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At Pinto, José Santos III makes towering sense of life and the pandemic

‘We all built our different versions of Rapunzel’s tower to keep ourselves and our families safe from the COVID’

Jose Santos III before 'Tall Order' at Pinto Art Museum: 'We all found the need to re-order not only our daily routines but also our outlook.' (Photo by Sandy Tan-Uy)

Artist Jose Santos III (second from left) with Pam Yan Santos (far left), Sandy Tan-Uy and Dr. Joven Cuanang, the founder and head of Pinto Art Museum, at the unveiling of ‘Tall Order’ last March

Photos and interview by Sandy Tan-Uy

Installed now for public viewing at the Pinto Art Museum in Antipolo is Tall Order by José “John” Santos III, an assemblage of found objects, resin castings, lumber, metal, LCD screens, ceramic tiles, bulbs, and gesso transfers, completed in 2022, a massive one-ton tower measuring 27 x 9 feet.

The work was originally intended to be unveiled in 2020, with the opening of Pinto’s newest wing, Gallery, but was only finally unveiled last March 27.

Tall Order is the most monumental of a series of towers Jose Santos III has created.

Jose Santos III’s 14-ft-tall columns for the Armory in New York

This is the ninth—and biggest—tower Santos has completed in a series that began in 2017 at the Drawing Room in Makati, followed by five shown at the Armory in New York (one of which has become part of the collection of the Hirshhorn Museum in Washinton, DC), one in London, and another installed at the Menarco Tower in Bonifacio Global City, acquired by Carmen Jimenez-Ong.

In an excerpt from the essay he wrote for the 2018 Armory show, Order Out of Objects, the late Prof. Leo Abaya wrote:

“…. The works of Jose Santos III bear a consonance with the column motif. Vertical, upright and outsizing human scale, a closer encounter reveals that a different language has been deployed in its making.

“Technique-driven manipulation of inert medium is set aside in favor of response to the potential in things available or at hand. True to the language of bricolage, the artist embraces the idea that recovering and preserving refuse is a means of saving it from the dissolution to which it is destined. In this language, the vocabulary and syntax are the objects that had been set aside, used up, discarded, having outlived their original utility. And by arresting their demise, this process signals their rebirth in the visual…

Now that he’s raising a family, his studio and his home become sites rich with the tokens of contemporary living’

“Santos acknowledges that his art practice, complemented by raising a family, has sharpened his sensitivity towards matters that point to the notion of life being an inescapable network of relationships in which economies are embedded in the cultural, political, financial, interpersonal, or domestic spheres. Abundant with the byproducts of art production and maintaining a full household, his studio and his home become sites rich with the tokens of contemporary living…The five totemic pieces are remains of the process of the retrieval of scraps and imprints of everyday life, so ordered as to figure out the entailments of how it is to survive, struggle, work, love, and aspire.”

Santos comes from a family of artists from the disciplines of the visual and performing arts, music, and film. Santos earned his Bachelor of Fine Arts in Painting degree from the University of the Philippines (UP), but while still a student, he was already participating in various art exhibitions, joining the artist collective Salingpusa in the 1990s. He taught at UP, and was chosen as one of the Thirteen Artists Awardees by the Cultural Center of the Philippines in 2000.

Santos left teaching in 2004 and focused on his art practice. In his more recent works, he continues to explore objects and see beyond their being “everyday things.” He has had solo exhibitions at the Pearl Lam Gallery, Singapore; The Armory Show, New York; Arndt Gallery, Berlin; Art Basel, Hong Kong; and several galleries in the Philippines. He lives and works in Pasig City, Metro Manila, Philippines.

Santos answered a few questions for

Your most recent tower, done during the pandemic—what message did you want to convey with it?

During the pandemic, we all built our different versions of Rapunzel’s tower to keep ourselves and our families safe from the COVID virus. Whenever I left my own tower to work on this tower, I often felt anxious and a bit fearful. This work went through three COVID variants and a few lockdowns, and has had its own share of challenges and difficulties.

Having gone through all these, stories of resiliency, isolation, fear, and personal and spiritual reflections inevitably found their way into Tall Order.

