Her past works made use of human hair and chewed bubblegum.
For young artists and appreciators in the Philippines, the art scene might be too intimidating to get into, mostly because of how it is dominated by individuals much older than them, or how stuffy art-related events can sometimes get.
Artist Lesley-Anne Cao is here to show that that doesn’t have to be the case. For Lesley, everything can be art. Unlike traditional artists who work with a signature medium or style, the 26-year-old creates her pieces using everyday materials that you might find in your own home.
Her 2014 undergraduate thesis was an installation involving a figure made entirely out of hair (that, by the way, she collected from barber shops at UP’s Shopping Center) and a pile of chewed gum. Since then, she’s gone on to create a whole portfolio of strange-yet-meaningful artworks that defy labels. Think: crocheted idol dolls in niches, or bells and chimes hanging on a chair and a mannequin. This process is her way of making art accessible to anyone who is willing to appreciate it.
Lesley carries this attitude about what it means to be an artist, having spent her college years unsure if she should even call herself one. Now, she concedes to the loose label of “practicing artist.”
“At the time, for me that word still had a lot of baggage. Pero wala na yun kasi yung lagi ko nang iniisip magkaiba lang yung ginagawa,” she says. “I think everyone’s an artist, and maybe we’re just doing different things.”
Young STAR sat down with Lesley at her UP Diliman home-slash-workplace to talk about her inspirations, her process, and her first ever solo exhibit at the Cultural Center of the Philippines. Below is our shortened conversation.
Young STAR: How did you get into the kind of art that you’re doing today?
Lesley-Anne Cao: I think I was always interested in it but not seriously. I never dreamed of becoming an artist. Last year I remembered that my most prominent childhood dreams were to be a librarian and a detective. Na-realize ko lang last year that that’s what I’m doing. As an artist and as an archivist that’s pretty much what I am, nag-iba lang yung titles.
I think I was in 2nd year when I had this professor, si Jonathan Olazo. Kinuwento niya yung work ni Félix González-Torres, it was “Untitled” (Portrait of Ross in L.A.). Yung work niya na ‘to, merong mound of candy. It was colorful. And the idea was the weight was initially equivalent to his partner’s ideal weight. But his partner had AIDS. Viewers were welcome to get the candy and eat it and then he’d replenish it to go back to the original weight. Kinokopya niya how AIDS robs you of health and you lose weight and you get sick. I googled it and there were other iterations of it. Yun yung moment that I can point to that I realized that art can be that way. I had been struggling with learning how to paint for my first and second years, and then when I started reading about Félix González-Torres, I started to say, “I don’t have to be good at painting to be an artist. I can do that.”
I’m actually really curious about how you conceptualize your work. You use such different materials each time.
Well, I spend a lot of time thinking about them first. Marami akong work na hindi talaga matrabaho when it comes to actually making the work, but it takes a long time to think about them. I think hindi ‘yun nakikita ng tao when they encounter the work, maybe kasi it looks like, I just put two things together.
I usually work with everyday objects and I think that’s important to me because what keeps me drawn to art is how it can be anything. And I like the idea that I can use things that come from my house or things I get from the street. I think it’s important to me also to work against the idea of art as something spectacular, pristine, and clean and perfect and I like working with everyday things because usually they’re not like that. For my work for the solo show, ini-imagine ko siya muna before I could begin to figure out why I felt like I needed to make them. I like that self-deception, like maneuvering. Like setting up a puzzle or problem for yourself. I’d get an idea and then I’d have to work to figure it out.
So you work backwards?
I never have a set idea of what I want the viewer to get from it. I really think about how to not do that. I like making work that won’t have one clear meaning or definition, how there won’t be one specific way to experience them. It’s important to me that the viewer can do whatever they want.
Where do you get your inspiration for each work?
I’ve always done work as a response to something. It used to be plates and then it was my thesis, and then it was being invited to group shows where there’s a theme, or they tell you where the show will be so that also functions as a kind of prompt because it also shapes how you think what you’re going to put in that space. I think the challenge now is to practice not working that way because I think I’m at a point in my practice where I want to make work outside of what is to come, where it’s just me generating my own questions, but now it’s really strange for me because there are no prompts, no parameters anywhere.
So I have two final questions: First, do you have advice for people taking up art right now? Second, how would you tell people to appreciate art?
What I learned after I graduated that I think I should’ve been doing as a student, and I think all art students should do, is to look at [other people’s] work. It’s all just the internet. I learned about what was happening in Philippine Contemporary Art after I had graduated. My education was not really informed by what was happening around me. The art we see on the internet is mostly foreign. I learned after I graduated that there’s a whole community here doing really good work.
My main advice is to really go out and see shows, and to try to talk to artists. Not just artists, but cultural workers. See what people in your country are making. Another important thing is to be interested in things that are not art. Because if you just read about art or look at art and make art, what will your art be about, really?
One answer to the second question might be to look for spaces. Like artist-run spaces, like Green Papaya, 98B, Kamias. Maybe it’s not just going to galleries and museums. Art is not just in those spaces. Anything can be art so it really depends on how you look at things and how you read them and how you frame them. I think it goes both ways, that you should go out and actively decide and look at work but at the same time, don’t be limited by that.