The Movement of Manananggal: Amy Lien & Enzo Camacho in conversation with Levi Easterbrooks
December 13, 2017
AAA in A, '09-'21
43 Remsen St. Brooklyn, NY
Hilary Chassé (HC): Tonight we are very excited to hear from the artists Amy Lien and Enzo Camacho, who are an artist duo based between New York, Manila, and Berlin. They are going to be in conversation with the curator and researcher Levi Easterbrooks. Amy and Enzo have been collaborating since 2009 and have had solo exhibitions at Green Papaya Art Projects, 47 Canal, SaSa Art Projects in Phnom Penh, and Artspace Shanghai. Their next solo exhibition at 47 Canal in New York, which we hope all of you will get the chance to see, will open in January. Levi is a current MA candidate at the Center for Curatorial Studies at Bard College whose thesis research is focused on this project in particular. The format for tonight is Amy and Enzo are going to talk first, then Levi is going to give his presentation, and then we’re going to open it up to questions.
Amy Lien (AL): I’d just like to thank everyone for coming and thank Asia Art Archive for inviting us. Also thanks to Levi for accepting our invitation to talk about our project. We’ll first introduce this project, Manananggal, which first appeared in Berlin. Levi will then give a presentation, which is an extract from his Master’s thesis at CCS Bard.
These images are documentation of the show. To start, I’m just going to read aloud the press release for this show.
‘The Manananggal is a mythological monster originating in the Philippines. She takes the form of one woman in two halves. You don’t see it at first. She just lives near you, or comes close to you. You don’t trust this neighbor. Despite seeing her on a routine basis. It’s something about her communication, which is strained and full of holes. And her appearance, which is incongruously attractive. Her desire seems to rise like a swollen polyp beneath the garble of her words and skin. You suspect it’s an ugly thing.
Who you calling ugly? When a woman’s life is at stake (it’s never not), then you can become a femicide tool.
Trail her with your suspicion, you misogynistic-xenophobic cop brain. Watch her creep into the forest at night and lurch stiffly. She scans her surroundings to make sure she is alone. Her body rips in half at the waist as though from an internal bomb detonation. Her legs remain perched on the ground, while her torso begins to levitate, sprouting wings and a long tubular sucking tongue, designed for penetration and extraction. This torso flies back towards the village, in the direction of prey.
Now you have evidence of her terrorizing. She sucks the viscera out of sleeping villagers, as her own organs dangle from an open wound. She sucks unborn fetuses out of pregnant women, while her own uterus is in shreds. Whatever is inside is pierced, dissolved, slurped up, aired out, passed through a twisted metabolic process that makes no sense. Her split body is a crack in our community.
The Manananggal dies when she cannot reconnect before dawn. You can kill her. Find her severed legs still waiting in the forest and throw some salt and garlic onto the bloody stump. She will scream and melt into a stew.
* This summer, Manananggal has appeared in Berlin. A new series of figurative sculptures crafted over the last two months by Amy Lien & Enzo Camacho have been placed in several different locations across the city of Berlin, constituting an exhibition in pieces, with no central axis.’
Enzo Camacho (EC): To begin to introduce this project, we thought it would be good to say a little bit about our practice and how it started. As Hilary mentioned, we have been collaborating since 2009 and for the first phase of this collaboration I was based in Manila, where I’m from originally, and Amy was in New York. The collaboration really started through a long-distance communication process. Since then we’ve moved to Berlin together. We’ve moved around a lot but the Philippines has remained a site we return to again and again, returning to the conversation that is ongoing over there.
We just wanted to say a little bit about the Philippines and how it has functioned for us. Just one thing to say off the bat is that when we’ve been thinking through the Philippines, we’ve been trying to think about it more as a form of theoretical model or framework and not just a place where we can conduct research or a place where an identity is formed, but something that is more abstract, more theoretical. I think it’s a response to a problem that I’m sure a lot of us here are familiar with, which is that people who are not speaking from what has been designated as the universal subject position, too often are denied legibility when you try to access any kind of transcendental or humanistic or worldly thinking, as though we’re not capable of that. For us as non-white, non-western subjects, the project is a way to insist on speaking outside of ourselves and outside of our specific positions.
