THE suite of photographs is called Mystery Terrain and the impression one gets from them is a mix of the spiritual and the ephemera. This is not about religion but something that goes above the seen and the felt. Much as photography really involves the engagement with the visual, which also proceeds from the physical, Shireen Martinez-Seno’s works bring us to terrains that should not be called outright mysterious. That would be an act that is downright in-your-face and effaces the subtlety that makes one’s visual journey through the photographs—the source of the unknown, the terrain that is incognito—full of mystery.
If one examines the photographs, its form and content, there are no extraordinary elements to qualify as a visual unknown. Martinez-Seno does not tap into the stereotypical, the so-called objective correlatives that in literary forms guide the reader out of the obscure into the realm of the understandable. In other words, there are no icons of the inscrutable and the mystifying. What we get are scenes from ordinary lives. On photo paper, these scenes take on the color—or, more accurately, the lack of it—of the concealed. If there is something obvious in the works, it is the fact that they are all about that grandiose construct called life. The grandness is almost like an affliction until it is ministered and partly cured by revealing the ordinariness in them. Almost like the question of Pablo Neruda about life being a “tunnel between two vague clarities?”
A photo called Scratch ‘N’ Sniff’ed Out shows an old sofa, its seat scratched and showing markings of age and destruction. A figure marks its upper portion. The person has his one hand splayed across the back of the old sofa, his hand clutched; his other hand lies hanging almost lifeless except that the veins of the hands are displayed. Remove the sofa and you have a classic pose of many ancient statues. Only the head and the upper shoulder of the man can be seen. The face is not hidden, just not on display given the preferred pose. What does the title conceal, a use of substance? This is of no importance because in the end, the image is of melancholia if you want it to be, or a depiction of somebody dozing off and caught by an errant camera.
Candid or affected, this photo shows the little victories of the ellipse in the works of this artist who refuses to remain with the epistolary.
Another photo labeled Half Awake, Half Asleep on the Water is what we may traditionally call a seascape/landscape. What brings me to appreciate this photo, among the many photos, is its refusal to be a photograph or, at least be a photograph of loveliness even in black and white, the scene is stripped of drama. I search, given the affinity of the artist to Japan, for aesthetics of the shibui, aesthetics of subtlety and simple beauty, but I am forcing Orientalism then. What do I get from this work? An overwhelming sadness not about a place—or our place in a place at a designated time/space—but about the place not being what it is as we remembered it. As the curatorial notes attest: Shireen Martinez-Seno has this “urge to move beyond [its] diaristic surface.”
The sea and the mountains are not being written here. The mountains have smudges and the sea could be an empty space. Has she been the artist of the diaspora (the artist, we are told, has moved from one place to another)? Does she remember properly those places, or has she become the poet of the conjunctural and not of symmetry, if we may borrow the words of the accountant of geographical- and identity-displacement, Edward Said?
Whatever it is, Martinez-Seno has this capacity to urge us to move beyond the linear diaries of our experience and rush onto the terrible, the terrific, the terribly lovely embraces of memories, which are never linear and thus can welcome us at any time of the day, at any point of our feeling of detachment. It must be said that the transitory has found a place in this artist’s imagination.
Of the works exhibited, I am particularly fond of that which shows a middle-aged man and woman seated on the sand and looking out into the horizon. The title is Again, and memory is a key word in this work. Add to the power of memory is the language of cinematic narrative. The artist, by situating the camera as if it is looking at the couple from the side revives the notion of the “gaze.” The two persons have ceased to be sitting for a photo; they are now part of a story the trajectories of which are for us to decide. Where did they come from? Where are they going after? The questions are, of course, not existential but mere curiosities about the before and the after of this scene.
Let me employ the words of film theoretician Christian Metz, talking about the gaze and the role of the viewer: “The spectator is absent from the screen as perceived, but also [the two things inevitably go together] present there and even ‘all present’ as perceiver.”
Using Metz still: “At every moment I am in the [film] photo, by my look’s caress.”
Because the angle has placed us not in front of the couple, we are now sharing that spot on the beach. The wind is keenly memorized. The smiles have stopped to be smiles as we can practically hear the couple’s thoughts. The photograph as harbinger of memory is not enough as we move both in time and space. Situating ourselves in the past becomes greatly possible because the past becomes just another place we can depart from and into which we can return. As art, photography will enable such sojourn.
Shireen Martinez-Seno has been working in film and photography across the places she has been based in. She has spent significant time in Japan, the United States and the Philippines. She graduated from the University of Toronto with a BA in architectural studies and cinema studies, and has, according to curatorial notes, “accumulated a body of works infused with a gaze toward ephemerality and the poetry that lingers in unstaged, commonplace circumstances.”
Mystery Terrain is Shireen Martinez-Seno’s first solo exhibition, featuring photographs shot in black-and-white film and a solo video piece. Earlier this year, she entered Big Boy, her first feature-length film produced by Peliculas Los Otros and Cinema One Originals in an independent film concours managed by the latter.
This is the last program of “Sprout”, four-part project of plantingrice.com that explores the limits of different cultural infrastructures by curating exhibition programs that examine continuous social and artistic dialogue.
The show, which has a component of 38 photographs of varying scale and one video projection, is curated by Siddharta Perez, a co-founder of plantingrice.com. The exhibit is held at Republikha Art Gallery, Unit 102, Magnitude Building, Libis (Outside Eastwood Gate), Quezon City. It is on view until February 4.
In Photo: Scratch ‘N’ Sniffed Out, 8″x12.5″, c-print, 2011 and Half Awake, Half Asleep on the Water, 6″x9″, c-print, 2011