In today’s #revisit, we are looking back on Patricia Perez Eustaquio’s 'Conversation Among Ruins' (2018), a tapestry the artist exhibited back in 2018 at Taipei’s Mind Set Art Center. Fascinated by the contrast between paintings and tapestries, Eustaquio translated Juan Luna’s The Death of Cleopatra (1881) into the medium of textile. In transposing Luna’s painting into tapestry, Eustaquio explored questions of ownership and authenticity, identity and appropriation, consumerism and colonialism, the global migration of goods and ideas 一 complex issues that persist in many of her works.
Conversation Among Ruins, Artist's Notes
In 1881, the Filipino painter, Juan Luna, studying fine arts in Spain painted Cleopatra, or Death of Cleopatra, as it is also called, and entered it in a painting competition. The work won second place, and it was subsequently purchased by the Museo del Prado in Madrid. The work went straight into storage, never to be seen again until the National Gallery of Singapore hunted it down and loaned it from the Prado in 2017.
Juan Luna, of course, is arguably the Philippines’ most cherished painter, though through today’s eyes, it is a rather curious career in the context of empire and globalisation. The Death of Cleopatra raises some complex questions on identity and appropriation which I found interesting in the context of art history.
Much can be said about the history of painting in the Philippines, where the likes of Luna were introduced to its formal concepts only in the late 19th century. Much of the education in the Philippines during Spanish colonisation was done through religious institutions and free public education was only made available in the 19th century, two hundred years after the Spanish landed on our shores. Hence, the idea of art was related only to religious objects and iconography, and Luna stands out as one of the first renowned painters to tackle subjects outside that of Catholicism.
Much more can be said about the history of painting in general, including Danto’s (in)famous declaration that it was dead, among other things though it is apparent that art’s “afterlife” is well and active.
Textiles have always been a central fascination in my art practice, and perhaps the reason why I approach painting from a more sculptural, or object-based perspective. Paint itself has body, but its canvas ground is an object in itself which I have sewn into sculpture and cut away into shapes to make work. The transition to working with tapestry was quite natural, and it is a work that I have been mulling over for years.
Tapestry is tactile, textured and in the history of art, precedes oil on canvas. It was once the most prized of art objects before the mastery of oil paints came into the spotlight. What interests me in the contrast between tapestry and painting is the language: one is female, the other is male. Tapestry was made by a community of women weaving wool and silk threads into images. It is soft and warm. Over the years it has become more and more of a domestic object, used to decorate or add warmth to a home. Louise Bourgeois spoke of how a tapestry in her native France was used as a wall against the cold winds. Oil painting on the other hand is hung proudly against the wall, distant from its viewer. Oil paintings demonstrate the “mastery” of the painter, his technique and his flourish. And they were mostly done by men, since women who did paint were regarded as mere hobbyists and not artists well into the twentieth century.
I wanted to make a painting through tapestry, using modern, digitised means of weaving such today. I wanted to show the flourish and expression associated with paint and painting without actually painting. Through photography, I created an archive of paint-as-a-readymade; that is, I took photos of paint and organised them into colour groupings and such. Then these images were fed into a digital loom which wove them into tapestries.
The first set of tapestries I worked on, Untitled I to III, were images of thick paint in black and white threads. These large-ish blobs in black and white looked both expressive and abstract. The idea itself is pun-ny, but provides the initial translation for what I intended.
When I was in London doing research on objects of empire, thousands of which are housed in museums across the city, it occurred to me that it would be interesting to make another painting-tapestry in reaction or in response to one of the objects. Luna’s Death of Cleopatra mirrored the complexities of the questions swirling in my head, with regards to ownership and authenticity, identity, and the much debated idea of cultural appropriation that I thought a translation of it would be interesting.
There are many things lost in translation, but I think, many could be gained, too. Each subsequent translation lends to a deterioration of the original context, a kind of entropy as one form becomes another, but the muddling of information could provide a perspective that is unique, if not interesting.
Objects provide certain clues as well as queues, and objects that have migrated in our wrought history of globalisation, of trade and colonialism occupy a specific place in our historical narrative that is either overlooked because of its banality or exoticised because of its existence in a museum or similar institution.
In Conversation Among Ruins, I mapped out Luna’s painting, focusing on the central image, into blocks of colour. I then replaced the blocks of colour, Luna’s painting, with readymade images of paint. Luna’s blue strokes became readymade photographs of blue paint blobs, white areas became photos of white paint blobs and so on. Eventually, I decided to reduce the image to grayscale before feeding the new, translated version into the digital loom.
The resulting tapestry is a crazy cut image, chaotic, and full of scrambled information which I hope brings across the idea of entropy which I mentioned above, among other things. I could have called the work, After the Death of Cleopatra, as most appropriated works do, but the tapestry feels much more removed from the original to call it that. “Painting is male”, “painting is dead”, and the translation of such not only into textile but also into readymade images seems like a discussion I would like to continue. Moreover, the muddling of information highlights how the transposition of objects and the translation of its meaning/s are wrought with questions of ownership and authenticity.
Perhaps Death of Cleopatra is only incidental. That is, as a reference, I could have chosen any other work. For my current frame of mind, however, it provides me questions that need to be weighed and discussed, and I hope this comes across.
Patricia Perez Eustaquio
Manila, May 2018
The bourgeoisie has disclosed how it came to pass that the brutal display of vigour in the Middle Ages, which reactionaries so much admire, found its fitting complement in the most slothful indolence. It has been the first to show what man’s activity can bring about. It has accomplished wonders far surpassing Egyptian pyramids, Roman aqueducts, and Gothic cathedrals; it has conducted expeditions that put in the shade all former Exoduses of nations and crusades.
The bourgeoisie cannot exist without constantly revolutionising the instruments of production, and thereby the relations of production, and with them the whole relations of society. Conservation of the old modes of production in unaltered form, was, on the contrary, the first condition of existence for all earlier industrial classes. Constant revolutionising of production, uninterrupted disturbance of all social conditions, everlasting uncertainty and agitation distinguish the bourgeois epoch from all earlier ones. All fixed, fast-frozen relations, with their train of ancient and venerable prejudices and opinions, are swept away, all new-formed ones become antiquated before they can ossify. All that is solid melts into air, all that is holy is profaned, and man is at last compelled to face with sober senses his real conditions of life, and his relations with his kind.
The need of a constantly expanding market for its products chases the bourgeoisie over the entire surface of the globe. It must nestle everywhere, settle everywhere, establish connexions everywhere.
The bourgeoisie has through its exploitation of the world market given a cosmopolitan character to production and consumption in every country.”
from The Communist Manifesto, Karl Marx & Friedrich Engels
“Empire changed the terms of consumption. The flow of goods, in turn, shaped the workings of imperial power.”
“Goods are not neutral. In the age of empire, they were intensely associated with superior European technology, science and gunboats. The rising tide of goods brought mixed fortunes to all sides. For indigenous societies, European shirts, sofas and umbrellas upset existing hierarchies. For imperial masters, goods were signs of power, too, but ones to mark the distance between the ruler and ruled.”
from Empire of Things, Frank Trentmann
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