Sense and Eccentricity

Article published in Metro Society magazine, May 2009

A bright neon sign spelling AVANTI backwards. A discreet brick garden wall.  A panaflex of Hitler’s picture. An antique apothecary cabinet.

What do these things have in common? Nothing – until you realize that you can find all these at the home of avante-garde artists Cesare and Jean Marie Syjuco. The Syjucos are experts at ostranenie, a technique where disparate elements are juxtaposed, allowing people to see a common thing in an uncommon way. This technique (also known as defamiliarization) is a fundamental idea in 20th century postmodern art. It helps people recognize art in places where they least expect to find it.

Art infuses the Syjuco household with dramatic energy, from their numerous installation pieces scattered about the living room, to the strategically placed pots of basil by second-floor landing of their spiral staircase. It also fills the lives of their children Michelline, A.G., Trix, Maxine and Jules. In Hindu-Buddhist literature and visual arts, one can find references to apsaras, celestial nymphs that dance to the music of gandharvas, skilled musicians who played for the gods.  If the Syjuco women are apsaras of performance art, practicing the steps of some graceful yet chilling waltz known only to them, the Syjuco men are artists whose experiments with music and other media result in works that perhaps only pagan gods could fully understand.

A musician, visual artist and experimental poet, Cesare A.X. Syjuco has created what his website describes as ‘visual literary transmedia’ – pieces that merge poetry, visual art, sound, and so on – that have won him numerous awards and acclaim. So many things have been said and written about him that adding anything more would be redundant. He’s both an iconoclast and luminary of the Philippine art and literary scenes. His reputation as a reclusive genius has been further cemented by his refusal to be interviewed and his short, yet polite, answers to emailed questions for this article.

Jean Marie started out doing paintings, and then gradually shifted to installations, performance art and sculpture. While our crew is busy setting up, she’s also at work serving food and drinks, and chatting with our managing editor about art, culture, gardening and cooking. It’s hard to imagine that this gentle and talkative woman is a pioneer of the performance art scene in the Philippines back in the 1980s, with performances so raw and disturbing that her daughter Maxine couldn’t go near her for days after seeing her perform. Despite this, two of her daughters have followed her footsteps and both are now distinctive performance artists themselves.

In the course of their marriage and careers, Cesare and Jean Marie have created new spaces that have allowed experimental art to grow within the country. Cesare created his literary hybrids, fusing words and visuals in startling ways, while Jean Marie’s performances in the CCP and other places brought performance art to the fore. Both are also pillars of installation art in the Philippines. In the 1990s, they had the Art Lab in EDSA, a key venue for conceptual and experimental art at the time. Cesare and Jean Marie have been married for 30 years and in celebration of this milestone, they had their first collaborative art exhibit last year at the Mag:net Gallery in The Columns, Makati. Last year also saw the Syjuco children (now adults) further establish themselves in the worlds of art and literature. They did this on their own eccentric merit, and in their chosen fields of art.

Michelline, or Mickey, is the eldest of the Syjuco siblings. She was the lead singer for the now defunct art-rock band Faust! and one of the youngest painters exhibited in the juried Annual Exhibition of the Art Association of the Philippines.  She launched her first show called Armadillion last year at Mag:net Café and Gallery, Bonifacio High Street. It featured a large mixed media installation that showcased both her large and miniature pieces. Mickey is both a sculptor and jewelry artist, creating arresting sculptural jewelry made from brass, steel, pearls, sterling silver, pyrite and other contrasting materials. After Mickey is A.G., the eldest male sibling and resident techie of the clan. He graduated Summa cum Laude and is currently a systems analyst at a Fortune 500 company and self-confessed ‘odd man out’ due to his regular job. His preferred medium of expression is music, and at 18 he was the guitarist and composer for Faust! Now, he is the guitarist for Utakan, an experimental art band composed of his wife Mica on synths, and sister Maxine on vocals.

Despite being the middle child, Trix is the one that the siblings agree is the most responsible. She comes across as soft-spoken and reserved, a far cry from her disturbing yet memorable performances. She is also the one with the widest range of interests. She has done performance poetry, photography, sound art, TV hosting, and acting. She also did back-up vocals and played bass guitar for Faust! Her primary passion right now is video, and she is currently doing some video editing for her father. She graduated Magna cum Laude from San Beda, with a degree in Communication and Media Studies. Next in line is the loquacious Maxine. At 24, she is already a well-known performance poet whose first book of poetry, A Secret Life, was published late last year. She is also a musician; at the age of 12 she was the youngest member and drummer of Faust! and now fronts Utakan. She has also done photography and commercial modeling. The youngest is Jules, who has just turned 19. He’s fresh out of high school. He also plays the guitar and sometimes helps A.G. compose for Utakan. Like most boys his age, he enjoys music and playing RPGs such as Neverwinter Nights. But unlike most boys, Jules has that Syjuco passion and strong artistic inclination. “All I want to do is play my music and be heard. I want to make good music.  Ever since I was a boy that’s all I ever wanted to do.” He asserts.

With such an artsy-intellectual background and numerous accomplishments behind them, one might assume the Syjucos are the aloof and pretentious sort, a postmodern Von Trapp family before the entrance of Maria. But one would be sorely mistaken, as they are warmhearted and unassuming, as well as surprisingly firm in their adherence to certain traditional family values. Like most Filipino families, they have a ‘family day’ once a week. Each member has a specific task; Jean Marie comes up with a theme (i.e. Mexican food), Trix cooks one dish, A.G. comes up with a new cocktail, and so on. They are so used to being together that when A.G. was in Chicago during the holiday season, they had him on webcam for Christmas Eve, with his own seat at the dinner table. They value communication and openness. “I don’t think there are any secrets in this family,” Maxine reflects. “We all know what’s going on with everyone else and sometimes at night we all hang out in my parents’ room, just talking. Usually at the dinner table everyone’s talking at the same time and there’s an overflow of ideas and thoughts. That’s how close we are.”

