In conversation with Jovi Juan on Mirror (2020)
Near St. John’s Church on Ladbrook Grove. St. John’s is a predominantly Filipino church near Notting Hill.
What prompted you to create the installation Mirror as a work of street art around London at this point in time?
Though my work over the past decade or more has been almost entirely on the internet, I’ve wanted recently to work in a more focussed, systematic way in the physical world. At the same time, I didn’t want to lose the spirit of openness and accessibility that the internet, at its best, embodies. So Mirror was conceived as work that is publicly accessible, outside of a gallery or museum setting, rooted in serendipitous moments rather than circumscribed experiences with art.
I initiated the piece during a high lockdown moment in Britain in April 2020, so it seemed like a good time to put something out that was subtle and quiet, unlike much street art that is very in-your-face. The streets were empty and muted at the time, but even so I wanted to go out very early in the morning, usually at 3, in order to avoid people or authorities who might take issue with installing art without permission. I loved the hushed quality of those hours, when it was just me, the foxes, and the nightingales.
Why execute this work under an alias?
I thought using an alias would be an interesting approach because it is reflective of duality central to the piece itself. I am, by trade, a journalist, so, at least in America, we are called to maintain neutrality above all else (i.e. social media posts, writings, and other forms of expression). That kind of persona balance is core to the dilemma confronted in Mirror. And though Mirror is not overtly political, other things I have produced as alias_ibarra are.
The name itself is a reference to two characters in Jose Rizal’s famed novel Noli Me Tángere (1887). Juan Crisostomo Ibarra is the upper class scion turned tough-minded insurrectionist at the center of the novel while Elias (‘alias’) is a fallen son of wealth now a fugitive from the law, but deeply engaged in the rebellion that would become the Philippine Revolution.
On Edwardes Square
What does the title of the work, "Mirror", refer to?
At heart, the title is ironic, as a mirror reflects what can be seen, rather than what we wish we could see beneath the surface. These figures look at each other as if at the water’s edge (or, if placed side by side as they are in some cases, stand in close relation to one another) reflecting their deeper selves back at each other — the European/Londoner side vs. the Filipino/Igorot side. For any immigrant, the balance that we need to maintain between our selves is an acutely felt challenge, as we are often one person with our families and friends, and another at work or in other social situations. Sometimes it can feel burdensome, other times it can feel empowering, as we can escape the problems on one side for refuge in the other.
As a second generation Filipino-American, an ex-resident of Sagada, and a sojourner in Britain, I feel like I am occupying a space layered with the liminality I’ve meant to make visible in Mirror. The piece could be seen as an assessment of sorts that starts with an admission that an honest look at who I am (not an Igorot, not a Briton, not even really a Filipino, except by parentage) might reveal blemishes that shut down any personal claims to authenticity, as someone who could speak authoritatively to these issues from a well first-hand experiences.
Also, at the time, I was watching a lot of films by Andrey Tarkovsky, and the title is a tribute to his enigmatic, eponymous film. I think those times of high lockdown were, for me and others, extant outside of time. I often felt like I was slipping between past, present, future as days, then weeks, then months blurred into each other, much like the collage-like time structure of Tarkovsky’s film.
The lineup before installing
What do the figurines that you install around the city represent? How are they made?
The figures themselves are cast out of chalk and designed to dissolve into each other, melting eventually into puddles of colour as they encounter the elements. The whole performative action is meant to reiterate the liminal, sublimated nature of the work. It is ultimately hopeful that the duality might be resolved, free to bleed now into the spaces around them, their miniature scale defied by their transforming presence.
In recent times, the miniature has made a political ‘comeback’ in Southeast Asian contemporary art, particularly when looking at research-led works such as Sawangwognse Yawnghwe’s 'People’s Desire' (2019) where vast numbers of hand-crafted miniature figurines are arranged to reflect political persecutions in Myanmar. From the Philippines, Brenda Fajardo’s paintings in the style of Tarot cards also spring to mind. Fajardo uses miniature, serial drawings as a way to recount histories, folklore and present-day concerns. Why is the miniature figure important for your work?
Conceptually, the miniature places a different kind of demand on the viewer, asking a more reflective posture. Of course, within a visually familiar setting where most viewers would encounter them, it is a real challenge to break through the distracted state of the modern mind.
