JAIME ZOBEL
Mastery and Maturity (on "Zobel and Zen")
By Jose Dalisay Jr.
Jan 2004

Several years ago, I had the privilege-and, yes, the pleasure-of collaborating with Jaime Zobel and designer Dopy Doplon on a unique book project, The Island (Manila: Ayala Foundation, 1997), where the three of us kept moving around one another, so to speak, in a collective effort to keep text, photograph, and design in a state of equipoise.

No single element led the others in the creative process; Dopy would come up with an idea for how the book or the page might look, Don Jaime would show me some seascapes, I would think of a turn in the story to accommodate the pictures, Don Jaime would take some more shots to complement and to push the story, Dopy would think of the best way to put the two together.

I had never met Jaime Zobel prior to that project, but had, of course, been acutely aware of his status as one of the country’s most successful business tycoons, who also happened to be an accomplished photographer outside of the boardroom. It was a wonder to observe, at close quarters, how such a man took his art as seriously as his business. It was no mere hobby, and not even just a genuine talent, but a lifelong passion now brought to a new stage of mastery and maturity.

With “Zobel and Zen,” we come closer to understanding Jaime Zobel’s art, which is his contribution to understanding ourselves. (The exhibition runs December 6-30 at the Artspace, Glorietta 4, Ayala Center, Makati and comprises 23 designs in “iris prints”-an archival-quality printing technology that sprays a million drops of ink per second onto acid-free paper, well beyond the capabilities of any digital printer, and as close to watercolor as printing can get. The prints, in numbered and signed editions of five per design, measure an average of about 22 by 16 inches in image area.)

The Zobel of Homage (Manila: Ayala Foundation, 1995) was the keen and direct observer and recorder of Nature. His images of the sea, leaves, flowers, and rocks isolated these elements so we could ponder them for their intrinsic beauties and marvels: currents of water, vegetal variations, textures of sand and gravel. The Zobel of The Island was the collaborative storyteller, exploring Nature as narrative. The artist of “Zobel and Zen” dares to raise photography to philosophy-or rather, and more in keeping with his subject, to bring philosophy down to concrete forms.

In his more recent work, Zobel has been dissecting Nature, as it were, and reassembling the parts to form new wholes-flowers and petals cut up every which way, then rearranged into visions, if you will, that exist only in the mind. In this new collection, Zobel returns (as he inevitably does) to Nature-but now he takes the whole object and sets it in context: the context of other, similar objects to emphasize the multitude, or against a blank background to emphasize its solitude. There was an analytical, sometimes frenetic, energy in Zobel’s floral dissections and collages; here we return to composure and repose.

But this “repose” is deceptive, because, as the Zen masters teach us, Zen is nothing if not an active state; the peace it induces is not the stupor of sleep, but the reward of active contemplation. It would be pointless, and un-Zen-like, for me to venture a meaning for each of the compositions in this exhibit, because the object-and the delight-of the exercise is precisely for every viewer to establish that meaning for himself or herself, in direct interaction with the artwork at hand, toward the discovery of one’s own true self.

“Zobel and Zen” reintroduces the viewer to objects favored by Zobel in his earlier work: flowers and shells, variations on texture and shape. But here they come together in compositions that go far beyond photography’s traditional mission of recording the instant; the photograph becomes merely the first step in an exploration of the relationship between Nature, Art, and Man.

Many of these compositions- actually collages put together by Zobel employing his own photographs- may seem to be mirror images, but closer inspection will show that they are not; rather, the image has been split into frames, the lower half of which may be a landscape, waterscape, or mountainscape unto its own, against which the foregrounded or elevated object acquires a deeper resonance. Even the scallops of “B-IX” are not a mirror image, but rather the same image turned around, like the royals in a deck of cards. It is as if we are being asked to step out of the preformed images in our minds and our experience, to come closer, and to find new things in what seems obvious.

There is wit and humor as well in the reversal of our expectations; in “B-V” and “B-VI,” the shells appear to levitate; in “A-XIII,” the “moon” has acquired the texture of the shell-or has the shell become the moon? This exemplifies what one practitioner of Zen has called “the collapse of the sublime,” an almost literal bringing-down-to-earth of what could easily become pompously esoteric.

Asymmetry is highly valued in Zen aesthetics, and we have asymmetry aplenty in this collection, throwing the viewer and his or her perspective off-center and off-balance, and contributing to freshness and spontaneity in the presentation and reception of the subject.

The spareness-even the hardness-of the images evokes the Zen principle of simplicity, by which things are reduced to their essentials, shorn of the fripperies of contemporary life. This, ultimately, might be Zen’s ultimate value to the kind of 21st-century cosmopolite who will be viewing Zobel’s exhibition.

There is a famous Zen story, “The Moon Cannot Be Stolen,” often told to remind listeners of what is truly valuable in life: “A Zen master lived the simplest kind of life in a little hut at the foot of a mountain. One evening, while he was away, a thief sneaked into the hut only to find there was nothing in it to steal. The Zen master returned and found him. ‘You have come a long way to visit me,’ he told the prowler, ‘and you should not return emptyhanded. Please take my clothes as a gift.’ The thief was bewildered, but he took the clothes and ran away. The master sat naked, watching the moon. ‘Poor fellow,’ he mused, ‘I wish I could give him this beautiful moon.’”

“Zobel and Zen” returns us to such stark truths, and the master of the lesson is Jaime Zobel.