Commentary: Acts of burning*


There have been numerous acts of burning lately.

While we were in Manila last weekend to attend a literary festival, a piece of art mistaken to be simply a Christmas display was burned in Baguio. The word in the street was that distaste for the work prompted the act of burning. Concerns were expressed as to what the incident revealed about artistic expression. Throw in the celebrated recently-earned recognition as creative city for Baguio and the wariness grows. The contradiction is quite obvious: in this creative city, your art will be demolished if it displeased some, worse, a few members of the community. Could this not be indirectly tied to the prevalence of vigilante justice coeval to the growing number of deaths from the war on drugs? That is, we no longer just critically engage or denounce but outright destroy what we deem as ugly, worthless or dispensable. An update as of this writing: the work which was created by Maela Liwanag Jose has been removed from Session Road rotunda.

If you are ugly, you will be served burnt food; if you are worthless, you might as well burn your moneyless ATM cards away; they will burn your body and call it justice and progress—that’s how dispensable you can be.
* * * * *

We spent this year’s International Day of Human Rights at Manila. This city which my partner and I dread as walkers became an open space in a span of at least one hour for us thousands of comrades who marched from Bonifacio Shrine near Manila City Hall to Mendiola. All throughout the march, we excoriated the Duterte administration for its systematic trampling of the rights of the people—from the human rights of activists, environmentalist, members of the Church among others who are being murdered in the open to the right to livelihood of farmers, jeepney drivers, minimum-wage earners, students and other sectors who are affected by Duterte’s anti-people programs.

One of the highlights for me was the unleashing of Duterte’s true face via an effigy made by the collective UgatLahi. The effigy has two layers, with the image of a terrifying impish President covered by the face of the President that we can identify. This effigy was then moved along with the march to Mendiola where it was burned to culminate the program.

Disregarding the environmental concern that comes with the act of burning, the typical fate of effigies which this act renders is instructive in rethinking possibilities for art. Sweetly incidentally, I also touched on this point in a small talk I gave at the same literary festival held at the Polytechnic University of the Philippines’. Sa munting talk sa PUP, binanggit ko ang pinatutungkulan ng symbolic act na pagsunog at pagsira sa effigy: ang paglupig sa isang rehimen at mga pinapatupad nitong mga polisiya at mga pinapanigang interes, ang pag-anticipate sa pagbagsak nito, o mas akma, pagpapabagsak dito na dikit naman sa isang pamilyar nang sigaw tuwing martsa: Duterte mismo, babagsak!

In relation to our conception and revaluation of art and artistic production, the act of burning the effigy corresponds to an almost literal shattering of the archaic idea that art harbours eternal, immutable and unfalsifiable truths. In the willful and at times fervent act of burning the effigy, an alternative view of art is being presented: not just ephemeral art per se but art that has to be ephemeral because it is linked to a defined political objective and message.

Just like Maela Liwanag Jose’s art installation, the Duterte effigy evidently takes much time and effort in its construction. Both works are informed by and coming from certain traditions—be it artistic or political: Maela’s tinatik and other forms of dyeing elsewhere; the Duterte effigy, dissent and occupying public spaces.

Not like Maela Liwanag Jose’s art installation (first torched and now displaced) however, effigies in mass rallies are destroyed or burned purposely. All the weeks of collective toil in building and furnishing effigies culminate most of the time in the few hours that mass demonstrations last. But the effigies’ creators are likely aware of this. They must understand not only that their art must serve politics by sacrificing longevity to articulate a political message; but also that their politics must serve art by influencing its orientation and design.

This is definitely not to condone the reckless and cowardly act of burning Jose’s work. This is only to hint at the different ways by which art can be implicated in and engage its social circumstances in response. I would hazard that the fate of Jose’s work is comparable to the dead body of a teenager suspected, or worse, mistaken to be a drug user. The less established ones in the art scene are more easily bullied and dismissed the same way that the ‘unimportant’ lives of the poor are more easily misunderstood and disposed.

Meanwhile, effigies make explicit what is often either implied or utterly rejected: the intertwined relationship between art and politics. As they burn and are reduced to ashes, effigies symbolically anticipate and project a future where undesirable entities and conditions—fascists, contractualization, impoverished families, unschooled children, extinct living creatures, big-bellied bureaucrats, human rights violators—are the ones eliminated.

True, there are burnings you wish in your head to desist as soon as possible—shanties in urban poor areas, artworks in the city; but some things you want you want to keep burning—bonfires, intense passion or desire, effigies and their figurations of an indignant people ready to topple a crazy and funny fascist regime. #

Author’s note: *This is a quite unintended play on the title of a documentary our generous Manila-based friends –friends in whose apartment we stayed for four days—recommended us to watch, Act of Killing by Joshua Oppenheimer. Alas, on our last night in Manila last week, we were able to watch the documentary. Oppenheimer’s work follows the executioners as they gleefully and unashamedly rehearse how they tortured and murdered at least a million suspected communists during the military dictatorship’s bid to exterminate resistance.


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