Cover UNIT 3103, Artinformal Makati, 2021

Famous for mastering plastic and varied discarded objects as art mediums, CCP Thirteen Artists 2021 awardee Mars Bugaoan bares his life's pivotal moment that brought him to the world of art

Born and raised in the rural town of Barangay Mambabanga in Luna, Isabela, Mars Bugaoan's closest early exposure to art and its varied forms would be the town fiesta. There weren't any art galleries or museums for him to visit. Still, the colourful and creative permutations of art in the annual fiestas laid the foundations of his understanding of visual impact.

"Every year, fiestas are ingrained in the people's consciousness, and we highly anticipate them. There is music, stage design, installation, dance, performance, fashion, and many more," Bugaoan says. "In a fiesta, a town transforms into something joyful, opulent, festive, and people from different ages and social backgrounds gather. Eventually, when we enter school, our knowledge of art becomes structured, defined, and boxed. We forget that art can be found anywhere in our everyday lives," he reflects.

As a child, Bugaoan would flip through the pages of the encyclopedia set at home, and he would be lost in admiration over the colourful photographs and illustrations. He would later join slogan or poster-making competitions at school and bag the Artist of the Year award. This made him a reliable art director for their junior-senior's prom night and graduation ceremonies. Clearly, he was bound to the path of a visual artist; instead, he took advertising as his major at the University of Santo Tomas.

"I wanted to work in television or an advertising agency; that was the goal," he explains. Culminating with a cum laude degree in 2009, he entered the corporate world through graphic design and marketing channels. "When I was working, that's when my goal changed. I didn't plan to become an artist; it just happened. I reached a point that it's my heart's greatest desire, but I didn't know how or where to start," Bugaoan recalls.

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Bugaoan worked as a graphic designer for two companies right after college. He was a marketing concept development officer for a public relations firm in his previous corporate work. "I only lasted seven weeks. It was super draining for me, which resulted in work-related depression. I couldn't eat and sleep right. I then experienced an anxiety attack and later was clinically diagnosed with depression. It took time [for me] to recover. I was under medication, and I needed to go home to the province to get better," he narrates.

At this point in his life, he did not only pause his career but completely restarted. He calls it his "begin again" phase. Knowing that working in the corporate world took a massive toll on his mental health, he joined a printmaking workshop organised by the Association of Pinoyprintmakers (formerly Philippine Association of Printmakers [PAP]). Alongside this, he applied for a master's degree program at the University of the Philippines College of Fine Arts; though he couldn't finish his degree, his time there proved very influential.

"In that year of my 'begin again' moment, 2013, I started having this fascination with things that are deteriorating, including rags, tattered clothes of street beggars, the dried leaves being eaten by insects. Bahagi ng kaluluwa nung object yung pinagdaanan niya (part of the object's soul is its history)," he shares.

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The process was personal to Bugaoan because he found himself and his then-life situation related to the objects he finds. The essence of disintegration was translated to his use of plastic in printmaking and other art forms like installations. "I also [didn't] have enough budget at the time to buy expensive materials, so I had to be resourceful," he says. "Eventually, I had other works like a found dress, manipulated photographs, wires, print on banana leaves, and medicine blister packs. . .Technically, I have a lot of 'trash' in my house," he laughs. "But I don't see them as garbage, but as material for my future works."

In finding objects, he starts collecting them first before having a solid show in mind for them. He usually messages himself on Messenger or jots down some of his musings on his phone's Notes application. And when he stumbles upon interesting images, he snaps a photo of them—to recap them and check the possibilities for each idea.

"Most of the time, I don't know what to do or what I am doing. I remember writing in my journal before, 'I don't know what I'm doing, and I think that's a good sign'. You jump on the process without knowing where it will take you, and that's the exciting part. You take risks, so you should not be afraid to make mistakes," he says.

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The multidisciplinary artist finds his capacity to remain in the present and be passionate in life as what fuels his creativity. "'Recharging', in my vocabulary, could be attained in the simple act of walking, in observing the things I come across in the streets, in the movement of the people I stumble upon in the grocery or in the train, from my view at where I live to the places I go to, in the stories of the people I meet—the list goes on," he explains. Meanwhile, he shares that art in his soul is fed by reading, listening or watching various forms of content like films, scriptwriting, sports, fashion, photography, current events, science, psychology, et cetera. "This includes a review of the choices I made in my life, the things that are important to me, and my definition of success and happiness. Creativity comes from different aspects of life," Bugaoan says.

Famed for his distinctive use of plastic in his art, Bugaoan has made a name for himself after being featured in a two-man exhibition at the Cultural Centre of the Philippines (CCP) as well as eight solo exhibitions at Kapitana, Artinformal, Vinyl on Vinyl, Art Cube, and Pinto Art Museum. Aside from numerous local group shows, he has also been invited to join exhibitions internationally, and participated in several artist residencies like Namamahay Flash Residency at Las Casas Filipinas de Acuzar in Bataan, the ABungalow Residency Project in Negros Occidental, as well as Pasaload Online Residency by Load Na Dito Projects. These have all enhanced his growth as an artist.