We wanted to mention one art historian, a Filipino art historian whose ideas in thinking through the Philippines in this way have been really important for us and with whom we’ve had an ongoing dialogue over the past several years. His name is Patrick Flores. A lot of the time in his writing instead of saying the Philippines he’ll say the ‘Philippine,’ minus the ‘s’’ I think for him it’s a way to denote the idea of the Philippine as a theoretical model and not just a site where cultural production happens, not just a location. I wanted to read two passages from an essay of his as a lens through which to view this project. The essay is called ‘Polytropic Philippine’ and the passage I’m going to read refers to a passage that Patrick discusses in the essay from a Spanish-language novel Noli Me Tangere, which is by Jose Rizal. Rizal is the national hero of the Philippines. He’s a novelist and a Philippines nationalist. [Noli Me Tangere] was published incidentally in Berlin in the 1880s. In the passage, Patrick is describing this moment when the main character from the novel, a Filipino who has been studying in Europe for several years, is coming back to the homeland. And in the passage, he’s describing this moment when he gazes at the Manila Botanical Garden, but simultaneously he is remembering the botanical gardens in Europe. So, it’s kind of colonial double vision that Rizal, in his writing, condenses into this phrase ‘el demonio de las comparaciones.’ This is the phrase that Patrick is trying to take apart. These are Patrick’s words now:
‘The historian Benedict Anderson translated ‘el demonio de las comparaciones’ as the ‘spectre of comparisons,’ while the Tagalog writer Patricio Mariano nuances it as ‘tukso ng pagkahawig-hawig,’ or roughly, the ‘temptation of affinities’ or ‘phantasm of semblances.’ In whatever way it is discerned, the phrase describes the condition or experience of mediating discrepant worlds coming together in an instance that is at once belated and present, and in a gap or interval that is at once memory and mimicry. In this situation, the local world exceeds itself and slips into the colonial world that is incommensurate, and the imperial world to which it pretends.’
And the second passage I wanted to read is a little bit later on but also comes after a discussion on Rizal. And he says:
‘Here the world ceases to be outside the Philippine. As in a devotional contract, the Philippine in its toil to imitate – to identify with and resemble – and suffer the world, or that which encompasses it, becomes an intimate that secures the right to make demands of equivalence and kinship, the entitlement to importune. It is this intimacy of the Philippine with the world that may have enabled it to be a country of migrants and mariners, and wherever they settle offer affective labor as givers of care and keepers of house, performers, and raisers of children and therefore suffuse the interior or well-being, emotion, and home.’
A lot of these ideas and a lot of Patrick’s ideas informed both this show and our last show in New York, which was in 2014 and was [based on] research around the call center industry in Manila. It showed footage from around different call center neighborhoods. This was in a gallery in New York and the idea was to shoot those call centers in Manila during New York working hours; we had this idea of discrepant worlds coming together. And it was also informed by the Philippines and these ideas of imitation and intimacy. The reason that the Philippines is today the number one destination for outsourced customer service is that, due to its American colonial history, the Filipino is just sort of able to imitate American accents really well, sort of not feel foreign to a Western client.
AL: Following this logic, prior to the show in Berlin, we went to the Philippines and had an encounter with this Manananggal figure and started thinking about her more broadly as a framing device. We wanted to use her to frame thoughts while we were around Berlin at the time, to use her as a frame instead of using a specific site of a solo gallery show in Berlin in order to frame our thoughts about Berlin; somehow that prospect seemed inadequate to us. It was also after having lived in Berlin for two years and having developed a specific understanding and engagement with the Berlin art scene, which at this point felt frustrating. We wanted to bring her in, in order to talk about this context. It’s like bringing her in as this woman from the village who is part of the community but is also an object of suspicion because of her uncertain status in the community. And I think at this time, 2016, Berlin also really seemed to be changing a lot. There was an influx of refugees in Germany and I think there was a lot of anxiety around that in public discourse and a lot of conversations around what’s inside and outside of Germany. I think Germany felt like it was undergoing this colonized identity crisis. Partly in relation to that and how that plays out in cultural conversations centered around Berlin. We thought it would be interesting to bring up this other brown monster to relate to this brown monster figure of anxiety within a European consciousness. We started formulating this kind of exploded show that has five figures but they’re split into ten parts and distributed in ten parts around Berlin, invading spaces but also very fractured. So, we contacted all these spaces that we were connected to socially and inserted these figures into these unconventional spaces, often attached to exhibition sites but not always. One was in the kitchen of our artist friend’s house. This is in the bathroom of the Schinkel Pavillon. It was a broad section of the art scene that we participate in and this art scene in and of itself is not entirely one that can claim [itself to be] German-ist. It’s very international and also seemed somewhat fractured and itemized at times. We’re still confused about Berlin and how artistic value gets produced there. It operates in these weird segments that don’t necessarily overlap and seem to form coherent conversations but there is some thinking through Berlin that we also wanted to do via the Manananggal like lighting in all of these different places.
