30 Minutes with Jill Paz
30 Minutes With Jill Paz:
History of the Present
Nearly two years after returning to her motherland, Jill Paz explores the notions of balikbayans, diaspora, reconnection, and renovation in her solo exhibition, History of the Present. We catch up with the Filipino-Canadian artist on the process behind her cardboard-etching artistry, and finding herself whilst navigating Manila’s side streets and the soothing landscapes of Cavite.
GRID: Tell us more about your exhibition, and the process behind it.
Jill Paz: It’s called History of the Present. They’re all monochromatic paintings and I regard them as paintings. They are muted and a little bit melancholic. The material [used] is all LBC cardboard box and the process I used is called laser technology. (Referring to American painters, like Andy Warhol and Christopher Wool, there’s this painterly quality placed into the process of printmaking.) So, I’m thinking of the glitch, the smudge, the graffito for example, in Christopher Wool’s work, and how this painterly gesture in the printed image qualifies it as a painting. So in a sense, I’m allowing these imperfections to creep into an otherwise perfect, precise technology of reproduction.
I came to [learning laser technology] by chance at my alma mater back in the States and it was just such a good opportunity to learn from industrial designers on how to use this sort of process, but still be able to experiment and fail. So, it was this constant failing at it that I really loved so much, almost like constantly repairing and renovating but it’s never leading quite to where you want it.
For the subject matter, I chose landscapes—which is very romantic and I was hesitant to do that. But with my personal experience of moving back here [in Manila] 18 months ago and taking walks around my neighborhood in New Manila in Quezon City and in Cavite (where I have my studio), this tropical landscape which (from an outsider’s perspective, at least) is the symbol of paradise, I felt it was necessary for me to focus on this kind of genre.
GRID: We are pretty intrigued by the themes of your past and current exhibit (Past Is A Foreign Country, History of Present), and we noticed the fusion of East and West, how your works seem to flow between the two cultures as you navigate through this whole experience. Is this a personal theme for you?
Jill Paz: I’ve been thinking about the meaning of “balikbayan” a lot lately, and of course, you see my medium is the balikbayan box. The term “balikbayan” is really this paradoxical relationship with your country, whether you live here or you move back and you live in the States. It’s like you are both engaged and estranged with your homeland. I’m really fascinated also with [the lives of] Filipina domestic workers; for example, my mom has a caregiver who is from Dumaguete and it’s amazing how she can be away from her family for months without end—it’s like mothering from a distance, like this performance of intimacy, for the women, having to deal with being displaced and not at home. It is very emotional, the feeling of being a balikbayan.
The balikbayan box is this ubiquitous symbol of the Philippine diaspora. For me, this is what we used when I was growing up in Vancouver, Canada, and we would send coffee back home to my grandmother. So, it was this mothering from a distance, in a way. That’s how the box, the material fits in with the theme of balikbayan and there’s also something very fragile about it—very tactile and fragile, looking at the material of the cardboard box, which I really love.
Could you tell us more about your relationship with the balikbayan box based on your recollections from growing up, what it meant to you then and what it means to you now (especially now that you work with it as a medium)?
When I moved here, I was thinking about making works on more traditional materials and going back to something like canvas. So, when you’re traveling around the city, you see this juxtaposition of these slums of corrugated materials next to skyscrapers and you see a lot of cardboard. I saw it everywhere and I saw the way it was being used here for everything (housing, bedding). It became more than just a balikbayan box; it became [to me] almost like infrastructure in the city, and that’s how I came back to using it. I think it was perfect to marry the material with the technology that I was using.
It wasn’t actually the proposal that we began with in creating the show, and so that was nice that they let me do what I wanted. See, I’m not a photographer. Prior to this, I was working with found imagery so I didn’t have to photograph anything.
How was that process like for you, creating your own photos?
I need to take walks every day. I think it’s a great way to navigate your new place: you understand the geography more, and it was a great way for me to figure out how this city works because it feels like it’s just cobbled together in this improvisational framework and that’s also—I was thinking about the cardboard, actually, how they’re side by side or on top of each other. And so, I think there was a lot of hesitation at first, using personal photographs, and the hesitation also goes with having a personal story—I think that’s also been this sort of battle, I think, with my work. But I feel like that’s something I’m beginning to embrace, that starting at this extreme personal close-up of my life and then expanding from there in order to understand where I am, this country, this history, from my personal standpoint.
Is there something about walking that puts you in a different rhythm?
For sure. We have a dog back home, so I’m used to walking him in the morning and at night. We don’t have a dog [here in the Philippines] yet, but I feel like I need to take walks to calm my nerves from living in the city. Walking is a really essential part of my way of thinking, even though I’m not constantly thinking about the work on the walks. It’s a great way to clear headspace. There’s nature everywhere here; it’s like this tropical jungle interlaced with the urban jungle in every nook and cranny. There’s always something [to find] and it’s really cool seeing streets and alleyways. For example, you would never see the Archipelago Street in Quiapo if you were in a car. To understand a place, you really need to get out of the car.
In the midst of all your experimentation, your trial and errors, at what point did you finally realize, ‘Oh I think I got it!’
Honestly, I feel like it’s just constantly trying to not have a point when it’s finished. I’m kind of just playing around constantly which may or may not be good when you have a deadline, but I think… those attempts when you’re not really quite trying to make it work—I think those are good opportunities to make art. I guess it’s about being playful and being okay with failure in the art studio.
It’s funny because the subject is a romantic subject matter, but it’s a very operational approach. So, if you look at the marks, they’re all either horizontal or vertical bands made [deducively] by burning or etching on the surface of the substrate, or in this case, the cardboard. It’s funny to add intuition to that process because it is so technical and so operational, but it is also there—I think that’s the funny and absurd thing, how this mark-making is my way of painting but it’s nothing like an abstract expressionist masculine way of creating a painting. It’s a very controlled spontaneity, a very controlled energy.
Up close, you start seeing where the image almost reaches abstraction because it really is only a play with the shadow and depth of it. It’s just tones. Etching on cardboard is always going to create this ugly, chalky, poker gray because that’s just how it is, that’s all it is—just cardboard, no paint or anything. So you see a lot of almost like ash, dust, that’s what that is: residue.
What’s next after this?
For the Discovery Section of Art Basel Hong Kong next year, I’ll be working with 1335MABINI Gallery and they’ll be featuring my work. That’s something that I want to look at again. I’m looking at it from the lens of repair—this is something that I really need to stress here—because I’m not so much replicating an old master’s painting, but I’m renovating it, and that’s where it’s really key and I have to really understand my language when it comes to that. It’s not a project around replication, but a project around renovation. So that’s a little bit of what I’m about to do in the studio.
This interview was edited for clarity and concision.