- The Decolonized Eye: Filipino American Art and Performance
If there is an opposite of performance, it could well be abstraction. Performance is the reiteration of prior models, while abstraction is the assiduous avoidance of any reference—at least, that is abstraction in theory. Abstraction makes feasible an imagined realm where escape from prior models is possible, especially escape from the residue of messy histories that manifest contradictions to order and its laws. The utopic fallacy of realizing abstraction may be apparent, but the desire for it remains in myriad forms, such as the abstract citizen in politics (notably critiqued in Lisa Lowe's Immigrant Acts) as well as abstract art in aesthetics. Neoliberalism is probably the main term currently used to describe this persistent desire, even among progressive movements. In the conclusion to The Decolonized Eye: Filipino American Art and Performance, Sarita Echavez See queries this predicament for liberatory movements and the culture that makes and is made by them: "How have Filipino American artists negotiated the predicament between the violence of hypervisibility and the violence of invisibility? Between being praised for producing abstract art that transcends identity and achieves universalism and being condemned for art that is 'too abstract' and disavows identity?" (128). An apparently earnest abstractness turns out to be another playful performance, politicized and imbued with a grimy historicity waiting to be noticed.
At first glance, See's book seems concerned mainly with addressing and curating neglected objects of analysis: art, performance, and Filipino America. To some extent, these assessments could be persuasive, particularly given the book's turn to non-literary forms of cultural production as well as its turn to the case of Filipino Americans. Both of these turns are welcome, needed, and ably done here. A more suggestive way to read See's monograph might be through its critique of law and its neo-liberal epistemologies—a critique unique in its interweaving of insights from psychoanalysis and postcolonial studies with analyses of Filipino [End Page 180] American art and performance. The curation here is clearly not meant to be exhaustive, but rather generative, rich with elaboration, contextualization, and implication.
The introduction to The Decolonized Eye takes us into the legal crises and opportunities that emerged in the wake of 1898. Invoking and analyzing the 1901 Downes v. Bidwell doctrine of "foreign in a domestic sense," See demonstrates how this US imperial test case manifests as a return of the repressed, made legible in such strategically unexpected locations as Paul Pfeiffer's Leviathan (1998), a presentation of a classical cathedral floor-plan made with blonde wigs. See's analysis strategically examines cultural objects emerging from imperial immanence, and particularly who these works render almost illegible, to dramatize how that near illegibility is what we need to address to apprehend the new formation of empire that the United States was crafting via the Philippines. Sites emerge where forms of concomitantly immanent resistance, or perhaps even accommodation, capitulation, mimicry, and play, can be theorized, practiced, and put to use by the colonized and formerly colonized, especially when that empire and its vestiges are misrecognized or not seen at all. As See writes, "Only then can queer, decolonizing strategies of indirection like camp, mimesis, joking, and punning be appreciated as articulations of the conditions of possibility that constitute this contemporary post/colonial archive" (xxix).
In the first chapter, the graphic bodily images and overt referentiality of the work of Manuel Ocampo hearkens to an important moment in late twentieth-century art. See helps us appreciate how the morbid playfulness of Ocampo's Heridas de la lengua (Wounds of the Tongue) (1997), like Pfeiffer's work, juxtaposes Catholic iconography with forms of mutilation. This visual juxtaposition is both jarring and unmistakably organic to the pieces. Such pitch-black humor is a familiar motif in Filipino and Filipino American culture, and See's analysis draws on this defining characteristic, affirming, contextualizing, and complicating that theme. Visual culture objects are the prime example for appreciating See's argument but not...