A new art on angst and alienation is rising from a young Philippine artist, Nona Garcia, 34, whose works depict abandoned homes, empty apartments, broken objects, crashed cars, crumpled papers, decayed pavilions, flooded places, looted homes, portraits without faces, saints with averted faces, wrapped surgical and industrial equipment, ready to be sanitized in the auto clave. Some of her images are done with microscopic probing - they are first x-rayed and photographed, their negatives displayed in lighted boxes. Other images are lovingly and realistically interpreted in oil with arduous control. Her penchant for heavy and intricately designed hand-made frames from Pampanga in central Luzon for her modern art works is intent on giving them a permanent and classic voice.
Garcia is attracted only to one history of a place, a portrait, or a thing: the absence of people - their distance, quiet love and seething mutiny, but above all, their existence overtaken by time. Garcia nails blank spaces on her canvases with tomb-like ennui, but at the same time magically rhapsodizes them with poignancy. Her works have the immediate and psychological impressions of people who have just desecrated, deserted, inhabited, loved, and violated places and things. With incomparable and poetic gift, she recalls absent people in her works like a breath, an unseen ghost, a permeating smell, a presence that refuses to leave, an unforgettable memory, as if her only purpose is to stamp people - despite their absence - with dominion and power. However, their concessional presence (in spirit only or just suggested) in her works all the more reveals her elegy - that man is always overtaken by circumstances and time. No other Filipino artist has perfectly depicted in art works the Biblical saying that ''time is evil''.
And when Garcia makes portraits of people and saints whose faces are radically absent, they are, of course, naturally unable to relate and reveal themselves. The artist's intentional and willful creation of a great divide between the viewer and her subject matter goes deeper. These works repeat an old philosophical frustration popularized by Western philosophers, about man's eternal struggle with the unreachable dialogue and connection, as if love (which abounds among Filipinos and other Asians) cannot bridge humanities' ontological divide. It is an offshoot of the long internalized frustration from the West about the separation of God and man.
Never before has alienation, absences, black holes, drabness, and sadness which are commonly felt and over-dissected by philosophers (like Jean Paul Sartre, 1905-1980), including literary and visual artists from the West (where over-development and modernity have paved the way for unbearable sadness) - been given, by a young Filipina artist, with epical proportion and an appealing mix of elegance and emotion. If one takes a closer look, Garcia's blank spaces and dark colors tremble with deep but almost obliterated inspiration and hope, but they always make her viewers quietly cry with aching hearts.
What is the petri-dish of Garcia's creative distillation of alienation (or nothingness) - a modern concept (in the '60s in the West) that she has captured it so well and from the heart? The template of Garcia's mind can be understood in three ways: from her private history, her chosen creative process, and her country's narrative.
''I grew up in a family of doctors. I was not exposed to the arts, until I took a talent test and was accepted at the Philippine High School for the Arts in Makiling (Laguna). While studying dance, music, creative writing, and visual arts there, I realized that I could have a career as an artist,'' says Garcia. Installation artist Alfred Aquilizan was an early mentor in high school.
''At the end of my stay in Makiling, I decided to take up Fine Arts in college. But since my dad wanted me to be a doctor, I made a deal with him: I would try pre-med course for a year, and later, shift to another course if I felt I could not go on with it,'' she recalls. After one year of pre-med studies at Manila's La Salle University, she took a talent test and was accepted at the University of the Philippines College of Fine Arts in suburban Quezon City.
Her parents, Dr. Nestor Garcia, an anesthesiologist, and Dr. Nora Garcia, an obstetrician-gynecologist, have established the Garcia General Hospital at Nangka, in eastern suburban Marikina in the '80s.
She did not entirely say good-bye to the world of medicine and science when she became an art student.
Before her graduation, her college professor, Roberto Chabet, known as a conceptual artist, organized an exhibit and asked students to create art works based on available materials. Garcia came out with two panels: one depicted X-rays of surgical instruments wrapped in cloth (ready for sterilization in the auto-clave), which she illuminated in a bright box; the other was a realistic oil painting of the X-rayed images, in black and white.
