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An ‘Uneasy Peace’: Online exhibit visits UP Diliman during quarantine

ONE of the biggest areas of the metro, the University of the Philippines (UP) Diliman campus, was rendered silent by the pandemic. The coronavirus disease 2019 (COVID-19) lockdown closed schools and colleges, and forced students and their teachers to go online — which itself is another can of worms.

Dr. Eloisa May Hernandez, an Art History Professor at the university’s Department of Art Studies, and UP Diliman resident, captured this silence through her iPhone camera during walks she took at the beginning of the lockdowns imposed almost a year ago. The photos are now in an online exhibit with vMeme Contemporary Art Gallery titledUneasy Peace.” The exhibit runs until Jan. 24.

The exhibit is composed of  photographs of landmarks in the UP Diliman campus, shown completely empty, unimaginable then when memories flash of cars, jeepneys, students, teachers, vendors, and visitors filled the place. The sense of stillness in a place once so busy might bring a sense of relief, but then one remembers the reason why the streets have been emptied.

“The title was contributed by my colleague and confidante, Prof. Eileen Legaspi-Ramirez. It reflects the anxiety that is evident in the emptiness of the campus during the lockdown,” said Ms. Hernandez in an e-mail to BusinessWorld. “It is also the irony behind these peaceful photographs that I also wish to convey. Beneath the ‘peacefulness’ that one sees in these images, there is the tension that the pandemic has brought upon us.”

It could be said that the deserted campus can stand for many places that have once seen life. “I would not strictly say that UP Diliman per se is illustrative of the community quarantine experience. To a certain extent, there is still a little ‘freedom’’ that we campus residents enjoy since it is not a highly populated space. But of course, being a part of a region under lockdown at that time, the UP Diliman community invariably was subjected to community quarantine as many other places/regions.” Would the same unease have been captured, had Ms. Hernandez worked and lived somewhere else? “Absolutely not. To begin with, UP Diliman campus, even pre-pandemic has always been a tranquil space even on days when teeming with students. The avenues flanked by the acacia trees, the sprawling verdant spaces bestow a sense of peace to many. Photographing the campus devoid of people only heightened this peacefulness. It allowed me to capture the mise-en-scène of the pandemic.”

Ms. Hernandez used a phone camera as her primary instrument. It’s telling in this decade that almost everybody has a smartphone, and this tool is always, always within reach. “In a sense, everybody now has the capability to create art or even news, as we’ve seen for example, in the case of the Tarlac shooting,” she said. “As a photographer, I use the most available tool for my artistic expression. Also, during my walks, I wanted as much as possible to take photographs as naturally as possible, just like anyone is compelled to take photographs with one’s phone in a very spontaneous manner. I also did it deliberately, I really wanted to show members of the UP community — students, professors, alumni, staff — what the campus was like during ECQ,” she said, referring to the Enhanced Community Quarantine, the strictest lockdown level.

The photos had been posted first on her social media account, which, exhibit notes by Jaime Oscar Salazar observe, is “a gesture that this exhibition, being an online one, seeks to repeat and encourage.” Ms. Hernadez said, “Most, if not all that we see in social media are from phones, images that are deliberately set up or spontaneously taken, which feed visual media. The modes of production, circulation and reception of art has certainly changed because of the emergence of the digital technology.”

The photos are expected to evoke deep feelings, especially among people familiar with the campus. “Whether a viewer is a campus dweller or already familiar with the campus or totally unaware that there is such an environment inside UP campus, I hope that these photographs will evoke a sense of peace for these viewers. During these times, where our lives are ‘simplified,’ we return to the concept of simplicity and nature. The subject of my photographs, in its unpretentious simplicity provides us with solace and relief. I also want to bring this peace that UP campus offers to those many other people confined in their homes,” she said. She added, “The exhibit is also for my freshie students who have not yet been able to physically see and experience the campus. I wanted to let them experience it, albeit digitally. It gives them something to look forward to.”

“Remote teaching/learning is very difficult for both the professors and the students,” she said, as she discussed how the pandemic has changed her life, as both a resident and worker within the university. “No one was ready for this. As one distance educator mentioned, this is not remote learning, this is emergency learning. I miss face to face teaching, I miss seeing and hearing from my students in real time. I miss the kind of interaction and discussion that face-to-face learning offers. As a resident, I definitely miss the ‘circulation’ of people on campus.”

Ms. Hernandez’ works started taking shape almost a year ago. Mr. Salazar, in his exhibit notes, said, “The lockdown has earned the dubious distinction of being among the lengthiest in the world, and without the benefits that its accompaniment by broad and robust testing, contact-tracing, and case-isolation efforts would have produced.” The restrictions may have loosened relatively since early last year, but life definitely moves at a slower pace; a slowness attributed less to peace but tension; as if everyday is a preparation for battle. While she notes that the Academic Oval has since reopened as a green public space, Ms. Hernandez said, “It is definitely frustrating and infuriating that, on the level of national governance, nothing much has changed. I see these photographs as faithful reminders of an entirely different context that was uncertain, terrifying even, at that time.”

“Uneasy Peace” is presented by vMeme Contemporary Art Gallery. Certain photographs in the exhibition are to be reproduced in calendars and other merchandise. The proceeds from the sale of such merchandise will be donated to the Art Relief Mobile Kitchen. — Joseph L. Garcia

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