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Just Our Usual Flag: Stephanie Syjuco at the BMA

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It seems, at least, to flutter proudly. Hung from a tall pole in front of the BMA, the flag is more than large enough (at 6 by 10 feet) to catch the eye of passing motorists, and on a breezy spring day, it comes to life, its familiar pattern of white spangles on a blue field and tidy stripes rippling lightly. Nothing remarkable here, perhaps: just one of so many American flags displayed before so many staid stone facades. But stop a moment and look closer. The white stripes, you’ll notice, have been replaced with black ones, and the stars with skulls and crossbones. The stock icon has yielded to something darker and more ominous.

And it offers, in the process, an apt introduction to the artwork of Stephanie Syjuco, whose Vanishing Point (Overlay), a three-part installation at the BMA, is slated to run until May 16. Syjuco, who was born in Manila in 1974 and is now based in San Francisco, has developed a dynamic and provocative creative practice that combines photography, sculpture, and installation and that reveals an abiding interest in historical narratives, archival materials, and the construction of power and of notions of authenticity.

That may sound like a mouthful, but the works in this show are conceptually crisp, thematically unified, and sharply pointed. Each uses historical material centrally in generating a potent critique of America’s racist and xenophobic pasts, laying bare the violence that has long characterized this nation’s collective national unconscious.

Stephanie Syjuco, Rogue States, 2018/2020, 22 hand-sewn flags, 36 x 60 inches each, installation dimensions variable. Courtesy of the artist; Catherine Clark Gallery, San Francisco; RYAN LEE Gallery, New York
Each uses historical material centrally in generating a potent critique of America’s racist and xenophobic pasts, laying bare the violence that has long characterized this nation’s collective national unconscious.
Kerr Houston

The flag in front of the museum is in this sense typical. Originally made in 2019, it’s entitled To the Person Sitting in Darkness—which is also the title of an acidic anti-imperialist essay written by Mark Twain in 1901. In 1898, Spain had ceded the Philippines to the US, which sought to impose a policy of what President William McKinley called “benevolent assimilation.” Filipinos, however, wanted independence, and the result was a bloody conflict that ultimately cost more than 200,000 local lives. 

Twain was disgusted by what he saw as needless American aggression, and he resorted to a bitter sarcasm in imagining how it might be explained to a neutral observer: “There have been lies; yes, but they were told in a good cause. We have been treacherous; but that was only in order that real good might come out of apparent evil.” He then proposed, in equally ironic language, a banner for the new territory. “As for a flag for the Philippine Province,” wrote Twain, “it is easily managed. We can have a special one—our States do it: we can have just our usual flag, with the white stripes painted black and the stars replaced by the skull and cross-bones.”

Syjuco’s flag is a literalization of a rhetorical trope; it’s a polemical point given actual form. At the same time, it’s also a concrete reminder of a violent war whose history is known to few Americans—a forceful return, you might say, of the repressed. And in that sense, it’s both timely and well placed. At a moment when the scope and the consequences of the historic, systemic harm done to Black and brown individuals and communities are increasingly obvious, and when art museums are addressing their own role in entrenching a culture of exclusion, Syjuco’s variation on institutional critique feels wholly relevant. It’s at once historically specific and open-ended, as it is implicitly applicable to a vast array of institutions whose behaviors deserve, and always have deserved, scrutiny or even bald satire.

Installation view of Stephanie Syjuco, Vanishing Point (Overlay) at the Baltimore Museum of Art February 27–May 16, 2021. Photo by Mitro Hood.
The tender precision of the stitchwork belies the violent, reductive, and often dichotomous worldview evoked in the films from which the flags are drawn. 
Kerr Houston

Closely related, in form and spirit, is Rogue States, a 2018 piece that fills much of the room that leads from the European Art gallery to the Antioch Court. Twenty-two brightly colored flags hang above us in five neat rows, evoking an international congress. But this is no conventional assembly of nations. Rather, as we learn from an accompanying wall text, each of the flags is taken from a film or television show that alluded to a threatening rival nation, terrorist group, or ominous “other.” Thus Wadiya, the fictional home of Sacha Baron Cohen’s tyrannical admiral in The Dictator (2012), is represented here; so, too, is Val Verde, the native land of the cruel Ramon Esperanza in Die Hard II (1990).

Again, the initial concept is rather simple: What if, Syjuco seems to ask, we took this longstanding Orientalist logic literally? But the result is impishly provocative and disarming. There’s something touching, for one thing, in the clearly careful work that went into these flags—both on the part of the original art designers and Syjuco. The tender precision of the stitchwork belies the violent, reductive, and often dichotomous worldview evoked in the films from which the flags are drawn. 

Similarly, while the title (a phrase pioneered by Anthony Lake in a 1994 Foreign Affairs essay, and recycled by several later presidents) suggests chaotic foreign intransigence, the composed fields of color and motifs complicate the picture, evoking a gentler interest in pattern and iconography. Do the people of Tazbekistan (in the 2013 film Ambassadors) appreciate the elegant simplicity of their banner, which features a mountain goat, a star, and a bold white bar? I wonder. But I also digress. For the subject of the dream is, as they say, the dreamer, and Rogue States offers a clear analysis of our recurring compulsion to construe the world as barbaric, threatening, and unstable.

