled Impossible Anatomies.
This was in 2015, and Abaya was fiddling with the idea of using displaced and disfigured anatomical figures to elaborate on identity and human condition. Abaya felt a certain lack of urgency however, and put aside his studies to go on sabbatical, visiting family in the United States.
He revisited the concept after coming back, having experienced the increasing political polarization of American society and the election of Donald Trump. In approaching his exhibition, a central question emerged: how do we compare our humanity with each other? This question provided a relational framework for the former Impossible Anatomies, providing verticality, weight, and a much-needed sense of urgency.
“It moved from Impossible Anatomies,” said Abaya “In that proposal, I focused on the body itself and its form. It grew from that when I saw it in relation to something. It deflects from the physical aspects because I cannot deny the context.”
Abaya’s statement in Data from Hell is even more prescient: “I resent the lack of compassion in fiscal policies that are based on quantitative statistical data on people.”
“This resentment comes from the fact that numbers, by themselves, can deceive or obfuscate actual human condition; that the innate structuralist nature of quantitative data pertaining to people subordinates functionality.”
Abaya’s approach is perhaps best demonstrated by the titular work, “Demograpi.” A large abacus with human heads instead of beads rests below text that lists data on the Philippines. The list starts with the Philippines in relation to the rest of the world, before zeroing in on regional statistics, before finally listing internal death statistics.
The artist sought to call attention to issues beyond the headline issues of the day. “I wanted to avoid merely showing statistics of extrajudicial killings,” said Abaya. “There’s also unemployment. There’s also displacement. These are things that we should also be mindful about.”
The use of an abacus was, to the artist’s mind, the perfect visual articulation of how removed data can be from its context. “I was in a surplus store and then there were new items,” recalls Abaya. “They were selling abacuses. Of course, I knew about the abacus because they were so ubiquitous. But then I thought, what if I use an abacus as a format for a work? Then the idea of it as a counting machine for statistics came about. I thought, how do I transform the abacus to say what I want to say about data?”
The defining feature of the large abacus is, of course, the beads as human faces. “The idea of having a face as the abacus bead took out the neutrality of the abacus,” said Abaya. “I wanted to inject a bit of humanity with the human face.”
The data displayed is described as variable, in large part because the installation is only limited by space. “I had a student researcher get me the numbers from as many credible sources as possible,” said Abaya. “Some came from the United Nations, but all of it is as recent as possible. If the space was bigger, it would have been nice to surround the work with data. But that’s why it’s variable dimensions.”
“What you see here is a product of space and demography. There’s no information on the world, except in relation to the Philippines. What you see there is highly influenced by the object.”
Another standout installation is “Arkipelago,” which has stoneware heads floating in a small pool. “These heads refigure in a pool of water adjacent to the abacus,” wrote Flores. “This time, they are buoyant stoneware, to some extent freed from the frame of the formidable abacus of hard wood. They stay afloat and collide with each other, the faces bare and staring at the expanse above them.”
“While they may intimate some kind of an ultramarine sublime, the liquid that suspends the severed heads may remind us of water torture or ‘salvage’ operations that end up in bodies of water.”
The exhibition represents a kind of contribution from the artist to the continuing discourse within the country’s political environment. Flores continued, “Abaya casts these data intimately, on the one hand, and hyperbolically, on the other, the better to draw attention to their uncanny conditions, as well as to their graphic exigencies.”
What is not said is how this disconnect of data from its contexts informs our own response to the policy environment. If we understand the numbers in terms of human lives, would that make us less susceptible to the excesses of social media? Would it inform our political behavior in, say, voting preferences?
Ultimately, Abaya’s exhibition leaves his audience with that challenge.