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Punk Lives: Ronald Ventura’s Defiance

Ronald Ventura’s exhibit for Salcedo Auctions opening this weekend is a third iteration of a series on super cars—a pandemic brainchild that would only be surprising to those who insist that the Filipino artist be bound to a fixed set of subjects and a predisposition towards fitting into a stereotype. Ventura couldn’t be either if he tried

The best encounters are sometimes the ones that do not happen. 


Soon after he made the news as the artist whose work “Grayground” broke auctions records for any Southeast Asian artist, my non-encounter with Ronald Ventura happened. We were at the Vargas Museum, and there was much ado, albeit in audible whispers, about the man who was standing outside, away from the crowd, back turned to us. He looked as any other artist of that time usually did—nondescript, regular. Few ventured out to speak to him. Only a year into writing doing arts and culture criticism, I was less interested in artists and more interested in the art, believing that the text would be enough to know its maker.


Which means I built my sense of Ventura from his highly accessible art, the ones installed publicly, say, in the middle of the Ayala Malls complex for Art Fair Philippines, or the playful and irreverent bul-uls exhibited in different galleries and museums. Access, in this case, is both in terms of massive public displays, as it is about tapping the Filipino collective consciousness given familiar symbols.


In conversation with Ventura over a decade since the non-encounter though, and despite familiarity with his work beyond the accessible, one realizes that there is little in his work that is about him, even as it is undoubtedly also all him. And that just like his work, which has continued to go in directions unexpected, so does a conversation with him reveal a character just as unique, if not rare, for these times.



Within Fascination

If the space within which we work dictates the kind of creativity we have, then Ventura’s home is expectedly a gallery as it is, surprisingly, a sanctuary. You enter through doors that feel more like a church’s, and you wait in a space that displays his art through the years, interspersed with well-chosen pieces of folk and Catholic icons, gleaming toys and sleek appliances. Against the cement walls, luxurious sofas, modern furniture, and touches of dark animal skin, what stands out is a large mixed media mural on one wall—a red Pegasus about to take flight against a collage of cigarette packs. It could be something you’d see on some random street near some venue where the young gather; but it was also perfectly in place here, in the midst of the darkness of the goth and shine of modernity.



Ventura enters the room and fits right in, speaking in a voice barely audible in the large expanse of space. He was clearly not one for small talk. He quickly positions himself on the large sofa and I take the cue to begin the interview. We begin with the upcoming exhibit for Salcedo Auctions, and the words come up slowly, maybe reluctantly. 


“My last exhibit in the Philippines was in December of last year, at Secret Fresh. It’s almost the same concept of mobility, which is related to the MET exhibition which opens one week before the Salcedo. It’s about the influence of, and takes inspiration from, cars. Especially super cars.”


Iterations of the same idea seem to excite him, but the voice is still quiet, an almost monotone. This is one of many interviews he has given, and in his place, I would be just as exhausted. I ask if this interest in cars harks back to a massive installation he did in Art Jakarta in 2019, a man-cave that spoke to the gleam, speed, and machismo of fancy cars and fast rides, with decals reminiscent of local jeeps and transport. A critique of excess, as it was a testament to its normalcy. 


“Ah … yes, yes. Meron nang hint.” There’s a visible spark of interest now, the voice a little louder. He refers to the Art Jakarta work and talks about catering on the one hand to that particular public, but also mixing in some local flavor. ”Parang lagi ko gusto mag-include ng mga local imagery natin. Laging merong composite na dumidikit dun sa mga context na ‘yun.”


It would be easy to imagine tokenism here—the “Pinoy” as a set of icons, images, words that can take the place of representation. But this isn’t true for Ventura at all, revealing as he does a keen sense of what it’s like to be Pinoy in the present, and how that informs his own practice. “Kasi actually ‘yun naman talaga ‘yung Pinoy, nakaka-cope lagi dun sa lahat ng mga formations, especially now, compared to the last decades na medyo mabagal. Ngayon, parang grabe, super baha na, sobrang bilis.


