Performing the tropic
Lizza May David’s fifth solo exhibition of new works reflects on how the en-counter with the tropical is likened to utopia: an ideal and othered state. Utopia exists in the imagination as an elusive condition; conversely, the artist explores the idea of the tropics as social construction, with its attendant stereotypes, tropes, and possibilities. Titled after the German word for ‘environment’, Umwelt begins with the artist’s exploration of the affective qualities of nature: proceeding from her own physical response as a painter to the “plurality of beauty” represented by the color green, in particular. Her own transnational background (born in the Philippines and based in Berlin) may have provided the conceptual and sensory impetus to bridge the distance between the contested notion of paradise and its translation into contemporary painting.
The resulting works in Umwelt are simultaneously baroque and botanical in their aesthetic: simulating fecund, entropic growths caught between sunlight and shadow yet always remaining within the realm of the non-representational, eliding identification and taxonomic scrutiny. That they were also produced in the urban environs of Berlin, largely bereft of green spaces and distanced from the Philippines as home, and its suburbs also underscores the artist’s enactment of the search for utopian paradise.
The works in Umwelt are a hybrid yield of ecological affect, abstraction and performative gesture. The sole photographic piece in the exhibition, titled Jungle Fever (2015), was developed after David’s first painting for the show, Das Urbild, was humorously described by an acquaintance as a “jungle painting”—certainly an oddity, considering that the Philippines is one of the most biodiverse yet also most severely deforested nations worldwide for several decades already, with little original forests (let alone dense jungles) to speak of at present. Reflecting on subsequent questions of identity stereotypes and what exactly constitutes the natural, David decided to set Das Urbild free in its imagined environs; in her words, “following the painting where it showed me to go”. In this case, the painting directed the artist to seek the forest: an archive of knowledge on the verge of loss. Led to a plantation site in Davao, David rests the painting against actual foliage, the final juxtaposition of which is exhibited as a photograph. As both a form of documentation and a performative action, the work assigns a sense of agency and imagination to the object itself.
It is in this sense of process that Umwelt goes beyond the literal reference to nature; for the word ‘environment’ denotes not just physical and natural forms, but also a broader awareness of the world as experienced by a particular being. In the same way that a nuanced distinction between nature and the environment exists in the Filipino words kalikasan (nature) and kapaligiran (environment, and the totality of one’s surroundings), Umwelt challenges our notions of what the concept of environment actually encompasses, beyond its “go green”, often kitschy connotations. David draws a parallelism between this concept and the theory of painting as “showing the relationship of the world to a [particular] reality”, distilling the ecology of things and percepts.
While the work Jungle Fever underscores how painting and photography are a means of making these relationships visible, the paintings Blue Cup, All zu gemein (All too nasty), Hier und Da (Here and There) underscore a sense of being, place and displacement. While a predominantly green palette threads the works together, their titles speak of how these imagined spaces of utopia may exist in everyday encounters.
Closer to works of gestural abstraction, the paintings in Umwelt are far from being categorised as still life or botanical art, which emphasises a naturalistic fidelity to form and taxonomic detail. While the artist concedes that these may be interpreted by viewers as flower paintings or still lifes, she also forwards the view that they distill her personal and artistic influences and experiences from both Manila and Berlin as two points of origin.
It can be argued that a distinction exists between portraying and performing the tropical: the former being a mimetic exercise of capturing surface representation, while the latter reflexively employs particular tropes or motifs to surface new configurations or discourses. In Umwelt’s quiet enactments of nature and artifice, local and transnational spaces, displacement and unification, David concludes this spell of wandering on a more fruitful note than the ever elusive quest for utopia.
Lisa Ito is a writer, curator, and artist. She teaches art history and theory at the University of the Philippines College of Fine Arts.