World View: Meet Five Manila Artists Redefining Filipino Creativity

Discover five must-know artists from the Philippines, including musician Eyedress and filmmaker Raya Martin.

May 20, 2014

In her new column World View, Ruth Saxelby zooms in on cities off the beaten track to highlight rising talent in the realms of music, art, film, literature and photography.

The city of Manila—the predominantly Catholic capital of the string of 7,107 islands in the western Pacific Ocean that make up the Philippines—is home to a new generation of artists that are challenging tradition to shape a new creative future. "There's a community for everything here now I think, but it's still small," says Idris Vicuña, aka musician Eyedress, who was my first introduction to Manila's burgeoning creative scene. Specifically, it was the ominous video to his dark synth-pop song "Nature Trips" that caught my attention late last year. In it, Vicuña and a skull-masked friend prowl the neon-lit streets of Manila, scaling iron fences to seek out victims on a drug-fuelled robbery rampage. It was a vision of restless youth that stuck with me, providing the perfect foil to Vicuña's jaded falsetto and heartbreak lyrics. Later, a chance introduction to Kristian Henson of literary journal The Manila Review, via FADER friend Harry Gassel, opened a portal to a whole world of new-to-me artists, including filmmaker Raya Martin who Vicuña had worked with to score his latest film How to Disappear Completely (watch the trailer below). Here, get to know five crucial young artists from Manila—including photographer Geric Cruz who took the above photo in Manila's center—and find out how their city shapes their work.

24 year old music producer Idris Vicuña is the man behind the ghostly beats of Eyedress.

Eyedress photographed by Ecks Abitona.

"Music only started really happening for real when I moved back to the Philippines," says Idris Vicuña. The young musician was born in Manila but moved to American as a child before returning aged 15. "I met my homie Julius on Myspace because I had no damn friends whatsoever when I first got here. I told him to meet me at Tower Records and then I invited him to my house to jam." That jamming evolved into a local band that later dispersed when one of the members moved to Spain to study but the time alone was all Vicuña needed to develop his solo project, Eyedress. He released his debut solo material on Manila label Number Line Records in 2012, before signing to XL Recordings offshoot Abeano last year. "I started recording all this shit because I was all depressed because I was with someone I shouldn't have been with. All that came out in [new mixtape] Hearing Colors and from then on I've just been trying to challenge myself by reinventing myself. Eventually you find your own sound by imitating what you're into. Like mixing all the influences, collage-style, and coming up with new ways to mix and match shit. That gets me excited."

On working in Manila: "There's tons of new kids making beats nowadays. There's a community for everything here now I think, but it's still small. The Philippines as a country is still a baby. Creativity here is rare, especially because everyone out here grew up under a rock. People really believe in god and don't see anything outside of just that. I know a few people who dwell into the occult side of things. Creativity here feels too safe for me. Catholic art? These creatives need more Satan in their life. It's not so much a religious thing for me, but I mean we need to see past the norm and more [into] of the supernatural if we want to really push creativity. Creativity for me is deep. We have to open our minds—like rip that shit apart—to push creativity."

On a career defining moment: "That moment was when people started offering to put my shit out physically and not just on some website but like for real. Getting signed is big for me but it started before I got signed because little labels believed in me. It just amazed me how those people wanted to go out of their way to put out my music. That means a lot to me."

On what's next for him: "I'm working on all types of shit right now: videos, mixtape stuff, a guitar album even. But right now the main focus is making music I can play live, whatever it is. I'm definitely working on the debut album though. I should be out next year."

This multi-disciplinary artist mines an interest in organizational structures to create quietly disturbing works.

Maria Taniguchi photographed by Mara Coson.

"In a way I didn't have a choice," says Maria Taniguchi on getting into the art world. "My mother is an artist and I probably had to find a way to respond to all the weird stuff I lived with while growing up." While she followed in her footsteps, Taniguchi's approach couldn't be more different to her mother's more traditional practice. "The images of esoteric symbology overlaid onto landscapes with fantastical animals really got to me," she explains. "Today my own approach to making work presents as a hundred and ten percent pragmatic." That much is evident in her towering, shiny black acrylic paintings that look like doorways into the subconscious, and her video installation that documents a Filipino marble craftsman from the island of Romblon chipping away at a block to find the arms of a famous female figure sculpture within. As well as exhibiting in Singapore and Milan, Taniguchi is also heavily involved in shaping the art scene in Manila: "I also run an exhibitions platform out of my studio called Telenobela with my friend Pio Abad," she explains. "Our first project was to show RJ Fernandez's beautiful black and white photographs covering the La Union surfing scene in the late 90s."

On working in Manila: ​"It's ​37 degrees Celsius today. I spend a lot of time walking around. It's such an unfashionable thing to admit to, but I do most of the walking in malls. My friends think I'm the biggest mall rat. I don't really buy anything. It's such an intellectual netherworld that it helps me think, if that makes sense."