The affection and closeness shared by the siblings is evident from the way they interact and naturally continue each other’s sentences during the interview. Trix goes, “you see sibling rivalry a lot on TV and in movies, but we’ve always been supportive of each other. We know the goals, dreams and passions of each one; the strengths, as well as the weaknesses. We’re support systems for each other. We’ve always been.” Mickey adds that “When we have performances, we end up staying until 4 am and it’s just us, drinking and talking about what happened during the night.”She recounts that during their teenage years, none of them ever felt the urge to rebel as their parents were so loving, open and (in the words of their friends and classmates) “so cool!” The fact that both Mickey and A.G. are married, and the others express a wish to have children and be with someone in the future, show that being part of a family is just as important to them as creative freedom.

However, becoming artists isn’t something that all the Syjuco siblings planned to pursue. Trix says that she was torn between doing the arts and something that would be taken more seriously, but by the time she reached college, she realized that art was what made her truly happy. Mickey relates that “Growing up, I saw my parents struggle, so I didn’t want to be an artist. That’s why I took Business Management. But I discovered that it was inevitable, and I also ended up doing something art-related.” A.G. on the other hand, wanted to take English Literature but ended up doing Computer Science. Still, he admits that, “I always have that creative itch that I just need to scratch. I guess I scratch that itch with my work with Utakan”. Maxine never wanted to be anything but an artist. In his e-mail, Cesare admits that “I’ve always imagined I’d have doctors and lawyers for children.  I’m still hoping they come to their senses and leave the arts to me.”

As the siblings speak of their father, their voices take on a warm tone, full of loving respect. They all agree that he is the most intelligent person that they know. “He knows everything!” Mickey and Maxine chorus. “He’s like a sponge.” During their growing up years, their father took the time to learn about and share their interests. A.G. recounts that when he would get into a new music genre as a teen, such as industrial rock or death metal, his dad would listen as well. In a short time, his dad would end up knowing more than he did about the music. And when Trix went through a phase where she wanted to make her own clothes, Cesare got really into it, even helping her tatter and distress her own jeans.

In past interviews, Cesare calls Jean Marie his anchor and inspiration. When the girls have a new poem or artwork, most of the time their mother is the first one to see it. Jean Marie was once a teacher, and can be very honest and objective in her assessment. Maxine and Mickey say that sometimes her honesty can be a bit hurtful, but it’s good for them. But, “When it comes to music, the person I bounce everything off to first is my dad,” A.G. says. Jean Marie and Cesare played a large part in the development of their children as artists and musicians. “One has to balance an artist’s ego with a father’s sense of responsibility.  I imagine few people can maintain that balance.  And so I think it makes my family somehow special.” Cesare wrote. In 1992, after years of living a very public and hectic artistic life, he abruptly withdrew from the whole art and literary scene, becoming a recluse for about 12 years. “Everything was so public already,” Jean Marie recalls, “and we had to raise our family. We felt that we had to focus on guiding our kids.” During this time they continued to do their art steadily and discreetly. Meanwhile, their children began their own artistic journey, one of their highlights being the formation of the band Faust! which Jean Marie and Cesare managed. Faust! was the youngest commercially signed and recorded band in the history of the Philippines, and though short-lived, it won the 1997 MTV/Philips Asian Band Search and was dubbed by one writer as “one of the most progressive and exciting bands in Asia”. Their second album was launched on the internet, the songs in mp3 form. This was an extremely bold and innovative move, in the days of dial-up connections and wav files.

Past projects aside, this year seems to be busy for everyone, as each Syjuco is currently involved with or setting up some projects. Cesare will be launching his CD album/book A Sudden Rush of Genius. He also has a one-man multimedia show at the Metropolitan Museum in July. Jean Marie is involved in a ‘travelling show’ program that brings experimental art to different high schools in Manila. Mickey is planning another exhibit in October at Firma, Greenbelt. Maxine is having her first one man show in August at the Mag:net Gallery in the Columns, and Utakan started recording their album this summer, tentatively entitled Who’s Listening to Van Gogh’s Ear? Trix is working on a series of youtube videos for their father, as well as a video montage of the Electric Underground Collective – a mix of various avant-garde musicians, poets and performance artists who have collaborated with Cesare. Aside from playing with Utakan, A.G. is also working on their father’s website and new album. Their progressive and oftentimes controversial art is tempered with a tranquil home life.  “Though our art is avant-garde, we still have traditional family values. People notice that we’re always all together. We eat dinner together, pray together and think of experimental performances together.” Jean Marie shares.

“You have this image in your head of what a perfect family is supposed to be, and when most people see us they don’t think we fall under that conventional family. But our family is just so close and all of us grew up feeling so loved,” Mickey explains. Maxine adds that “In my family, we were taught that Art exists everywhere, and it’s just a matter of being able to recognize how it can be brought to life.” And that, in essence, is what the Syjuco family is all about: Living Art. The integration of art into everyday life, and the transformation of objects into art – be they words, chords, rusted metal, plastic or one’s own body. This is a family that seeks to fill itself to the brim with art, but more importantly, it is a family bursting with life and love. One that has dinner together, looks out for each other, and watches American Idol every week, rooting for Adam Lambert. Here, the domestic and artistic spheres do not clash. Instead, they strengthen and collaborate, producing a family where creativity and unity can thrive.

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