Thursday, February 5, 2009

FEB 11 MAWEN ONG | The Light at the End of the Tunnel Has Been Switched Off

installation by MAWEN ONG curated by ROBERTO CHABET
Opening February 11, 6PM, exhibition until March 7, 2009
Gallery Hours 2PM-6PM, Wednesday-Saturday

by Lena Cobangbang

There is said to be truth in illumination. But the fluorescent glow that shines upon objects that are supposed to illuminate one’s pondering about the sublime (through art ) often bear instead a greenish-bluish cast of sterile indifference like corpses in a morgue, or rather like expiring fruits in a grocer’s bin. When this happens, the commonplace things occupy rather one’s wonderment. Thus, banality is lent with that pall of associative dreaming deftly enabled by the frame, the cropping of a document, the snapshot, the very portable ready-mades of a highly consumerist and spectator-partisan culture.

This is no truer than Mawen Ong’s 28 lightboxes of light switches and electrical sockets found in the various art spaces, galleries, and museums in Manila and abroad that she’s visited – all looking nondescript as from a hardware catalogue, some crudely taped and painted over to feebly camouflage itself as part of the pristineness of the wall where an artwork should be the main attraction.
Ong’s penchant for the common things that are uncommonly taken interest by most such as trash cans, blank billboards, and shrouded infrastructure belie the weariness and boredom of a forced touristic enchantment. These things that are supposed to be hidden or taken out of the picture or thought to otherwise rob the picturesqueness of the scene are instead brought to focus as a coercive conspiracy to look at microscopically these things that pervade the same space of supposed attractions.

It is as though Ong’s pictured switches are the mechanisms to such withdrawal from the cacophony of these manufactured and mediated images.

Yet the means itself – digitally printed photographs of switches and plugs encased in light boxes, plugged into actual sockets, running on the gallery’s electrical power supply – short circuits on its own by its tautological ontology.

Tautology had been one of the philosophical schemes of conceptual art. It is a mirror reflecting what’s there in actual space, presenting “plain reality” verbatim, with nothing more or less to it, as said to be of Anastasi’s plaster cast of an electrical outlet, or that of Derek Jarman’s neon sign spelling light, or even that of Kosuth’s neon light spelling neon – all self-defining, self-terminating propositions but not entirely humorless in being gag props to all the seriousness of theory. These are the language games that smart but bored people play, yet not hard to understand or follow. However, as these accumulate they become a lexicon of indices, replacing actual objects as signifiers within the context of art especially. They thus become “formal doubles” as termed by Peter Halley in his essay Essence and Model to objects being duplicated themselves and thus “duplicating their art-effect”[1].

However, if the very essence of conceptual art as ‘idea art’ is postulated on the image (or any representation) of a lit bulb, what then of a switch or a three-pronged electrical socket? Does this foreground the arbitrariness of choosing when and what to see which is art or not art? Is it the same arbitrariness for which Duchamp’s use of readymades was based on as a “reaction of visual indifference with at the same time a total absence of good or bad taste ....... a complete anesthesia”? Or is this is an arbitrariness of ordering objects to supersede art and to consequently produce an art that can only signify artness? Or is this simply an electric impulse that surges through the spine and into the brain?

Presented here are snapshots, almost flat, clear readymades. The snapshot can be anything else, or can be everything else. Yet these choices can smother one into unquestioning acceptance whatever is within the frame, or lit and spotlighted in the space of spectatorship.

If it did and does so, the light is however not an illuminating one, but rather masks that light into an opaque monochrome, a dark mirror, a return to zero.

The light seen at the end of the tunnel after the switch has been turned off is but the after image of that glow.

[1] This pun to ‘artefact’ is probably intended by Halley as to imply as well the increasing uselessness of these objects as they correspondingly function more as mere signifiers, e.g. archeological finds such as clay vessels are lock-stocked instead in natural history museums for scholarly study of a certain civilization’s culture rather than regaining their original use.