MANILA, Philippines — The film opens casually enough. Children wearing Halloween masks float, or roll, backwards. As we pay attention to the surroundings, we realize we are following the children through the poorest conditions, which shoot past us. Over time, we realize we are on railway tracks, and the children are on a cart. People pop in and out of frame, and the kids with Halloween masks continue to stare at us.
These carts are well-known in the area. They provide a low-cost, 1 peso (2 US cents) method of informal public transportation through some of the slums that once existed in Santa Mesa, Manila along the railway tracks. Enterprising residents designed these carts to operate along the rail, and they can be removed just as quickly when a train is approaching.
“How do you show this environment without it being a humanitarian statement, or being the artist voyeur, just leaving and going?” said Australian artist David Griggs, who co-directs the LOST Projects gallery and residency program in Manila with Sidd Perez. In the film, titled Blood on the Streets, he shot the children in Santa Mesa in a single take, edited for continuity, and they float through the landscape on Halloween day.
Fast forward a few years, and the slums in Santa Mesa have been demolished. When he visited the site again, now reduced mostly to rubble, he approached gang members who were living there. In Donkey Root, he films them bumming a light from each other’s cigarettes, different versions of Americans brands. The camera rotates around, as they “donkey root” from each other, an Australian slang term for the practice.
“All the cigarettes are from different American MNCs [multinational corporations],” Griggs explained. “They had to be a certain brand for different gangs.”
At the 2008 Melbourne Art Fair, he installed a colorful tent in the entrance. Entitled Frog boy’s dissertation into a new karaoke cult, the work is composed of brightly-colored painted images drawn from his photos. Some of these shots include his Kalabet Peynge (Gimme) series, a collection of photos of prisoners’ tattoos, most of which contain familiar Western images. A projection inside contains video of him delivering a sculpture of Jesus to the slums, a reaction to hearing one person say that people in the slums only need faith.
Griggs’s work swoops into these communities on the margins of society and presents them as they are with little commentary. The common thread, and the element that grounds this difficult material, is the way he finds a quiet sense of play amongst his subjects, with a light touch on globalization. Most people who visit art fairs and galleries may not be able to understand the lives of prisoners, gangsters and slum dwellers in the Philippines, but they can understand Halloween masks and bumming a light.
And personal branding, too: “Even tough guys have to be concerned about image.”
Griggs’s next show opens early next year at Galerie Zimmermann Kratochwill (a big proponent of artists from the Philippines) in Graz, Austria.