AAA-A’s Ali Van and AAA’s Gabi Chan sat with artist Lyra Abueg Garcellano to engage in a conversation about her recent and past works as well as her time as a resident artist in New York City.
Ali Van (AV): Thank you so much for having us in your studio today. In the gallery upstairs, you mentioned that your residency would be ending soon?
Lyra Garcellano (LG): Yes, I leave at the end of July.
AV: When did you arrive?
LG: I arrived in the cold, on January 31, but I like the cold so it was fine.
AV: How did you hear about the ACC [Asian Cultural Council]?
LG: Well, ACC is quite well known in Asia. But, I really heard about it through an exhibition – there was a group show at our cultural center back home, with works by several ACC grantees. I kept the catalogue, not really knowing what to do with it. It was in my studio for five years, just sitting there – and then one day, I picked it up and thought, ‘Hmm, okay, maybe I should give this a try.’ I was in Singapore when I worked on my proposal. If I may be slightly clichéd, things just fell into place.
AV: Is this your first time in New York?
LG: Well, yes and no. I was here ten years ago, but for different reasons and spent most of my time visiting tourist spots. Usually, I stay out in California where I have family, but I decided to take a trip to New York and also to New Jersey, to visit an uncle. So I’ve been here before, but this is my first time here to make art.
AV: Your first visit for artistic pursuit – how has it been so far? How has being here influenced your practice?
LG: Everyday, I’m trying to process lots of things. I really like New York’s relationship to accessibility, mobility and independence. I’ve lived most of my life in Manila. Over there, sometimes even the simple ‘walk down the street’ isn’t easy. I get all rattled up by the noise, and it’s not that safe – though some people will contest that and say it’s all in my head – but here, I can go anywhere. I don’t need to depend on anyone and if I don’t like where I am, I can leave and go somewhere else by train. Trains stop at midnight in Manila. There are more limitations back home than there are here. The main reason I love New York is that every place carries new possibility.
AV: Has New York influenced your artistic thought process? In some of your past work, you engage in notions of dream and removal. Is your work here a continuation of your ‘Falling’ series? It seems you often lift yourself to a different place, regardless of your physical location. Can you talk about your work in relation to being here in the ‘Big Apple’, and here as a resident artist of Location One?
LG: A lot of my past work dealt with restraint, specifically cultural restraint. I worked with that for a really long time, and it eventually influenced the ‘Falling’ series. The series is about being restrained and limited in emotional, psychological, physical, or social ways. You fall, and sometimes you don’t want to get up again, so there is also a sense of paralysis in those works. There is a connection with sleep too – you don’t really know you are sleeping because you are either resting or escaping. There is always that possibility of entering a monstrous place; there’s a dream, some form of reality, a nightmare and then you wake up in real time. The work relates to my life. There has always been a point where the restraint has made a place feel unsafe for me. You’ve almost resigned, and you don’t know where to move, or if you’re stuck or not yet stuck. So, my works have always been punctuated with notions of paralysis and movement.
AV: It’s not complete restraint though, is it? You mentioned feeling independent, and that all things familiar or distasteful or frustrating have dematerialized.
LG: Yes, you can keep them at bay here, more or less. I’m experiencing a different kind of restraint, like different countries negotiating histories; how people perceive you and how you perceive yourself. Being here is like, ‘Hey, you’re going to give me trouble? Well, I’m going to do something about it.’ Back home, I can’t seem to do anything about trouble when it comes around. There is some semblance of hope here.
AV: It’s true. It’s funny; many visiting resident artists have expressed difficulty adjusting to the New York atmosphere. A sense of loneliness pervades. But it sounds like you have broken through the barrier rather quickly.
LG: Well, I’ve never had problems with anonymity, because I like it. It’s easier for me. If you’re conscious of it, everything becomes much more difficult. I am able to deal with that aspect of loneliness. Sometimes I can be with a group of people but feel extremely lonely; especially if they speak about things I’m not interested in. I’ve never had issues with anonymity, but I do understand it. I never dismissed it; I’ve just learned to see things in chapters, and this isn’t the be-all end-all. Could be better, could be worse.
AV: That’s great to hear. Can we talk a little about your work in Location One’s gallery?
LG: Yes. There are two big paintings and a few collages, about eight pieces in total.
AV: Did you curate your own show?
LG: I asked Clare Stephenson, an artist from Glasgow, to help me hang the show. I was working on the pieces for so long I didn’t know how to view the works anymore. It was really great having her help.