EC: Levi is going to talk a bit more about his thoughts on the mechanics of this exhibition. Just something that we wanted to mention in closing our part of the presentation, this show opened in July, early-mid July. This was just a couple of weeks after Duterte was elected and I’m sure that most people are familiar with what is going on in the Philippines at the moment, it was before the drug war and before the bodies started piling up, scattered around various streets in metro Manila and on our newsfeeds. In processing this exhibition retrospectively after the fact, there was something very uncanny about seeing these bodies, this scattering of bodies that we had produced, and obviously a certain kind of latent violence we were trying to trigger just in our choice of figure. There’s some inherent violence already in that choice. It was very weird for us how after the fact, it mirrored back a certain situation that was actually happening. Currently I hope the drug war has been tenuously suspended after 30,000 deaths. It seems like in Manilla right now that conversation is very much alive. And I think in relation to the art scene, there were all of these other strange events that really pushed this discussion about the relationship between art and violence. Because at the end of last year, sort of December, there was this discussion that opened up around this gallery Silverlens, which is the most internationally legible gallery coming out of the Philippines with an international audience. In December, last year there was this incident with the agribusiness corporation, Lapanday Food Corporation. The owner of Silverlens owns this business. Allegedly, as it was reported, security forces linked to this corporation started firing on a bunch of farmers who were fighting for access to land that had actually been reinstated by the Department of Agrarian Reform. This happened in December, and the gallery opened up their brand new, huge, beautiful space in the Lapanday Compound in Manila. We wanted to mention this a little bit because I think that the role that Silverlens has in the Manila art scene – it’s a gallery that has been around for a while – has been super important for a lot of people. It has supported artists who are working in more difficult ways, in not so market-oriented ways. The people who run the gallery have been very much a part of the cultural-social scene of Manila. So, when this happened it did really open up these discussions about what we want.
AL: And also, it brings Filipino artists to more international circulation.
EC: Yeah, because they have a lot of capital being linked to a very successful agribusiness company. That was all we wanted to say. We’ll hand it over to Levi.
Levi Easterbrooks (LE): Hi. I’m going to be reading a section from my thesis, which is on Amy and Enzo’s work. Manananggal is kind of a fragment of what that project is. I’ll be looking at their work more broadly, since they started making work collaboratively. So, this is the ongoing section on Manananggal and some of the issues revolving around that. And because it’s kind of placed within a larger essay, or what exists within a larger essay otherwise, there are some things that are totally filled in with the detail they would have in a larger essay form. So, if there is anything that seems opaque or a little bit unclear, we can talk about it in the questions after. There is also going to be a lot of crossover in language in the presentations because some of this pulls from the press release.
‘The Manananggal is a mythological monster from the Philippines. During the day, she appears as a human woman, strange in her social composure. People suspect there might be something wrong with her though they find it difficult to describe.
In the night, she splits in half at the waist and exposes her bat-like wings. Her torso then flies off to parasitize humans, extracting unborn fetuses from pregnant women as well as the internal organs and viscera of others. There is a warped incompatibility in this action, as the Manananggal’s own uterus is torn to shreds or rendered useless after she splits at the waist, leaving her entrails dangling in flight. She moves across media, haunting silver screens in a number of Filipino horror anthologies and stirring up panic in the pages of metro-Manila tabloids.
The Manananggal is just one type of ‘aswang’, a Filipino term used to designate a slew of shape-shifting monsters. Other creatures that fall under this designation are witches, were-beasts, bloodsuckers, and corpse eaters. Manananggal, the self-segmenting viscera sucker, is one of many monsters that attempt to pass as human most of the time. In its passing as human, the Manananggal blends into or camouflages with the systems of social and spatial movement that allow her unchallenged persistence. She is still the target of vicious rumors. She scrapes by under the suspicious gaze of misogynists and xenophobes.
The inexpressible internal pressures that one presumes pull the Manananggal between her human posing and the monster within, or the rigidity of expected social conduct and her desired transgressions, are allowed to boil over in her splitting at the waist under the veil of night. This separation of waist from torso becomes a hyperbolic manifestation of these counter-directional pulls that bring Manananggal into being as subject split under duress.’
This splitting attempts to circumvent both the intimate and structurally abstract violence that would deny such fluidity or mark it as deviant. The split body is the Manananggal’s ‘true’ form and its desired existence is one of dispersed multiplicity. This desire is forcibly masked during the day; its dispersion suppressed.
Lien & Camacho’s sculptures of Manananggal’s legs and torso split across Berlin galleries, apartments, and stores in 2016, opening up new sites for her proliferation. She was the target of rumor. She spread through gossip. Though the swirling presumptions surrounding the Manananggal attempt a violating explication filled with doubt and suspicion, her Berlin appearance played into these channels of communication knowingly.
