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Stephanie Comilang’s solo exhibition, Search for Life, at TBA21 Thyssen-Bornemisza Contemporary Art in Madrid, Spain, offers a visual representation of migration through film and textile installations.

The exhibition’s title was inspired by Dirty Projectors’ song of the same name, which sparked Comilang’s thought of how a butterfly might put together a song. This butterfly perspective permeates the entire exhibition, with the voice in the film often emulating that of one, or a drone used in specific scenes to better provide a butterfly’s point of view.

As if revolving around itself, the song’s rendition is woven into a karaoke scene within the film. Among its lyrics, ‘she goes to other heights, she wades dunes, sand and lime, in search for life’ serve as guiding threads in the artist’s nuanced exploration of movement.

Stephanie Comilang. Photo by Trevor Good. Berlin, February 2024

At the core of Comilang’s narrative lies the incredible monarch butterfly migration, spanning continents from North America to Mexico. These creatures epitomise the relentless pursuit of life. Through her film, Comilang prompts viewers to reassess the essence and legitimacy of migration, challenging ingrained perceptions of belonging and adaptation.

On this note, Curator Chus Martinez provides contextual grounding. She emphasises the exhibition’s role in building cultural dialogue and historical understanding, particularly regarding the Philippines’ intellectual heritage and its ties to Spain. The film unveils an intriguing revelation as we discover that items typically associated with Mexican culture, such as clothing adorned with flowers or Olinala boxes, actually originate from Asia.

The film component refrains from overt advocacy, opting instead for an emotive tone that encourages introspection. Comilang adeptly combines genres, weaving together elements of fiction, nonfiction, documentary, and science fiction: a painter-sailor describes the appearance of a female with butterflies, which is made up; a young boy describes witnessing a white-dressed woman overflowing with butterflies, which is real.

Installation view of Stephanie Comilang: Search for Life. 5 March – 26 May 2024. Photo by Trevor Good

Tangible installations complement the cinematic journey, with two veiled figures across each other adorned in butterfly tapestries serving as tangible symbols of global exchange. Inspired by traditional Spanish ‘mantones,’ these tapestries seamlessly transmute ethereal elements from the video into palpable forms.

Circular embroideries, crafted with hoops, offer a tactile exploration of colonial-era trade routes, incorporating symbols reflective of cross-continental exchange: sugarcane, cacao, and other goods. Made from piña fabric derived from pineapple leaves, these textiles are now utilised as formal wear in the Philippines. However, they were used in Spain for male shirts due to their transparent nature, and initially intended to prevent individuals from concealing weapons, ultimately serving as a tool of oppression.

The exhibition space itself is ingeniously designed with maritime-inspired structures that contain the textile installations, evoking cargo ship holds. This deliberate aesthetic choice provides the viewer’s understanding with both a material and metaphorical perspective on the subject.

Stephanie Comilang, Search for Life. Diptych, 2024-2025

In reflecting on the exhibition’s thematic breadth, one cannot ignore the glaring disjunction between the acceptance of animal migration for survival and the contentious reception of human migration. Yet, beneath this dichotomy lies a shared impulse for survival and adaptability inherent to both phenomena. In a segment, the butterfly narrator states in Spanish: ‘the capacity for transformation is at the essence of our being. We transform with form. We can change the language we speak. We can change colour. Thanks to this capacity for adaptation, we are capable of existing.’

The exhibition compellingly underscores the urgent imperative of recognising and upholding the inherent rights of all individuals, irrespective of their migratory status. If the exhibition could assume a corporeal form, it would embody ‘the dynamic shape of winds’, according to Martinez—a swirling vortex of interconnectedness and transformation. Just as butterflies trace wind currents that shape marine flows, we, too, are inexorably linked by invisible forces that shape our lives.

Stephanie Comilang’s Search for Life, at TBA21 Thyssen-Bornemisza Contemporary Art in Madrid, Spain, is open now and runs until 26 May 2024.

Feature image: Installation view of Stephanie Comilang: Search for Life. 5 March – 26 May 2024. Photo by Trevor Good

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