AV: What was your process? I enjoy the way the collaged fragments map and refocus our attention to your canvas paintings, and to their relationship to the architecture of the gallery space. Can you also talk about how these collaged pieces relate to your paintings?
LG: Yes. I initially began working on paintings about falling, restraint, and sleeping. I brought with me my rigid and structured methods. When I got here, I told myself to do something different, which is hard because I like compartmentalizing things and having control. With these collaged fragments, I was hoping to get somewhere new. I was peeling things away during the process, both physically and mentally, to see where the fragments would take me. So, they are snippets of my head where nothing is definite, and about the things that need to be grasped in layers. With my falling paintings, everything has always been clear-cut. The fragments are like satellite pieces. I enjoyed making them because they are totally not me; they have bits and pieces of me and what I had been doing before, but they are unfamiliar, ‘go with the flow’ pieces. I’m not a ‘go with the flow’-type person.
AV: No, I understand. It’s hard to tell yourself to limit or remove all sense of control, to allow your consciousness to disappear for a while. Losing control can be difficult but the outcome is often surprising. Do you think you’re going to continue working with and in this unfamiliar territory?
LG: Well, I want to and I’ve been encouraged to, and I’m working to build a confidence for these pieces. It’s a new arena for me. But at some point, I think that if I want to change my art, I have to change the way I think and make something. It would be great to live that philosophy all the time, but it would be going against my concept of restraint! (Laughter)
AV: Are your subjects of importance to you? They become shadow/non-shadow-like forms in your paintings, and they are almost always female forms. I overheard in the gallery that one of the subjects in your paintings came to visit Location One recently?
LG: Yes, she was here yesterday! I met her here in New York, and she has become a very good friend of mine. We always tell each other that it’s really funny that we only just met, because she is Japanese and I am Filipino and instead of meeting closer to home, we met here in New York. We work in different fields, but when we met we just hit it off. All the models in my works have always been good friends of mine. The intimate relationship with my subjects is important to me. I feel all my works are sometimes a little about me and how I feel, so I need to have an affinity with the people I work with. It just so happens they are mostly female. I have been asked if there is a particular reason I paint females. Initially, I didn’t have gender politics in mind; I guess it’s just easier for me to work with females. I spend a lot of time with them during the photographic process, so there is a lot of talking and they like talking!
AV: So the paintings are based on photographs?
LG: Yes, I always take photos first, and then I play with the images on my computer. The photos are taken in different environments, so I need to make some changes to make them a part of a collective. We go through people’s closets, and most of the photographs are taken in their homes, not mine. So it’s very much about them too.
AV: A lot of the fabrics you paint are quite luminescent – there is something very sensual about the work. I guess it’s interesting and pertinent to hear that your intimate relationship with your subject is of importance. Can you tell us a little about your process? How do your subjects react to your process and to the paintings?
LG: Before I made my ‘falling’ and ‘sleeping’ series, I made a series about me, my ‘trouble’ series, and started off using myself as subject. With my subjects, I always have a vague idea of what I want, but it really depends on how we work together. We don’t always move toward the idea in my head. Sometimes, we work together for four hours, because we are quite rigid to begin with; there is a vulnerable state that needs to break. And we all have our personal space issues so we have to begin by learning to trust each other. It was always interesting to see how relaxed my subjects would become towards the end of a session, and how surprised they would be with the photographs and their capability to make the photographs possible. At first you’re moving so self-consciously, and then you feel like a changed person. At the end, we would all see things in a very different way.
AV: At the beginning, did you like using your own form as subject? What made you switch?
LG: I saw my limitations. If I were to just use myself, I would already know where I’d go with the idea and it would make following a new direction difficult, in a metaphysical way. Practically, there is work involved in directing other people; I don’t set up grand productions, I just have my camera and I bring some food, and I go to their homes so that they can feel more comfortable. It was difficult at first because I would become an authority figure, asking them to reposition themselves in their own familiar space. I don’t think I could make people feel comfortable in any space but their own. I’d have anxieties if they came to my home!
AV: If you had homemade cookies ready, I’m sure you could get anyone to work with you comfortably in your home! I would surely be happy to participate.
LG: Yes! I always tell my friends that their talent fees are food-based, so after these mini productions, we go out for drinks, talk, and have fun. My subjects never see the works until they go up on the walls, so there is always a nice anticipation that builds – I don’t know if they like the work until they are up for show.