In Lien & Camacho’s usage, Manananggal appeared in her split-form, with mannequin sculptures of winged torsos installed separately from vestigial legs. However, this was only Manananggal’s manifestation as physical sculpture. Lien & Camacho’s engagement with the creature extended into magazine articles and blog posts, stretching Manananggal and its sites of appearance between sculpture and text, between print magazines and blogs, and between a Berlin art world and more geographically diffuse social formations.
The sculptures of Manananggal were not typical mannequins simply cut in half at the waist. They were sliced and bent at joints, connected by gaudy metal brackets and strung through with rope and fibers. A sort of textile circulatory system kept them together in pieces. Though they were not meant to appear as if real or produced with the detail of big-budget horror movie CGI, they had more ‘life’ than plastic clothing models altered only by their shifting outfits.
Still, Lien & Camacho’s sculptures did function like most mannequins in that they became display systems for a particular kind of fashion. The clothing, like the mannequins themselves, was fragmented and broken, oscillating between ornament, garment, and intervention into the skin of the mannequins themselves. Bootleg designer charms of fluffy rabbits and cartoon creatures hung from the wrists and waists of these Manananggals. Patent leather bucket hats and [modified] cheap plastic sandals accented legs and torsos directly bedazzled with pearls or covered in floral patterns. The mannequins also lacked the heads they might have been sold with. 3D printed visages (anonymous yet indiscernibly specific) took their place.
Despite the superficial anonymity of these faces, Lien & Camacho’s Manananggals were socially specific. Much like a demarcation of crews, cliques, and the cool by self-modified garments, Manananggal spoke knowingly to its sites of occupation, parasitizing their codes to perform a sort of double speak.
Two years prior to this exhibition, Lien & Camacho authored an unpublished essay titled ‘Network Cannibalism’ and its Emotional-Dysfunctional Categories. The essay attempted to unpack a relatively recent phenomenon in ‘critical’ art practices stemming from a melancholic and disenchanted engagement with the efficacy of art critique. It attempted to map the fallout from this malaise along a New York- Cologne-Frankfurt-Berlin art axis. The sorts of critical practice that artists within these circles moved against were those that dealt, in a lineage of institutional critique, with lines of politicized and supposedly radical inquiry that would always be recuperated by the art market and the ‘institutions’ targeted. Though this might not have meant a total invalidation of such a methodology, it certainly voided its potency as an alternative practice or true subversion in the eyes of the artists under question.
The artists marshaled in ‘Network Cannibalism’… swing towards modes of art practice that would sufficiently implicate the artist in the formulation of critique, collapsing the distance between themselves, the institutions of art as they manifest in one’s social milieu, and the art market that enfolds it.
In many cases, the most hyperbolic of which may be the artist Merlin Carpenter, these lines of critique were satisfied to rebuke, lament, and map, but ultimately reaffirm, one’s pre-existing network of artists and art workers. In his essay, ‘The Tail that Wags the Dog’, Carpenter suggests a way out of a supposed crisis of art criticism and critique when he writes, ‘If you criticized your friends you would be implicated. Self-criticism then maybe starts with your friends.’
According to Lien & Camacho, not only does this self-involved turn proffered by Carpenter produce rage, depression, heartbreak, and frigidity when carried out…it also reinforces the pre-existing contours of an art scene, with all its racialized exclusions at the level of both participants and content. The dialogue is never broken between the scene and itself.
But what might the parasite offer as a mode of intervention, a forced hiccup, in this self-sustaining re-processing of the familiar?
In The Parasite, Michel Serres writes that, ‘The parasite has placed itself in the most profitable positions, at the intersection of relations. The elementary link of his [her] individual activity was to relate to a relation; its performances are far better in spots where several relations cross or meet.’ It is this mode of parasitism that Lien & Camacho’s Manananggal traffics in as it occupies social/professional nodes, pretending a polite assimilation to certain tendencies of the network cannibalistic model of art.
When Manananggal settled in with hosts across Berlin, her sites of appearance were provisional, and convenient in their underlying social connections. She was installed in the apartments of friends Yuki Kimura & Q Takeki Maeda, and the gallerist Lars Friedrich. She also found space in the offices of Galerie Buchholz and Texte Zur Kunst, the basement of Schinkel Pavillon, and the storage closet of a ‘Japanese & international avant garde’ boutique called OUKAN. Other appearances were also made, but they were all locations that friends had made available for them.
In the credit line following each installation image of Lien & Camacho’s individual Manananggals, the specific site is listed in full. Manananggal didn’t appear just anywhere. She cropped up in sites, mostly art related ones, where the artists were part of the social and professional network that crosshatched them.