During the installation of ‘Tall Order’ at Pinto Art Museum

The objects that make it up—can you tell us about their history that resonates with you, and about their reconstituted present context?

I started collecting materials for the tower from wide-ranging sources, spanning items contributed by guests of the museum, objects collected from within the museum premises, various objects like used face masks, resin casts, jeepney signs, to tokens from friends and other artists, with the intention of collecting “histories” and ordering them into one shared and collective experience.

A lot the objects that I used or reused have histories that I mostly have no knowledge of. What interests me is the role the tower plays in serving as a “nexus of histories” for these otherwise unrelated and unconnected objects.

As the late Prof. Abaya eloquently explained in his essay Order Out of Objects: ‘’The artist, however, is not a collector of objects for its sake. In his process, collecting becomes an expedience actuated by an archeological impulse to trace a DNA in objects, including those that are the remnants of undetermined usage or anonymous labor. In his stewardship of and intervention in discarded things and fragments, he resurrects and reframes their former social life in the belief that they are ciphers, and that through their reincarnation as groupings reflectively classified, segmentally organized to bear a pattern from the will to order, a redolent narrative arises.’’

‘I started my creative journey here (in Antipolo), and making this tower is a kind of homecoming—a return to and a giving in return to my roots’

Not many people know that I grew my creative roots in Antipolo, where I became part of the artists’ group Salingpusa in the ’90s. It was also around this time that I met Dr. Joven Cuanang of Pinto Art Museum. I started my creative journey here and for me, making this tower is a kind of homecoming—a return to and a giving in return to my roots. For this reason, one can find in certain sections of the tower odes to Antipolo. It has been decades since I actually went up to Antipolo to do a work. Going up on a regular basis felt like I was in a time machine that reconnected me back to my younger years. I wanted to capture this feeling through a video footage of one of my trips going up, which can be found on the lowest level of the work.

One can also see a staircase that leads to a chamber at the base of the tower. Inside, one will find two mirrors that face each other on the left and on the right, resin casts of ID-sized faces, some ID pictures, and cosmetics (that came from museum guests).  This chamber serves as a reflection room or confessional where one is forced to confront and reflect on the self. The mirrors are meant to amplify this act with the words “full of yourself” on the right and “fool of yourself” on the left, seemingly forcing one to choose between the two. But in truth, it is impossible to choose, as one is also the reflection of the other.

We all found the need to “re-order” not only our daily routines, but also our general outlook in life

What has the pandemic done to you as a person and family man, as an artist? What has the pandemic done to art—yours, and the art in our immediate environment?

As I’ve said, the pandemic has changed the way I view and value things. It made me rethink which things were important, because it seemed like in the blink of an eye the whole world was suddenly on survival mode. There was a huge pause that rippled throughout the whole world that swept through everything, including the art scene.

The pandemic has had a profound effect on me, as it has had on everyone else. It had such an effect that for almost two years, these were the only images and stories that populated my works. It felt like I couldn’t do any work about anything else. Maybe it was partly an artist’s way of coping with the whole situation. Though the theme and materials were influenced by this crisis, my art-making process remained the same.

The Philippines has experienced some of the strictest lockdowns in the world. Because of this, the way art was and is presented, experienced, and viewed also changed drastically. Exhibits were shown and seen online. People lived in a bubble, and artworks were experienced through a screen, most of the time or by appointment if restrictions allowed it. This was not ideal, but I’m just thankful people still took time to experience art, even on a limited capacity.

‘Tall Order’ at Pinto Art Museum now for public viewing

How long did you work on Tall Order?

I began conceptualization at the height of the pandemic. It took me several months to get things off the ground because of the many restrictions. I was able to start actual work around July-August last year, until its completion March 26, 2022. All in all, it took closely two years to finish.

Why do you use the tower as installation medium?

All these thoughts, given life through the imagery, are placed into a certain “order”—an order of things. And this order then takes visual form in the tower through an analogy with the column orders of antiquity (Doric, Corinthian, classical). The use of this ordering of things I find most relevant to these times, because we all found the need to “re-order” not only our daily routines, but also our general outlook in life.

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