An Interview with Zeus Bascon: Unwrapping the uncanny world of an artist

Zeus Bascon, a Filipino multi-disciplinary artist bends the cold and cerebral as he employs a sort of shamanistic sensitivity and dada irony to his art, removing altogether its own high-minded self seriousness.

By critical accounts, Zeus is primarily a storyteller, but one who conveys his stories in a myriad of non-traditional ways. His resourcefully constructed artworks and experiences reveal imagery that has consistently evoked the otherworldly and the uncanny but are always rooted in his life and even in his dreams. He has also been a costume designer and actor for film production and has illustrated a considerable number of published books.

In this interview, Zeus spoke to us about his artistic practice, diving into its different aspects like dreaming, living in the moment, drawing, journaling, and other insights into how and why he makes art.

Vintana: Your artmaking process has been described as “a continuous exploration of the self in order to determine the current state of being” or artmaking that happens when “one is living in the moment”. I think expedient production sums it up best. It implies a letting go of strict or rigid structures, plans, materials, processes, and even outcomes.

Play, dreaming, solitude, and silence all seem to be integral to this. Can you enlighten our readers to what roles they play for you as an artist?

Zeus Bascon: Even from the very beginning of my practice, I thought there was no other theme for me but to explore but the self. A part of this self-exploration is the awareness of how I dream (in my sleep) and finding out what I can do with my dreams. Most of my dreams are like movies where I can direct myself and the settings. Oddly enough, I can’t direct the other characters. Sometimes it's episodic, developing from one dream to the next with truths that unfold from the events and symbols in them.

In my earlier years, I had this exercise of conversing to my mirrored reflection. I’d ask, "Sino ka? Nasaan ka?" (Who are you? Where are you?) Recalling this helped me to understand my present by becoming sensitive to the meanings of details in my surroundings, sometimes taking pictures, carrying items home in my pocket, or tucking them in my mind for the day. This helps me to find ways to make sense of myself and where I am, piecing together disparate details into a puzzle, forming them into a picture. I look close and then step back to find myself a part of it; a wilting flower connected to its stem or a butterfly helping to revive it. I could be the Sun or the Moon. I could be the lone person on a plain heading towards the horizon.

I didn't study art during college. But armed with curiosity I try and try and try, a kind of playing from materials to execution. Even in exhibitions for instance, there's so much one can do with space. Or the artworks presented could be used as materials for the next piece. There's just so much you can do with what you have, nothing's really finished.

V: Freeing yourself from overthinking seems to be one of the goals of your process like in an artwork of repurposed old drawings called “Ramblings” (picture below) from 2019. Why is this important to achieve?

ZB: Overthinking is exhausting. “Ramblings” (pic above) was an artwork I started in 2016 as a process of cooling down after finishing the works for an exhibition.

As a full time artist having a line of exhibitions in a year, there's so much work involved aside from creating artworks. Promoting, selling my work, and finding how to fund the next set of works for an exhibition may give you an idea. The studio can be very chaotic. And on top of all those things, it’s not possible to include all my ideas into the creative conversation of painting or drawing. It can be mentally exhausting.

The materials for “Ramblings” were strips of paper or canvas where these clouded thoughts dissipate or quiet down while wiping the excess paint on the brush or testing out the ink of a marker pen. Ramblings was first created to collate and process my rants and exhaustion before moving on to the next exhibition. It offered me an activity to just work with my hands in a stable and calming pace. And having this repetitive activity involving the hands, much like needlework, is grounding.

V: From photography, to costumes, to paper cut-outs, to digital prints, to discarded materials, to journaling -- your multi-disciplinary approach seems to be contingent to the moment. Is it correct to say this?

ZB: Yes, of course. I was asked how I came up with my installations. My answer was that I provide images to the stories I want to tell.

Whichever form I choose, I always think of my work as illustrations of those stories. For a costume and performative piece in my exhibition “A Butterfly is Patient” (Pic above) for instance, my body, my queerness, and the costume all work together to illustrate the image of a butterfly. I feel my work is layered and complex in this way, where it seems like every aspect of my life is thrown into a piece. It comes naturally to me just like it’s difficult to untangle a multi-colored ball of yarn stuck with pins and sticky tack.