Untitled (Dawn’s Arms) / two-channel video installation, HD video, monitors, plywood. 2011

On a career defining moment: ​"My exhibition at the Jorge Vargas Museum in Quezon City in 2011 was when I felt I was saying something and people really responded, and the response was visceral. Things started to happen quickly after that. I started to work with a local gallery, Silverlens, and we eventually collaborated on presenting my work at Art Statements, the solo show section for emerging artists at Art Basel 44 last year. A lot of good things came out of that move, including an upcoming residency at the Singapore Tyler Print Institute."

On what's next for her: "I​'m on a research break​. I was supposed to finish one more large painting for a show in Antwerp but I decided ​I was spending too much time in production mode. So at the moment half my days are spent reading, haphazardly as it's turning out: bits of Resil Mojares, David Harvey, Levi-Strauss, Sloterdijk, and a book about jellyfish invading Earth. So far ​all ​I can say ​is ​that if you want to finish anything do not read ten books at the same time.​"

At only 29, this Cannes-approved filmmaker is at the forefront of a new wave of Filipino Cinema.

Raya Martin photographed by Joey Alvero.

Drawing on the Philippines' colonial past and personal histories to spin compelling narratives that tread the line between fact and sometimes fantastical fiction, director Raya Martin has made a colossal 18 films since graduating from film school in 2005. Having shown everywhere from Buenos Aires to Toronto, he's also the first Filipino filmmaker to be accepted at the Cinéfondation Résidence of the Cannes Film Festival. His desire to spark dialogue through film started early: "I went to a private Catholic high school, and there was an opportunity to make something artistic," remembers Martin. "While everyone did the usual theater play, I had decided to make a short film with the whole class based on an E.E. Cummings poem. It involved shoving a soldier’s head down a toilet bowl, later projected in front of the whole school, with the priceless reactions of teachers and nuns. That was a glorious moment."

On working in Manila: "There’s a beauty in how restrictive and how all bets are off in Manila: it’s one huge LA parking lot that’s been taken over by a multitude of people, from intellectuals to gypsies that come from all over and surprisingly harmonize as a community. It’s both gentle and rough, like when you sit in a bar and you talk to someone: one can meet an assassin or get killed. The fantasy is real, and the real is fantasy and it’s that dream-like quality of the city that makes me love and hate it at the same time. The parking lot becomes this huge, surreal studio set and everyone goes on living their own lives."

On a career defining moment: "I wasn’t really determined to pursue a specific career right after graduating from college, and had applied for apprentice work for photographers or magazines but never heard from any of them. Someone had told me about a film residency that the Cannes Film Festival was running based in Paris, so I sent what few works I had then: some shorts and a full-length documentary about the most isolated island north of the Philippines, which I had finished while turning 18. It was a surreal moment to be interviewed and eventually taken in, later meeting filmmakers like Bruno Dumont and Patrice Leconte and discovering what an ideal film culture could be like. A few years later, I premiered my first film in Cannes, an almost 5-hour film titled Now Showing. The following year, I had presented two more films, Manila and Independencia."

On what's next for him: "I’ve lately been interested in the expanding cultural identity of the Philippines, given that it’s Spanish, Latino, American, and Asian all at once. There’s a famous teleportation case, one of the earliest recorded from 1593, about a Filipino soldier who was guarding in Manila and suddenly woke up in Mexico City. It’s such a bizarre and loaded thought. I had made a feature film about it called Buenas noches, España that also intersected with the idea of drugs as teleportative. Eventually, that idea developed into more teleportation-inspired ones, so I had finished one script about a soldier coming home to his family after years of disappearance. It’s set somewhere in Latin America, but also it could be nowhere, with culture-specific characters talking in English and diving into conflicting personal spaces. I’m also working on a suspense thriller based on my love for writers like Lois Duncan and Kevin Williamson: it’s also based somewhere in that part of the world, a mother dealing with her missing husband in a foreign land. They’re all part of an effort to mine film genre as another space for cultural identity: what’s a Filipino film and what should it be like? There’s a history that’s being neglected that I always want to discover."

Rising writer Coson is the co-founder of essential literary journal, The Manila Review.

Mara Coson photographed by Therese Regalado.

"I was born blue," writes Mara Coson in the about section of her website. "At seven, I tried to run away but couldn’t go past the gate of my house. At twelve, I wanted to be in a band famous for not wearing bras." As managing editor of The Manila Review, an independent non-profit publication that "aims to map the ideas that shape public discussion in the Philippines", Coson has been instrumental in providing a critical platform for the city's literary community ("We’re a young publication trying to navigate an incredibly unpredictable city—and we’re still adjusting our approach.") while working on her own short stories that take a sideways look at contemporary life. "Nobody thought I’d be a writer," she says as gears up to take time off work to write her first novella. "Good I had enough arrogance to overlook my conviction that boy band lyrics were so poetic you could doodle them on the side of your notebook and revel in the depth."

