Art

The Surreality of Selling Sex

Manny Montelibano, "Here, distorted" (2016), single-channel video, 16 min (all images courtesy the artist and 1335Mabini)
Manny Montelibano, “Here, distorted” (2016), single-channel video, 16 min (all images courtesy the artist and 1335Mabini)

MANILA — The single focus of Filipino artist Manny Montelibano’s short film “Here, distorted” (2016), on view at 1335Mabini, is the lighted floor of a strip club in Bacolod, a city on the island of Negros where the artist lives and works. A cozy viewing room — table and chairs, curtains, low ceiling — has been set up in the Manila gallery, creating an ersatz but appealing atmosphere typical of late-night dive bars and strip clubs, where the sources of light are few; here the only one is the video (and the video is the stage). On screen, a view that extends only up to the women’s calves shows a succession of dancers executing presumably languorous choreographies. The viewer can imagine the highly sexualized but fatigued movements of their bodies from the way each performer slides her shiny pumps around the pole’s base. On the back wall of the club, a screen runs video clips, Miley Cyrus’s mostly, awkwardly adding a whiff of current pop culture to the stage design. Heard in the background are the Tagalog declamations of the house DJ: comments picking on the girls, such as hinting at their toes sticking out of their stilettos — a sordid reminder of the interchangeability of the bodies and garments geared toward selling sex.

Manny Montelibano, "Here, distorted" (2016), single-channel video, 16 min
Manny Montelibano, “Here, distorted” (2016), single-channel video, 16 min

At first, one’s inner voyeur is teased by peeking into the red-curtained space and seeing the sensual codes exhibited on-screen, the glitz and the nightclub chiaroscuro. The immediate reference to the sex-entertainment industry echoes the neighborhood where 1335Mabini is located, known for its red light district and karaoke bars. After a while, we realize the motionless frame means the camera is to remain stubbornly fixed on the floor, as if forgotten there, missing the point. Or is it? Under scrutiny, the succession of numbers grows more grotesque than sultry, and our attention turns to other elements of the scene. Cyrus, what is she doing there? The video clips supposed to support the acts (one would imagine) instead offer an alternative to a potentially bored crowd that forgot to be turned on by the twirls of the dancers. The DJ, whose usual function is to warm up the audience, ends up talking to himself for lack of reaction to his absurd monologue.

Installation view, 'Manny Montelibano: Here Distorted' at 1335Mabini
Installation view, ‘Manny Montelibano: Here Distorted’ at 1335Mabini

Montelibano’s cinematographic language focuses on revealing the nightlife industry’s crossover between two domains: sex selling and show business. To the artist, the parlors’ investment in production and glitzy effects is illogical: why cover in glitter what is, in essence, a straightforward business transaction (the trade of sexual favors)? The work, however, remains mostly on the surface of what it’s pointing at, falling short as a social analysis that might truly dismantle any contradictions or psychology at play. Fortunately, the sensuality of the mise-en-scène and the editing of the video are still plenty satisfying for the viewer, since Montelibano does probe into voyeurism as well as reveal cultural commonalities — one can imagine the same bar in Las Vegas or Paris’s Pigalle. “Here, distorted” captures the undeniable allure of the adult entertainment industry by looping the best thing to stimulate our imaginations: an endless teaser.

Manny Montelibano: Here Distorted continues at 1335Mabini (Casa Tesoro, 1335 A. Mabini Street, Manila, Philippines) through April 15.

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