'Blasphemous' art exhibit shut down

Photo courtesy of Edd Gumban

By Delon Porcalla – The Cultural Center of the Philippines (CCP) yesterday closed down the gallery showing a controversial art exhibit, part of which reaped a firestorm for being “sacrilegious” and “blasphemous.”

The CCP refused to elaborate on whether they were instructed by the President to shut down the art exhibit “Kulo,” but board members decided to temporarily close it because of the “increasing number of threats to persons and property,” vandalism and claims of blasphemy.

“There is no freedom that is absolute. There are limits set as to what you’re allowed to do. I made my position very clear to them, and I did stress the idea that you have rights, but if you trample upon the rights of others, I think there is something wrong there,” the President said.

A source told The STAR that Aquino had a closed-door meeting with CCP officials on Monday.

“There seems to be no categorical statement coming from the President that the CCP close down the exhibit. But knowing him, you should read between the lines, and I think the Board understood what the President had in mind,” the source said.

In an interview with reporters during his visit to the Malampaya Deep Water Gas-to-Power Project Onshore Gas Plant in Batangas yesterday, Aquino said he reminded CCP officials that the Philippines is a predominantly Catholic country where 85 percent are Christians.

“There was a depiction of Christ which is not acceptable to anyone and the CCP is funded by public money. It should be of service to the people, but when you insult the beliefs of most of the people, I don’t see where that is of service,” Aquino pointed out.

He clarified though that he is not after censorship.

“Art is supposed to be ennobling and when you stoke conflict, that is not an ennobling activity,” he said, adding that trampling on one’s rights is definitely a violation of the laws of the land.

At the Palace, presidential spokesman Edwin Lacierda doused cold water on insinuations made by some members of the Catholic Bishops’ Conference of the Philippines (CBCP) that the controversial mixed media installation, “Poleteismo” by Mideo Cruz, is related to the government’s push for the reproductive health (RH) bill that they are opposing.

“The Church would say that the exhibit was being used against their stand in the RH bill. But as far as the Palace is concerned, we were not involved in the CCP decision. The CCP board decided on this matter independent of Malacañang,” he stressed.

“I think we should not be involved in a matter that is purely a decision made by CCP and this is about art,” the spokesman explained. “To those who are saying that this administration is a clerico-fascist, that’s not true.”

While members of the CCP board are presidential appointees, Lacierda pointed out that they are expected to perform tasks that are within their competence and no longer need presidential approval.

“I think the controversy is purely on the question of freedom of expression and also on violation of the sensibilities of the Christian faith. I don’t think there is, in any way, any involvement of the President. So that can be resolved purely on those levels,” Lacierda said.

Defining the limits of art

The controversial Kulo exhibit opened on June 17 at the CCP Main Gallery and was slated to run up to Aug. 21.

It was a compilation of works by 32 artists, which was meant to be part of the CCP’s celebration of Dr. Jose Rizal’s 150th birth anniversary.

The participating artists had a common educational background, all having studied at UST like the national hero, and the CCP felt that the theme reflected the heritage and culture represented by the 400-year-old university.

J. Pacena II was exhibit curator.

“In keeping with previous practice to evaluate merits of art works on the basis of established parameters, the CCP Visual Arts Division, headed by Karen Ocampo-Flores, approved the proposal to exhibit on the basis of an evaluation of their proposal as well as the background qualifications of the participating artists,” a CCP statement said.

The exhibit went on smoothly until a major television network covered it, particularly focusing on Cruz’s work. Poleteismo has been exhibited since 2002 in other venues like the Ateneo de Manila, UP Vargas Museum and Kulay Diwa Galleries.

An introduction to Cruz’s work explains that it “speaks of idolatry and the deconstruction of neo-deities.”

It describes the cross and the image of Christ as representative of Filipinos’ cultural past because Spain and conservative Catholic friars have ruled the country for almost four centuries.

It said the artwork seeks to depict “the transformation of the deity… to an epitome of neo-liberal economy.”

A wall collage opposite the cross is made up of posters of local celebrities, NBA stars, Jesus Christ, Barack Obama, Coca-Cola and the Teletubbies, characters from a children’s TV show. Unfurled condoms, wooden rosaries and wooden penises adorn the wall.