The figures represent a side of a persona; one side is the professional, head-down city dweller, pulled into the cultural entropy of London, a fully anonymised as a data point. The other is the tribal figure whom he left behind, or who he imagines he might be.
What is the significance of the chosen locations for the pieces so far?
Earl's Court is a well-known Filipino enclave, with a clutch of grocery stores, restaurants, hairdressers, and even a Jollibee in close proximity to each other. I felt that if I placed them in and around that area, people who saw them might recognise and understand the representations. Of course, I was also aware of how their placement, both above and below the class dividing line of Cromwell Road, might strike the passing viewer so armed with that knowledge. Below Cromwell, people might see them as celebratory figures, marking where Filipino identity breaks the surface of London's urban fabric, while above Cromwell, where we return to anonymity taking up our positions in hospitals, households, and shops in a neighbourhood that is one of the most acute concentrations of wealth in London.
On High Street Kensington
Earls Court is also where members of the Igorot community were displayed in 1912 in a “human zoo”, strangely placed within the same exhibition space as a permanent display of Shakespearean England in a place called the Shakespeare Hut. They were there as part of a European tour put together by the American promoter Schneidgewind after their lucrative ‘display’ at the St. Louis World Exposition. Beyond The Simpsons-esque quality of the juxtaposition, the history adds a layer of context to the enclave. In a neighbourhood immured by ultra-stylish and exclusive Chelsea to the south and Kensington to the north, a sari-sari store wedged into a Victorian edifice echoes that earlier elision, but perhaps more triumphantly. Filipinos now see their businesses continue to thrive in the face of rising real estate values, pandemic economics, and the general indifference of the Anglo world around them.
The site-specific work is strikingly visual when seen in photos. In the images, there is an emphasis on colour, symmetry of the figures and light. And yet, when seen in real life, the figures are presumably discrete within the urban space. How do you intend the work to be seen/encountered?
I really intend them to be a surprise, a curiosity, to the viewer. Where these figures are placed, on metal poles and cantilevers, are largely ignored and unnoticed, and thus emblematic of the immigrant's status within western culture.
But, of course, another intended audience is viewer on the internet, so the pieces are photographed with an eye toward their experience on Instagram and Twitter and Facebook. But, as much as a piece like this can be designed around their digital presentation, that experience will be very much secondary to actually encountering them. Though in some ways it is more aesthetic, this kind of derivative state is hard to escape.
I think, in some sense, one big part of my work in the near future is to create things that feel like they could exist on the internet and nowhere else. I will continue to develop and add to “Mirror” and to conceive of similar street art projects, but in addition, I feel called to work digitally, producing work that is more generative and more fragmentary. Part of the body of work I am creating really must be not just ‘for’ but ‘of’ the internet.
What does the future of this project look like?
I am continuing to work on the figures, adding a new series of them, which I hope to install in the near future. The next pieces will probably be printed in 3D in water soluble plastic, to preserve their mutability. I would probably expand where I place them and hopefully, employing 3D printing would allow me to expand the installation’s footprint.
My next piece, Solstice, a work in progress which I am releasing as myself, without the cover of an alias, is an example of the kind of digital work I am exploring. It is, simply, a series of 36 timelapses of the field behind my house, placed on webpage. I see it as an aide to contemplation and prayer; a meditation on the passage of time, the phenomena of light, and the persistence of beauty in these optically restless times.
Interviewer: Eva Bentcheva
London/Berlin, November 2020
Jovi Juan is an artist, writer, and hacker living in Bedfordshire, England. His work has been broadly exhibited in New York, London, San Francisco, Marfa, Texas, and Cebu City, Philippines; and he has been published internationally in The Wall Street Journal, Arki Magazine, and Sun Star Weekend. From 2006-2020, he led interactive graphics teams at The Wall Street Journal as art director and technical director, where his work garnered wide recognition from The Loeb Foundation, the Society of News Design, The Webby Awards, and The British Journalism Awards. He earned his B.F.A. from Cornell University and his M.P.S. from New York University’s Interactive Telecommunications Program.
At the entrance of the Earl’s Court Station