In compiling these sites through the image captions and the map that marked each location across Berlin, Manananggal has appeared in Berlin to have created a sort of social map extending from Lien & Camacho’s own network. Though this might sound like the set-up for a network cannibalistic practice, Manananggal parroted these forms as a double agent, a parasite. She would not be satisfied with the self-confirming and exclusionary normalization of Carpenter’s model.
Manananggal appeared in Berlin alongside a familiar (for Berlin at least) set of people and spaces. She also echoed a formal language not unfamiliar in Germany or New York, as the sculpture bore resemblance to the eclectic effigy-like figuration employing the mannequin, made so visible in the work of artists like Isa Genzken and a slew of younger artists. These were Manananggal’s ins. Like the Manananggal of myth, they allowed her to partially assimilate to the social networks and systems of conduct expected by the zones of her inhabitation. Still, something was hidden.’
And this image is not from any of the Manananggal projects. It’s from a 2014 exhibition that Amy and Enzo did at Berlin’s Mathew Gallery called ‘Who do you Love?’ and this is this kind of faux Berlin wall that snakes across the gallery.
Speaking to the position of the ‘diasporic postcolonial,’ Gayatri Spivak writes this in Who Claims Alterity?:
‘This “person” (although we are only naming a subject-position here), belonging to a basically collaborative elite, can be uneasy for different kinds of reasons with being made the object of unquestioning benevolence as an inhabitant of the new third world. (S)he is more at home in producing and simulating the effect of an older world constituted by the legitimizing narratives of cultural and ethnic specificity and continuity, all feeding an almost seamless national identity- a species of “retrospective hallucination.” ‘
Like those moving outside of their country of birth, or other geographic identifier forced to mark ethnicity, to form the dispersed networks of diaspora, Lien & Camacho’s Manananggal maintains a troubled relationship with the national. Instead of playing into the tendencies towards ‘old world’ caricature that characterize Spivak’s elite diasporic postcolonial, Manananggal doesn’t immediately present as Filipino or simplify its messy origins and patterns of movement to be digestible and forthcoming for Euro-Americans. These Manananggals are strikingly new in their style and canny socialization.
In thinking through the linkages between race, ethnicity, and globalization, Stuart Hall writes, ‘…globalization powerfully fractures the temporal and spatial coordination of the systems of representation for cultural identity and imagined community that are at stake in the concept of ‘ethnicity,’ with the decisive result that identity is nowadays increasingly homeless, so to speak.’ What is the postcolonial parasite, Manananggal, if not the momentary fracture illustrative of these disjunctive networks of globalization?
Manananggal’s appearance marks the host-location as more than just a site of self-enclosed network cannibalism. As she spreads and is documented in this spreading, these installations become markers of a diasporic sprawl emanating from the Philippines. However, per Stuart Hall’s reading of the effects of globalization, Manananggal’s split body is indicative of a fracture, ‘a crack in our community,’ that troubles a clean return to the geographically bordered nation as an adequate explanation of something rather difficult. Something that, within the largely white art world of Berlin, is different, Other, and a challenge to more normalized areas (both discursive and geographical) from which art might pull its content.
With this difficulty, Lien & Camacho’s sculptures move like the Manananggal of myth. Their artwork assimilates formally but acts as a parasite, dragging something ‘external’ into the places of insiders of various sorts. In When the Moon Waxes Red, Trinh T. Minh-ha writes, ‘Any attempts at blurring the dividing line between outsider and insider would justifiably provoke anxiety, if not anger. Territorial rights are not being respected here. Violations of boundaries have always led to displacement, for the in-between zones are the shifting grounds on which the (doubly) exiled walk, Not You/like You.’ The Manananggal treads a line between inside and out, its torso split from legs.
Thanks for listening.
So, I guess we can open it up to questions first.
AL: So, I guess we have a question for you to begin with. How did you come upon the Manananggal? What was your initial connection to the Berlin project?
LE: I first came across it on Contemporary Arts Daily and I feel embarrassed about that now. But, I also think it’s been very integral to the ways that I’ve been trying to think about Amy and Enzo’s work with them. It is also why this slide exists as a compilation. I’ve been trying to think a lot about the circulation of documents and how Manananggal consciously occupies those channels of distribution. In a way, it was a helpful zone of first encounter. And it was necessary the way it was, because I wouldn’t have been able to experience the work in Berlin. Nor would most people have been able to see it in its entirety. So the document and its distribution on a channel like Contemporary Arts Daily or another blog or Amy and Enzo’s Tumblr, even this event is a necessary spread of the figurative, in order to have its legibility increased.
