One of Art Fair 2017’s most interesting new faces talks feces and menstrual matters.
A FRANTIC MOTHER called her young daughter to leave the booth. The little girl, around six or seven years old, refused to exit the gallery—perhaps half-curious or half-amused that her mother was so panicked about getting her out. The mother was panicked for a reason: The little girl had her eyes glued to the screen of a laptop on display as part of a special exhibit at the Art Fair Philippines; and the reel, playing on loop, was a video shot from the point of view of a girl masturbating. The clip was overlaid on another video clip of a blonde hottie.
The booth was that of 28-year-old artist Maria Jeona Zoleta, one of the artists chosen to put up a special exhibit for the esteemed event. Her unapologetically provocative work was meant to instigate clamor and shock and confusion, especially with urbanite mothers lugging around their clueless daughters to art shows.
On Instagram, Jeona goes by the moniker @explodingassholes; her posts are eerily cryptic and forcefully so. She will take a video of a clump of blood gushing down her arm—her menstruation—a recurring medium in her work. As a teenager, she says, she used to stick her soiled napkins on the walls of the house, and because they had stayed up for so long, flies had began to swarm around them, and worms began to take life.
The nature of her work is irksome and deranged, and rightfully so because the artist behind the canvas is an eccentric in the truest sense of the word. A self-ascribed “baliw,” a title she would use often to describe herself and the people around her: her dad, a conservative engineer; her tita who raised her like her own daughter; the town crazy she met in Baler who became her friend. “Baliw ‘yun eh,” she would say matter-of-factly, and even though your perspective is shrewd with doubt, you kind of believe everything that comes out of her mouth.
Her home feels like something out of a Harry Potter book: winding stairways, construction half-done, there are holes for doors without the doors, or holes in doors. Her bedroom is a bodega of relics she has collected since childhood: tear sheets from fashion magazines and Polaroid snapshots of her friends half-naked. There are laser ray lights and ten pairs of slippers and an assortment of fabric of all kind, and dildos... When you go for a piss in her bathroom, she’ll say, “I’m sorry there’s a hole in the door, it’s from the time I threw a bottle of beer [at] my ex,” and you have to politely respond to these kinds of jarring exchanges with her. “Ah,” you muster in panic.
But Jeona is an artist in a sense that maybe we’ve forgotten artists can afford to be, and her very presence in the art scene must be acknowledged. There’s the art of the hyperrealists, there’s art that’ll sell for millions, there’s art on the socio-political, and there’s art that looks good with your couch. The creation of art—it’s the only profession after all that allows this kind of attitude, promotes it, even. And perhaps, amidst all this, it’s nice to squeeze in art like Jeona’s—deranged and whimsical and self-serving for the heck of it. Whether people will understand it or not, at least, there’s finally room for it in the art market.
JEONA IS AN ARTIST IN A SENSE THAT MAYBE WE’VE FORGOTTEN ARTISTS CAN AFFORD TO BE.