Befittingly in 2018, he was shortlisted in the Ateneo Art Awards-Fernando Zóbel Prizes in Visual Art for his solo exhibition "Becoming", which was also voted the People's Choice among the exhibits. His work reflecting the country's pandemic situation in 2020 won the Ateneo Art Gallery-Marciano Galang acquisition prize for works on paper. While in 2021, he was shortlisted in the Ateneo Art Awards for his lockdown exhibition "Appear Disappear 1/2 1/4", held online. The same year, he received the prestigious CCP's Thirteen Artists Award.

Bugaoan experiments, manipulates, and transforms found or discarded everyday objects to tell stories of impermanence, survival, and vulnerability alongside power. Drawing from space and location is central to his practice—a negotiation and collaboration with the physical space that immerses the viewer. "Every show I do is inspired by very simple observations or a daily encounter. It can be falling leaves or fruits, or the narrow and cramped spaces I sometimes get into. I process the vibrations I sense from everyday feelings and experiences and think of how I can connect them to the space given to me for the show. It's very important to me that I see the space first so that I could respond to it," he explains. "On the theme of survival in my works, the questions raised would sometimes be 'how can you live in a place or moment despite the initial feeling of detachment' or 'feeling of being an outsider.' The ability to adapt and evolve is very essential."

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"Going back to the story of my 'begin again' moment, I realised then that even though you have a stable job and money, it sucks the joy [out of] your life. But I also thought that if I pursued art, it would be difficult because financial resources would be limited. The option left for me then was to accept art's pros and cons. It was a gamble—a redirection in my life that has no assurances," Bugaoan shares.

Backed by a mere strong will to get himself out of the dark state of his mental health, he searched on Google for summer art workshops he could join. He found the PAP's workshop facilitated by Benjie Torrado Cabrera and Angelo Magno there. "They [eventually] became my mentors and friends. On our first day of the workshop, we watched the sunset from Manila Bay which was near Folk Arts Theatre (the location of our studio). That time, I said to my fellow participant while watching the sun settle into the horizon, 'Alam mo ba 'yung feeling na nandoon ka sa tamang lugar sa tamang oras? Ito 'yun.' (Do you know the feeling of being at the right place at the right time? It feels like this)," he recalls.

The Association of Pinoyprintmakers became his stepping stone for his journey as a full-fledged visual artist. After participating, he volunteered to assist in other workshops until he became a facilitator. He joined in the group shows of the association and felt like he was at home. "I felt [like I was] regaining my confidence and realised that it is possible to become an artist. You just need to start somewhere and it begins with a dream," Bugaoan says, recalling the days when he used to work in Ortigas and wander in the art galleries in SM Megamall. "My questions at the time were 'how do I become an artist?', 'How can I put up an exhibition of my works?' Fast-forward, I've been saying now to myself 'Akalain mo 'yun?' (Can you believe it?)"

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Bugaoan identifies Ling Quisumbing Ramilo as his most influential mentor, one of his teachers at UP Fine Arts. The revered artist-teacher pushed Bugaoan to think outside the box, explore, and experiment. Under her mentorship, Bugaoan moved from printmaking to tapping into different mediums. From 2014 onwards, his works evolved from two-dimensional to three-dimensional sculptural and installation works. "Ma'am Ling became the bridge for my art practice's change and development," he says. "When I was in UP, I had a very limited idea of what art could be. During the pandemic, I quit the program because I needed to redefine my priorities in life. Still, I am happy and grateful for the learnings I've had while pursuing it."

Artists like Cornelia Parker and Mark Salvatus are easily the first names that enter Bugaoan's mind when asked which artists he admires. "I encountered Parker's works when I became a full-time artist, while I usually come across Salvatus' works online and in his recent exhibitions. Their visual language is very distinct, and that is rare to find in any artist. They use a lot of found objects, and it's wonderful to see how they incorporate the objects and the process to the message they want to convey," he explains.

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"It is very important for me that as an artist, you are able to make your audience observe and listen. Kaya kapag gumagawa ng trabaho yung hugot ng kung anong gusto kong sabihin ay nakaugat sa kung paano siya nag-umpisa, proseso siya, hindi lang siya kahulugan (When a work of art is created out of a message I am trying to say which tells us how it began, it is a process, and not just a meaning)," he shares. "It is an experience. And this is the part where sharing comes in. When I have the chance, I always ask my audience how was their experience with my work. In that way, the work comes alive and is not just a one-sided process of meaning and making. The work exists to remind, listen, and connect. It doesn't exist to impose," Bugaoan shares. "Art, for me, is a way to tell a story. The question is always: what do you want to say? How do you want to say it?"


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