Today is the Magical Cube
Camila de Caux and Eric Macedo
The cyclical nature of the relationship between mother and child is at the heart of Tanya Villanueva’s work How We Exist Together. For the artist and parent from the Philippines, a cycle is interpreted through exchanges in care work, spending or making time, and the intergenerational timelines Villanueva activates in her video collaborations with her child Ollie.
Text by Tanya Villanueva, followed by an interview with Jazmina Figueroa — Nov 30, 2022
The world was ending in a lot of ways when I started making art with my child, Ollie. It was 2017, and they were about to turn into an adult. I was slowly leaving behind a painting career to focus on earning a living and our country was quickly being ravaged by the unbearable power of a violent president on a murder spree under the guise of a »drug war.«
In many ways, I was surrendering to daily life – surrendering to dishwashing, cooking, and homemaking. My body was tired of constantly being out drinking, going to endless exhibition openings, and participating in one group show after another; talking about art as if it were this wonderful most important bubble in my life. I was living as if I were still a single young adult, when in truth I was in my thirties and a solo parent.
At the heart of this surrender is my child, Ollie Villanueva. Ollie took a break from school and her friends to focus on trying to live through their life as a teenager, being so burned out by high school life and discovering the many facets of their mental illness. Several years before lockdown my child and I were already in isolation due to our mental health. I was suffering from chronic depression and she was diagnosed with Bipolar II disorder. We took a break from friends, peers, and habitats as an artist and a teenager and formed a sort of space where we made time to just be together, resting from the world and getting to know ourselves.
In some ways, my art became a form of solace and a reminder that even though I paused exhibiting and all the performances of being a contemporary artist, I was making meaning of my time and the freedom that I share with Ollie. We, of course, had little money since I stopped producing paintings. What I had a lot of were time, patience, and the internet.
In 2017, I started a collaborative art project with Ollie specifically for us to play with time. We took our time to rest, work together, and get to know each other more deeply by making ourselves perform the very invisible work we have been doing for each other our whole lives.
How We Exist Together is done in a format to mimic online tutorials on food, arts, and crafts that showcased Ollie as the kind of content I am willing to share. It is a 30-minute video of me bedazzling their face one gem sticker at a time, in the hopes of illuminating our relationship and how love exists between each of us, making time to uplift each other against the darkness of our days. What was intended as just an Instagram post became a new media installation of Ollie bedazzled on video, photography, and projections. What was moving about this work was the intimacy I created by spending art-making time with Ollie. They were sleeping while I was creating a lovely picture of them. It was a yassified version of how we spent our days together cooped up in my mother’s house, nursing our traumas and healing together.
Another thing we love to do is to sleep together. Most of the day’s complexity and troubles get assessed and processed together while we wait for our sleep medications to put us down to slumber. We got to know more about each other within this hazy space before becoming unconscious. Our conversations are funny, wild, and at times very complex and always honest. We rely on each other’s points of view and humor to comfort us at the end of our day. We created the work Invisible Work Performing as a short video performance of the work we do during our sleep time. It was me reminding myself of the importance of the work I do on building a solid and honest relationship with Ollie. It took precedence over anything else I was busy with at that time. It also was a comfort to my anxiety about not being able to produce new paintings and exhibitions and not making enough money. I was comforted by the fact that through it all, inside our house I am a triumphant mother in closer proximity to my child, who began trusting me more.
»My art became a form of solace and a reminder that even though I paused exhibiting and all the performances of being a contemporary artist, I was making meaning of my time and the freedom that I share with Ollie.«
This safe space we cultivated together was sacred: it was alive, tender, and intimate. This work is just a glimpse into our reality. These tiny worlds that I have cultivated and taken care of while in isolation within myself and within this time; this small family unit that has helped me survive this moment are all that I have and all I can offer. It is everything important and clear to me.
Making time is how queerness operates. Being at odds with the world and with this world built for somebody else, making time makes world-building present in the now and makes hope a practical everyday activity. It is by making time that we can turn shame and rejection into portals for transformation and care. We get to reimagine the world to include ourselves in it – to see ourselves belonging to it.
I am a mother and an »othered« member of our art community in the Philippines specifically because I chose to prioritize nurturing the life that makes my art and disengaging from the endless hustle of showing up in the art world. At a time when I wasn’t seeing the kind of art that inspires me, I forged my way.
So, for you to get to a place that doesn’t exist, you make time for it.
The following is a conversation between Tanya Villanueva and Jazmina Figueroa about Villanueva’s project series How We Exist Together and How We Work Together, made in 2018 in collaboration with Villanueva’s daughter Ollie.
Jazmina: Let’s start with what parts make this series up as a whole. You created the videos, and you collaborated with your child. And now the accompanying text published in this journal, which takes a more reflective approach towards the work.