For her main thesis, she made an installation piece that included a real hospital bed covered by a bed sheet which was printed with the names of patients that she found in the old records of her family-owned hospital. Near the hospital bed, was her oil painting of a wall, copied from an old photograph of the family-owned hospital when it was still new. A projector, installed in front of the hospital bed, projected images of photos that she took from the (old) photos of the hospital, on her oil painting (of the hospital's wall). She did this installation piece when her family-owned hospital on Nangka was already abandoned.
''That hospital was my childhood playground. I did art works related to it because I grew up there. When I was young, I was always there,'' says Garcia. ''For me, a hospital is a place for healing. When it is gone (or abandoned it is twice sad because), it is as if that sense of healing, or life itself, is also gone.''
Garcia's creative process - of highlighting and not hiding her relentless use of X-ray and photography as visual aids - underlines her merciless intrusion or probe-like vision, and her philosophical acknowledgment of the artist's will to power. No other Filipino artist has made this more literal and obvious than Garcia.
Garcia's early methodology, combining scientific-technical-and creative approach for an art work whose theme was about longing for old days - remarkably alludes to a doctor willfully bringing a dying patients back to life, armed with scientific and other methods that others, including artists, might call cold and precise. Garcia's more than 10-year old creative process, invariably bridges the gap between the artist and the doctor who work as ''creators'' in their different fields.
''For me, the subject matter may vary from art shows to another. What is constant is the creative process. That is what I am interested about. That's what I keep on revealing in my art exhibits,'' says Garcia.
Her creative process is decidedly a perfect clone of Chabet's approach to art making. Detractors have identified conceptual art as creations based more on conceptual exercises of forms than choices of content based on philosophies, ideologies, external issues of history, the narrative of a country's oppression by colonials and neo-colonials. In short, experience and studies matter, even before affinities, feelings, and intensities are plumbed for authentic art works, detractors have said.
But Garcia's creative process which she began formulating as a student, with Chabet's guidance, was more homegrown, based on where she came from. That was why when she exercised it with forms - from the hospital setting (of her thesis in college) which has morphed since then into several other forms - she immediately discovered life's elegy like a philosophy. For Garcia, her inner self, her family's narrative, is an authentic ''Republic''or locus from which all her psychological and artistic expressions emanate.
Is this art-for-art's sake? The old rival of social realism (a movement embraced by committed and socio-historically sensitive artists in the '70s) has now become, for Garcia and other post boomer artists in the Philippines today, art-for-interiorities' sake. It derives its strength from attitudes of individualism, intensity, sensitivity; it has given birth to concept-based more than ideologically and rhetorically-shaped forms.
Ironically, this approach is now looming as the brightest avenue yet for many young Filipino artists who, with their sheer number, productivity, and prominence in the international art scenes today, can be asserted as continuing, however, indirect, the old search for identity in Philippine art. Why is there no ceasefire on this issue?
Many social realist artists have rightfully embedded the belief in the '70s that artists in formerly colonized countries (in new democracies where class struggle is present) should always be suspicious, even in the neo-colonial era, of commodified art forms and content that might be concessions to, and thereby support, the powerful (inland) elite and the globally powerful nations that control world economy.
Nowadays, many young Filipino artists are clones of Juan Luna (1857 - 1899) and Felix Resurreccion Hidalgo (1855-1913). When Luna won the gold medal, Hidalgo the gold medal in the 1884 Madrid Exposition of Fine Arts at a time when the Philippines was colonized by the Spanish rulers, it prompted Jose Rizal (the novelist who became Philippines' national hero) to quip that Filipinos and Spaniards are now equal (in the arts). Luna and Hidalgo dedicated their victories to the anti-Spanish Propaganda Movement, which waged a successful anti-Spanish revolution in the Philippines in 1898.
Today, young Filipino artists who are getting prominence and recognition abroad belong to groups whose members use varied art forms. Their art movements are not evident and classified, and their differences from each other are no longer important to them. This fertility is a sign of the times: that power is now shifting from the West to the East; that old complaints - that Filipino artists easily claimed forms and content from the West (the source of Philippine colonization) - might soon change as Westerners begin to adopt, in counter-power culture, our Asian-ness.
Garcia is now busy preparing for an art exhibit in Singapore in early 2013.