Interview with Gian Cruz by Cyril Wong
CYRIL WONG: I'm highly allergic to "art-speak" in the sense of academic jargon, so I hope we can have a more authentic, down-to-earth conversation about your photographic images in You as Me, in relation to your dreams and aspirations as an artist. You get other people to stand in as "you" in your photographs. Why "you" and why "me"? Why the suit-and-tie imagery? What is it about "selfhood" that fascinates you?
GIAN CRUZ: You as Me was realized at a time in my life where I wanted to get over myself, so I thought of doing a self-portraits project where I had other people stand in for me. The project also became a way of me reaching out to people and it made me realize that to render that dynamic image of yourself… it’s not always just about the things that make you “you” and the people you like that you surround yourself with. The people who appall you also have a crucial role to play in that projection of myself in front of the camera or life in general. It is a dynamic mélange of both tendencies and persuasions.
Over time, my original intent veered towards an otherwise. Instead of doing what I had wanted it to do, which was to overcome myself, the more portraits I took the more they added up to a more detailed story about me. It then became inevitably autobiographical. I could say I performed my life around it.
You as Me is this obsessive accumulation of individuals I’ve encountered but altogether each one brought about a certain realization or even a new discovery about myself. And the more portraits I took, the more it unveiled something about myself. Although these days, I try not to look at the entire catalogue if it’s not needed (cases like having to review the catalogue for an upcoming exhibition or a proposal to some gallery or museum and the like are the only occasions I’d go through the entire catalogue) because there are just so many memories that go with it. However, I try to be systematic about it, in order to look at everything from a distance.
In a way, it kind of feels like I’m Bertrand Morane (Charles Denner) in Francois Truffaut’s autobiographical film L’Homme qui aimait les femmes, although I definitely won’t be that skirt-chasing protagonist played by Denner. Instead, it would be a reversed optic, as it would revolve around the different men I wanted to be part of my life and wanted to love at certain points. I was fascinated by his passion for all these women who became a part of his life and how he’d love them in his own little way and celebrated each one with their own set of peculiarities. And I thought, that conveniently falls into my sensibilities. To some extent, it’s in part a self-indulgent project keeping a catalogue of the men I wanted to love; in a way, I’d like to remember them or certain fragments that remind me of them; regardless of whether it’s them, directly, or somebody else standing in for them in the final portrait.
C.W.: You as Me recently bagged 2nd Prize in the Open Category of this year's Pride Photo Awards in Amsterdam. What does such an award mean to you?
G.C.: The Pride Photo Award merit was something totally unexpected. What makes this one very meaningful was after finding out that I got in at 2nd place, I discovered that a member of the jury is someone I deeply admire: curator/photographer Susan Bright. Back in mid 2012, I found myself saved by this curious little book of hers on the self-portrait in contemporary art.
During this particular period, I was serving time as a visiting researcher for a contemporary art museum in Seoul and didn’t have any clue on what to do during this fellowship. And came her book, which kind of gave me clarity and guidance. Little did I know that it would unconsciously trigger my desires to give up the curatorial/academic track I was pursuing and inspire me to do my own experimentations around the theme of self-portraits. The more I got immersed as a researcher completing duties for the museum and the more exhibitions I saw, the more they triggered my desire towards creation.
Four years later, to find myself merited with an award juried by someone you really look up to is a humbling experience. Of course, you get proud of such an achievement and at the same time, you realise that the struggles you’ve had in the past were all worth it as this is an indication that you are getting closer to your goals as an artist/photographer.
Awards like this one is a good reminder of why I choose to do what I do, despite how difficult it is pursuing a career as an artist. This reminds me of a time in my career as an artist/photographer when a top gallerist in Manila, upon reviewing my work, called it “amateur.” This happened three years ago and this didn’t sit well with me. I’ve always had this success-as-revenge tendencies in me from an early age so what I did after that was kept trying and trying. It’s an amazing validation that helps you realize that persistence plays a crucial role in success although I really wouldn’t say I have really made it all the way. At this point, I also find it crucial to know more of myself as an artist/photographer and as an individual and also keep a more humble approach about my practice. Sometimes, I think of it this way: “maybe it was meant to be that I didn’t show in that gallery because I’m meant for things that will groom me for a bigger audience.” Life is just as simple as the saying, “when one door closes, another one opens.” These days although it’s not as pervasive as it was then, each time I remember that instance, I do thank that gallerist in Manila. She actually pushed me to take my work and my practice to a bigger platform.
C.W.: What was the process like, getting other people to pose for you? What went through your mind as you observed the final images of these people?
G.C.: Originally I started thinking of the project via a linguistic turn in the French phrase, “toi comme moi.” You have the familiar form “toi”, but it does not have an equivalent in English. I thought of this little nuance as a site of exploration for rendering the most intimate portraits of myself. Often thinking between Filipino, English and French, I often find myself within the interstices of these different languages and become amused from getting lost in translation. Perhaps, that is how I like the visual equivalent of my art to be: to go beyond the confines of the visual or the tangible and extend towards the realm of the intangible. The images are often just initiators leading to something else instead of merely limiting the spectator to a certain way of looking. I guess, in a way, the interplay and interchangeability of you and me yearns for a more intimate commune within the spectator; as when I reverse the optic and turn it to you as someone looking at the work. I like that idea of a constantly active dialogue, becoming this ongoing conversation that constantly renegotiates and redefines itself.
The suit, perhaps, from my standpoint as a Filipino, perpetrates that sort of iconoclasm through a certain sartorial fantasy. We don’t have a very strong fashion culture. This brings me to my fascination with my own specific appropriation of Baudelaire’s “man about town,” the flaneur. It is, perhaps, from this great obsession with masculine codes that I try to create interference with socially prescribed constructs of masculinity. I like the idea of how fashion becomes a crucial tool for expressing and performing the self but it’s always a means instead of an end. Collectively, You as Me is my own particular intervention or reaction on prescribed masculinities from a Philippine context; to reconfigure my own masculinity through a broad range of subjects that opens up the masculine as something contestable and actively queer.
