Ringo Bunoan, For Lee Aguinaldo (Work after Chabet #3), 2009. GI pails, water, chipboard. Courtesy the artist
This past summer, Asia Art Archive, Hong Kong, launched The Chabet Archive, comprised of over eight thousand documents that span fifty years of work by pioneering artist Roberto Chabet (b. 1937, Manila). Perhaps best known for his inquisitive, conceptual compositions of readymades and common materials, Chabet conveys a sense of resourcefulness and ingenuity in his work that presents an alternative to representational modes of painting and sculpture often aligned with ideological struggles during the imperial occupation and dictatorship in twentieth-century Philippines. As a central proponent and practitioner of Conceptual art in the Philippines, Chabet is also widely respected there for his decisive contributions as a curator, a teacher, and an early interlocutor on other art practices outside the country.
The structure of The Chabet Archive not only sheds light on the artist’s multifaceted practice but also, more importantly, on his invaluable contributions to the development of contemporary art in the Philippines. The Archive has been structured around five topics: 1) Chabet’s artistic production dating back to his early student work in 1959; 2) his time as founding Museum Director of the Cultural Center of the Philippines from 1967–70 (for which he was awarded a Rockefeller Foundation grant to conduct research in the US and Europe); 3) Shop 6, the seminal storefront gallery operated by a group of artists led by Chabet; 4) the artist’s tenure as professor at the University of the Philippines College of Fine Arts; and 5) a conceptual collaborative project with Benjamin Bautista and Ramon Katigbak.
Browsing through the archive reveals a playful yet complex practice that addresses the urgencies of the day, while providing a foundation for artistic and intellectual endeavors in the present. Most immediately resonant with the New Museum’s Museum as Hub initiative are the Shop 6 materials. The storefront space in Sining Kamalig was opened by Chabet with a group of artists that included Yolanda Laudico, Boy Perez, Joe Bautista, Fernando Modesto, Rodolfo Gan, and Joy Dayrit. Together, they organized one group or solo exhibition per week for roughly fourteen weeks, creating a space for conceptual modes of expressivity and criticality that stood in contrast to more formal, medium-specific practices championed at the time. An article in the arts publication Marks observed: “To cynics, Shop 6 is just another showcase for pakulo, a place for gimmicks or simply ‘rubbish.’ But judging from the one-man exhibitions, gimmickry was hardly a concern: the works were results of hard work perhaps, harder thinking.” 1 The exhibition “101 Artists,” one of Shop 6’s last shows, is exemplary of the art space’s ambitions. Here, organizing members invited other artists to present works alongside their own, mounting a massive exhibition that filled the space and extended into a nearby parking lot. Artist Judy Freya Sibayan’s Lemon Cake (described in the above article and accessible from the archive) invited artists to pile into a car and consume food and drink. Sibayan’s playful, participatory act not only takes art-making beyond proper institutions of art but also bears political dimension amidst the backdrop of Philippine martial law imposed two years earlier by President Ferdinand Marcos in 1972. The Archive’s annotations also point out that the launch of Shop 6 follows the artist’s resignation as Museum Director of the Cultural Center of the Philippines (CCP), which was built at the behest of infamous First Lady Imelda Marcos. Chabet recalled: “I was being alienated already by CCP at the time… I felt that maybe they should have an alternative to the alternative.” 2 In retrospect, we can see how Shop 6 became a catalyst for activity on the ground and provided a precedent for the development of similar artist-driven activity in the Philippines today.
Given the vitality of Chabet’s practice, as exemplified by his involvement in Shop 6, it seems fitting that the process of building his archive would embrace the conceptual ingenuity and collaborative spirit for which he is championed. Working closely with Chabet, Ringo Bunoan—a prominent artist, Asia Art Archive’s Researcher for the Philippines, and a former student of Chabet—has not only gathered his personal records and donations from others but also organized a series of talks, exhibitions, and activities in order to create a platform to challenge the traditional process and parameters by which archives are traditionally constructed, and as Bunoan puts it, to “reveal more than what we are looking for.” The result is not a static (or stable) repository of history; The Chabet Archive has been envisioned by Bunoan as a generative hub to augment current holdings, activate existing materials, and present Chabet’s art more widely.
