i first met this artist over a decade ago in a japanese restaurant on nakpil st, malate.
she was not yet the full-fledged artist she is now, the sought-after painter, the artist whose works carry a social conscience and a strong punch.
she was a sweet, young new wife, who, with her then-husband, put up said japanese restaurant in hopes that it would flourish and sustain their growing family.
rokuro, the restaurant, faded away, as did the marriage. but nikki luna—nikki grew stronger and braver by the year. we kept in intermittent touch. in bits and pieces, we kept tabs on each other’s lives.
in the mid-2000s, i learnt she had put up a program for abused children (this would later grow into the NGO StartArt, which helps children from abused homes and victims of violence heal through art). in 2007, i learnt she had bagged a residency in the prestigious art school Cooper Union, where Georgia O’Keefe had once studied.
last year, she blew the art world (and all those who know her) away when two of her works—one, an installation piece—sold for five figures a piece in Sotheby’s. a coup for a young, upcoming artist.
i’ve held conversations with nikki about more than just art, and i can say i am truly blessed to know someone as whole, talented, and as real as she is. many like to boast about what they’ve done, who they’ve helped. you won’t get that from nikki.
she lets her friends do all the talking, just as i am doing now—and i’m not even saying much.
the following piece came out in my fittopost blog for yahoo southeast asia today. click on the link after the text to go to the actual post.
Head: No Gifts This Valentine’s, Please
Subhead: A thought-provoking installation exhibit challenges the tradition of gift-giving
No roses or chocolates this Valentine’s day and feeling a tad low about it? A visit to Nikki Luna’s latest exhibit may help you get over the expected doldrums—and how.
Running until February 18, 2011 in Blanc Gallery, Manila Peninsula, Makati City is her latest solo exhibit, ‘Present Superstition,’ a thought-provoking installation show focusing on the artist’s favorite subject: women’s issues.
The particular issue in this exhibit is how individuals—not just women and children—have become to consider gifts (or the practice of giving gifts) as things one has to earn; a reward for conformity or behaving a particular way, that most of the time, end up empty and never fulfilled. “These that are offered to you, you think that they’re the answers—then you realize that they’re not what you want, or are comfortable with,” Luna ruminates.
Giant, empty gifts
The exhibit itself is as stark as they come: giant gifts wrapped in shiny, metallic-sheen paper and bows are set on the floor; metal letters that form phrases seemingly float in the air; a giant “gift” made of a bow of neon bulb and a metal frame sit coldly in the middle of the room. Outside the gallery, written on the glass walls, is a statement about having to “bearing gifts…(that were probably) never meant to be given or taken.”
Luna marries everything together—from the invitation to the symbolism of the material used to the intention of audience participation—to illustrate the concept of “gift economy,” as mentioned in her artist’s statement.
“I used gold to give it a certain ‘value’; I wanted it light but cold and sharp.” The giftwrapper is printed with scenes taken from children’s textbooks—a mother carrying out household chores, kids happily playing, a church, different household appliances.
Set on the floor in no particular manner, the boxes are free to be re-arranged by the audience. “The action in which the viewer pushes or tries to carry the ‘gifts’ is definitely an integral part of the art. Whether the try to move it or not, the participation is important,” she remarks.
The giant gift—the metal frame with the pink neon lights—becomes an unwitting cage when the audience walks through it. “Gifts can make people actually feel trapped,” Luna explains. Or beholden to an idea or an expectation.
The invitation, a piece of paper folded several ways, each fold revealing words to ponder on (“given up and giving out”; “unopened”; “accept don’t complain”), finally opens up to disclose the details of the exhibit. The final image is made to look like a crumpled piece of giftwrapper. “It’s as if you already opened a gift, but it’s pink”—the same color as the neon lights—“so it’s, in a sense, also invisible.”
Luna, 33, had the concept written down years ago, but “everything only came together” recently after obsessing over the movie Mr. Nobody, directed by Jaco Van Dormael and starring Jared Leto. She had met Leto while on sabbatical in Paris as he was closing the deal for the film and had spent the next couple of years waiting for its release.
“I love this movie because it’s so full of art. It’s like looking at an installation. I watched it again and again; I would watch it like I’d never seen it before. The start of the movie talks about ‘pigeon superstition’; about how a pigeon that’s put in a box, would every so often flap its wings to be fed. So the pigeon thinks that that action resulted in a reaction—it being given food,” Luna explains. “So I just changed ‘pigeon’ to ‘present’ superstition. A superstition is imposed belief by tradition; the idea of a present involves a lot of reciprocity.”
Luna—fast becoming known as an artist with a social conscience, her left-wing views, and dogged pursuit of women’s rights (she doesn’t like to talk about it, but mention her name to a Gabriela member and they’ll light up from the inside; she’s also pursuing a master’s degree in Women and Development Studies in U.P. Diliman)—wants viewers to think more than just about the risks of conforming to the usual expectations of women and their roles in society and community.
When I point out that the “present” in her exhibit’s title can also mean “current,” she agrees. “That’s what’s great about it; you interpreted it a different way. I obviously have a message, and I want people to get that—but at the same time, on their own, I want them to feel a certain focus or realization, be it a social concern or (stirring of) conscience. Something personal, something they can relate to because it’s from their life or relationships.”
The 33-year old doesn’t deny that her work has an autobiographical element (she was a witness to sexual abuse as a child, had her own share of unfulfilled expectations from society as well, and heads an NGO called StartArt that rehabilitates victims of abuse and violence through art), but she says that she takes other experiences to make the work more whole.
“I’ve learned to send the message out in a universal way, so I make an effort to always get other experiences from other women—some close to me, some not so close to me. It’s not about just a certain part of society, it’s for all women.”
Admittedly, it takes more than one visit to Luna’s exhibit to get you to really think about the ramifications, insinuations, and repercussions of questioning the “gift economy.” Critics might even call the concept cynical; on one extreme, detractors might even call it trite.
But Luna is unapologetic. A residency alumnae of the prestigious Cooper Union, and who had two works successfully auctioned off, each for five figures, in Sotheby’s in 2010 (one of them was an installation, not a painting, as you’d expect), she says: “My works don’t give out a solution. I’m not saying they will solve any problem, but hopefully, they’ll create a lot of awareness and from that, create a kind of solution if (the viewers) put (their realizations) into action. That’s art—once you put it out, it’s everybody else’s. I once read that ‘art isn’t made for anybody, but it is for everybody.’ That’s saying a lot, especially if you know your art has a goal.”