Art & Landscape with Wawi Navarroza
Eva: Let’s talk about the idea of landscape which has been a very important influence on your work.
Wawi: For the past few years, the trajectory in my work has always been following a certain way of looking at landscape in a contemporary light. From a perspective that’s not about looking at Another, like a postcard veduta, but that perspective where it’s seen from where you stand. In that way I follow my curiosity for materials, getting to know what is of that land.
I did ‘Hunt & Gather Terraria‘ when I was coming back to Manila while trying to find my footing. I tried to understand a small thing that’s reflecting a bigger thing; at that time it was urban plants. The plants mirrored and proposed more questions about how we relate psycho-geographically with our land, with our city, and also activating participation with people who are also inhabitants of the city.
The next work I did was ‘Tierra Salvaje’ which got even more zoomed in on the soil, the dirt. I made dirt drawings on top of photographs and used photography to freeze things that seem to be collaged.
When I was going through a full out biophile phase, encountering all these natural things, the stone would always be there. I found it intriguing because it’s a material that seems to be pervasive. But it’s a clue that the stone actually came from a bigger chunk of land, and here that land is Romblon. Little by little I opened up this conversation about marble as it is situated in here in the Philippines, in a tropical island where it seems to exist magically because it’s unusual to associate marble with something tropical.
How did you select Romblon as your starting point and what was it like to work there?
I have this very childlike process of just going for it when I’m curious. I was curious about a stone. I always knew that Romblon was the marble capital of the Philippines but I really didn’t know much about it. Because it’s so close to us, there’s always a tendency to overlook things that are just around us. So in my work as an artist I always try to examine the overlooked and give it importance.
With the plants, I gave importance to weeds, things that were growing around us that nobody really paid attention to. And with the power of poetizing, it kind of gives it space to be looked at.
Like a natural scientist who goes forth in the jungle, I was going to something strange, not knowing what to expect in Romblon. In the two years, coming back and forth by the sea, the island opened up, the people opened up, I started knowing places and I felt the rhythm of life there.
I’m not a documentarian, I don’t do reportage; in my work it’s always a mix of fact and fiction just because it’s the way I speak in terms of images. I would spend stretches of weeks and sometimes go home with nothing, not because there was nothing to photograph but I abstract things in my work.
Everyday I was met with the realities you can see in this exhibition and also the magical element to it which was in my imagination, in the stories from the people of Romblon who have lived and worked with marble ever since they were little, meals we spent together, nights we were singing and drinking by the beach. Naturally I became like an adopted Romblomanon in a sense.
But as you said, this importantly is not reportage, or a documentary about Romblon. It’s about something more universal via stone itself. The idea that stone can be heavy and light, soft and hard, especially through your use of marble dust. So moving away the Romblon can you tell us a little bit more about this idea of stone and doubleness?
In my early conversations with you, it’s always about this doubleness but it’s very subtle, it’s very sneaky. So for me, it was something of a curious realization when I saw the dust first. The dust had a lot to do with it. It was everywhere. It was just all white.
In the workshops, you could see it on the plants speckled with white powder. In the same vein as the urban plant works of ‘Hunt & Gather Terraria‘ reflect a whole urban landscape; and I saw marble and the mountain in that dust.
The dust was very powerful device for me because that’s when I saw that this material which was hard, a very hard material to work with. The initial challenge was how do I work with a material that’s been used so much in art history. A material that’s evocative of mausoleums and monuments, all these things that are grand, almost a bit far removed from what we really experience when we go to a mountain. So I said, if I’m going to work with marble I’m going to show the heaviness of it, but also the lightness that it represents in terms of symbolism and in terms the colours. I wanted to present this doubleness from the heavy to the light, from the big to the small.
From the macro to the micro.
From the huge mountain to the chunk of rock and down to the breakdown of the material is illustrated and also interpreted. Reintroducing this material and possibly resurrecting our ideas of myth. It’s myths that are activated when we encounter this touchstone, when we’re reminded of what we know of mythology. This is not a retelling of the Medusa tale, a retelling of the Perseus tale, but it activates certain moments in those stories, certain associations.
The Island, 2017 archival pigment ink print on Hahnemühle fine art paper, mounted on acrylic support, framed. 30 x 45 in (76.2 x 114.3 cm) Edition 1 of 5.
Monolith, Sibuyan Sea, 2017 archival pigment ink print on Hahnemühle fine art paper, mounted on acrylic support, framed 30 x 45 in
(76.2 x 114.3 cm) Edition 1 of 5.
And you illustrated that in the dust painting that you are showing in the exhibition. Can you tell us a little more about what these works represent and why you felt it was important to include them in the show?