Stephanie Syjuco, from Vanishing Point series, 2021, Sculpture from BMA collection, dye-sublimation print on fabric, wall label. Courtesy of the artist; Catherine Clark Gallery, San Francisco; RYAN LEE Gallery, New York

But Syjuco isn’t quite done with us yet. Beneath the flags, standing on pedestals in the four corners of the gallery, stand four busts, each covered with a diaphanous veil and lit brightly from below (a fifth, related piece occupies a niche at the top of the museum’s main entry staircase). The wall texts help to flesh out the picture: These are sculptures owned by the BMA, each executed in the antebellum and reconstruction eras, and each a portrait of a figure who supported, collaborated with, or participated in slavery or the Confederate cause.

The obvious precedent here is Fred Wilson’s Mining the Museum, a seminal 1992 intervention in which Wilson exhibited a number of fraught objects owned by the Maryland Historical Society—and drew attention, in the process, to the drastic inequities that have long characterized life in this state. But where Wilson’s work was largely powered by the desire to unearth and to reveal, Syjuco is as just as interested, here, in occlusion. Critically, she not only drapes each piece, but also blurs the name of each figure in the accompanying wall text, rendering it illegible and effectively denying the men their very identity. 

To be sure, a little sleuthing can quickly fill in the blanks. In one corner, for instance, stands Arunah Shepherdson Abell, who owned the Confederate-friendly Sun paper. And in another corner, his features only partially evident, is Colonel Louis Montgomery, a Confederate commander who was present at the negotiations at Vicksburg. But the point is not to play a name-the-racist variant of Where’s Waldo?. Rather, the strength of Syjuco’s assembly lies in the myriad and affiliated associations that it calls to mind.

For instance, the hints of features visible beneath the fabric reminded me of the shadowy presences seen through the grilles of a Catholic confessional—an appropriate connection, given the historical trespasses of these men. Funeral veils also come to mind, as does the Lenten tradition of covering images and the 19th-century vogue for marble sculptures of veiled busts: loose parallels that feel as if they’re in key. Finally, we might also note that these veils are covered in a checkerboard pattern that recalls a digital layer in Photoshop. “I work on accumulation in a lot of ways,” Syjuco recently told the curator Glenn Adamson, in a public conversation. We can sense, in this dense layering of related forms, what she means.

Stephanie Syjuco, from Vanishing Point series, 2021, Sculpture from BMA collection, dye-sublimation print on fabric, wall label. Courtesy of the artist; Catherine Clark Gallery, San Francisco; RYAN LEE Gallery, New York

Admittedly, there’s a way in which the sculptures seem to elude or exceed Syjuco’s clever reframing. Quiet beneath their cloths, they retain a certain dignity; patient and stoic, they feel almost as if they’re waiting to be activated or rescued from this momentary embarrassment. Similarly, the bold lighting contributes to the sense of latent possibility and drama. As Adrian Skenderovic, whose 2015 series Mummies involved photographs of sculptures at Versailles wrapped for the winter, put it, “When you watch those wrapped statues, you can just imagine what’s behind. I love the mystery.” Mystification is not quite deflation, of course, and one can see here why iconoclasts often resort to less subtle means in toppling images of tyrants. Still, on a metaphorical level, Syjuco’s installation is compelling, as it quietly suggests that we look beyond the received visible surface of history and try instead to make out underlying patterns.

Indeed, the very title of Syjuco’s show seems to point in a similar direction. Vanishing points are most widely associated with perspectival art; they’re the functional centers of illusionistic spaces. And in this tight trio of works (which is efficiently curated by Jessica Bell Brown and Leila Grothe, who intelligently echo the artist’s tendency towards precise, surgical installations), the past is viewed as yet another constructed, fictive space. By using history as a sort of readymade, and by using soft, pliable fabric as a primary material, Syjuco foregrounds the violence that shaped our history but that has too often been omitted from stock narratives. There’s no need, she suggests, to exaggerate or even to modify extensively. Just look closely, and it’s there for all to see. In fact, it’s currently flying in front of the museum.

 

*****

Header image: Stephanie Syjuco, To the Person Sitting in Darkness, 2019, dye-sublimation print on fabric, Flag: 72 x 120 inches, Pole: 15′ high. Courtesy of the artist; Catherine Clark Gallery, San Francisco; RYAN LEE Gallery, New York.

 

Upcoming Event: BMA Violet Hour: Stephanie Syjuco and Savannah Wood April 21: 6-7 pm

Join the BMA for a spirited discussion featuring conceptual artist Stephanie Syjuco and artist and cultural organizer Savannah Wood, inspiring by Vanishing Point/ Overlay currently on view at the BMA.

Photos courtesy of the BMA/Mitro Hood

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