AV: I think you have a good system going. Well, how has this residency affected you and how is it different from you’re your previous residencies? If I recall, you recently participated in an important program in Indonesia.
LG: Yes, in Yogyakarta, Indonesia. It was a two-month residency. I thought it was quite grueling, because it was so short and because I don’t speak Indonesian. But Yogyakarta has a vital, living art scene, so there was a lot from which to learn. At the time, I was also trying to figure out where to position myself as an artist from the Philippines.
AV: What year was that?
LG: It was in 2002.
AV: And you had just graduated?
LG: I graduated in 1994 with a degree in Interdisciplinary Studies. I knew I wanted to be in the arts, which is why I enrolled in school again to study Studio Arts for four years. I graduated in 2000.
AV: Were you painting before that?
LG: I was painting for myself, and making a lot of drawings. The school helped broaden my understanding about art and different forms of visual arts. I absorbed a lot of things in school. In Yogyakarta, I absorbed even more and also made my first performance piece.
AV: What kind of performance?
LG: Well, my only performance, I should say. It was integral to the place. Indonesia and the Philippines are so similar. I wanted to perform a work about the distribution of land because both countries were colonized by different Europeans – they, the Dutch, and us, the Spanish, Japanese, and Americans. Both countries have always had land issues, and some things haven’t changed. So I dug a hole in the private institution and put bits of the dirt in labeled packages and gave them to people, a land-gift, of sorts.
AV: That sounds very engaging. Do you have the performance recorded?
LG: Yes, I will get a copy to AAA’s researcher in the Philippines, Ringo Bunoan, who is very active in the Manila art scene. There is also a catalogue I can show you here; it was published in 2002. One of the things I was asked to do during my residency was write about my experience, and they published the catalogue for me.
AV: Wonderful. Thank you. Speaking of print, I understand you have a comic series too. Is that something you work on regularly?
LG: For the first time in eight years, I haven’t been writing my comic! I was doing it six days a week for the Philippines’ Daily Inquirer. If I traveled, I would email my drawings to the editor. But for this residency, I asked my editor for a break, so I could focus on my art making.
AV: My goodness. So your readers are waiting avidly for the next installment.
LG; Well, I hope so! The comics are a different part of me, about how to deal with life. It’s based on my teddy bear and me. We talk about existential bitterness. Sometimes I touch on art. I touch on everything; it depends on how I’m feeling that day. Sometimes, I would get calls from my readers asking ‘Are you okay?’ because there was a point when I was talking about getting fat and how flab was beautiful, and that people should just eat cake all the time. People were worried about my health; it’s funny some people don’t disassociate the character from its author.
AV: It sounds like you have been productive here and that you like New York. For any artist, it is probably always a city worth visiting.
LG: Yes. I suppose New York either kills you or moves you. But being here has made me want to explore other places. I think I figure things out in a more contextual, critical way. I need to be in a place to figure out how and why I make my work. I’ve spent a lot of time watching people in parks here like I do at hawker centers in Asia, to try to live other people’s lives alongside my own.
AV: Well, you’re in a great location for daily observations. And here in SoHo, you’re in a neighborhood filled with vibrant happenings.
LG: Yes, that’s another thing. SoHo adds to my fascination with New York City. Being here has allowed me to spend time in a bustling, rather safe neighborhood; but in a bubble that doesn’t describe all of New York. I want to know what it’s like to live in the outskirts, or in other New York neighborhoods.
AV: Where are you living now?
LG: I’m living on Bedford, in Williamsburg, but it’s still close and one subway stop away from Manhattan. I’ve gone to Queens a lot and I went to Coney Island in the rain recently, when it was isolated. That was fun. I just walked and walked a lot. I’ve taken a few trips out of state too.
AV: Without Atomo and Weboy, without the comic writing and drawing, have you begun a journal or something to help resolve or exercise your thoughts?
LG: Yes. One thing I really enjoy about being here is that you can observe other people. There are so many open studios too so you can observe artists’ processes. My process always stems from words, because I come from a family of writers. I don’t draw my ideas; I write them down. Then I translate them into things I make. It’s hard to remember everything.. It’s hard to filter without writing things down. Sometimes when someone asks you a sensible question and you have many things on your mind, you end up having nothing to say! I think that’s why I can’t sleep; those racing thoughts… which sometimes don’t make sense.
AV: That’s why you have art, and the notebook and your comic, to channel these thoughts. I know my mother keeps a pad of post-its by her bedside, and she has an inclination to get those thoughts down on paper so that sleep can come stress-free.
