Early this year, I curated an exhibition on body technologies and body modifications in the Philippines. The exhibition was based on a growing interest on the body as a starting point of discourse, which was rampant in the academic circle in the past decades. Together with my co-curators, my colleagues from the University of the Philippines namely B.L. Viray, O.D. Nieto and J.R. Javier, I am convinced that the increasing number of the most influential theorizations and conceptualizations has primarily, if not exclusively, focused on how the cultures in the West (Europe and the Americas) conceive it. Taking the cue from Bryan Turner and Zheng Yangwen, it is important to note that peoples in Asia have experienced colonization, decolonization and now globalization albeit different modalities. These contexts, as suggested by Turner and Zheng, are important socio-political and historical factors for understanding the Asian body.
On the occasion of the UP Diliman Festival of Culture and the Arts 2018, we titled the exhibition (Com)modified Bodies: Body Technologies, Body Modifications which was intended to celebrate the Filipino body as a creative realm and a locus of scholarly discourse.
I believe the exhibition answered these general questions: What do we mean when we talk about bodies in Philippine culture and society? What do we mean when we talk about Filipino bodies in different regions around the world? How do art, culture, and society affect the way we think about, do, and see the bodies of the Filipino people? How do we perform the body?
The exhibition opened on 13 February 2018 at the Hall of Wisdom, Asian Center of the University of the Philippines Diliman and it closed on 30 March 2018. I am grateful that the University of Amsterdam (through the Chemical Youth Project) co-funded the exhibition with the UP Diliman Office for Initiatives in Culture and the Arts.
This is the online “archive” of the exhibition.
In the pre-colonial Philippines, annotators of the Hispanic monarchy observed and recorded several ethnolinguistic communities practicing body modification as an indication of social status and as activities related to religious rites. One example observed is the insertion of the bolitas or small round pellets, made of plastic or metal, in the penis, oftentimes, of the datu to symbolize dominion, power, and authority.
In the Cordilleras in Northern Luzon, pre-colonial elders receive tattoos from a mambabatok to symbolize victory over tribal wars. Body piercings were also recorded in many pre-Hispanic communities in the Visayas and some areas of Luzon.
Today, body modification continues and, to some extent, has taken on completely different meanings and contexts. Aesthetics is the most common reason.
Often, people tend to misunderstand individuals who have undergone body modification rather than appreciate that these modifications were, once upon a time, integral in societal life.
The exhibit interrogated body modification, how it may be problematized and even used as a starting point for creative work and discourse. Juxtaposed are different engagements to body technologies which modern societies use either consciously or unconsciously, paving for a renewed ontology of the body.
Such ontology of the body is premised upon two provocations: first, its commodification is an attempt to alter it to suit the interpolation of popular culture as the beautiful, the true and the ideal; second is the need to modify due to practical and cultural necessities or the individual’s desire for communion with oneself and/or the community.
Five galleries were displayed to provoke the way we think of the body vis-à-vis modifications and technologies.
Prepared by K.B. Saure, J.R. Javier and G.M Salomon, the first gallery Subconscious Substance provided a glimpse of the different chemicals we put in/on our bodies to necessitate our social and public life.
The second gallery Named! was prepared by yours truly with J.C. Bautista and J.L. Gan. This gallery presented the actual words identified with body parts in Filipino (Tagalog and Cebuano), English and Chinese, and how these are modified into other terms based on how popular culture and other pidgin languages see these body parts. It also describes common technologies used to temporarily modify these body parts.
Conceived and prepared by M. Bernal and A. Gonzales, the third gallery The History of the Beautiful in the Philippines featured how the public eye transformed the idea of beauty based on several factors. The gallery proposed that these transformations are most of the time based on the hegemonic or dominant ideology/ies.
D.G. Oliveros, I. Ramirez, I. Azarcon-Bolivar, J.C. Bautista and yours truly prepared a series of videos featuring temporary and often quick body transformations, becoming the fourth gallery Cosmeticized!. One video presented was a collage of documentary films taken from YouTube outlining how quick and hurried body transformations may often lead to undesirable consequences.
Finally, the fifth gallery (Dis)Anatomized Bodies by B.L. Viray, O.D. Nieto and G.M. Salomon are portraits of nine individuals who underwent body alterations. Beside the portraits are their reasons for undergoing body modifications. Artist J. Ona took the portraits of the individuals who underwent body modifications and artist J. Villacruz did the graphics and lay-out of the huge portraits.
Overall, (Com)modified Bodies is an attempt to illustrate the body as not having a monolithic ontology and a proposal, perhaps, it is best to understand such ontology as dependent on its repeated and altered performance.