Mark Salvatus, With a Wayfinder

Mark Salvatus, Scratching Series: Can I ask you something? Is your life better now?, 2023, acrylic on canvas, 46 x 61 cm. Courtesy the artist and The Drawing Room, Manila

Relaxation is a State of Mind at The Drawing Room, Manila attempts to mark a path through the chaos of urban life

Despite the title of the show, one doesn’t feel very relaxed standing in this long corridored exhibition space filled with Mark Salvatus’s paintings, collages and installations of rice bags and tripods. The artist’s works are usually varied – engaging with local life and geopolitics through photography, moving image, painting and found objects – but those here are so visually and thematically disparate that one struggles to guess as to what sort of titular ‘relaxation’ brings them all together.

Along both walls of the exhibition are 14 paintings from Salvatus’s ongoing Scratchings series (2017–). These vary in medium (acrylic on canvas or paper) and size (from 22 to 122 cm tall), characterised by abstract archlike or crackled forms, and thin scratchings into the paint. In one of the larger ones, Scratching Series: Dreams of Time (2023), dark hues of black, blue, grey and red take the form of round arches that slope across the canvas with thin scratchings following each curve. Visually, these paintings communicate little more than amateurish abstract decorative shapes. Their subtitles, like the aforementioned or To Infinity with Many Winds (2024) and A woman in the moon is singing to the earth (2023), are vaguely poetic and ethereal, so then to read the exhibition text and discover these paintings allude to some sort of ‘way-finding amidst the chaos of urban life’ is certainly a surprise.

Waiting, 2024, rice sack, cotton filler, plastic chair, dimensions variable. Courtesy The Drawing Room, Manila

In the middle of the hall is the installation Tools (2024), in which 18 glazed ceramic slabs, each approximately the size of the average mobile phone, are mounted on upright black tripods and arranged on a white table. One features a smiley face, while the rest include multiple finger indentations and are glazed with different earth tones. Here with the tripods that hint at making a spectacle of one’s self, Salvatus seems to be casually alluding to how online professions – say, being an influencer – have become more attractive than traditional forms of livelihood, like agrarian work with the land as the ceramics’ materiality, fingerprints and earth tones might imply.

Six white plastic utilitarian chairs with 25kg sacks of rice slouching on each seat are scattered throughout the space. Titled Waiting (2024), this work is, remarkably, the exhibition’s most compelling despite its simplicity. The bags’ markings indicate they come from different Southeast Asian countries including Thailand, Myanmar and the Philippines, seemingly implicating the politics of agrarian commodities and labour within Salvatus’s home country, the Philippines. The receptacles’ reclining positions suggest rest, but also hint at whether this is induced by strain or leisure.

There is meaning here, but one that must be inferred from knowledge of Salvatus’s wider practice – such as installations like Hacienda (2010) or Land mines (2022) that confront agrarian workers’ rights – which often carries a sustained investment in social responsibility. Only then might this, in turn, inform a more pointed interpretation of this exhibition as engaging in the politics of relaxation. Without this background information however, Relaxation is a State of Mind seems like a series of frustratingly bad artworks thrown together for the sake of staging an exhibition.

Relaxation is a State of Mind at The Drawing Room, Manila, 17 February – 16 March

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