by Anna O'Loughlin
Jose Tence Ruiz’s Langue Lounge occupied the centre of the sixth floor of the Makati car park that for a few days every February is transformed into Art Fair Philippines. Twelve imposing straight-backed armchairs stood draped in plush red velvet, surrounding a giant, fibreglass sculpture in the form of a chocolate-coated ice-cream tongue. The velvet, though abundant, failed to hide the mechanisms of restraint which marked the chairs as instruments of death, while the hard chocolate coating of the ice-cream did not conceal the form that lay beneath. Langue Lounge seemed to be a death trap, thinly veiled with velvet and chocolate lures.
In a country that is currently debating the return of the death penalty and has experienced over 7000 extrajudicial killings since Duterte launched the war on drugs at his inauguration on June 30 2016, Ruiz’s velvet cushioned electric chairs presented a clear statement on a population’s growing comfort with state sanctioned murder. On first encountering the work, the artist’s political intent seemed so unequivocally expressed that I wondered if my role as viewer was to be a mere receptacle for a single idea. I felt pressed and the installation (perhaps too big for the site) seemed likewise constrained, the car park’s low roof weighing down upon it. Nevertheless, the work was visually enticing and I was drawn in to give it closer inspection.
Proximity emphasised the textural contrast of wood and velvet, which, combined with the leather straps and buckles, gave the work a sadomasochistic edge. This was reinforced by the enormous ice-cream tongue, waiting to be licked and sucked; consumed in a twisted kiss of death. I had read that Ruiz made a chair for each apostle; twelve apostles seated for the Last Supper (“take, eat, this is my body”); twelve death row prisoners ready for their final meal. Prisoners and apostles, criminals and victims, betrayers and betrayed - these intersecting and overlapping roles complicated my earlier assessment that the work was solely about passive acceptance (the quietly comfortable).
Witnessing an audience engage with the work, further dimensions emerged. Langue Lounge became a meeting place; a rest stop, a space for quiet contemplation, a vantage point from which to watch, and a stage on which to be watched. Despite the fact that there were no signs for viewers to touch (or not) any part of the installation, people strapped themselves into the chairs and posed for photographs (sexy, gothic, electrocuted, dead). In the context of the work, this posing and posting became an act of distancing; the camera providing a degree of separation like the soft velvet covers. Paradoxically, this also drew the audience closer so that they became part of the work itself, every act able to be seen as a response to the current context in the Philippines. Whether sitting at the work’s centre or warily circumventing it, we all became implicated.
I found myself wondering about Ruiz’s role in this performance. He hadn’t explicitly directed the audience (even during his ‘artist talk’ on the car park’s rooftop he refrained from discussing the show), yet I began to feel certain he had anticipated the ways in which his work would be enacted. A number of times I saw him watching — an audience to his audience. The visual spectacle, the big political statement, and the unspoken invitation to touch, were all lures of a sort, drawing the viewer into more complex considerations. Some weeks later, still considering Ruiz’s ability to create both distance and closeness, to simultaneously cover and reveal, I realised that I too had been lured into the work, and was yet to be released.