A figure of Christ the King painted with red make-up depicting Mickey Mouse and a poster of Jesus Christ with a wooden penis glued to his face were among the fixtures that irritated many Catholics who trooped to the venue.

In recent interviews, Cruz called himself “a visual artist who commonly tries to cross borders of discipline in producing my works.”

CCP chair Emily Abrera was quoted as saying last week that it was part of the artists’ duty to challenge prevailing beliefs.

“It is part of our culture to question, to seek answers, to look behind the surface and try to dig out what our real values are,” she said.

Bigotry or freedom of expression?

But Manila Archbishop Gaudencio Cardinal Rosales said Cruz and his supporters may have abused their freedom of expression.

He told church-run Radio Veritas on Monday that freedom entails “the responsibility not to attack cultures and the responsibility not to destroy the values of people.”

Several Catholic lay groups have threatened to file charges against Cruz and the exhibition organizers, and a group called Pro-life Philippines has written a letter to the CCP demanding that the exhibit be taken down.

However, Bienvenido Lumbera, National Artist for Literature and chair of the Concerned Artists of the Philippines, said the Philippine Constitution guarantees freedom of speech and the demand “to suppress the show smacks of religious fascism.”

Yesterday, after a thorough deliberation, the Board decided to close down the gallery.

“The CCP shall continue to act as catalyst for free expression of Filipino artists. It thanks all those who have, in one way or another, contributed to the dialogue about art and the different ways it affects society today,” the CCP said,

Catholics on CCP and Cruz: Crucify them

However, the closure of the contentious exhibit would not stop different Christian groups from filing criminal charges against Cruz and the CCP.

Lawyer Jo Imbong told CBCPNews they would still file cases in relation to Article 201 of the Revised Penal Code (RPC) that covers provisions on immoral doctrines, obscene publications and indecent shows, because the “Christian nation has been offended.”

Election lawyer Romulo Macalintal, a devout Catholic, said the CCP officials could be held criminally liable.

A group of devotees of Jesus the Nazarene picketed the CCP yesterday to denounce the desecration of the image of the Christ.

Pro-Life Philippines president Eric Manalang said they will proceed with their plans to hold a protest rally outside the CCP today even if the showing of the exhibit has been terminated.

Pampanga Auxiliary Bishop Pablo Virgilio David said Cruz knows vandalizing religious icons and symbols is one of the surest ways of hurting people’s sensibilities and “an effective way of provoking violent reactions from people he labels as fanatics.”

He said Cruz enjoys all the media attention he’s getting for his “mediocre and fetishist installations he calls art.”

David also described the people at the CCP as “more seriously pathetic” because they are supposed to be “art connoisseurs but who cannot even see the difference between art and plain vandalism, and who allow themselves to be taken for a ride by a sick man posing as an artist.”

Even former first lady and art patron Imelda Marcos denounced the exhibit, saying the work was “a desecration and no longer represents art.”

The flamboyant widow of former dictator Ferdinand Marcos was the founder of the CCP.

“To desecrate some kind of a symbol for what some religions hold sacred, it is no longer right,” she told reporters.

Senate threatens to cut CCP budget

Senate President Pro-Tempore Jinggoy Estrada and majority leader Vicente Sotto III also joined calls to remove the art piece and threatened to slash the CCP’s 2012 budget.

Sotto said the budget for CCP employees can be retained so that they will not be losing their jobs.

While he respects the right of Cruz to exercise freedom of expression, Sotto said it was another issue when he placed the exhibit at the CCP which promotes art and culture, and the fact that the center is funded by the government.

Senate President Juan Ponce Enrile also echoed his colleagues’ concern and called for the resignation of the members of the board led by chairman Abrera and CCP president Raul Sunico.

“While we respect freedom of expression, the right of the artist to express himself, he must equally respect the sensibilities of the people around him,” Enrile said, referring to Cruz.

Estrada said the “art” piece could only be done by a person who was out of his mind and a demon who surfaced from hell.

In his interpellation with Estrada, Sen. Joker Arroyo criticized Cruz for defending his art piece as part of his artistic expression.

“We should understand that the defense of the artist was not freedom of expression but artistic expression… We cannot apply every American style to our system because we have a different country. This is the CCP, not everything American and not everything decided by the United States must be followed by the Philippines,” Arroyo said.

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