What is public art? Is it just something to catch our attention for a second when we stroll outdoors? Is it a public monument to someone once famous, long gone, now mostly overlooked? Is it simply a place to sit and check our phones for a while?
Fil-Am artist Jefre Manuel-Figueras, who’s made a large footprint for himself in public art, thinks it’s meant to be much more. “They’re icons. They become the postcard of that location,” whether it’s Paris, New York City, London or Manila. A public art piece can center and define a location. After designing public art for Robinsons Land Corp. in Naga, San Pedro, Laguna, SM Megamall’s Time Sculpture (the box-headed man), and now a 60-meter-high stainless-steel figure known as The Victor bestriding RLC’s Bridgetowne township, Jefre has sought to put the Philippines on the map of iconic locations. Toward that end, right from the start, his colossal man had to be taller than… the Statue of Liberty.
“People are asking my why it’s this height. For me, as a Philippine American, coming to the states through New York, the symbol of the US is the Statue of Liberty. And I’ve always emphasized to the team that if we’re going to do something iconic, at least it has to be taller than the Statue of Liberty. So that was the guideline: that we are a little bit taller.”
Minus Lady Liberty’s base, The Victor does exceed the New York icon’s height. But this is not about “mine’s bigger.” He wanted his art piece to be a reflection of Filipino pride. “It’s a way to remind people of the world that we are a people of, not only hospitality, but leadership and intelligence and strength and power and unity.” Even the design is meant to show an inner strength. “I really wanted the interior of the structure to shine through—the idea of the beauty and strength within us as a people. So as the sun passes through the sculpture every day, you can actually see the sunlight, and at one point of the day actually come through the middle of the heart of the sculpture and it glows from within. So it’s not only about the exterior lighting at night, but the transparency of us” as a people.
The original intention was for people to enter inside, like the Statue of Liberty. “I actually wanted to have a restaurant and the top of the head or some lounge or viewing deck,” he says during a media link-up Q&A from Florida, “but as we started looking at logistics and costs, there’s a lot of challenges there to get that going.”
Jefre has been quite busy. Based in Chicago, he recently held a solo show, “Points of Origin,” here at the Metropolitan Museum of Manila (The M), finished his looping “lerp” sculpture in Jacksonville, Florida, and has created a gallery of oversized public figures—whether it’s pixelated dogs or his “Baks” series of box-headed humanoids or figures protruding out from buildings. There’s something iconic about the very audacity of his images. Size-wise, The Victor was the biggest yet. He takes us through the process of turning simple sketches into monumental art: “Everything starts with a sketch that translates into computer-generated forms that then turns into clay models and photo models that turn into one-to-one engineering models.” His team grapples with the same concerns of putting up a skyscraper. “When you get to scale of this size, you’re essentially creating a building. It’s more than a sculpture, from an engineering standpoint. One of the challenges is we had to create something that—as with US building design guidelines—could deal with earthquakes and typhoons and things. Very similar to what we did with this in terms of wind-load testings and all the engineering calculations.”
Once the drawings and calculations are done, he sets about creating two parts: the interior structure, or “bones” of the sculpture (this will actually become visible when the sun passes through), and then the stainless steel “skin.”
Creating a colossus can be intricate. Parts for the skeleton were constructed in China, then cut into segments and sent here in a shipping container. “If you saw how many pieces and parts came over—you have to remember, this was done over the pandemic as well, so the challenges of that—it took maybe one to two years later than we wanted to put it up,” he says.
The figure was reassembled here part by part, “like building blocks.” “There were, I believe, 900 separate parts that were then welded all together and polished, so that when you look at it, it almost looks seamless, which is the beauty of the sculpture.”
Jefre worked closely with Robinsons’ contracting group to receive the pieces, then his team assembled, welded and polished all the seams. “I’ll be honest, I’m actually sometimes amazed by the quality of the craftsmanship.”
Just like any building, it has to be maintained. “Everything I do has this idea of sustainability. So all the materials we use are stainless steel that will resist rusting and corrosion. Obviously, the Philippines can be a harsh environment. So there are standards in place to be able to clean the sculpture, or when it is heated, very similar to putting your buildings on a cleaning schedule.”
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Like most of his art pieces, The Victor was not modeled on any particular human being. Rather, it’s a striding composite: the Filipino, marching toward the future. Some may see their own inspirations in the fist-pumping gesture: Freddie Mercury from We Will Rock You, maybe the robot from The Day the Earth Stood Still, or even Judd Nelson in the freeze-frame ending of The Breakfast Club. Jefre himself sees another icon: “The fact that he’s on this giant stairs reminds me, a little, of the stairs in Philadelphia, from that scene in Rocky.” When visitors do climb to the top of the base, they will find The Victor’s feet: “The feet are almost the size of The Bean,” the iconic reflective sculpture in Chicago, says the artist, “so when you climb to the top of the stairs, you’ll actually see your own reflection of what it means to be part of that victory.”
And, most likely, take a selfie.