The amount of information, the kind of access we have, the speed at which things have changed seems to be the energy that brings Ventura—artist and human being—to this conversation. He admits there’s a lot of junk out, there but he welcomes it all. “‘Yung challenge dun is how can we digest all this information, how do you pick what you will take, given the basura, and transform that into expression.”


There is a fascination with the present and all that it contains. Ventura does not resist the glut of information and the speed of technology, instead he lives within it, and through it, and then takes the time to process it and make from it. “Sa ayaw at sa gusto mo, visual tayo eh, wala kang magagawa. Kapag nakita mo ‘yan tapos na. Parang ‘di mo na kailangan pang i-interpret ‘yan. It’s the effect on you. Kahit ayaw mo ‘yan, gusto mo ‘yan, super ayaw mo ‘yan, super gusto mo ‘yan, pasok na ‘yun, basta nakita mo. Nasa sa’yo na yun. Sometimes, unconsciously, you bring something into your work na talagang ayaw mo pero nandun na siya, wala kang magagawa. It’s part of the process.”


Is it like memorizing a song that you actually hate? “Oo, parang naka-catch ka ng rhythm ‘di ba? Ganun ka-fluid ‘yung art, ‘yung expression, ‘yung memory.


Fluid would be the last word one would equate with this space, and this artist, but it seemed to all make sense now. While Ventura might be the creator of this room, the maker of much of its art, he is also its brain and its spirit, as he is its centerpiece. And there is a rhythm to this space, a soundtrack even. 


It’s all very punk.

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Beyond Nation

The burden on any artist who finds a global market is one of representation. Art markets depend on pegging certain artists under categories, unstable as those can be. Capital demands of us a set of labels, say, best-selling or highest-paid, critically acclaimed or biennale star, to the more practical ones such as female artist, or up-and-coming. One can imagine the heavy baggage that goes with Ventura’s stature and reputation in the Asian regional art circuit.


Hindi siya burden, it’s a challenge na, ‘o, Pinoy pala ‘to. Kapag nagpunta ka sa lugar, halimbawa sa New York, syempre matutuwa sa’yo kasi nga parang you represent nga. Ang attitude nila, kami, nagtatrabaho lang kami, at ganito ‘yung tingin sa amin, ‘yung may discrimination sa lugar. So ‘pag nakakita sila ng parang nandun sa status na nagsho-show ka, or ini-invite ka with your art, nagiging proud sila.”


But Ventura knowingly stops short of making grand statements about Pinoy identity in his work. “Ah, walang ganun,” he says, smiling. “Actually, kapag inisip mo ang Filipino art, pero ang gamit mo Western processes … ibig sabihin no’n wala talagang gano’n. Nagkataon lang na nasa Pilipinas ka, at Pilipino ka.


This is said devoid of arrogance or deprecation. Instead it is revealed to come from a depth of experience, if not of knowledge. At the very least, it is informed opinion. “So parang lahat lang talaga, skin. Pero ‘yung fullness ng tao, nanggaling lang din naman sa kung nasaan ka. Kung ano ‘yung na-accumulate mo, at naging ikaw.


In the case of Ventura, the accumulation continues, and seems to be borne of a conscious—and conspicuous—consumption of culture and creativity. One that refuses the persistent divides between high and low art, the finer forms and the popular. “Medyo ako sa lifestyle and fashion, kasi ‘dun umiikot ang art eh,” Ventura explains. “I mean matagal nang nagco-cross ‘yung designer and artist, doon kasi nae-explore nila ‘yung possibilities. The designers become more creative because of the new materials that they use.”


He continues: “Sa shoes, for example, ‘yun ‘yung mga nagbibigay ng new spectrum to geometry—'dun mo makikita ‘yung new forms, at the same time, new materials, and how those materials contribute to totality of the object.”


This keen interest in the breadth and scope of creativity, of cultural work, is what sets Ventura apart from many artists of his generation, as it doesn’t only allow for a breadth of work that is impossible to anticipate, it also, ironically, speaks to his rootedness in nation, as that which has formed his humanity, and in effect his artistry.