Tanya: This work is basically about me taking time and being honest with myself about what I had at this moment, which was not much. In terms of materiality and things that concerned me at that time, everything gravitated toward my child. I had to simplify a lot of stuff because of what was happening then. The country was in turmoil and I didn’t have any capacity to be a good parent because of my depression. I couldn’t become a good artist either, because I didn’t have the focus or the will to do work back then. Everything was simplified and slowed down for those reasons. I didn’t want to talk in metaphors because the world was complex already. I wanted to speak about what was important to me, and that was taking care of my daughter. Using her face and the time I spend with her as subject matter is what makes up this body of work.
If we were to zoom out from the relationship between you and your child and consider taking time as an act of possession; time spent on care, nurture, or simply stopping to pause, do you feel that taking time here is sort of an anti-productivity stance or more an act of care and nurturing?
It was about slowing down and a way for me to control the time that I have and try to capture it from a position of comfort. Taking the life that I have as it is as starting point instead of trying to catch up, feeling like I am running out of time, or being within a productive scheduling routine. And to do that I had to take care of the time that I spent. I wanted it to be spent with my daughter.
How did your child contribute to the work?
It was the first time that I asked my child to make work with me after she decided to take a break from school for personal reasons. Drag comforts her and is a way to navigate this period of her life. I wanted to do something with her that has significance in her life. She likes doing make-up and makeovers and in that way, she helped me shape the final look of the project. She also wanted to learn how to be an artist during her break from school. I told her that the best way for her to learn about art is to experience it. I was trying to give her life lessons and I wanted to do that through my art and see how I respond to the world as an artist. The project was an art project, but it also was a parenting technique for me. I could be with her while she occupied her time with something while she was not in school. I had to focus on her, and this project was a way to meld all these different aspects of art making – doing one activity together, making videos.
You both are enacting something from the other through this intergenerational exchange. You’re learning about makeup, for example, and she’s learning about artistic expression. Was this intentional or more natural extension of your relationship with each other?
It was intentional because this work also refers to how I was taken care of by my dad, who was also an artist. Anything that I was doing with Ollie was about
how I was treated as a child. It was important for me to connect with her/them through things that interest Ollie because it was the kind of attention that I didn’t get as a child and to heal that space with my dad. My dad was a very productive artist, he was very prolific and was always writing, involved with other people and other projects. He’s so visible in the family because he was the center of it, but the relationship I had with him was not good. I didn’t want to continue down that path of being an artist in relationship to my child. I wanted to nurture my family. That’s why I intentionally included my family in my work so that I wouldn’t make the same mistakes that my dad did with me. If we speak about breaking patterns and timelines, you’re making choices based on experiences that you don’t want to revisit from your own reclamation of
your timeline. Yeah, when you speak about care work that’s what I mean. I’m trying to repair or heal an ancestral line.
Is that what the title for Invisible Work Performing refers to?
Yeah, Invisible Work Performing is about care work and the things that I do as a parent and as a woman. I know also to speak about it or put it at the forefront would be a performance of the invisible work and not the actual care work. That carries on in my practice now. Everything I do is sort of a performance of that care work.
I’ve experienced your work Art School Beauty Salon, where I and others were able to have cosmetic treatments. It’s an activation or creating space for participation, specifically, participating in beauty rituals where being among one another and wellness are at the core of those spaces. Is that something that resonates with you?
There’s transformative power in this. I think it’s what specifically care does – it transforms you. It transforms you into a gentler person. It can transform you into a more active being that participates in other people’s lives.
The scene set in Invisible Work Performing is an intimate space. Can you talk a bit more about the staging of this video?
We were supposed to do it inside my room because I wanted to use natural light as much as I can. There was a space in our garden that sparkles at a certain time of day. We just brought what was supposed to be our bed outside, along with the materials that we were interested in, like iridescent cloths and sequins. We made a transparent screen around the sleeping area. We also decided to wear white because we wanted to look like patients. After all, we cope with our mental illnesses with humor a lot. It’s a way to recall and reference or make fun of ourselves. Ollie set up the cameras and the directions of them to make the angles that we would use. She/they were more proactive with this collaboration and more hands-on with how we would go about it. They also edited the final video; Ollie was more knowledgeable in that aspect of the work. Each of us has different things to offer to each other, and that shouldn’t be limited. Nourishment comes in different forms. It’s important to open up that space and give people the option of how they respond and
give back to the labor done.
Where does the video How We Exist Together take place? The description states it was shot under a full moon on the Baler seashore in 2018. A full moon also happens at a certain place and is a marker of time. The inclusion of this information reads as a timestamp of where and when existing together takes place.