I like to play around with the notion of “selfhood” because it’s something very volatile. Nothing rests as a constant and most things are ephemeral. Everything about our so-called identities is only just in passing. In a way, You as Me is also a very active extension of the self at this point; it has become an overwhelming extent of discovery about myself. And what ceaselessly fascinates me is how I try to frame different subjects in an identical ensemble, but then each specific portrait would have a specific meaning to me that reactivates a memory of the time I took the portraits, which takes into account my particular relation with that subject-person. Our relationships with each other are always being reassessed, as a result.
C.W.: What else went through your mind as you observed the final images of these subjects?
G.C.: When I was starting the series, the first 20 portraits or so in the catalogue were a bit more controlled. I would have a tendency to try to control the subject’s portrayal of me in front of the camera until the process later breathed and evolved in a more natural and spontaneous way with people I hardly knew. Their impressions of me would only take place in the very moment I was shooting them, which usually only meant a good 8-to-15 minutes at most.
Normally, my obsessive behavior would force me to take at least over 100 individual portraits while other times, I took over 600 or 700 for a single subject. And then I would go through them, one by one, reviewing each particular gesture and little details, like how the collar of the shirt appeared, to the way a tie was knotted, etc. After that, I’d decide on a semi-final selection of 3-10 images and from there choose which would be the final one. There were times I easily got all this done, while other times I could be indecisive in my elimination process (depending on my mood and my focus).
These days, I find it quite funny as I go through the final catalogue. What initially was a project to get over the self ended up saying something more about myself. I actually ended up discovering much about me over the past three years while working on this series.
C.W.: How do you hope, most of all, for viewers to respond to your work?
G.C.: I see my work as something open-ended, like an ongoing dialogue. The works are initiators towards a bigger elsewhere, encouraging the spectator to engage himself in a conversation with the work. In a way, it’s kind of like that random conversation you have over dinner or coffee with friends or people you just met and create a connection, then establish that connection further without confining the connection necessarily into something categorical. There’s a bit more freedom. I also like my work to seem simple on the outset but be immensely complex at the same time. I really like to help the viewer to develop her or his own relationship with the work.
C.W.: How does "queerness" as an identity or category relate to you, personally and artistically?
G.C.: Initially, what drew me to “queerness” was French cinema; specifically, how its masculine archetypes could be very ambiguous, as when a seemingly heteronormative personage suddenly ends up with a man, for example. I found the idea very exciting, performing your sexual identity as if it were an intellectual discourse going beyond contexts and theories. Some films of François Ozon and Christophe Honoré possessed this quality for me.
I’ve often been fascinated by queerness but not necessarily in a self-conscious way. I associate queerness with ineluctably indistinct states or things that get lost in translation; similar to how I think between Filipino, French and English. And when your mind wavers between so many structures, it has a profound effect on the body too, which you perform consciously and unconsciously. It can feature as something very indistinct yet distinct at the same time.
I’m particularly fond of the notion of queerness as something very sensual and beyond the corporeal. I am drawn to the idea of sexuality that is never concrete but always shifting as one performs it; like how an autobiography or biography seems pointless if someone is still alive because we might be missing out crucial parts of someone’s life story. I like the idea of challenging myself by deciphering, decoding and constantly analyzing signs and symbols associated to one’s sexuality, no matter how indistinct or obscure. I guess the general sense of queerness I’m most fascinated with is quite philosophical and performative.
C.W.: What got you started as an artist? What or who inspired you? What event or events in your private to professional life nudged you into this trajectory of creative exploration and self-reflection?
G.C.: There were three crucial names that made me decide to focus on photography as a medium. These were Helmut Newton, Nan Goldin and Sophie Calle. I’ve always liked Newton’s coldness and his steadfast speed of churning out repetitions; how the camera can be utilised in a very efficient, machine-like manner. Then there is that significant book by Nan Goldin called “The Ballad of Sexual Dependency.” She documented her life and the people around her during the late 80s to the early 90’s, the height of the AIDS breakout. I was deeply moved by the intimacy of the images and also how, these days, Goldin wants to do away with the book now because all of the people she took photos of died of AIDS. It’s a startling personal account intertwined with the pain of memories and sentimentality, what I always gravitate to. Sophie Calle, in a way, also explores in the same vein as Goldin in documenting her personal life through photography: her breakups and her anxieties. Their works always give me a fresh way of being honest; as regards Sophie Calle, the honesty comes with a more playful, paradoxical, contemporary and artistic twist.
The main trajectory of my creative exploration and self-exploration was largely induced by my time as a researcher at the National Museum of Modern and Contemporary Art, Korea. The more exhibits I saw, the more my desire to become an artist/photographer came into play. Seeing the very first exhibition of Sophie Calle in Korea was something that haunts me to this day. With photography, I can become a bit confessional but also contradictory, which appeals to me.
C.W.: Do you see yourself mentoring or guiding younger artists in the future? What sort of advice would you give them?
G.C.: For young artists, I think the best advice I can give is this: just be honest with yourself. At the end of the day, genuine artistry is not about hiding behind too much artifice or pretension. Most importantly, no matter how much rejection falls into your lap, just go on; whether it’s to a residency, an exhibition, getting an award or applying for a grant. Persistence has worked well with me so I don’t see why it shouldn’t work for others.
Gian Cruz. ‘Interview with Gian Cruz by Cyril Wong’. Queer Southeast Asia: a literary journal of transgressive art Vol. 1. no. 1, October 2016.