Art review: Art meets ecology in ‘Lupa, Hangin, Tubig, at Apoy’

Updated: Apr 6, 2020

By Rina Angela Corpus

First Published GMA News Lifestyle, April 27, 2014

In a world consecrated to the ideology of manic, wasteful consumerism, the art world ought to return to its rightful purpose of re-enchanting culture, as art critic Suzi Gablik would proffer in her engaging book, "The Reenchantment of Art". Such artmaking is meant to sensitize people to shift from art as mere display object to focus more on art’s vital, "enchanting" relationships with our shared values and a concern for our ecological well-being. The shift that Gablik calls for is a move away from the Cartesian worldview of art that is individualistic, nonrelational, art for art’s sake, to a more expanded context of art that serves to respond to the social and ecological dilemmas of our times. A recent attempt at such a curatorial venture was "Lupa, Hangin, Tubig, at Apoy" that opened on Earth Day, April 22 at the China Hall of the UP Asian Center Museum. The four participating artists created installation works from discarded materials, relating them to their own personal expression and narratives in relation to the natural elements.

Ninel Constantino’s “Amihan”

The most evocatively telling of the installation works was Ninel Constantino’s “Amihan,” which consisted of the artist’s personal materials that were crocheted, woven and painted on bent acrylic sheet of various organic shapes. The six-piece set was mostly hung from the ceiling, creating an impression of airiness and lightness, obviously pertaining to the element of wind or air. These translucent pieces cast soft, dainty shadows on the wall, lending an aura of lyricism to the space it inhabited. Constantino’s artist statement reveals the intention to make the work into something like a diary, a collection of her own life’s important signifiers: “I am a collector.  I do not throw away things lightly. I believe in the second-life of things.” Her direct reference to a diary, a traditionally female form of personal reflection and documentation, brought a subtle layering of her gendered identity, though not of an overtly feminist kind. Constantino also takes the wind as a metaphor for life, which she says is essentially unseen, made tangible only by the traces we use and leave behind. As in Zen Buddhist philosophy of being-in-the-now and a meditative acceptance of the temporality of our material life, Constantino directs us to contemplate on the ephemerality of life and its elements which are nonetheless meant to be appreciated, in the same way that we perhaps are equally called to relish our natural capacity for breathing air. She writes: “Ultimately, it is about taking time to breathe, remember and treasure before it is blown away.” Chong Ardivilla’s assemblage was largely of earth and fire elements: a triptych of dark wooden retablos, reminiscent of the personal worship of saints that religious devotees call out and pray to. Each retablo housed a faceless saint made of assembled and re-cast metal sheets. Each was provided a mind-provoking title reminiscent of desperation and despair: Our Lady of Comfort in Lowered Expectations, Our Lady of Survival from Emotional Tsunamis, Our Lady of Disappointment Management.

Curiously, behind each "Lady" was a mirror, making each retablo appear like a personal dresser or a medicine cabinet—the artist even filled the nooks and crannies of each retablo with personal effects like medicine and perfume bottles, miniature white masks, little wooden flowers. Ardivilla shared in an interview how prayer is akin to talking to oneself, and thus the mirrors were purposely built-in to remind viewers that prayer is ultimately an act of self-mirroring. The scattering of his personal articles in the piece also signified that one’s engagement with objects of devotion is always a private, intimate affair, defined by individual agency and choice. His work’s allusion to the elements of earth and fire were more symbolic of the volatile emotional states of people who are under the influence of personal miseries, who could perhaps be the victims of ecological mishaps in this time of extreme climate crisis. Cartoonist Manix Abrera, on the other hand, makes a facetious commentary on the mindless throwing of cigarette butts and straws in the streets where he lives, placing them on seashore driftwood to make anthropomorphic forms. Entitled "R.I.P.", the seven-piece assemblage made use of straws, plastics, thin wooden sticks and nicotine butts to create approximations of human limbs and hair jutting out of the wood, reminiscent of the drawings he is more known for. In his statement, he mentions how he wanted the work to be a reminder for people to not carelessly throw their waste, whether on the sea or the streets. John Yung’s "Prometheus" was the largest installation, re-creating a factory setting using long paper tubes, factory scraps, a long working table, hula hoops, magazines and water in plastic containers. Clean, minimalist lines on the floor and walls dominated his aesthetic assembly.

While named after the Titan who brought the gift of fire to humanity, Yung’s work attempted to represent all the elements. He writes in his artist statement: “I viewed the four elements as used, recycled, refuse, renewed.” He adds how his minimal involvement and alteration of the found pieces were meant to extend the “usage of the refuse,” and in the process “letting the refuse to direct the way to create a work of art.” To me, the beauty of these works of art lies in the fact that they can be also touched and held by viewers, establishing a tactile relationship with them, breaking the programmed alienation we have of art as simply objects of sight that are meant to be appreciated from a respectful distance. As in the manner that Gablik re-imagines art to play a visionary and mythic function of creating a sense of wonder and alignment with our cultural values, I would like to see similar works in the future that have the purpose to re-awaken consciousness. I also wish to see more works that invite audience participation. At best, this exhibit fulfills its function to re-awaken us to the possibilities of recycling and transforming materials from the debris of a throwaway culture that has forgotten the value of art and its visionary function. — BM, GMA News "Lupa, Hangin, Tubig, at Apoy" runs until May 31 at the China Hall, UP Asian Center Museum.

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