HC: I have a question, if you don’t mind. Thinking about the nature of this creature, it is sometimes one being and sometimes two beings. And I don’t know if this is intentional but it got me thinking about your collaboration and how you guys are both individuals but sometimes almost one entity. I’m curious to hear more about your background and how that came about? And how did your collaboration as a duo become something that you are pursuing together?
AL: I think a lot of people connected the split of Schizo-figure with collaboration between two people and we were initially thinking about the metaphor where you’re going between these spaces but then the legs are stuck somewhere, the partial transmission. I wonder how to relate it by graphic. I am resistant to that in a way, but, as an entity that thinks together but not always in alignment, it also makes sense.
Audience: I was interested in one of the many readings, which was the thing that doesn’t really exist but exists very strongly in the European imagination. An invading immigrant figure that gets up in all your spaces and stuff like that, being one of the interpretations but then also if you are Asian in Berlin, there can be a tacit enjoyment of being like ‘ha ha I will invade’ and then connecting that to something you guys eluded to only briefly: the discontent of the Berlin scene and maybe a tacit conservatism that existed. I was wondering if you can just expand on that angle.
Audience : You know, I slept one night with Manananggal. It was nice; somehow she was friendly. I thought maybe in Berlin, sometimes the Asian community is not really visible. I felt a little bit frustrated when I was doing a residency there. Manananggal might not function the same way in New York. Because in New York, there are may be more Asian communities established.
EC: These dynamics of feeling excluded or included… for us that’s the dynamic of the scene in a certain way. That’s the dynamics of how these things function. There was a specific response to Berlin and maybe this is a side in which we felt, at the time, especially alienated. I think that the idea of trying to use this figure as a framework is useful in some ways. The thing that was interesting to us, which we [adressed] in different ways, is the turning inside out that the figure does. For example we were into the fact that this sucking tongue sucks the innards out of you and as her own innards are falling out of her; there’s a kind of involution, something that’s being turned inside out. So, we were thinking through the Berlin scene and how to turn that inside out. But I don’t want to target Berlin too much; I think it was a way to include more the dynamics that are applicable to New York and then Manila and anywhere else in different ways.
Audience: I was wondering what has been researched in terms of her status as a female figure within the folklore of the Philippines? How her myth was born and what kind of fears is it dispelling? Because she is also represented as very predatory and specifically on unborn babies. And I was just wondering what that was? If that was even of interest?
LE: Yeah, it’s definitely an interest. Especially, like some language in the press release, getting at gendered violence heaped onto Manananggal because of particular anxiety around her not functioning properly [as] feminine, which she would be expected to do in these circumstances. But I’ve read mixed things about [her particular] origin.
EC: We also tried to do research about the origin [of Manananggal] because we were thinking through this figure; it’s one of these figures that there’s some version of all over South-East Asia. We’ve done projects related to how it exists in Thailand and Cambodia where it’s just a head that splits from the body and the entrails dangling from the head. In Malaysia there’s another version of a self-segmenting monster.
AL: Some are friendlier than others.
Audience: Like grandparents who used to scare us with things like this. But this is so specific to fertility or infertility.
EC: When we were trying to do research on this thing, the closest we could come to an explanation was a hokey documentary that had been uploaded to YouTube. This Canadian guy is running around…
AL: Colonizers made Manananggal more violent in order to suppress matriarchal indigenous societies.
EC: There were women functioning like healers. Basically a way for colonial government … this is just theory, I don’t know how to fact check this. His claim is that it was a way for colonials to tear our communities apart and turn them against people who were leaders of the community and who were leading revolts and rebellions against the Spanish. That was super common. I remember hearing stories during the Philippine-American war where they had these psychological warfare tactics where they would literally come near where they knew or suspected rebels were hiding out and they would capture one of them and kill them and puncture… they had some kind of Aswang vampire marks. They would puncture their necks to make it look like this guy had been killed by an Aswang and hang the body out… use it to break up and disperse the rebels. [This tactic] was used over and over again as a neo-agro-colonial strategy.
LE: Also, [Manananggal influenced] spatial relationships because … in the same theory, they are said to exist in the forest and the periphery. Certain zones are foreclosed by rumors that[Manananggal] might be there.
Audience: I just think what is really interesting on that note is that, Amy and Enzo, [is that] you choose to have her represent herself actually. I think none of us have really figured out what her exact relationship is to the idea of reproduction and preying on young children and being somewhat like a traditional female mother. But you have her split up in many different places and in many ways. She bends right at the waist, I guess looking at her stomach and uterus, but she continues to be in all these places and reproduce herself and her mythology through the distribution of images. I thought that was really interesting.
