In 2012, I happened upon Oca Villamiel’s Stories Of Our Time, which was a deceptively simple set of art assemblages made from old dolls, with expectedly missing heads and limbs. I was on a gallery run with Singapore art journalist Mayo Martin, driving all the way to Fairview for Light and Space Contemporary to prove a point: look at how large this city is, and how difficult it is to even look at all exhibits at any given time. It’s so unlike Singapore! I was telling Mayo.
But of course there’s the kind of art one encounters in Manila so distinctly different from SG. Specifically, there was Villamiel’s work, filling up the various galleries of this art space, playing with old dolls not just through framed and contained assemblages, but also by filling up a whole space with dolls hanging from the ceiling. The effect was an eerie curtain of bright wide eyes and lifeless bodies.
We were on our way out when someone from Light and Space told us there was more outside, in one of the warehouse-spaces. We followed him down some steps, and as he opened the warehouse doors, our jaws dropped. Within that large space was a garden-like installation of doll’s heads and body parts attached to flimsy sticks. At the center of this garden was a shanty filled with dolls and doll parts. Walking around the garden, walls were filled with shadows of uncanny flowers and growth, almost pretty, absolutely breathtaking. This work was entitled “Payatas.”
Feasting on famine
Villamiel’s Vargas Museum exhibit Feast And Famine (May to June 2014) was a level-up to the collection of trashed dolls. A set of works—assemblages, installations, mixed media—made up of salvaged found objects, dead animals, and animal parts filled up the first floor space of the museum.
On the one hand, there were books destroyed by floods, installed on a raft-like platform, now unusable, its existence pointless. On the other hand, there was a whole space filled with cages, which carried the remains of real animals—bones and skeletons, shells and skin. These cages co-existed with those that carried fake human body parts—a wooden head here, a hand there—as well as the remains of ritual such as incense and an announcement for a clairvoyant’s services.
The effect is one of decay and degeneration, a sense of nation that survives only in relation to the deaths it carries, the refuse that becomes secondary to life, even as it is life itself.
But what Villamiel engages with here is the capture of death, employing cages as a way of entrapment. It is a form of conquering death, yes? But also it can be merely a display of death as art, death as mere art objects for spectatorship.
As such, it can also be a display of the crisis that is at the heart of this artistic engagement, and consciously so.
Nothing but horns
Damong Ligaw is a display of death yet again, this time with a grand assemblage of cow’s and carabao’s horn on the grounds of Light And Space. The horns are organized randomly, its variety in size and shape rendered as an overwhelming collective that symbolizes death, like crosses on a makeshift graveyard, markers of what was once in existence, what are now mere remains.
As with Feast And Famine, there is a sense here of how death is being used as mere art object by this form of engagement and expression. And yet for Damong Ligaw this is layered with a complexity that could only be deliberate, where spectatorship is not merely about viewing the remains of the dead as art.
Horns planted to the ground, uncaged and free, allow for the imagination of one’s ears to the ground: a form of hearing and listening, one that is about the living. There is also the imagination of the ground to be growing its own horns, the earth becoming site of an overgrowing rebellious spirit. There is a sense of attack here, where one knows of butting horns or locking horns with another. Where one is reminded of struggle.
The stretch of horns lead to the warehouse where one wall is piled high to the ceiling with horns. Lit dramatically, the horns in the pile look like these are fighting for space, highlighting the stability of the horns planted on the ground around it, the dynamic of life and death, and life and death in a redundant cycle. As one walks the paths of these horns, one finds that all these lead to a view of this wall of horns, which seems like both threat and warning, an eerie vestige of the dead, a reminder for the living.
Gathering the dead
What floors you about Villamiel’s work is its sheer breadth and scope. But also it is the kind of thinking that goes into these assemblages and installations, the kind of waiting it demands as these objects are collected, the amount of physical work it requires during installation. But also one realizes, it’s the ability at containment, given magnitude; the sense of control, given volume.
And so while it is easy to imagine that having smaller individual assemblages of horns might be able to speak of the haunting of the dead as well, one knows that it is the size of Damong Ligaw that allows it to speak of a more complicated relationship between the dead and the living. Any smaller and it would’ve felt less threatening, less frightening. But also, any larger and it would’ve been unwieldy, probably unable to lead clearly towards that wall piled high with horns.
In the 2013 Singapore Biennale, Villamiel did a version of “Payatas” within a small space at the Singapore Art Museum. One could only be disappointed at how small it felt, the low ceiling, the tiny room, less of a garden of doll heads, affecting the installation.
One now knows that a huge part of Villamiel’s work is its magnitude. One wonders how much longer he can wait on objects to be installed as art; and at what point—if at all—it will be mere repetition of the injustices that these works speak of, where the dead turned art object is also another way of commodifying the dead, of commodifying the living.
In the meantime though, one remains awed at the magnitude of Villamiel’s work. Even more so at its depth and daring—a rare thing for the living on this part of the world.