AV: So, you have two different methods of processing thought – your art and your comics. Do they play into one another?
LG: I used to make installations too. Even though I was trained in painting – all of us are, back at the University of the Philippines – I only picked it up again in 2007. The installations began because of my desire to work with space. It’s been difficult bridging painting and comics; the comics were for my day job, and then the painting was mine. But then they started influencing each other. At first I thought, ‘should I just pick one persona? Which one is more me?’ At some point, an Australian curator said to me, ‘Just accept it, combine them because it’s you all the way, whatever you do.’ I’ve learned to appreciate both and show people both my art and comic, together.
AV: There are a lot of artists who come up with pseudonyms for their ‘other’ work. But the curator may be right; it will eventually all come back to you. I suppose there are some people who can keep two or more identities going, physically, mentally, and emotionally…
LG: Yes, that’s one thing I’m trying to learn about the field of art. I never had a strategy. Pseudonyms, different lifestyles and multiple lifestyles… it’s fascinating but I just don’t understand it.
AV: The performance of identity is interesting, and the process of formulating that identity is at times more interesting than its product.
LG: It’s so intriguing. But I just couldn’t do it. As it stands, I am already dis-orbited; I don’t know if I could make myself more confused about who I am. It’s hard enough finding structure and compartmentalizing one person. I wouldn’t know how to go about having two. Then again, I’ve never dismissed it, I’ve just thought ‘Wow, how do you possibly do that!.’
AV: I’m curious – I wasn’t sure whether to ask because the question can be difficult to answer and references often change, but if you don’t mind, who inspires you and who or what do you reference, now?
LG: Oh, I could see this question coming – it’s like the question ‘How are you?’ – should I just say ‘I’m fine’ or should I tell my life story, you know? As I grow older, I think I’ve made peace with my history, but I’ve always been influenced by people at home, what they do, as well as by immigrants here in New York. My references are quite general, but they still touch my core. And my parents read a lot so we have a huge library at home, and I feel somewhat sheepish because I haven’t read many of the books. I enjoy learning about how people deal with their issues of place, about artists who touch upon their personal histories. I’ve always found it strange that Filipinos all over the world want to quickly assimilate into a new history. I like installation art and paintings into worlds I would never explore. I appreciate different systems.
AV: Have there been works you’ve seen lately that particularly move you?
LG: Lately I’ve been cooped up in my studio. But a few months ago, when I did go out and about, I saw the William Kentridge show at MoMA and really enjoyed it.
AV: Yes, it was captivating. Did you see the Marina Abramovic show; The Artist is Present?
LG: I think her performance on the second floor is very interesting. I’ve learned to like it; I didn’t really care about it much at first, but the durational aspect of the performance makes you think about many things.
AV: Are you thinking of making more work before you depart?
LG: A lot of ideas are still in my head. I have this empty canvas here that I want to paint before I go. I have some images that I want to manipulate. I want to explore video more as well. There is a lot of technical learning I need to get involved in. I’ve seen a lot of good and bad video work.
Gabi Chan (GC): What other experiences have you had here? Do people assume where you’re from?
LG: People speak to me in Spanish, or ask if I can speak English. I just raise my eyebrows. I find it strange to be asked that question sometimes. I don’t get offended all the time; it really depends on the way one is asked. What I like about New York compared to California is that people aren’t as judgmental. They are much more accepting. I studied in Palo Alto for 9th grade when my mother did a yearlong fellowship at Stanford.
AV: Your tone makes it sound like you experienced something uncomfortable.
LG: I was at a great school, but was always the odd one out. No one expected someone from the Philippines – from a poor country – to be at their school. That’s just how it was.
AV: I’m sorry to hear that. New York is a transit space of sorts; you can feel connected if you want, or disconnect yourself when necessary.
LG: Yes. I mean, living in the Philippines can be tough too and that’s why a lot of people leave. And the disassociation with one’s home country usually happens when parents raise their kids to feel far from where they personally had a hard life. The Philippines can feel very foreign to a Filam [Filipino-American], and oftentimes, they aren’t as well accepted there. Many Filipinos don’t understand how Filams have acquired a completely different nature and lifestyle. I suppose that’s where cultural confusion begins.
AV: True. Well, here’s to context – thank you for having us today. It has been wonderful connecting with you here.
LG: Thank you so much. I will definitely be in touch.
Transcribed and revised by Ali Van