Singapore show presents Johnny Manahan as art pioneer

The National Gallery investigates the works of Southeast Asian artists in the 70s. Representing the Philippines—showbiz titan Mr. M

by Mio Borromeo

A new exhibit in Singapore investigates the work of pioneering Southeast Asian artists in the 70s. Representing the Philippines—showbiz titan Mr. M

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HIGH CONCEPT. Manahan in front of stills from his video artwork for the 1982 Paris Biennale. Image courtesy of the Manahan family.

While Johnny Manahan is best known for his work in television—directing variety programs and sitcoms, discovering would-be superstars while honing their proficiencies as entertainer and celebrity—few are aware of his early years in visual arts. Graduating from UC Berkley with a degree in architecture and a minor in art history, Manahan initially thrived as a painter and video artist, garnering the CCP Thirteen Artists Award at one point and presenting at the Paris Biennale in 1982.

“Johnny can be credited as the first visual artist in the Philippines to work with video as a medium,” says Clarissa Chikiamco, a curator at the recently opened National Gallery Singapore (1 Saint Andrew’s Road, #01-01; info@nationalgallery.sg) where Manahan’s photography and video installation works from the 70s are currently on show. “It may even be possible he could be the first Southeast Asian artist to use video as a medium, but we still need to do more research on this.”

Under the title A Fact Has No Appearance: Art Beyond the Object, the exhibit aims to represent the works of three Southeast Asian artists looking at new modes of art-making in the 1970s, a period that found the regional art scene rife with postmodern thinking. The times saw the collapse of dominant media like sculpture and painting in favor of emerging forms like found objects and film. Manahan is included in the exhibit with Malaysia’s Reza Piyadasa and Singaporean Tan Teng-Kee. “By the late 70s, I was into ‘body art’ and ‘performance,’” Manahan told Rogue in a 2013 interview. “We weren’t interested in the ‘commodification of art.’ We were just kids having a nice time.” He recalled sticking his head in a clear plastic bag and videotaping himself making perfect Os with cigarette smoke for a piece once.

 

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The photograph “Johnny Manahan Being Beside a Dancer,” featuring Edna Vida (the sister of Alice Reyes), was part of his 1974 conceptual art project Evidences, a series of photos where he documented himself doing a range of activities. Image courtesy of the Manahan family.

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Title unknown (Evidences series), c. 1974, Photographs, Manahan Family Collection. Image courtesy of National Gallery Singapore.

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“Johnny Manahan On a New Year’s Day Evening” (Evidences series), 1974, Photograph, Manahan Family Collection. Image courtesy of National Gallery Singapore.

“The camera was quite important to Johnny’s practice,” Chikiamco notes. “How, for example, it could capture a moment and act as a record or testament to an event in time and space.” She cites Manahan’s 1974 solo exhibition Evidences as a clear example. Comprised primarily of self-portraits, Manahan catches himself in the midst of ordinary moments—singing, lighting a New Year’s sparkler, standing beside a dancer. To some extent, it almost seems as if Manahan’s work predicted the age of the ubiquitous, even pedestrian, smartphone camera—better known as the age of the selfie. Yet at the time, the idea was considered startlingly new in Southeast Asia, novelty being one of the attainable goals of art. Emphasis was falling more and more on the ideas that drove the appearance of the artwork rather than the value of the artwork itself.

As a result of this development, the biggest hurdle for Chikiamco and her colleagues is presenting works faithful to their original states. “A lot of works were ephemeral or discarded, misplaced and deliberately destroyed,” says Chikiamco. “How do we represent artworks that no longer exist?” Manahan’s contribution to the 1982 Paris Biennale was reported to include a two-channel video installation. (According to Manahan, the video he presented involved throwing crushed paper at the camera to obscure the entire field of view: “I was happy the French guys liked what I did.”) Yet research has led to the discovery of only one video. Whether a second video exists or not, what the artist presented remains a mystery. “We will still have two televisions,” Chikiamco reveals, “but one will be displayed off as a symbolic and poetic gesture.”

Though Manahan shares the room with two contemporaries for A Fact Has No Appearance, the pieces chosen and presented serve as a strong reminder of the artist’s commitment to his work more than a means to a quick buck, a point-of-view Manahan still carries to the present, even after his long, illustrious career in entertainment: “Today, we do not see a lot of these qualities which should constitute true masterpieces: simplicity, complexity, imaginative ambition, an organic continuity with the past, and a deep sense of a common humanity… There is now more pressure for a young artist to come up with a ‘style’ and manufacture product at an accelerated pace to satisfy the demand… ‘Quality,’ we are reminded, is a no-no word.”

 

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An invitation to Manahan’s first art exhibit in 1972, which critiqued “the creation of celebrities.” Image courtesy of the Manahan family.

A Fact Has No Appearance: Art Beyond the Object is now open for viewing at the Concourse Gallery 1 at Basement 1 of the National Gallery Singapore until June 19, 2016. Admission is free.