Audience: Sometimes in other types of traditional cultures, the uterus is a metaphor for … it’s like the womb but it’s also the place you return when you die. A lot of cultures use this imagery, [such as in] tombs, where people are buried in fetal positions, in jars. Being divested of the womb is very empowering and also vulnerable.
Audience: I was also curious that are there certain figures that are both monsters and ghosts? Because I [would have guessed that] they would be in different categories.
EC : For Manananggal, what categories does it fall under specifically?
Audience Continues: Yeah, because when I look at this I tend to feel that they’re dispersed but also dislocated and they are like spectral presences. Even looking at these, with respect to Manananggal, I get the feeling that they are haunting but also related to an element if something spectral. Especially if you’re in Berlin or New York City there’s a certain issue of visibility. I think it’s very cool that you can’t go to one place and see it all.
EC: I guess everything is semi-visible in sculpture. That was an important part. You see it here and it all looks scattered. But each sculpture is a whole. Like two pieces make one sculpture. There are actually 5 discrete sculptures but then each of these gets split into 2 different spaces, so whenever you see a sculpture it’s always only half-visible. It was something that we thought about. Because we did a follow up project after this when we had a show in Bangkok, after a residency in Cambodia [led to] a show in Bangkok, which is convenient because Cambodia and Thailand have the same version of this monster. We made this sculpture based on that version and it has a more ghostly connotation. It was a little unclear to us but there was supposed to be a ghost for one or something more physical. So, the body and the entrails are just dangling from this head. I just noticed that these are my feelings about the monster growing up. It definitely felt physical. I think that’s why we worked so physically on the sculptures, if you’re one of the people who actually tried to trek out to see part of this show, and I don’t know if it’s actually that many people. But it was important to us that [each one] had a physical presence and could be remediated and reconstituted in a more digital work, [reproduced in the] image sphere.
AL: I guess they are like these consumers picking up all of these different signs [as if saying] ‘hi, I’m here, I’m shopping, I’m consuming all of this stuff and relating to too many things. Between the refugee influx and this magazine biennial and all these different conversations and stuff inside the Philippines, fake handbags, shopping malls, and then stuff you see on the Internet. Manananggal is overwhelmed and subjected to all the consuming impulses. That’s the viscera of globalized exchange getting sucked up and processed. In a way, it’s more like ‘I’m here’ … fashion victim.
Jane DeBevoise (JD): Can you talk a little bit about your choice of materials? You used mannequin on one side or half mannequin, and you used what looks like papier-mâché, pretty simple, almost childlike materials, classroom materials. I don’t know your other work. Can you talk about this?
EC: The way we tend to use materials is again, as we move around. Depending on where we are, we just shop for materials and often without such a clear idea of what this material will end up being for. But we get drawn to a texture or material or fabric or object or bunny rabbit keychain or whatever and we just take it with us. For example, because we move around so much, we travel a little bit light. Often times we’ll bring materials with us when we have to do a show and we’ll just use the scraps of what we have, what we purchased before to form these new objects. For example, in the one that Levi showed, the close up of the skirt, that tarp is something we bought in Singapore. It’s a construction tarp used in Singapore. And we used it for our 47 Canal show in 2014 for these Call Center works. We had some left over and we re-used it when it seemed appropriate. Whatever we have on hand and whatever we can bring with us, and when we need to do project somewhere, whatever we can buy there.
Audience: I have a question. I think you touched on it a little bit but I’m curious about the consideration of the individual personalities between the five [sculptures]. Obviously one has the baby and they seem to be in action. One has the shopping bag, like they are all out shopping and I was wondering how much narrative you added to where you got formally? Was that a narrative coming out of something socially constructed or is that a narrative updating an existing story or legend of the Manananggal?
Audience: Can I piggyback on that question? Sorry, it’s like two minds being alike. Because the fashion aesthetic does change in-between each one. And I was wondering about those decisions. How certain ones are dressed almost… they seemed like they fit in in a lot of ways. So, was that character-based? Like their individual characteristics or narratives were the fashion, the dressing of them.
AL: Yeah, I guess it’s a little difficult to entirely answer that. Some of the fashion decisions were kind of random. These sculptures are preceded by this fashion shoot we did with our friend Tim, who is Filipina. She is a trans friend from Manila. But she had recently transplanted to Berlin where she is a fabulous club kid or something. And so, we enlisted her help. We did this photoshoot with her and we also got people to help, but we styled it and we had our friend who is a makeup artist to do the makeup. She played out Manananggal according to her imagination of Manananggal. I guess Manananggal became a trans figure. So we borrowed from these poses, from her staging. And actually the 3D face is modeled after her face as well. So, the sculptures are structured according to her postures and attitudes in a way.
