Probing the tortured mind of Jose Legaspi

PUBLISHED : Friday, 09 July, 1999, 12:00am
UPDATED : Friday, 09 July, 1999, 12:00am

There are no elaborate ramblings about his aesthetics. There is no elongated eulogy about his inspirations. What introduces the viewer to Jose Legaspi's work is a few short words by the Filipino artist himself, a few lines staring coldly from a white wall - and more of a confession for past sins than a celebration of creativity.

'I do not care to draw pretty pictures. All I want is to show things in me that, otherwise, I prefer to hide. Here I lay bare my true satanic self, all the corruption in my soul. Only those who wish to share my torment can look at my sketches and be just as lost.

'What is life - the struggle to surrender, the endurance of misery? Agony is the night of submission, the morning-after of resignation.' Legaspi's world is one where cruelty shapes the being and claustrophobia becomes a vital ingredient of existence. Beside his testimony ranges the visual representation of his askew subconsciousness: among them a dog ravaging the insides of a woman (Dog Eating Woman); a man with a halo soliciting pleasure by dismembering a human carcass (Joy/Murder); and a woman, heavily pregnant, with blood gushing out of myriad self-inflicted stab wounds (Blood Debt).

In the aptly-titled 'Nightmare Obsession', his first exhibition in Hong Kong, Legaspi unveils an apocalyptic world where human beings, reduced to naked, savage beasts, feed on each other for carnal and abusive pleasures: an existence dictated by cruelty and alienation, where blood flows like wine and the act of maiming is the new Holy Communion.

Claustrophobia - probably the ultimate disease for the modern urbanite - is a thread that dominates and unites Legaspi's work. All the brutality he depicts takes place in a dark, enclosed space: shady corners to rooms are commonplace in his paintings, while a fire blazing through the windows of a doorless building in The Fire touches on the psyche of people weary of being trapped inside threatening concrete blocks.

The juxtaposition of these vivid scenes from hell with fine artistic sensibility is another reason why Legaspi's work has such a highly disturbing quality. Not one to mince words or images when a full revelation of self is called for, his devilish scenes are depicted with artistic finesse.

Legaspi's agenda lurks within the works: vilification of the conservative values espoused by his native Catholic society is obvious. People with halos are either committing murderous sins or on all fours and tied with a leash. The defiant stand he takes against the strictly homophobic atmosphere that plagues his own land can also be detected in his work.

With such a collection behind him, it was not surprising that his live performance was unimaginably shocking.

Nausea, the half-hour act with which he inaugurated his exhibition, involved a huge bowl of animal innards, with Legaspi - a holder of a master's degree in biological science - either sticking them on to his crown of thorns or smearing them all over his divine, white attire, at one point reinforcing his emphasis in the scrutiny of sexuality by feigning masturbation with a loose piece of meat. Nauseating it certainly was, but Legaspi stopped short of throwing up - a scene depicted in one of his paintings. The only object he spat out during the routine was a wooden cross - another apparent anti-Catholic statement he felt compelled to make. The revolting stench of raw meat mingled with the uneasy silence of the audience to heighten the unnerving atmosphere.

Shocking as it was, its purpose was not to shock. Legaspi's work - a showcase of realist aesthetics devoid of that post-modernist trapping, irony - provides a powerful view into the dark psyche of modern man, an act so minutely and successfully executed that it easily beat cheeky shock merchants - young brats like Damien Hirst, for example - hands down.

The note that comes with the show's promotional material reads: 'Some people might find the images highly disturbing. The Arts Centre strongly discourages young people under the age of 18 from viewing the exhibition.' Believe the warning.

Nightmare Obsession, Pao Galleries, Arts Centre, until July 21