Art Surprises Us: “Dancing Mutants”

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Despite a natural inclination towards the chaos of colours and shapes more commonly observed in modern abstractionism and slices of Bauhaus, I found myself drawn to a more calm piece titled “Dancing Mutants” by Filipino artist, Hernando R Ocampo.

Ocampo, H (1965) Dancing Mutants [Oil on canvas]. National Gallery Singapore, Singapore

The contrast between the dark and more muted colours, the bright reds seeping through and the earthy green, I had to take a closer look. I stood in front of this piece for a couple of minutes, trying to decipher the title and its connection to the art itself. A gallery curator approached me, sensing my absorption and maybe confusion too. The curator proceeds to point out the dancing mutants. I cannot see what he sees initially. I see the figure next to the figure he points out.  This is the beauty of this piece. The same discoveries are not made by everyone at the same time, it requires a little bit more time to absorb. This is why its surprising hypnotic quality is almost a requirement to appreciate the piece on a deeper level. From a distance, it just seems to be a combination of colours in different forms, but actually those forms are perfectly harmonised to create a whole different story depicting mutant plants and beings. Despite not initially recognised by myself as a traditional abstract piece, this piece is in fact very abstract. When trying to define the word ‘mutant’, my imagination automatically proceeds to a grotesque result of a scientific anomaly. Yet these designated mutants seem simplistically elegant and balanced. The simple yet vibrant shapes and colours, yet the expression of something very dark. 

Upon further exploration of the meaning behind this piece, I discovered that the enigmatic, organic mutants that seem to be oscillating alongside nature, are part of the depiction of an atomic bomb. An artistic response to the atomic age succeeding World War II. Ocampo worked as part of the post-war Neo-realist movement, seeking to move away from pre-war art, to redefine an era through art. Upon first glance, the mutants seem very tribal, like they are performing a culturally focused ritual involving dance and fire, but it is far from this somewhat picturesque scene. An example of how preconceptions in art can distort our interpretation.

For myself personally, after having discovered the true meaning behind this piece, my mind made the automatic link to the well-known photo taken during the Vietnam war. View the photograph here. The photo shows a nine-year-old child running naked after being severely burned on her back by a napalm attack. The name of the girl was Phan Thị Kim Phúc. The connections to Ocampo’s piece are made with the body movements, the desperation is clear from this alone. The authenticity of war and fear is evident. In 2008, Phúc said “ Forgiveness made me free from hatred. I still have many scars on my body and severe pain most days but my heart is cleansed. Napalm is very powerful, but faith, forgiveness, and love are much more powerful.”. Much like the dancing mutants, who despite being the result of nuclear disaster, still are vivid and beautiful beings, untouched by thoughts of war from the observer. Phúc identifies the power of this feeling she possesses. Part of my family lived in the Vietnam war; they were the boat people. I suspect this is a reason why this connection was made almost instantaneously. This photo is sometimes regarded as the photo that defined the Vietnam War. It allowed people that were not there to understand, even if it was only a little bit, what the horror of this war was like. Forms of art can give insight into a reality that people may never experience themselves, but it has the power to express the emotions behind it. ‘Dancing mutants’ gives insight into the mindset of Ocampo, and many people like him that were subjected to those terrifying times.

The stylistic inspiration, much like the other pieces in Ocampo’s mutant collection, was obtained from the film, ‘The Beginning of the End’, which is a black and white science-fiction film.

Image source

The plot revolves around an agricultural scientist who has grown enormous vegetables with the aid of radiation from nuclear explosions. The locusts that feed on these genetically modified vegetables rapidly become gigantic monsters who attack the nearby city. It does not come as a total surprise that the film contains questionable special effects, storylines and acting. I think this adds to the mutant effect, they are not meant to be predictable nor necessarily realistic, much like the films. The quivering quality the mutants possess through the shapes their bodies are made of however, is what gives them a human-feel, thereby removing the science-fiction element, and not completely disregarding their link to reality.  We must ask ourselves, what impact is this having on society’s view towards concepts like genetic modification? An example of how the scientific world and the art world can easily intertwine.

The shared interest and intrigue of ‘Dancing Mutants’ between the curator and myself in a vast gallery, is just a personal example of why people are truly connected to art. People from different backgrounds, different preferred art styles, can still be surprised with what will capture their eye, and what will capture those around them. The identification of the mutants shows us why we can’t always be directed to see the same concept, some things are meant for interpretation. It is that interpretation that causes further inspiration. It is that interpretation that is also deeply important to understand the meaning behind art. This simplistic, but profoundly expressionistic piece with a harrowing symbolism shows us not to let art get lost in a gallery, no matter how big the gallery, because curiosity will surprise us. It could open our minds to another person’s reality. Art will surprise us in ways we did not think it ever could.

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