This one is called Collecting Dust, A & B and the other set is 12 Heads. It’s a very crucial part of the exhibition and it’s non-photographic. But I would still say it’s a recording; the same way photography is recording a scene from of the camera, so the canvas was recording something that was going on in front of it.
The reason it was created was I want to take the viewer on location where the workshops were, where the marble was being negotiated with. You’re negotiating with the mountain, you’re negotiating with machine, the heat, and everything. I wanted to record on surface that was passively sitting there for four to five months. We talked about land, we also talk about time because landforms don’t just take a day to make. In fact, Romblon is a growing island, in that the island itself is marble through and through from sea bed to the top of the mountains. The time factor there is also about the work it takes to finish things, whether you’re an artist or a marble worker, it records that process that we go through.
12 Heads was done more actively with my participation. I manipulated it with myself, looking how the forms were made by the machines as they’re were going throughout the process of cutting marble. There’s water, oil, all these elements in there. Those for me are very important because the DUST… the dust is very important. For art history’s reflection of it, the dust for me as always been associated with some ash. I’ve worked with Volcano before so there’s this memory of ashes, and I’ve had a fire last year so there’s this kind of referencing to it and almost putting the ghost back, something more transcendent that the ash becoming marble dust.
Returning to photography which is your main medium, can you talk about how the Medusa, and the idea of the gaze and her petrifying stare because that is what I always love about your work; the powerful presence you create through absence. This is something we’ve talked about for a long time now which is very tangible now because Medusa is such an evocative character in such an evocative story and yet she’s all but invisible in this show. It’s the idea of the gaze that weaves into the notion of photography that you’re looking at instead.
I love that you get it right away. A lot of people ask why it’s called Medusa. First of all, like you said, I always stressed one thing by absence.
In this exhibition Medusa is pervasive in that her eyes are on everything and the Medusa is never just in one thing; it’s not just me, we don’t know. It’s like this very precarious mystery, like who is the Medusa in this exhibition? Is it me, the photographer or artist, who’s orchestrated this, who has petrified all materials that you’ve seen here?
Or is photography the Medusa? Now when we enter the conversation about the gaze and about how the camera works, it basically petrifies the image and renders it permanent. So it turned the scenes into stone? Or is Medusa the viewer, who’s looking in front of the framed pictures on the wall and who’s seeing their reflections, like how Medusa saw herself in the shield. I like that kind of movement. I like displacements.
In my work, I like to play with my audience in a way that the meaning is never one thing. In fact, I give them work to do, it’s not just about, “Here, I present a showcase of Romblon’s marble.” It’s not like that. It’s an engagement with the way people look at their participation in the work as well, as the final step. Medusa is the eye, so you just have to find it. Again, there’s a doubleness to it. She’s not really the monstrous character that we know… or she could be. When you turn to stone, what does it mean? What does it mean when you say someone has got a stone heart, stone cold, you know. And how is it now reflecting the bigger issues of our time when we are forced to be stoic or weather through it all? More ideas are jumping off from these associations. Medusa is the one that ferries you into further meaning.
I also wanted to also talk about the importance of travel because throughout the years that we’ve known each other, it’s very clear that you’re a natural seeker, a traveler. This curiosity then feeds into the concept of the Ultramar which occurs again and again in your work.
I would always say that Ultramar would always be my life’s work. There’s a lot of my life integrated into the way I see things which eventually ends up in the works you see in a gallery or a book. Ultramar is basically the perspective of somebody looking at the other shore. It could be seen as an exploration, and it could also be seen as something that seeks to understand where you are at that point.
So in this many actuations of landscapes I still do portraiture and tableau. All of that has to do with Landscape, whether it’s an external landscape or it’s an interior landscape.
When you’re looking at a new place, you’re not just there as a tourist, you’re there to be transformed by that place. You’re looking at things in a new way. You follow the clues, “why are they eating like that? Why is there boknoy? Where is this dust coming from?”. And then you realize because they came from the workshop, and the workshop came from these trucks, and these trucks came from the mountain, the mountain came from the sea.
Medusa as exhibited in Silverlens, from left to right: Perseus (portrait of a young marble worker), Twelve Heads n°1–9, The Ballad of the Marble Men (the dust that won’t settle), and (in foreground) A Feast in the Forest.
And you’ve designed the exhibition in a certain way to provide these touchstones for the viewer and we’re sitting on this incredible marble table as well, with the specially commissioned objects that you requested. Can you talk a little bit more about the exhibition design and how viewers are guided through this visual journey?
