I wrote this for the Philippine Online Chronicles.
The saying that all art aspires toward the condition of music has become a cliché. Originally said by Walter Pater more than a hundred years ago, this saying has more than lost its evocative edge. Today this has been largely replaced by the desire to attain the condition of a spectacle.
It is not enough for us to merely to hear sounds or see images or touch surfaces. The artistic must become a total performance, a showcase, experienced by the audience themselves. The Cebu Happy World Museum in Cordova town, Mactan Island is exemplary of this trend.
Less than hour’s ride away from the heart of Cebu City and little more than half an hour away from the Mactan Island International Airport, the Korean-owned Cebu Happy World Museum prides itself in bringing the “Miracle Art” concept for the locals and tourists of Cebu.
Quite popular in South Korea, this involves the use of optical illusions that lets you do amusing poses in front of painted images in the museum. That’s right. You have more than 80 murals offered as the backdrop with which you can take selfies of yourself and friends.
Just pose for the digital camera and let the murals’ light refraction and reflection techniques to do the trick. You then share the photographs online in Facebook or Instagram. It will all look very real in the photos: more real than the real.
If there’s anything that can provide a perfect illustration of the idea of hyperreality, this is it. To paraphrase Umberto Eco said, we look for the real thing but in order to attain it we fabricate the total imitations, absolute fakes.
You can experience stunts like crossing a dangerously damaged hanging bridge without the danger of falling off into the abyss. You can have yourself almost bitten by a tiger for the camera. You can have your body cut into half through the power of illusion.
You can have the semblance of danger in the safety of a fully-air-conditioned studio. So as Paul Virilio reflected at the turn of the 21st century, “everything arrives without there being any need to depart.”
And yet, as Jean Baudrillard pointed out in relation to Disneyland, “More than the imaginary world conjured by illusions and phantasms what draws the crowds is undoubtedly much more the social microcosm, the miniaturized and religious reveling in real America.”
Where we are taken are in fact very familiar cultural spaces that we have become accustomed to through the corporate mass media.
You can pretend to be part of a famous painting, strolling with dinosaurs, running away from a shark, or being carried in King Kong’s hand, among other three dimensional images of world renowned artistic and pop cultural icons featured in the museum.
You get to act out all of those scenarios not as a voyeur involved from a distance but as a part and parcel of the image itself. You are drawn into the mural, become sucked into a particular representation.
The spectator does not shift into the creator here. There is not much space to participate in the formation of images according to one’s imagination. The visitor is instead captured into a spectacle, the experience of which is structured according to the needs of the facility’s owners, to the needs of profit accumulation.
What you do, how you act in relation to the image, is limited by what is allowed by the given representation. They tell you how things ought to look.
Thus the funny instructions posted beside each mural which directs visitors on how to take a picture of oneself with the painting.
At this point, it becomes instructive to recall John Berger’s account on the origin of the zoo. Before the advent of the industrial revolution, animals used to represent our main connection to nature as a source of food, of clothing, and means of transportation.
The modern zoo emerged the moment when animals became just like any other manufactured commodity alienated from most people and thus less interesting. Domesticated animals are raised for profit. Wild animals are reduced to spectacles, objects to look at, caged in a zoo.
Like the zoo, miracle art museums can only exist in the present age when photographs, like animals, have become less and less sacred to human society.
If in the onset of the past century taking photographs is an expensive luxury reserved for formal occasions, the constant development of photographic technology has made the taking of picture more and more accessible.
With digital camera supplanting film in recent years, photos have become so ordinary for a significant portion of the population. Millions of selfies are posted online every minute.
And it is simply this phenomenon of “the work of art” in the age of unlimited digital reproduction now being cashed on by Cebu Happy World Museum: entrance fee is P400 for adults, P300 for those aged 12-17 years old, and P200 for children 11 years old and below.