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Hidden gardens

By SCOTT GARCEAU, The Philippine STAR Published Apr 04, 2022 5:00 am

If you stepped inside Ayala Triangle Gardens during Art Fair Philippines (which concluded April 1), you would find it hard to keep off the grass.

Local Ayala groundskeepers might have looked at you askance, but stepping onto the Augmented Reality (AR) Trail laid out on the stretch of lawn facing Makati Avenue was worth potential side-eye: face your phone camera at the QR codes set up there on the green, green grass and you’d see digital images and videos pop up by Daata-commissioned artists Jeremy Couillard, Keiken, Elliot Dodd, and constructions by local artist Leeroy New (“Aparisyon”), plus a short story narrated by Filipino writer Eliza Victoria that suggests a portal between realities.

Both New and Victoria were online during the ArtFairPH/Talks series to shed light on how they view this ever-shifting twilight zone we call reality in the digital age.

New is known for hybrid sculpture installations like “Aliens of Manila,” while Victoria is a Philippine National Book winner for Dwellers, among other books. Both New and Victoria were online during the ArtFairPH/Talks series to shed light on how they view this ever-shifting twilight zone we call reality in the digital age.

Part of Leeroy New’s pop-up AR piece “Aparisyon”

OLIVIA BRIGHT (Daata curator and programmer): Leeroy, tell us what your commission “Aparisyon” is about?

LEEROY NEW: Well, it’s interesting to explore the realm of virtual and the digital, this entirely otherworldly plane that I’m not too familiar with, because I deal with my hands most of the time — I guess I’m traditional and that I deal directly with physical objects. So there’s also some hesitation to exploring these other platforms. But also I’m very much aware of how much these virtual worlds are overlapping our existing physical realities and affect our real-world interactions.

So it was great to be able to collaborate and transform this series that I developed during the pandemic— these transparent carapaces — into something more ghostly in terms of form because it’s not physical.

ELIZA VICTORIA: My short story “Let Me Hold Your Hand” draws from the tropes of portal fantasy, stories like “Alice in Wonderland” where the protagonist moves from the world as we know it to the unknown world and then back to the world as we know it, transformed in one way or another.

But in my story, instead of dwelling on the unknown world, I wanted to focus on the trauma that the character goes through, experiencing something so profound like that, and that’s what “Let Me Hold Your Hand” uncovers.

Work by Keiken for Art Fair Philippines

BRIGHT: And what about the titles?

NEW: I kind of was preoccupied, during the pandemic, with the physical world. The remnants or detritus of our physical world, but also how the detritus has been transformed into another mythology of sorts — a layer of mythology over the world that we’re living in the Philippines, born out of the discards that we produce. And also the idea of manifesting these works onto the virtual space. So these different layers of reincarnation, re-manifesting of the materials into something different, into another realm. 

The word “aparisyon” in the Philippines refers to these, I guess, ghostly, supernatural sightings. And it has a lot to do with the person seeing them. Because a lot of the power of being able to see these things is attributed to the person seeing them. You know, we claim that the person has a third eye or a sixth sense. So it also falls to the person perceiving these apparitions.

Digital work by Jeremy Couillard

VICTORIA: You mentioned the importance of perception. I’ve been thinking a lot about the idea of the encounter, like when you encounter an artwork that you see, you’re being transformed by the encounter, but at the same time, you seeing it transforms the artwork itself as well.

BRIGHT: The work is very site-specific, exhibited in Ayala Triangle Gardens, and gardens come up a lot, even in your story. It made me think about gardens as a state of mind, as a dream state — you know, therapy and hypnosis, gardens are safe spaces where we’re invited to explore both our fears and traumas, but also our dreams and desires.

And that’s a bit like an exhibition: you’re asking people to enter this fluid space of possibility and make connections between their own experiences and those of the artists. It’s an act of separation, but also connection in time and space. I’m just wondering, what are your own creative relationships to nature?

