Leo Abaya and the Illusion of Desire

Photo by Pinggot Zulueta

By DIDY EVANGELISTA, Manila Bulletin Publishing
November 7, 2011, 11:52am

MANILA, Philippines — There is a sense of theatricality in Leo Abaya’s work. Not quite over the top, but neither simple nor quiet; his artwork make strong statements about humanity, whether it is the body, the psyche, or how humans interact with one another. He observes Philippine society and records his observations as art, leaving behind commentary – not quite a complaint, but not a compliment either. He is subversive, preferring the subtlety of espionage as opposed to the vulgarity of an open attack. Abaya could be dangerously in the domain of being here nor there, but no, he has made himself a force to contend with; someone who knows who he is, what he’s saying, and what he stands for.

Welcome to the world of Leo Abaya.

Inspired by Tanha

In Abaya’s newest collection, “Sense, Sate,” we see once again the power of Abaya’s thoughts translated into art form. Inspired by the Buddhist concept Tanha, which literally means “thirst” and is synonymous with “desire” or “craving”, Abaya explores how Filipinos as a society are always in search for that something that will satisfy desire, consuming them in the process. Tanha, in Buddhist writings, is identified as the origin of all suffering, and concerns not only the desires of the flesh (sense and sensual pleasures), but also the desire for existence and non-existence.

Focus on Sensuality

Abaya focuses on sensuality and how we are fixated on bombarding ourselves with stimuli. Abaya points out how we have become captive to our desire for sensation, craving stimulation and becoming addicted for more, and more. We have become so attached to what we are searching for that we are consumed by it. Explains Abaya, “It is my belief that contemporary life is simply the way it is because of desire. Because…it is our nature to want.”

Play on Words

“Sense, Sate” is a clever play on words, using two sense organs to come up with two meanings. If one just hears the title, “Sense, Sate” becomes “sensate,” which points to humans as beings who feel. But if one sees and reads the title, it reveals a binary – “sense” and “sate.” Abaya explains it further, saying, “Binary in the sense, because of desire, our senses easily goes to the excess. Sensation is not enough. The want to be sated cannot be far behind. We have to be sated, sometimes when we don’t need it anymore.”

Although Abaya is not a practicing Buddhist, he subscribes to the philosophies presented in Buddhism, relating to the ethical and moral view points of the religion. He says, “I cannot pretend to be Buddhist because I am not a Buddhist. I am inspired by Tanha. If I try appropriating Buddhism, parang ano, fake.” Instead, he takes the Buddhist concepts and applies it to the things he knows very well.

Catholic Imagery

Which could very well explain the Catholic imagery found in his work, having been born and raised a Catholic. But Abaya is quick to point out that it’s not really Catholicism per se that he’s alluding to; it’s more about the rituals of the religion. He’s interested in the metaphor of the rituals, how sensual it is. “If you think about how religion is practiced, how it is propagated, how the myth of religion is actually extended, it’s very sensate,” says Abaya. He observes how the Catholic religion separates the body from the soul, but at the same time, the rituals call on the use of the senses – the communion wafer and the wine for taste, the incense for smell, the music for hearing and the overall pageantry of rituals.

A striking piece in his collection is the huge oil painting entitled “Donde, Where, Saan?” which has a mouth opened as if about to receive communion. A white blank space is on the tip of the tongue, and several companion pieces entitled “Binabawal, Binabanal” with numbers from one to three have been custom made to fit the white space. On those companion pieces are images that fool the eye, making the viewer question what he is actually looking at.

Nothing is What It Seems

“My theme [in this collection] is really that nothing is what it seems. I’m interested in the idea of simulating things that aren’t really what they are,” says Abaya. Even the materials that make up his art create an illusion. “Dama Naranja,” a bust of a prominent entertainment personality with a lifesaver around her neck and has about a hundred or so nipples on her head instead of hair, is not fully made out of bronze. It’s a mixture of bronze powder and resin supported by fiberglass; but the result is deceptively good.

Disciple of Film

Before Abaya came into his current incarnation as an artist, he was first a disciple of film, studying scriptwriting under Ricky Lee and even writing a few scripts for television shows. But as much as he loved writing, “writing didn’t love me back,” says Abaya, and so he focused on the visual side of the film industry. With some cajoling from friend and director Brillante Mendoza, who was then a production designer, Abaya started work as an art director, eventually becoming a production designer for movies by Chito Roño, and then later on, working with Marilou Diaz-Abaya on José Rizal and Muro-ami. The last film he worked on was the multi-awarded Kubrador by Jeffrey Jeturian. Abaya has also worked in theater as a set designer, creating worlds for productions by the Philippine Educational Theater Association (PETA) and Dulaang UP with Anton Juan.

The Use of Space

It is with this background that gives “Sense, Sate” the drama and theatrics that effectively communicate the excessiveness and overconsumption of desire. His pieces are informed by what he does in film and theater, especially when it comes to using space and the concept of seeing from afar. This is more obvious in the “Sense, Sate” installation which takes up a hallway that is made to look bigger than it is with the help of mirrors.

The installation has over 800 cold cast marble reliefs of repeating images – hearts with a tongue, a pair of ears, a nose and a nipple. The mirrors and the clever placing of the sculptures create infinity, a never-ending hallway of organs that allow humans to sense things. Abaya deliberately excluded the eyes, preferring to make the viewer a living part of the installation, making them aware that they are also part of desire and how it consumes them.

A Hallway of Desire

“I wanted the idea of infinity, but that a lot of it is also an illusion. When you look at it, it is a hallway of desire, infinity, but also limited. Our senses actually liberate us as beings, but at the same time, they binds us. I’m interested in those two things. Things aren’t always what they seem,” says Abaya, adding, “There are other senses, like the proprioceptor sense. The senses that make us aware of where we are; our relation to space. I did not include that because it’s a different ball game, it’s phenomenological.”

Fundamentals of the Senses

Although there is a possibility of his collection being interpreted as erotic (and in some circles as scandalous), Abaya offers a different perspective, countering that his intention was to put the sexy far behind. “I wanted to focus more on the fundamentals of the senses. [With the nipples], it’s one of the most highly sensitive parts of the body. Eroticism cannot be far behind, but at the same time, we have to remember that all of us suckled. In a way it’s erotic. At the same time, there is something very basic about the nipple as an image of nurturance.”

Abaya is interested in exploring further his various musings on desire, the senses and the human body and placing them not on a pedestal in their complete form, but rather to be always constructing and deconstructing them. Abaya says, “The body will always figure in my work. I know that I will always be interested in…what the relationship of the human body is to history.” He adds, “I have a sensibility that manifests itself. I’m interested in the traditional way of painting, but I’m also interested in debunking it. If I have a problem with traditionalistic art, I want to make a critique within the structures, not outside. I’d like to subvert rather than attack. I like the idea na seduce and then attack. That’s more me.”

“Sense, Sate” is on exhibit at the Tin-Aw Art Gallery until November 12. For more information, contact Dawn Atienza at 892.7522 or visit www.tin-aw.com.

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