My first look at Patrick Cruz’s show at Franz Kaka happened one evening after the show had already opened and Cruz was scheduled to freestyle at the gallery. I watched Cruz perform with his sculptures and paintings all around, coalescing into a stage he had created for himself, complete with set design, sound and audience. He laid down beats using his own voice, looping them into rhythmic patterns and improvised lyrics, occasionally referencing objects in the room, and asking the audience to suggest a word he could use as a starting point. Someone yelled out “hair” and he rapped about braids and curls and myriad other things as they bubbled up automatically. “I’ve been holding with the dark chill electric fan,” he rapped as he gestured to the black fan sitting on the floor of the gallery and aimed at his sculpture Esoteric Postures, 2018.
A wind chime attached to this metre-tall sculpture added an extra, tinny soundtrack to his freestyle, being constantly agitated by the fan. A carved coconut mask hanging with the chime, of the kind found in “ethnic” shops selling imports from Bali, India or the Philippines, portrayed a face with a pair of stylized eyes, and open mouth and centipedes crawling over the cheeks, chin and forehead. The centipedes formed a sort of third eye for the mask, implying perhaps its ability to see the unseen with the help of animal friends—a truth-seer drawing strength from the wild attributes the colonizers tried to shame him for. Covered in centipedes, attuned to the earth, or just dead, food for the critters.
Cruz reminded me that “Americans brought fans to the Philippines; they brought some good things too, not just bad things.” During regular gallery hours viewers heard chimes from the soundtrack to Gold Fish, 2018, a single-channel video shot in Tacloban City, Philippines, near a World War Two monument depicting the lauded American general Douglas MacArthur.
In 1944 MacArthur led the occupying American forces to retake the Philippines from the invading Japanese empire. That MacArthur is celebrated despite his representing a colonizing force is confounding. After the sale of the islands by Spain to the United States for $20 million and immense casualties in the Philippine-American war of 1899, America refused to recognize the Philippines as a sovereign republic, adopting Spain’s colonial project. “People forget that MacArthur also did a lot of horrible things, hence the title Gold Fish. The Philippines’ masses valorize American culture. It’s been colonized so many times that they’re just tired,” was Cruz’s opinion.
The video shows the area directly around the monument but leaves the monument itself out. “I filmed the activity around the monument,” he explained, “in a gesture of claiming the space. By not showing it I’m able to shift the conversation in a decolonial direction.” In the video we see a casual glimpse of life in the Philippines. There are students with backpacks, a man speaking on a cellphone, a dog. Based on their clothes, this could be anywhere in the world. They wear Western-style sneakers and jeans. Then, a close-up shot of coy fish in the pool around the monument, and an airplane in the sky.
Western documentaries on the Philippines, especially older ones, often point out how surprisingly modern it is. “It’s hard to find a Filipino who doesn’t speak at least some English, which makes it very nice for the American tourist,” Rick Howard inappropriately says in his 1977 film. “I don’t want to give the impression that the Philippines is a primitive country,” he continues, “it’s not; the people who live in the larger cities live lives as modern as almost anyone in the world, but the country does have its primitive tribes, and often they are living close to the larger cities.”
The persistence of the pre-modern in the face of colonial, Christianizing and modernizing forces is a recurring theme in Cruz’s work. This tension is expressed in the exhibition through pairing formal and informal display modes; some works are framed or shown on a video screen, while others are messy and wild, resembling non-Western crafts made with provisional materials like pistachio shells, seashells and bottle caps.
Cruz’s adoption of craft in the context of a gallery points to the difference between imported trinkets in Chinatown stores and the artworks on display in commercial galleries. That some creative labour is valued in cents and other labour in hundreds of thousands of dollars remains a symbol of inequality both inside and outside the art world. Cruz challenges these hierarchies and exclusions, not just in his choice of materials but also in his working style, which takes cues from the art of freestyle in its flowing, automatic qualities.
What makes this work so different from what is shown in the dominant circuits of galleries and fairs is its decidedly unprecious quality. Cruz often displays his paintings on the floor, as literally something to be walked on, eliciting a mild sense of guilt in the viewer for stomping on supposedly valuable art. The lesson is that art is a practice in constant flow, a ritual and habit that, when well practised, will yield results that are rooted in tradition but new every time, and, when the artist is lucky, magical.
“By What Signs Will I Come to Understand” was exhibited at Franz Kaka, Toronto, from June 28 to July 21, 2018.
Anna Kovler is an artist and writer living in Toronto.