SIO MONTERA | EPICENTER : Artist Statement
SIO MONTERA | EPICENTER
My story is perhaps similar to other artists in the past months, taking advantage of the time in isolation to express in art-form a season of ennui. The process of producing art in the context of a pandemic became my saving grace; it fulfilled a spiritual void, provided therapy, offered an escape from reality, granted acceptance of my mortality, and strengthened my faith. Covid-19 has since claimed hundreds of thousands of human lives globally, and courting destiny is something I am bent on avoiding. As such, I have not been this at home in a long time.
I live and work in Cebu and continue to endure one of the longest quarantine lockdowns in the world. Around three months into the quarantine, Cebu City was classified as another epicenter in this country’s contagion because of the continued rise of infections and the overwhelmed health facilities and services. As my heart bled for my hometown, I let my art express my feelings, however I observed from the onset that the local government’s incoherent response to the escalating health crisis lacked a strategic framework for an effective course of action to contain the virus spread. Although with bias, I could not help but compare our situation to the strategic crisis management design of a neighbor country in their fight against Covid-19. (https://www.bworldonline.com/lessons-from-taiwans-response-to-covid-19/)
I am also a teacher by profession. I was in the midst of regaining my groove in teaching art in the University of the Philippines Cebu after coming back from post-graduate studies, when the lockdown forced everyone inside their homes. Duty bound, I kept in touch with my art students through online interactions and advising thesis seniors the entire time. At first, the compulsory home isolation was welcome news for a painter like me. I had longed for more studio time ever since coming back to the country late last year. As a kind of prisonnier de quarantaine, I relished in the idea of being a ‘full-time’ artist during the disruption because I never once was. I was free, albeit temporarily, from dividing my time between classroom teaching, cultural work, and producing art, or so I thought. As the days dragged into months, dwindling art supplies and studio-fever were unavoidable. In addition, the declaration of an eventual resumption of classes under a new normal propelled the country’s entire education sector in a preparation frenzy for distance learning and online teaching. Teachers and staff had to attend countless webinars, undergo course redesign training, and endless zoom meetings. I never imagined that staying at home during a pandemic would make one so busy and stressed.
In early February, I mounted a homecoming solo exhibition curated by Ricky Francisco in Cebu’s Qube Gallery aptly titled Finding the Calm in the Chaos. Among other things, the underlying context of the works meaning focused on the contradictions on the life I was living in Taiwan as compared to that in Cebu. At the time, the exhibition also touched on the uncertainties surrounding the would be devastating effects of local transmission after the first Covid-19 death outside China was recorded in the Philippines (https://www.bbc.com/news/world-asia-51345855). In a case of foreshadowing, Manila Times columnist Marit Stinus-Cabugon remarked that my exhibition concept could well be the title of an inspirational lecture on how to cope with the 2019 novel coronavirus acute respiratory disease outbreak (https://www.manilatimes.net/2020/02/10/opinion/columnists/central-visayas-police-chief-relieved-as-killings-continue/681988/).
I also started the year as an elected and returning cultural worker for the Committee on Visual Arts of the National Commission for Culture and the Arts. This has been my ongoing advocacy to alleviate the conditions of marginalized artists in the southern regions for many years past. As everything stopped, the mostly informal economy of the culture and arts sector greatly suffered. The NCCA received repeated calls to divert the agency’s funds for social amelioration and in response, the nineteen national committees with representatives from every region in the country played an important role in identifying and endorsing qualified freelance artists eligible for cash assistance (https://www.rappler.com/nation/261579-ncca-sets-aside-funds-freelance-artists-assistance-coronavirus-lockdown). The goal of each committee member was to find the capacity to reach out to someone else that was more in need. Collectively, I believe that the various NCCA committees’ active role in going beyond itself to reach out to others in the sector somehow touched many lives and provided a sense of healing.
At the height of the lockdown, I was motivated to confront and draw from an unprecedented range of emotions and issues —the thought of a solitary death, prolonged spatial confinement, travel restrictions, difficult conversations with family members, employment, inefficient crisis management design, persistent corruption, the unbridgeable socio-political divide, and a consternation over a society’s resistance to obey minimum health protocols. Despite the negativity and confusion, random acts of kindness and heroic sacrifice provided the much-needed inspiration to continue believing in the collective good —from people who fed the hungry, charitable donations to timely causes, and the resilience of health care professionals.
The creative output of my isolation reveals a great part of my entrenchment to this life-altering period of human history. In the creative process, the challenge was on the integration of personalized techniques that would result with the desired composition; first, the overlapping of tactile surfaces using modeling paste and tar that was integral to the material exploration of my Master’s thesis, and second, the excoriation of multi-layered paint surfaces that revealed different levels of the underpainting which was inspired and developed during my residency in Taiwan. Techniques aside, expressing the impacts of the Covid-19 pandemic from a personal perspective and in non-figurative form was an even greater challenge. On the other hand, this exhibition also addresses the changing local art landscape to showcase art in new platforms and re-engage the art publics. Additionally, the process of expressing oneself through art and communicating these experiences to a wider audience has never been as significant as it is now.
As Covid-19 infections continue to spread after five long months of quarantine, it has become evident that our society, like many other countries around the world, was unprepared for a health crisis of this magnitude and the outcomes that come along with it. Finding the need to address constant fears and personal anxieties, art production became my primary coping mechanism. The creation of imagery that comforts your soul reminded me to show compassion and kindness to people on account of the ‘noise’ being circulated in media. As the barrage of misinformation, condemnation, and hate in online platforms became too toxic as a daily dose for my well-being, the act of painting became a spiritual experience and prayer-like ritual that shielded various angst brought about by the uncertainty of the times. I completely agree with the realization that critical periods in history bring out the best and worst in many people, and in governments. It is but fitting to accept that all of us have changed whether good or bad, as we move on to a next normal. Contrary to all this, the whole pandemic experience has allowed me to become more focused with my current responsibilities and more productive in the things that I passionately love to do. Above and beyond, this ongoing experience obligates me as an artist, educator, and cultural worker to question how all of this will affect my artmaking and related activities after a new order of life and art is established. It will be unsettling to just continue with the old as it will be equally challenging to forge new paths. As the saying goes, to be able to get out of a storm (or more appropriately, a pandemic) one must step into the epicenter first.
Dennis ‘Sio’ Montera is a visual artist and art professor with international exposure in cultural research and art exhibitions. The central subject of his artistic body of work is the abstraction of deep personal experiences and insights, and in the painting process he seeks above all to capture the essence of creating unpremeditated form with skillful randomness and aesthetic judgment. The artist’s collection represents the evolution of different chapters of his love affair with non-figurative expression, with each phase of his form and contexts brought to life through a contemporary manipulation of material, tool, and gestural techniques. He has garnered awards from major art competitions and mounted more than twenty solo exhibitions in this chosen style.
The artist obtained his bachelor’s in fine arts and master’s in fine arts degrees as a painting major from the University of the Philippines and was conferred a Ph.D. in Creative Industries Design from National Cheng Kung University in Taiwan. He has presented and published research papers with a focus on artists and art ecology issues in peripheral milieus. He currently teaches courses in Art History and Art Theory, Painting Techniques, and Studio Arts Thesis at the College of Communication, Art, and Design in the University of the Philippines Cebu. Recently, he has been elected as the current Vice-Head of the National Committee on Visual Arts of the National Commission for Culture and the Arts.