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At the End of The World

“Actually, nasa character mo ‘yun. Kung open ka ba sa possibilities, because art ang taga-giba ng boundaries. ‘Yan ‘yung freedom. No walls in your way. As an artist dapat open ka. Kailangan dilat ka,” Ventura says, eschewing the elitism that one would equate with the making of what might be considered fine or high art, and insisting on the possibilities of the present given information and culture, access and creativity. Yet he roots his own openness from having lived in nation, in a place where the end of the world was familiar sight.


Kapag lumaki ka sa Malabon, nakita mo na lahat. Kapag nagbaha dun, wala ka nang lalabasan. ‘Yung bahay mo, kalahati na, nakababad sa tubig, kumakain ka sa bubong,” Ventura recalls. “Extreme na ‘yon. At ngayon, nasa mas mataas na kami na lugar, pero ‘yung experiences na ganun dala-dala mo ‘yun.


What is clear is that Ventura’s so-called openness is not an empty free-spirited or romanticized stance about art and its making. Instead it is based on having lived in nation, growing up in its constant undoing and becoming. It is also here that one finds the notion of process as something that is crucial to Ventura as artist.


“Yung mga experiences na ganun dala-dala mo ‘yun. So dati, may mga brownish elements ‘yung works ko. Sabi nila sepia daw. Renaissance. But no,” Ventura smiles. “Yung parang kalawang ng Malabon ‘yon, pagkatapos ng baha. ‘Yung amoy ‘yun ng isda ng Malabon.”


There’s a glint in his eye and a mischievous smile, like he enjoys the fact that this has generally gone unmentioned in the assessment of his art, which might be the impulse that pushes him to keep bringing it into this art—this unexplained earth brown of post-flood Malabon from his past. “Naso-soften ng earth colors … it softens the synthetic world,” he says, the irony almost disappearing into wistfulness.



This push and pull between the natural and the synthetic can also be expected in the upcoming exhibition Beastmaster at Salcedo Auctions, a fascination with super cars developed during the pandemic lockdown of 2020. It was only then that these cars could go on full throttle given the empty streets, and that kind of speed—and technology—inspired this current work.


Kasi ‘pag tinignan mo, the form of the car, I see it as sculpture with function and mobility. And the form is functional—‘yung passing ng air, ‘yung combustion ng engines. And of course there’s the speed, iba ‘yung feeling niya,” he says. "Iba ‘yung concentration, iba ‘yung focus.”


For Ventura, the experience of these vehicles, the act of taking control of them, and of understanding the creativity that goes into its construction, is akin to his artmaking. “Sometimes, ‘yung kailangan mo speed with control. Nandiyan ‘yung composition. ‘Yun bang kumumpas ka, gumalaw ka, alam mong nandun ka sa control, pero nandun din ‘yung possibility ng pagiging wild,” the glint in his eye appears. “Kaya beast master. Kasi sa panahon na ito, ‘yung beast either ‘yung kotse talaga or ‘yung driver na nagte-take sa beast.”



It is easy to dismiss Ventura’s new work as nothing more but the whims of a man-child, finally allowed to play with his toys during what seemed like a glimpse of the end of the world. But that would only serve those who want to imagine him as non-player in the scheme of local artmaking—a predisposition that would be no surprise. After all, we are at a time when nation seems to dictate what kind of art must be made, owing to the need for relevance, if not resistance.


But Ventura doesn’t care. And he is right not to. To some extent, it would be our failure, not just at openness, but more importantly at seeing the kind of intellectual work this artist puts into his artmaking, and how it always necessarily harks back to his history as human being, here and now, having experienced the end of the world many times over, from the street of Malabon, to this fancy house in the middle of Quezon City. 


Besides, he seems to be content in keeping a safe distance, shifting back to the inaudible voice once the interview was over, and going through the photoshoot with professionalism and the fewest words. It is clear that despite all that his art might say, and even after a conversation, Ventura remains unknowable. Access to him and his work doesn’t make either predictable.


It would do us all well to realize that this is both Ventura’s power as it is his relevance. It is this deliberate distance, glint in the eye and wicked smile included, that his art is made possible. And it's one that goes against expectations, a defiant stance that is rare for this time. 


Punk’s not dead, because Ventura lives. ***



Photography by Bria Cardenas