But producing an image is also based on what’s possible in terms of available support and resources. At “Emerging Islands (an artist-in-residency program in La Union) where my show “A Butterfly is Patient” is being presented right now, I was able to create new works through collaborative production because this was more accessible. Costume works, performance, photography, and video documentation were made more possible.

Decisions on the form of a work will also depend on logistics. For example, I’ve had to consider questions regarding digital and physical storage. It is sometimes better to have my image files printed on-demand than for their hard copies to take up space. Or I’ve worked on textile pieces in part because it allowed me to minimize shipping costs.

V: Can you share with us how journaling or visual journaling plays into your process? Is your series of photographic experiments called “Spectre Series” an example of this?

ZB: I used to draw a lot. But most recently, I have been using my phone, my camera, and instagram to document everything. What I work on everyday in the studio is to process experiences and emotions through image creation and writing. Photography is important in this process as it anchors me to daily reality.

Spectre series came from this daily documentation. The photo series features ghosts and entities that were made visible through the camera lens and serves as real-time evidence of my sensitivity to their existence. There were moments I just felt the need to take a photo and there they were.

There are some images from photo journaling that I want to paint. Like when I saw water running down the pavement from the freezer outside a 7-11. The wet pavement formed into the shape of a human standing proudly (sic). I thought, “Is this how they want to be seen now? Or is it just me finding them outside the realm of fantastic dreams and stories?”

Here in La Union, I wait to watch and observe the sunset. I photograph the sun setting as a way of communicating to a specific person who I considered my sun, a magical moment of transition. I focus on the white circular burst of the sun as its glow becomes yellow to orange, until the sun becomes red and then disappears into the horizon.

V: Your works have been called “inquiries into body-spirit connections”. What does this mean to you?

ZB: Recently, I've been conscious of using the word spiritual. It is such a heavy word, and i can't imagine the work involved in getting to that level of awareness.

One afternoon however, I was walking beside a stranger, an old lady, along a highway here in La Union. She told me about the third eye (a kind of extra sensory perception) she had as a child. She told me about stories about what she saw with this eye -- mermaids along the beach and the ghost of a soldier.

Your question makes me think of these instances I encounter almost every day. Given these instances, I follow what is presented before me. They may come in the form of images triggered by the encounter, images that call out to me. In this case with the old lady, what followed was a pink veil and a dove; a flowering garden and the beach; a retired overseas worker and a surfer. These can somehow find their way into my work.

V: Why is it important to confront the viewer with the otherworldly in your work? For instance, “Tabi Tabi Po” (pic below) from 2014 uses sound and poetry to bring the viewer to the edge of an otherworldly experience.

ZB: In creating my works, there's this intention to forward an image to the mind of the viewer, something scary or something unseen but felt. Viewers normally connect with this situation. They’re not quite sure how or why, but they believe these supernatural things exist. It is something perhaps cultural or primordial.

I always consider my works as illustrations of the stories I've been told since my childhood. Stories that others have heard in one way or another in their milieus. It’s a part of our folk and oral traditions, from pre-christianity to contemporary culture. These stories have never left me.

I continue to notice the fantastic details in my mundane experiences. I also get into uncanny and unexplainable situations. People I know also continue to share similar experiences. I believe them. They shape my reality.

For instance, the poem in my installation work called “Tabi-tabi Po (Sa Punso)” came from my own fear of being taken by encantos, because the punso (a mound of earth) is considered a portal to another world. And they are everywhere. Meanwhile the sound component was a collection of recordings of cicadas played on loop, because there is a saying that when cicadas stop chirping, there's danger or a supernatural disruption in the natural order. Tabi-tabi Po is a setting for this kind of narrative. It posits the question if this installation or my other installations attract elementals, spirits, or ghosts. It transports the viewer into a situation of imagined proximity with those beings and the possibility of the looped playback of chirping suddenly ceasing as a warning.

As I continue to further my artistic practice, I discover how my work resonates with others, even with other cultures. The Japanese, as you may know, are deeply rooted in animism. During my residency in Japan, I was told I have a portal on my face, where energies and spirits can come through. It wanted to know more but it scared me.

V: Can you tell us about your work called Dead Masks, an installation of masks you exhibited in the 2018’s Manila Biennale (pic below)? What is the mask’s function? And what is “ghost drawing”?