Sentinels (turn to stone), 2017 archival pigment ink print on Hahnemühle fine art paper, mounted on acrylic support, framed. 40 x 60 in (101.6 x 152.4 cm) Edition 1 of 5.
Perseus (portrait of a young marble worker), 2017 archival pigment ink print on Hahnemühle fine art paper, mounted on acrylic support, framed. 60 x 48 in (152.4 x 121.92 cm) Edition 1 of 5.
There’s a loose narrative when you enter the gallery, you see two photos, as if the viewer enters as a ship, or they’re on a boat. They’re seeing something in the horizon, the island, that’s the first image they see. Further on, they see this block of stone, sitting precariously, perched on soil, looking over the sea, and then there’s the mystery that’s presented itself there like the opening scene on 2001: Space Odyssey. It’s like this monolith, a signal that says there’s something there, now let’s be curious. Then the gallery opens up into this big white space filled with amazing light. You can see everything that is the little nuances of the marble colour. The photographic prints come alive in the large format works. That to me as a photographer, gives a lot of pleasure to seeing a work of mine on print and on the wall so I really want people to see all of that down to the framing. The framing is also very important. I wanted to remind people of the dusty nature of the work, so the work is encased in these white dusty slightly weathered frames.
When you walk through the gallery it’s a circular radial arrangement. You encounter the columns, something very familiar from what we from the Greco-Roman traditions. Then you encounter all these abstractions made by geometrics of the work. You see this big figure, he’s the one commanding the space basically, almost demanding for you to look, see, marble, you and it’s empty. You can write on it if you want, you know, but it could also be your tombstone. It’s this kind of duplicity, duality, and doubleness, again. Tabularasa is for people who want to start from scratch but it could also be a headstone or to memorialise something that already was past and needs to be remembered so he’s the one saying that and he’s the one also activating all our classical memories of art history, the David, the Atlas Shrugged, the things that are pre-existent, and it’s the biggest work in this exhibition.
You go around and you see the tableau of men working in marble, it’s called The Ballad of the Marble Men (the dust that won’t settle). This is very important to me because it captures that kind of ethereal white dust everywhere that you just see in a dream. It’s a very severe work as well, you see the machine, you see the stones but you clearly see also that it’s in a tropical place. You can see palm trees at the back with the light shining on it. It’s so white you can also see reflection when you’re looking at it so it’s like you’re part of it. When you go behind this installation A Feast in the Forest, you see it like a setting in your house, you would put a painting at the back a dining wall but it also reminds you that these things on the table came from there, they worked on it.
Perseus is the first one you encounter, or the last, it’s like a bookend. It’s a very classic portrait of a young marble worker. That was a pleasure for me, to capture that image in the workplace, everything in situ. There’s the whole thesis of the work here, the fact and fiction of this project, and he’s embodied it here in his face and the way he looks at me, at the camera and the way he’s holding the marble. It echoes something very familiar and I realise that this familiar was this bronze sculpture of Perseus holding Medusa’s head, Perseus by Benvenuto Cellini at the Piazza della Signora in Florence. It’s recognising the archetype as well, that’s at work around us. The way he’s holding the marble, it seems like it’s almost effortless but there’s a whole kind of weight of meaning there as well.
Beside him there’s the Twelve Heads. Are these the twelve heads of Medusa that were cut? Or the twelve heads meaning the figureheads, the people who make things happen? Or it could be interpreted as you know, memorial stones. It’s not just one meaning. It could be interpreted in many layers.
It comes together very quietly, it’s a very classic show and I went back to basics on this one. I think my works’ tendency to do with tableau—the portraits, the landscape, non-photography surface, and installation is here. So it’s a little bit of looking back and putting it all together in this exhibition. I thought that the landscape was best presented in this way, to expand and introduce a wider, more massive work after two years from my last exhibition.
A Feast in the Forest, 2017, 1 solid marble tabletop with carved snake stand (100cm x 250cm), 10 solid marble stools, 10 plates, 10 goblets,10 coffee cups and saucers, 1 vase with flowers, 1 3-tier server, 2 candelabras, 2 pitchers, 6 softdrinks, 2 Sioktong bottles, 3 ash trays, 5 atis fruit, 5 bananas, 12 boknoy (siopao), dimension variable.
So, from this vantage point, what do you think you’re going do next?
Next? Pack my bags somewhere else. You know, it never ends. My relationship with Romblon is not gonna end here so there’s gonna be more of that but I don’t know. There a big blur, it’s like I’m covered in this—marble dust—but then your eyes clear out and you’ll see things clearer as it gets closer.