EC: She was kind of like the secret muse of the project. She just seemed perfect. She was a friend from Manila. She just moved to Berlin. She loves Berlin. She teaches English online on the side to make money. At times, she just seemed to embody what we wanted this to embody in some way. But we also didn’t want, again, we didn’t want a portrait of someone recognizable. [Manananggal is] someone completely outside of the art world in some way. And someone who is a friend. [Tim] was in a way inspiring to some of the choices.
AL: I guess some were more referential to the traditional Filipina. And all the puffy sleeves. I guess there’s a more Germanic one strapped to a bag of rice noodles. It has a kind of Dr. Scholl’s German slipper thing. We were really grabbing at a range of different style influences.
Audience: Are you showing at the Bard?
AL: Yeah, we are working with Levi on his thesis exhibition. So Manananggal will get reconfigured for this Bard exhibition in April.
HC: I think we have time for one more question.
Audience: I have a question about the documentation of the project. Because I imagine somehow that [it would be different] if you experienced the works at dawn or twilight or in the darkness – which I kind of feel like I miss in this documentation because it’s so bright and uses flashlight photography. I wondered how you thought about that in retrospect. Because I guess a lot of the work now exists somehow in this documentation.
EC: I guess the idea was really to shoot them for screen viewing in a way. Because that was primarily how they would exist. Not to say that if you shoot in twilight then that’s not a particular kind of screen viewing. But I think maybe it was because these things are hiding themselves already because they are so difficult to view. You had to ask ‘I’m looking for the Manananggal. Where is it?’ and they’d be like ‘it’s in the back.’ They’d have to unlock a door to show you this half-body. So, I think there were already so many mechanisms that were blocking the [viewing of] these things, even though they were there. It was a gallery protocol, except it was behind a door in the back hallway during the Lutz Bacher and John Kelsey show. I think in the images we just wanted them to really be there and really be flashed.
AL: Because in real life they were really in the shadow.
EC: And also, it was like that ease of viewing. It was a totally self-administered exhibition. It’s not as though anyone asked us to come and try to do a project with them. We just had this idea that we wanted to do this thing. We were like Girl Scouts trying to sell cookies, trying to figure out who would be willing to house this thing in their home or in their store or back office or wherever. And we were in a taxi cab trying to get these things to all these places one by one. It was a lot of work to try to do that. So, I think with the images, we just wanted to ease it up a little bit, because now they are just proliferate and there; [we wanted them to] be really visible. It’s not like we’re purely trying to block visibility. It’s that you construct a physical access to this thing and the image access can be something else. So, we made a choice not to double down on this shielded veiling of this work.
Audience: Apart from the physical world what sounds interesting is the social network work. That labor of the convincing; it rarefies art.
HC: Alright. Thank you guys so much. And thank you to Amy and Enzo and Levi. And thank you for coming.
Amy Lien (b. 1987) & Enzo Camacho (b. 1985) have been collaborating since 2009, initially between New York and Manila. They received their bachelor’s degrees from Harvard University, and their MFA degrees from the Hochschule für bildende Künste in Hamburg, Germany. They have had previous solo exhibitions at Green Papaya Art Projects (Quezon City, Philippines), 47 Canal (New York, USA) and Mathew Gallery (Berlin, Germany), and have participated in group exhibitions at the Kestnergesellschaft (Hannover, Germany), the Jim Thompson Art Center (Bangkok, Thailand), and the Ullens Center for Contemporary Art (Beijing, China). They have been Artists-in-Residence at Sa Sa Art Projects in Phnom Penh (2017), am Artspace in Shanghai (2016), the NTU Centre for Contemporary Art in Singapore (2015), and Gluck50 in Milan (2015). Their next solo exhibition at 47 Canal in New York will open in January 2018.
Levi Easterbrooks (b. 1993) is a curator and MA candidate at the Center for Curatorial Studies at Bard College. He holds a BA in Art History from McGill University. His recent screening programs include the Portikus XXX Summer Screening Series (Frankfurt, 2017) and events for Exo Exo (Paris, 2016) and §üb∫amsøn at Samsøñ Projects (Boston, 2016). His writing appears in Starship Magazine and the Portikus Journal. He is currently developing an exhibition with Amy Lien & Enzo Camacho to open at the Hessel Museum of Art in 2018.
The talk was transcribed by Aleena Malik and edited by Hilary Chassé and Tiffany Ng
This program is supported, in part, by public funds from the New York City Department of Cultural Affairs, in partnership with the City Council.