On working in Manila: "Nobody can really tell you what Manila is like to live in. People who think they can tell you how it is for everybody prove they have little idea. The Manila I personally experience I feel is on a cultural upswing, but it’s hard to isolate this feeling from the many other experiences that might not overlap with mine. There are seventeen municipalities that make up this metropolis of eleven million people—all fiefdoms with communities hardly two alike. But to contradict my aversion to over-generalizations, I think one thing is for sure: it’s a city you can only come near to adapting to by realizing that you can’t adapt to it. The way the city, or rather, the metropolis, holds itself up against all odds and against any categorization or rigid definition is what’s so inspiring. It almost seems like nothing makes sense, but somehow it does. I mean, street sellers sell chrome coat racks on days of record heat! And isn’t a place like this sometimes the best place for the imagination?"

On a career defining moment: "I can’t pinpoint one exactly— it’s a combination of multiple small moments that had a kind of domino effect. I had been writing short stories and poetry back when I was living in Melbourne, and I attended a table discussion at the Melbourne Writers’ Festival, where this guy who sat next to me asked a question to the Filipino novelist Miguel Syjuco. (He would later contribute to The Manila Review.) I didn’t know many Filipinos there my age. And so later, I saw him crossing the street and I tapped him on the shoulder. And fast forward a few years, we started The Manila Review."

On what's next for her: Sometimes being an editor is like taking care of other people’s children night and day—and then you wake up with a quarter life crisis and realize that you can’t freeze your eggs! I did the almost-unsustainable move of quitting my full-time job to finish this novella. I’m hoping it comes out within the next year or so.

The photographer shooting Manila from a dozen different angles.

"I started with documentary work but I’ve come to this phase where I’m questioning photography," says Manila-based photographer Geric Cruz. "The science of it, the processes possible, and how else it can be maximized. I’m trying to dissect things, see how I can approach it as my own." While his work often starts with the hyper-personal—his current project Eva started when his cousins asked if he would photograph his grandmother's old house in Bacolod—his open and curious approach invites the onlooker into his world as if they were an old friend. "Eva is a catalogue of objects, people, and memories," explains Cruz. "It’s about the afternoons of sipping hot chocolate drinks, about the smell of my grandmother’s detergent, about growing up in Bacolod, and even about the helpers and their families who grew up with us. It’s a record of our shared history, an attempt to gather evidence of the passage of time, and to remember, before things move further away."

On working in Manila: "There’s a lot happening here. So many paths to take in terms of thought. I’d say it’s a place of feeling, and I’d say those feelings didn’t appear just now. They’re deeply rooted. You have hunger, you have poverty. And then the dark questions, the things you’ve been taught being different from the things you experience. There’s also this uncertainty—how you don’t know where you’ll be the next day, how you don’t know how long you won’t know. I kinda understood that feeling in San Francisco [where Cruz has spent time honing his craft] but here you meet people with the same feeling multiplied by a hundred. I feel lucky in a way but at the same time it can be frustrating. You see things, you see what’s happening, but there’s only so much you can do about it."

Image from Geric Cruz's Diaspora project about Manila Bay.

On a career defining moment: "There’s a residency that I did in 2013 that I go back to. My whole process changed. I felt more comfortable about what I wanted and how I would like to proceed with my photography. There was a certain clarity in my thinking and it gave me confidence. I became less afraid, less hesitant. My insecurities felt easier to handle. I still feel the same about my earlier work, but now a lot of the thinking comes first. It’s not like walking around anymore, shooting anything, and then later having to divide the images into groups. The message is clearer; I have definite ideas I want to communicate. Using Instagram has also changed things. It helps filter out my thought process. Because you constantly release and release images, you get know what it is you really want. Although I don’t know yet if it’s a good or bad thing, I like being able to look at the things that I am (or have been) interested in. The images might not be too serious yet but already there’s that curiosity. And it always helps to have clues about what it is about a city or a person or an event that’s pulling you."

On what's next for him: "I’m working on two [projects] right now. One is about my grandmother's house back in the province (Eva) and the most recent one is about Manila Bay (Diaspora). Manila Bay is known for its history and there’s a lot of cliché surrounding it but I’m more interested in the magnetic quality of the bay – how it seems to draw people, and some who’ve come never leave. I’ve been looking for a way to get around the clichés, to present it different so it won’t look like the usual images we see, so they’d recognize something they might have overlooked. The project’s more collaborative and in a way, controlled. Sure there’s still the surprises of chance but here I’m telling myself, Why not create? Why not work from thought? What would control feel like? This is what I mean by maximizing the process, to not depend solely on chance to get the image that I want. I'm still in the early stages of both projects and i hope to finish it by next year and at the same time find a space that would be interested in exhibiting it."

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World View: Meet Five Manila Artists Redefining Filipino Creativity