It has a corny meaning. I named my child Luna and she just changed their name to Ollie. I was referring to the moon as her and the moon as just borrowed light from the sun. For me, it represents my strength, which is just borrowed from Ollie. I was speaking of the moon more as an object to assign metaphors to or specific allusions, it was more about what it means to me as a
symbolic presence in my life.
If I think about how to read your work, the full moon has its own cycles, you know? There’s almost something cyclical in your work or how you work with people. In thinking about time and the way you operate within your relationship to your child, that cycles back to your experiences in your relationship with your father, who is also an artist.
Yeah. That’s a good way to think about it – being able to spread myself to different facets of my life but they’re always connected. Coming from someone who is always confused about the world. It’s a good burden to be guided by so that I will never get lost there. The work also suggests or provides an understanding of how one can exist with another.
From this work have you come up with an answer to the prompt: how you
two can exist together within a relationship that has played a big part in your lives?
The video is a slow-moving image of Ollie running for 30 minutes. And I feel that’s the answer to that question. I can exist in that space and you can glance at this for a moment and understand. It’s just me putting her into the light. I am answering it as I do my work. This answer has become very simplistic for me. It doesn’t have to be wrapped up in whatever politics, my mere existence is already a stance. The work itself is the answer to that.
What about the fake tattoos featured in the video?
The tattoos show safe spaces. One tattoo shows an octopus garden, a safe space for an octopus. One is a music studio from a convict inside a prison in the Philippines. One shows a mosque that burned down, a safe space for Muslims, and one a Baler beach, which was a safe space for my closest friend. These tattoos were pictures of all those safe spaces resting on Ollie’s body while I massaged those spaces on their skin. It’s my indirect way of telling Ollie about privileges and who has the right to safe spaces.
»I’m not afraid of failure anymore. It’s still scary, but when it comes, I know that it’s just a temporary position and it’s a teacher most of the time.«
I like what you said earlier about your role as a mother and the hardship around it. We as women tend to fall into these traps of being aspirational or role models. I’m thinking about the symbolism of failure in your work. How To Exist Together is very much about depicting darkness and light shining through the darkness. I know you said you weren’t thinking about metaphors, but I think failure is also something worth shining a light on. The work is then against a sort of productivity of performing and producing and doing things better. I think failure is a beautiful space to work within and spend time in.
I can’t help it! (laughter) That is why the work is shown as a projection, using this borrowed light. I don’t think I will be here in my work, if not for the failure that I experienced. My whole work changed because I couldn’t produce the same things anymore, which carved a new space for me to be a more honest artist. I’m not afraid of failure anymore. It’s still scary, but when it comes, I know that it’s just a temporary position and it’s a teacher most of the time. I can laugh at it and sit with it and do nothing about it.
People like to paint failure as something that is not in our hands. They like to see it as something to endure and not something to embrace and take on.
Yeah. You can always change your mind. You know, it’s your headspace. Everything is falling apart just means that there’s a renewal, space for new things, and new perspectives. So that’s what I’m not afraid of. I like seeing things fall apart because it means that it’s gonna create space for something new or something better.
Can you tell me more about Ollie?
Ollie is a much better artist than me. Much better in many ways because Ollie is more comfortable with herself. It’s okay if I call her »her,« sometimes I call her »it,« sometimes I call her »them.« She has come a long way from her traumas and she’s using art to process those things. This made her a braver person in tackling life. Ollie is also great at performing, which is something that I am just skirting around. But she is a real performer. She does drag; she knows things like death drops, the splits, and all the wonderful drag things one can do. She’s good at singing and she’s a musician. So, she’s this all-around powerhouse actually, trapped in a very confused human being. She’s also taking to feel where she would be comfortable as an artist.
I am curious to learn what Ollie is interested in as an artist, because this is very much the framework and structure that you’re inviting her into.
The one that you see on the video is her, that wasn’t me. The person with green hair is Ollie. In that work, I was indirectly telling Ollie about the privileges of
having time to just lie down and be together. This isn’t present in most families – to be close and talk to each other about your lives while resting. That work was also teaching Ollie that she is privileged to have that space.
My name is Tanya Villanueva. I am a visual artist working across various mediums such as painting, object-making and photography, and textile works. I am a single parent of a teenager and I am currently bent on using my time to be equally available to care for both my daughter and my practice as an artist.
Jazmina Figueroa is a writer based in Berlin and co-editor of this issue.
License CC BY-NC-ND
Copyrights: The texts and images in this article – unless no other rights holders are expressly named – are published under the terms of the »Creative Commons Attribution« – License CC BY-NC-ND Version 4.0: creativecommons.org/licenses/by-nc-nd/4.0/