Form | Katha -ode
by Lec Cruz
"Material is language, and it reinforces an artwork's content."
-Gina Fairley, 2011
'Saluysuy, Roberto M.A. Robles, A Retrospective'
Oneness with nature; respect to his object's materiality; and deep sense of love of country - these has carved Roberto M.A. Robles' more than 30 years of art practice. In Form | Katha -ode, he continues his excavation of our national identity by investigating etymological meaning found in history and oral mythology. Informed by oriental influences, his minimalist approach to his post-sculptural forms and assemblage work renders the viewer abstract forms and at same time draws them to wonder of their origins - their meaning, leading them to wander across time and location.
In 2008, Robles made a work entitled Moses and the Burning Bush, an installation that showcased the use of Philippine hardwood, marble and steel. The organic assemblage of three varying sized sculptures may leave us with various interpretations but never an actual retelling of the scene. The story of Moses and the Israelites is a story about freedom and their quest for identity, a quest propelled by their flight from Egypt to the Promised Land, a place where they are free to form themselves as a people - without constraints and the dictates of their masters. Robles' use of material is like poetry that is expressed in metaphors, inviting viewers to connect themes and ideas without the pressure of arriving at a single conclusion. In this work, the salvaged wood from an old house were combined but left in their transient and imperfect form - n a state of wabi-sabi and just like the alluded story of the Israelites, they were formed out of their natural state and Robles was just an instrument in finding their current forms - the current identity.
The mixed media work Like Most of the Musicians Mr. Sono was Born to his Job (2002), exemplifies Post-Minimalist artist's concept of embracing the material, as he leaves the corrugated cardboard's materiality evident as a surface while covering in block and gestures of paint with collage on top of it. Robles picked the magazine page used in the collage by chance. He found the phrase in the article interesting enough and highlighted it as it spurred introspection on what it meant. Freedom is a human quest, a quest that needs to be undertaken in order to find one's identity. The phrase directs us to question the role of the society in forming our individuality and whether resisting the societal norms may be only way to find and carve our own path.
In viewing his works Vessel I and II, Robles mentions that "Art is a vessel to contain the past to the present set of norms - identity is a vessel." The two sculptures resemble an image of a trough, a container for water or food for animals. Their concave shape on top may also be likened to the boat seen in the Manunggul Jar, a vessel found in a Neolithic burial site in Palawan. In it, the jar showcases two human figures and believed to depict the Filipino's belief in the after life, where souls aboard the boat, as they past through seas and rivers - a flight from the material to the metaphysical realm. Inscribed in Vessel I are solar crosses, a symbol that traces back to European prehistory and connects to the oriental characters relating to a cross, wan in Chinese and manji in Japanese. Robles' forms his counter-narrative to our identity as Filipinos, through the crumbs left by history, allowing us to question the past in order to understand our present times.
-ode; from Greek eidos, form or hodos a way.
In understanding our identity, Robles turns to Auguste Comte's Law of human progress, where everything can be progressively explained by the supernatural, the abstract (metaphysical), and the scientific observation. Robles printed out an image of a Google search for the words "deer god," where we see a photo of a deer. This may allude to two things, the deer as a mystical entity of Shintoism or as scientific evidence to prehistoric migration. In both cases, they may serve as a viewpoint in trying to unravel our identity as a society.