ZB: Dead Masks started as faces on a column, representing a number of people that have lived in a cave - the cave being myself.

It was first part of an installation at my exhibition in Koganecho Bazaar in 2014. Although the participating artists in the Koganecho Bazaar residency were chosen based on categories of works dealing with spirituality, interventions, and social relevance, the mood of the discussions leaned more on political current events in Japan. For me, the masks offered a sense of escape by presenting what is unknown during this particular time in Japan’s political climate.

When the masks were shipped here after the exhibition in Japan, our government had just started the drug war. The brutal killings were rampant! A neighbor and a relative were killed. I was invited to a group show with the concept of topography and recent events. I started painting on the masks representing the dead -- my neighbor and my relative in Laguna.

The killings continued on the news everyday. Gunshots rang in nearby places every night. There were people who went missing every day. And I continued painting on the masks. The number of faces in the cave then seemed to translate into the number of killings. The masks featured all sorts of faces: monstrous ghouls, numb characters, and suffering ghosts. And it became an outlet for me to pour in my frustrations and emotions on dealing with these situations. It was a way to exorcise those feelings and to function somewhat normally.

I consider each Dead Mask a single painting which can also become material for installations and for costumes in performative pieces.

"Ghost Drawing" (pic below) was an installation and performance I did for the exhibition of the Thirteen Artist Awards 2018 at the Cultural Center of the Philippines (CCP). I utilized the costume archives of the CCP and made 13 ensembles from their theater storage and also produced my own costumes to be used as characters in a performative piece involving a circular mirror. The title of the piece refers to a language ghosts use to communicate. I believe that the title also allows me to accommodate other potential meanings. The process of drawing on the mirror involves internalizing, giving rise to possible performances, and getting lost on the stage.

It’s in this kind of process that I enjoy experiencing and observing the lines between becoming and performing. I believe these such characters are buried deep within us or just living in our mental or psychological spaces. The becoming happens while the costumes and masks are donned. These characters cannot see themselves as the masks don't have provisions for sight. I think that is one of the things I really like and cherish about this work -- that experience of not seeing what you are becoming.

V: Some other artists approach the supernatural as outsiders or researchers, something intellectual. But for you, the supernatural in art is autobiographical. They are one and the same.

ZB: Indigenous esoteric rituals and the ability to sense the spiritual world are inherently part of who I am and my family's history. In my generation, I was the most interested in this, so much so that my uncle even gave me a special talisman, a spiritual armor or bandana inscribed with latin text, acronyms, and drawings. I feel like I was a chosen vessel to carry on this practice, but it just so happens that art became my medium and practice instead of rituals.

I feel I can no longer detach myself from this lineage. Through my artistic practice, I’m able to reconnect to it, as well as our buried and misunderstood traditions. There's so much we don't know about this part of our history. It is a secret among hermits and healers. We often see these objects and symbols in art as contextual layers. They have become simply decorative.

Zeus Bascon is a full-time artist who has participated in several artist-in-residency programs and in group exhibitions, most notably “Present Passing: South by Southeast” (Osage Gallery, Hong Kong) curated by Patrick Flores and Natasha Becker, artist-in-residency programs and “Philippine Contemporary Directions” (Metropolitan Museum of Art) curated by Tessa Maria Guazon for the Philippine Contemporary Art Network.

His solo shows include “Trees Burn Down” (Blanc Gallery), “Ngayong Gabi Ang Umaga, Ngayong Umaga Ang Gabi” (Blanc Gallery), “To Be Lost in this Kind of Wilderness (Is Eternal)” (ArtInformal), “Razzle Dazzle Solo Feature: Until The Next Full Moon” (Artery Art Space), “Huwag Mong Huyagin Ang Punong Walang Bunga” (Pablo Gallery), “Magic Hour” (Timog Coffee), “F*ck Bad Luck” (Open Studio), and “Unfinished Arrangements” (Sampaguita Projects)

In 2018, Zeus’ work was recognized by the Cultural Center of the Philippines with its prestigious Thirteen Artists Award. That year too, he was nominated for the Asia Pacific Breweries Signature Art Prize and was chosen to participate at the first Manila Biennale called Open City.

Most recently, Zeus presented “A Butterfly Is Patient,” a solo exhibition and performance at Great North West as a part of the Emerging Islands artist-in-residency program in La Union.