In 2009, after a year of intensively reviewing materials with Chabet, Bunoan began to think about an approach to archiving his work that could encompass his unrealized ideas and works that had never been shown, no longer existed, or were poorly documented. For her own exhibition, Bunoan decided to work with Chabet on an exhibition of remounted or newly realized works that would foreground collaboration and memory—disregarding questions of authorship and originality, which are hallmark concerns of the institutional archive. Among the works on view in “Archiving Roberto Chabet” (2009) at the Jorge B. Vargas Museum in Quezon City was Untitled (Work After Chabet #1) (2009), a system of wooden planks laid across empty paint cans, which reference the elevated walkways that run throughout Manila neighborhoods when it floods. Bunoan remembers Chabet speaking about this work in class but it was never made. Also remounted by Bunoan in collaboration with Chabet was For Lee Aguinaldo (Work After Chabet #3) (2009)—a simple installation comprised of chipboard soaking in American GI buckets. The piece was inspired by Aguinaldo’s description of Chabet’s early gouache and watercolor paintings that, in comparison to more robust, monumental gestures of the time, seemed on the verge of melting like chipboard in water. Other works in the show included previously undocumented drawings and a 2003 installation of cut-up wooden boats that Bunoan helped to recreate from memory. The exhibition provided wider exposure for Chabet’s work while presenting innovative ways and opportunities to build the Archive.
The exhibition provided a methodology for archiving that Bunoan would develop over the next few years, culminating in “Roberto Chabet: 50 Years,” a yearlong series of exhibitions and related events (2011–12) spearheaded by King Kong Art Projects Unlimited, a nonprofit artist organization based in Manila, in partnership with Osage Art Foundation, Institute of Contemporary Arts, LASALLE College of the Arts, Singapore, University of the Philippines College of Fine Arts, West Gallery, Finale Art File, Magnet Gallery, MO_Space, Manila Contemporary, Galleria Duemila, Paseo Gallery, Ateneo Art Gallery, Lopez Memorial Museum, and the Cultural Center of the Philippines.
Among these exhibitions were “Complete and Unabridged Part 1” (2011) at the Institute of Contemporary Arts, Singapore LASALLE College of the Arts, and “Complete and Unabridged Part 2” (2011) at Osage Gallery, both collectively curated by Bunoan, artist Gary-Ross Pastrana (former student of Chabet and artist in “The Ungovernables,” the 2012 New Museum Triennial) of King Kong Art Projects Unlimited, Manila, and curator and writer Isabel Ching for the Institute of Contemporary Art and Osage Art Foundation, Hong Kong. Reworking the notion of the survey exhibition, these two shows not only include Chabet’s work but also that of his former students and their students, looking at the development of his art and ideas over five decades. The exhibition “Shop 6,” at the artist-run gallery Mo_Space in Manila, took a historical moment as a point of departure, organizing a show around the collaborative spirit and aesthetic strategies of the historic “101 Artists” to bring together several generations of artists.
The Chabet Archive has also led to writing about the artist, which includes a review of “Complete and Unabridged” in ArtAsiaPacific, a piece featuring Chabet by writer Marlyne Sahakian and Bunoan also in ArtAsiaPacific, and a longer, scholarly analysis of conceptual practices in Southeast Asia by Ching for Asia Art Archive’s editorial platform. In conjunction with the yearlong series of exhibitions, the catalogue “Roberto Chabet: Fifty Years” (email@example.com) documents these unprecedented efforts in a collection of informal, accordion-fold notebooks.
By the end of 2012, The Chabet Archive will have spawned over eighteen exhibitions that will eventually augment the Archive itself, and through the archiving process, will have inspired countless undocumented encounters that may generate new contemporary art practices for our times.
1 “Incidents at Shop 6,” Marks, Vol 1. Nos. 2–4, (May–October 1974) http://www.aaa.org.hk/Collection/CollectionOnline/SpecialCollectionItem/19 (accessed 15 November, 2012).
2 Interview with Roberto Chabet by Ringo Bunoan in Isabel Ching, “Tracing (Un)Certain Legacies: Conceptualism in Singapore and the Philippines” in Perspectives, Asia Art Archive (July 2011) http://www.aaa.org.hk/Diaaalogue/Details/1045 (accessed 15 November, 2012).