Sunday, October 18, 2015

A Map of Metonymy: A Celebration of Words and Photographs

Wordsmith, photograph and text, 19 by 13 inches

Over the last weekend, ManilArt opened at the cavernous convention center of SM Aura Premier in Taguig City. The space was divided among 30 galleries or so, where an intoxicating plethora of paintings and sculptures were displayed. As much as it was a jubilant show of creativity in abundance, it was also almost a riot of colors that assault the senses. Sometimes when the crowds got dense, ManilArt took on an atmosphere of a marketplace, and it was indeed a marketplace.
During the same weekend, Giselle Kasilag’s “Short Stories: An Exhibit of Photographs and Fiction in a Hurry” opened at the Prism Gallery, a small art space on the ground floor of Island Tower Condominium at the corner Salcedo Street and Benavides Street in San Lorenzo, at the heart of the financial hub of Makati City. During weekends, this part of the metropolis becomes quiet and almost desolate, but many find this lovely and comforting. Amidst, the overwhelmingly gray concrete structures, Prism Gallery gleamed in its whiteness like an oasis of light. The opening event was subdued and intimate, with guests mostly composed of friends and family. Such atmosphere is apt for appreciating Kasilag’s photographs and stories.
The exhibit’s existence outside a big art event seems to symbolize the ambiguous status of photography in the visual art world. The purpose of photography first and foremost is documentation, but over time photography has captured many images that have the power to provoke, inspire and move much like other works of art. Over time, many artists have used photography to produce compelling works.
Many artists make use of photography’s power to capture the world around us, freezing in time an ephemeral but intriguing moment, focusing closely on small corners and details that are often neglected and persuading us to look at things of beauty that we may not be able to see, elevating them for us to experience in another level. These are some of the functions of art.  
These are what Kasilag is doing—discovering the extraordinary in the everyday.
“I like anything that can serve as a portal into another world. I enjoy it when I come across things that are different but still strangely familiar, or so familiar but vaguely different,” she said when she mounted her first photography exhibit last year.
Now, on this second exhibit, her photographs are accompanied by texts—short, short stories, popular called flash fiction, which appropriately connects to photography in a way that both are often works “in a flash.” This can be seen as an act to compensate for the perceived lack of “creative input” for photography. It may also be a way to make people linger on a work, indicating to the audience that there is much more to the photographs.
Kasilag is both adept in the written word as well as in photography. Surprisingly, her love for photography is of recent development. She is more known as a journalist, writing mostly about travel, arts and culture for the BusinessWorld for several years. She rediscovered photography four years ago, but her brush with photography has been much longer.
“I think I was about seven when my parents gifted my eldest sister with a camera. It was a 110 point-and-shoot with flash cubes. I thought it was the most magical device I’ve ever seen. I purchased my own point-and-shoot Kodak camera when I was in Grade 6. I spent P999 of my P1,000 birthday money that allowed me to capture the world around me. Often, I would get scolded because film was quite expensive and I spent it mostly on photos of others. I was rarely in the pictures,” she related. “I took up Communication Arts in college and photography was a required course. By then, I had established myself more as a writer and the course was merely a requirement that I had to fulfill. I didn’t pay as much attention as I should have. Rightfully, I flunked it. I barely passed on my second take.”
“When I became a lifestyle reporter for BusinessWorld, I shared a digital point-and-shoot—a Sony cybershot—with my other sister. I guess I actually absorbed more from the photography class than I imagined because I was churning out decently composed shots,” she further said. “As a travel writer, I ended up working alongside top photographers such as Mel Cortez, George Tapan, and Harvey Tapan. I was fascinated with the way they work. I would watch them move around and find unusual angles. I found myself shadowing them as they worked during shoots—eagerly awaiting the final print to see their visions come to life.”
“About four years ago, I acquired a Lumix GF5, a mirror-less camera with interchangeable lenses. It was light enough to stuff in my bag when I travel but gave me the range I needed to create the images I envisioned of the world around me—a happy balance between a point-and-shoot and a professional DSLR. The rest, as they say, is history,” she added.
Photography goes well with Kasilag’s another passion—traveling. She has traveled to South Korea, Cambodia, Singapore, Malaysia, Hong Kong, Vietnam as well as the Philippines, taking photographs of her favorite subjects— architecture, especially windows and staircases, as well as street scenes and nature views. These photographs would comprise her first exhibit, “Wanderlust: Windows to Asia,” which was mounted in November 2014 at the Water Dragon Gallery of the Yuchengco Museum in Makati City in time for her fortieth birthday.
Before “Wanderlust,” her works were shown in New York as part of a digital photography event entitled “The Story of Creative” while another piece was projected onto the side of a building in Long Island in Creatives Rising in 2013. In July 2014, her photograph was shown on electronic billboards covering an entire building in Times Square, New York. Last July, she participated in the Exposure Award 2015 where her photograph, Spiral Orange, was exhibited at the Louvre Museum and was included in the Architecture Collection book that featured selected participants from the exhibit.
Writing and telling stories, though, have always been a constant, one way or the other.
“(I wrote stories) when I was still in school. That was how I knew that I would end up a writer one day,” she revealed. “I just didn’t expect that I would end up in journalism. I actually took a creative writing course under Marjorie Evasco when I was in college. It wasn’t part of my curriculum but when I found out she was teaching it, I asked for permission to enroll. She agreed. One thing she told me that I always remember is that I always come up with the beginnings of a good plot. I just couldn’t seem to develop it into a complete story.” 
