Cultural Center of the Philippines 2015
This exhibition plays around with the concept of power, its agents and the multitude of forms it is manifested in history. Keb Cerda, whose paintings consist mainly of experimentations in color and composition woven with historical and sociopolitical references, engages with power and its various ramifications by appropriating images from old photographs as subject. Sourced from digital repositories online, these images are rendered in their original sepia or monochrome in oil on canvas. Intervention takes the form of introducing details such as figures and colors, which either stand in stark contrast or blend seamlessly with the original image. Here, the artist inserts humor and critique to visual documentaries of the past, a modification that produces a striking imagery that opens up reflections on conflict, technology, violence and culture.
Two interrelated thematic strands run across this exhibition. First is the comic representation of icons of power and authority. World War II leaders, from Hitler to Stalin to Roosevelt, are portrayed dressed in full regalia, exuding valor and greatness. Their mouths are superimposed with bubblegum, through which the portraits become a parody of sorts that pokes fun on the few—emperors, presidents and generals—yet prime movers behind global war and conflict. In these representations, the power and authority being projected to the spectator is undermined as the usual stern-looking expression and dignified bearing are tempered, or even reversed, by the artist’s intervention. The way the bubblegum appears indicates how a leader’s fate is etched in history: the members of the Allied forces have it fully blown while a popped one among Axis powers signifies their failure and defeat. The clever choice of symbolism resonates in real-life scenarios as popped gum sticking all over one’s face is considered embarrassing and funny at the same time. Similarly, defeat in war is regarded shameful to a leader, army or nation; the losing camp becomes a laughing stock before the eyes of the victorious.
In another strand, we see scenes of battles, bombings and other moments of war transform into sites of fun, play, and spectacle when mixed with amusement park attractions, toys, and eye-catching colors. For instance, in the infamous photograph of General Douglas MacArthur’s historic Leyte landing to reclaim America’s prized possession in the Far East, Philippine waters is turned into a sea of colorful balls reminiscent of a children’s playground. A Ferris wheel emerges from a distance as troops advance their way into a jungle of palm trees. The giant mushroom cloud emanating from an atomic bomb explosion is converted into a similarly-shaped amusement park ride called Flying Fiesta. Banners, arches and ticket booths add warm welcome to an intense game of adventure. These blending of the festive and the violent offer a number of commentaries on the ways war, an ultimate clash of powers, is seen by its proponents and represented in today’s mass media. On one hand, it may well suggest how leaders and superpowers, in their convenient and shielded positions too distant from the frontlines, regard battlefields as their playground and the masses as their pawns. On the other, it may be read as a statement on the desensitizing effect of popular media and entertainment industry to our consciousness. Images of war and violence that saturate television, films, comics and video games have somewhat glorified real-life atrocities and diluted our perception of its gravity.
This playful take on history and its personalities underscore the power of humor to critique society and sustain its self-reflexivity with its wit and non-confrontational character. While the collection of works in the exhibition lends a fun way of looking at iconic images from key events that nations and governments often memorialize, such as wars and battles, it may as well be a potent reminder of unlearned lessons from the past that continue to haunt us in the present. Wars are testament to human folly and the contest for power and domination remains an enduring force in the unfolding of history.