VICTORIA: I live in Sydney now, but worked for many years in Manila, and unfortunately, the city doesn’t have a lot of green spaces. So here people go out, have lunch and go out for walks — which to me is a very foreign concept; in humid, sticky or wet Manila, you don’t go out for walks very much.

So here, nature comes in as an imagined space, or a space that’s completely separate — a space to retreat, or a space to encounter with, not something where you need to be careful where you tread. And this shows up in the story.

Eliza Victoria and Leeroy New discuss their work for Art Fair Philippines Augmented Reality (AR) Trail with Olivia Bright.

NEW: I think my specific generation in the Philippines, we were exposed to certain films and animation that dealt a lot with the idea of nature, of humans trying to fight off the forces that caused harm to nature. I remember seeing things like Ferngully, Captain Planet and a lot of Miyazaki as a kid, purely by accident, like somehow it managed to find its way to my screen in General Santos City in the south.

I draw a lot of my forms from nature, my responses to nature. This is also informed by being exposed to how Filipinos reuse and transform whatever surplus they find in the Philippines — DVDs, discards or agricultural surplus — and transform them into Christmas decor, or other craft-based pieces that become a source of livelihood.

And in the sci-fi language, sci-fi films and graphic novels I was exposed to, nature — natural forms, biomorphic forms — become a language for futurism. Like the “Face Filter” (a being constructed from discarded plastic bottles for the AR Trail), in my mind, I was kind of recalling the cicada shells that I’d find in our high school that was situated among the periphery of a mountain —the cicada shells that are like translucent, transparent, these are the results of cicada shells left on the trees. So yeah, it’s become part of the intuitive process.

After doing it for years, a language has developed for myself, from everything I’ve absorbed since my childhood — the sci-fi, fantasy, mythologies, the ancient pre-colonial Filipino mythologies, modern superhero mythologies. So all these come together as an attempt to transform my immediate environment.

There was always this need for me to participate in these futuristic imaginings that I absorbed as a kid. There was a time in my art practice where I tried to emulate the sci-fi sleep worlds that I saw, but it was so hard, you know, working in the Philippines where we had little access to certain technologies…

VICTORIA: We don’t have a space program (Laughs)

NEW: Right. And at a certain point, I kind of decided I just have to make up for it by being able to transform whatever available resources I have really well, to catch up to creating these worlds that I want to externalize and participate in creating a language, this speculative sci-fi world for the Philippines, for myself as a Filipino and whoever can relate. So it’s really a mix of those childhood frustrations — wanting to participate in these sci-fi worlds, but also the certain realities that direct our intentions and our practice.

VICTORIA: I think growing up we were very comfortable finding a home in transforming liminal spaces — spaces between spaces, spaces where we’re not welcomed, where we’re not even represented. So yeah, I really responded to what Leeroy said about sci-fi, where you don’t see yourself in it, so you might as well create the sci-fi you want.

NEW: Yeah! Participate.

BRIGHT: What about power play in your work? Leeroy, your sculptures kind of feel like masks, especially the “Face Filter” one, which takes augmented reality into, quite literally, another dimension.

NEW: Yes, role-playing stems from my background as well. Working with movers, theater, performance artists, and studying in school with different creative majors, that shifted my interest into something a bit more holistic in the sense that I’ve learned to interpret my sculptural constructions as spaces for interaction as allowing for performance or certain kinds of movements.

I’ve grown bored with just making static objects and wanted people to wear them and move in them and allow for certain kinds of alien movements as well.

So, you know, the creative spaces that allowed for this were, like, queer-friendly spaces, in which the idea of costuming and dressing up wasn’t exactly seen as traditional artmaking in the Philippines.

It was very helpful for me, moving in and out of certain creative scenes to allow for this development in my practice — spaces that were friendly to these ideas and explorations. So in a way, maybe it’s not masks, maybe it’s like allowing for certain identities to be expressed that couldn’t have been expressed in the other systems of representation and display.