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Interview with Norberto Roldan


  by Ning Chong
Norberto Roldan (b. 1953) F-16, 2012 Oil and acrylic on canvas, diptych 6 feet x 12 feet (182.9 x 365.8 cm) overall Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum, New York Guggenheim

What is your earliest memory of art or art-making?

I come from a family of practicing architects, from grandfather to father and one brother, so drawing was second nature to us. I used to do lots of psychedelic posters because Hippie culture was prevalent during my teenage years. But I did not think much of it as art.

Take us through your thinking process which seems like an anthropological study, one that requires excavation and material analysis – how do you develop your ideas? 

I’m fascinated with anything old from the 18th to late 19th century. I often wonder whether an old object ceases to really matter once it ends up in a trunk or an attic. I collect stuff found in thrift shops. So somehow they acquire value as curiosities and commodities. I’m curious about old houses and their dismembered architectural details – old clothes and vintage fabrics, pre-Vatican 2nd vestments with their in-lays and intricate embroideries, old boxes, bottles, Christian and pagan artifacts, personal mementoes and sepia-colored photographs on silver gelatin prints. I’m always challenged to find ways in which I can re-appropriate these objects in another context and see how I can blur the past and resent, or break down disciplines that separate anthropology from contemporary art.

What other concepts (social, political, cultural) do you explore through your work?

My work is informed by history, war, religion, politics, mass media and contemporary society. I believe my practice on the whole straddles the divide between contemporary art and anthropology although it leans more heavily toward contemporary art. My work explores a dialogue between these two disciplines. While anthropology focuses on the interpretation of artifacts or objects as material culture, conversely, contemporary art employs anthropology as a strategy in constructing new perspectives and narratives out of material culture. While contemporary art practice has always been a process of negotiations between ‘life’ and ‘art’ within the context of certain discourses and aesthetic standards, anthropologists on the other hand approach this negotiation in relation to a wider public context. While contemporary Southeast Asian art tends to be more personal and intricately enmeshed with everyday life, anthropology on the other hand is expected to be socially and historically contingent. It is interesting that the line that separates these two positions is neither absolute nor passive. These observations are very interesting to me.

Reflecting on your creative path, which artists have influenced you?

Joseph Cornell’s box art has made an impact early on. John Baldessari’s conceptual approach to image construction is a significant influence. Filipino contemporary artists Roberto Chabet and Santiago Bose are also great inspirations.

What was your reaction when your work was selected for the Guggenheim show? What has the experience been like so far? Does the inclusion of the artwork in the context of the No Country exhibition provide it with additional meaning? 

It really was a big surprise for me to be selected for the Guggenheim show considering that my work F16 is critical of US foreign policy. Although the Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum and UBS are non-government institutions, I would imagine that selecting a work for a permanent collection for a US-based museum would be exhaustive in terms of its cultural and political justifications. F16 was produced originally as the center piece of a solo show I was preparing in 2012 entitled No Empire Lasts Forever. So its transition from a personal show to a major international exhibition No Country has added an affirmative dimension into it. The works speaks about the US and Philippine relations, but it also speaks about the US and its relations with countries in the Middle East. And, for that matter, it speaks how the US behaves as a superpower within the global context. So in a way it does not speak of any specific country. I would like to believe that this ambiguity lent itself to the exhibition’s curatorial narrative.

Over the last few decades, you have exhibited extensively in South East Asia, and the last international showcase was at Tate Modern in 2010. What are your thoughts on the rapid globalization of the art world in recent years, and has this affected your practice and career?

During the 70s and 80s, and before the advent of the internet, Filipino artists were more familiar with American modern art thanks to Art in America and Art Forum. It was only in the 90s that we became more familiar with contemporary art from Indonesia, Malaysia, Thailand, Singapore, China, India and to some extent, Japan and Australia, thanks to the Asian Art Shows which were later on reconfigured into Fukuoka Triennial in Fukuoka, Japan; and the Asia Pacific Triennial in Queensland, Australia. But I think we owe much to the information highways for learning more and learning fast about our neighbors. The significant thing about globalization is now we are able to see developments in major art centers of the world vis-à-vis developments in our own region. In short we are much better off now in terms of contextualizing our trajectories within the scheme of the art market, or outside it, and towards a wider public audience.

How do you think the arts scene in Manila will develop in the next 5-10 years?

I will only venture to say that the art scene in Manila was totally different 5-10 years ago when artists were so entrenched in doing their works and showing them in independent and alternative spaces unencumbered by the market. There was a strong sense of community among artists during those times. But the commercial galleries and a growing collector’s base have changed all that. I’m not sure and am actually scared where all this will lead 5-10 years after…

Thank you.