Picture an art gallery; white walls, natural hardwood floors and tasteful lighting, but instead of canvasses on the walls or sculpture on floors one sees a room filled with several tons of black dirt. This piece of art a wound in the lung, is just one example of the work of contemporary artist Lani Maestro. Maestro’s work which has been described as poetic, powerful, and complex, defies conventional interpretation and challenges the viewer’s assumptions about how one should experience art.
“It felt like I was digging my own grave as I carved a cavity in the earth and smoothened it repeatedly with my bare hands,” Maestro said in reference to a wound in the lung.
Although Maestro’s work has been shown in world-class exhibitions and galleries, with this piece, she takes to a new level her challenge of the viewer’s acceptance of “the inherent ideology within these gallery spaces.”
Originally from the Philippines, Maestro is quick to dispel any preconceptions about the impact of her cultural background on her work, and resists the narrow definitions of race and of identity that are placed on individuals.
“We have a fear of not knowing, of things that we do not easily identify and we are always looking for a frame to refer it to. I think my work resists any kind of representation in that it is difficult to speak of the complexities of the world as event. My interest in addressing issues of power relationships in my art practice have become more freeing as I address my own identity as something that is not fixed,” she said.
Although Maestro does not aim to instill the viewers of her art with any one political message, she is not divorced from political discourse. “I have come to understand the word “politics” differently and now see how my own work can be radical simply by not doing or saying anything.”
We see this in one of Maestro’s pieces entitled To Dream Sleep. The still figure of a dancer lies in a bare room except for some rolled bundles of white fabric, and billowing white curtains that flank the windows. The viewer is drawn in by the simplicity and passivity of the piece, but there is also something disturbing in its tranquility, because the viewer does not know if the figure is meant to be dead or alive. It is this feeling of uncertainty and questioning that Maestro wants to elicit from an audience. They begin “navigating the relationship between absence and presence and her stillness makes us uneasy because there’s nothing to do in that space. We have to acknowledge and confront ourselves, our own subjectivity and presence in the moment. When people walk in and say there is nothing in the room they are forgetting themselves, their own presence,” she said.
Maestro’s work invites the spectator to become engaged with what they are seeing and she is especially interested in the exchange or reciprocity that arises from displaying art.
She admits that there are risks inherent in allowing viewers such a concrete and intimate experience with her art. In a piece entitled A Book Thick Of Ocean. Spectators were faced with a large book filled with stunning full page images of a rolling ocean. The piece was permanently damaged when someone decided to rip a page out. On another occasion a much larger piece entitled Pulse was stolen from the Montr