COMA recently visited the studio of JD Reforma and discussed about his life during the isolation, interpretation of pop culture, race relations and continuing construction of identity. Reforma will have a solo show in the gallery early next year.
COMA: Hi JD, how have you been recently? Have you found anything captivating you in your daily routine during isolation, and has isolation affected your work?
JD Reforma: Entering into self-isolation, there seemed to be this widespread feeling or hope, which may have been false or misplaced, that this would be a period of discovery for artists; that we would emerge, transformed, from self-isolation, with a new skill, or a new body of work – the idea that isolation might breed innovation. But I’ve found that for every person emerging enlightened and metamorphosed, there is someone realising that, actually, they’d rather be home. I’m captivated by all aspects of my domesticity.
COMA: Part of your artistic practice draws upon methods of appropriation, extracting elements from mass culture, gossip and online hotspots, do you find yourself always following the news – both general world news and pop culture updates? How do you approach this bombardment of information in today’s life?
JD: I work in communications so I read and write a fair amount every day, and I love language, so I’m not overly threatened by the omnipresence of media or the media cycle. People often equate popular culture with just gossip or celebrity culture, but popular culture is really just our interactions with a dominant set of beliefs. So when I make work about popular culture, it’s not about affirming or increasing the power and status of celebrities, it’s about utilising a vocabulary that is persuasive. I don’t really have advice about navigating that milieu – I seek out news and information as often as I’m ignoring and filtering it. I embrace ennui and contentment, activity and inertia.
COMA: Mixing multiple identities, subjects and objects, and even the stark desires of individuals in the video Looking at You (2014), you created a certain gaze from the angle of an outsider. What role do you believe this seemingly vulnerable language would play when reflecting the precariousness of people’s lives, especially in current unprecedented times?
JD: In Looking at You, I was reflecting on how the Western gaze or the white gaze has a homogenising effect on its object – in this case, people of Asian descent. The representation of Asia as both an opportunity and a threat to Western prosperity and ideals is a recurring tension in race relations which is iterating itself in very real and ugly ways around the world today.
COMA: Continuing the discussion of identity, it is an intelligent analogy the distilling of a coconut as a metaphor and as an emb lem of cultural/political/economic states. Can you share any specific experiences that impressed you most that helped you understand it in your early years?
JD: I think throughout my childhood and adolescence I was aware that there were tensions in my identity, but it wasn’t really until university that I felt empowered to unpack them through visual practice. I like the metaphor of the coconut because, as well as being, as you say, emblematic of many cultural, political and economic forces, it also has broad capacity for portraiture because of its anthropomorphism – it has hair, a face, pores, flesh, meat, milk. So maybe that specific experience was when I discovered the capacity of metaphor to convey complexity.
COMA: Have you been back to the Philippines recent years? What do you think of the socio-economic experience and the landscape of contemporary art there?
JD: When I conceptualise “the Philippines” in my practice, it’s as an outsider, as someone of the diaspora – who I am and how I feel here in Australia is always refracted through this lens. How I, as an outsider, conceive of the social, economic, political or cultural landscape of the Philippines is irrelevant; what I’m interested in is the intersection between visual culture and cultural competency, how images and representations (e.g. advertising, artworks, film, characterisations) inform our understandings – or misunderstandings – of race, culture and belonging.
One of these representations is the nurse: in the 70s and 80s, nursing became a popular vocation among many Filipinos, mostly women, because it gave them greater access to resources and opportunities, like money, global travel, and social mobility. One of the reasons why I believe it was so accessible is that it extends on the matriarchal dynamics of care and authority that are central to Filipino family structures, both within and outside of the Philippines. And I think this notion of ‘care’, familial and professional, is the source of a great and fundamental sense of belonging throughout Filipino communities. And because ‘the nurse’ is a figure through which so many people receive ideas and understandings of Filipina identity and femininity, I’m interested in how I might make that visual and relevant for today.