   As a Communication Arts student, Kasilag took all the writing subjects, more than what was required. “I took Writing for Film, Writing for Radio and Television, etc. I really thought I’d end up in broadcasting, writing for entertainment,” she said. “Somewhere along the way, I ended up in journalism, the one field that a professor of mine said I’d never enter. ‘You’ll never be a journalist, Gik,’ I was told. ‘Masyado kang mabulaklak magsulat (Your writing is too flowery),’”
  Kasilag added: “People usually ask where my interest in writing came from. My father was a military officer and my mother was an accountant. Most girls as children have memories of learning to cook with their mothers. Mine never taught me how to cook. But she would sit me on the kitchen counter and while I ate whatever she was cooking she told me stories of our family, about growing up during the war, their life in Arayat, Pampanga, stories about my father’s family in Batangas, etc. It’s the stories that telenovelas are made of! She didn’t teach me how to cook but she taught me how to tell stories.”
Kasilag became a journalist because she wanted to visit far places to write about them for other people. Back then, she would find herself in a different Philippine city almost every weekend, listing down names of places she could barely pronounce and trying out every food and activity that each one offered. These days, she is much involved with Project Art, a creative consultancy firm she co-owns, which is engaged in curatorial, editorial and archival work. Her work as a journalist she considers telling stories, and photography for her is another form of it.
These two mediums are fused in “Short Stories,” which celebrates her love for words and images.
“It’s a constant search for ways to better tell a story. I’m grateful that my twin interests—writing and photography—fused seamlessly to create the core pieces for this exhibition,” she said. “There are stories everywhere. We don’t need to go far to find them. Sitting in a coffee shop or looking out the window while riding a bus, we overhear or witness events that spark our imagination. What I’ve done is to take this spark and run with it—creating a running commentary in my mind like a personal teleserye that I capture with images and words.”
A major part of the exhibit includes 10 photographs that Kasilag created stories for, thus combining visuals and text in each work. These were taken on her trips to such places as Zurich, Barcelona, Singapore and Kyoto, mostly in 2014, and these inspired her to write possible narratives behind them.
A picture is worth a thousand words, the clichĂ© goes, but these words often describe the obvious. Many photographs are ambivalent, even misleading, as we discovered, thus they need words. That’s why captions most often accompany photographs. They are the signs that points viewers to the right directions, illumining the proper meanings of photographs and enriching our experience of them.
In a way, the texts in Kasilag’s photographs are like captions, illustrating the photographer’s imagination, what she was thinking when she was taking the photos or looking at them afterwards.
The photograph Dress-up interested me. It shows a group of girls in kimono on the snow-sprinkled street, outside a cafe. It is a dainty and cheerful scene in Kyoto. Meanings pour in when I was informed that the girls were not Japanese but were Chinese tourists.
“It all started on our first girls-only vacation. We found ourselves in a quaint shop filled with kimonos and a charming owner determined to suit us all up,” the story goes. “It was tight and complicated to wear but each layer of clothing came with a story of ingenuity, resourcefulness and creativity woven into the very threads of the fabric. It was the story of a proud nation told in the most elegant fashion.
“Since then, we have come to mark our travels with an afternoon playing dress-up. We have worn the hanbok, ao dai, cheongsam and sari.
“Girls really do bond over clothes. We just chose a more unique way of doing.”
The stories, like in this one, envelop the images with swathes and swathes of meanings, infusing them with heft and substance than by just looking at them. It also helps that the stories are more like prose poems, enhancing the mood of the photographs such as Furball, which shows a series of window shutters, a sign that says “Cat CafĂ©” and a feel of European colonial outpost in Asia; and Window, which shows a side of a building with its series of windows, rendered in black and white except for a man sitting at one of the windows.
The exhibit also includes photographs without text, most of them urban scenes which she is also drawn to. One notices about the photographs is the frequent appearances of bicycles, being ridden over a bridge, parked at a corner, even as a sign in a traffic light. The bicycle is easily a metaphor for movement, a symbol in childhood memories often meaning freedom or just being carefree. Also, it manifests a fascination with design, the bicycle being a machine that is bare for everyone to see, with its workings and wheels. 
“I love the idea of bicycles,” Kasilag confirmed. “The concept of solo travel without need for fuel. There’s a sense of freedom to it that I really find attractive.”
“Unfortunately, I never learned to ride,” she added. “So, I could never relate to the saying, ‘It’s just like riding a bike...’ Though I haven’t given up hope. Maybe one day, I’ll learn.”
“Short Stories” also features a series called Tres, each piece consisting of three complementing images printed on instant film then mounted on patterned fabric.
“Every day, we get assaulted by so much visual cues—grand architecture, massive billboards, graffiti-filled walls. I tend to gravitate towards the details. I love looking at windows, doors, floors, roofs. Tres allowed me to explore these details, compare the nuances of different windows for instance, and shine a light on the patterns they create. The patterns give a sense of order and help me appreciate the details. After all, didn’t a wise person once say that love is in the details?” Kasilag explained.
In “Short Stories,” Kasilag shares with us a magical map where we can find beauty in the most unexpected places, as she herself embarks on a journey, and these little corners, streets and buildings speak to us, coaxed by her photography and words, serving as metonymy for different human experiences. 

“Short Stories: An Exhibit of Photographs and Fiction in a Hurry” is on view at the Prism Gallery from October 10 to 24, 2015. For inquiries, call the gallery at 886-3947.

Dress-up, photograph and text, 19 by 13 inches
Furball, photograph and text, 19 by 13 inches

Endless Summer 2, photograph, 16 by 12 inches

Tres: Doors, three instant film mounted on fabric covered board, 6 by 9 inches
Tres: Storefronts, three instant film mounted on fabric covered board, 6 by 9 inches
The writer-photographer Giselle Kasilag

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