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Agnes Arellano: Of goddesses and myths

Agnes Arellano has been consistently depicting goddesses from different cultures as a kind of counter-force to the wrathful gods she was raised to believe in.

MANILA, Philippines - One of the more unique installations to grace Art Fair Philippines is the one housing “Project Pleiades” by Agnes Arellano, transforming a corner of the Link carpark into a veritable temple, a sacred space. Here, four life-size icons of goddesses from different periods and cultures hold dominion. In the darkened interior, set on a black stand giving them the illusion of floating, Dakini, Inanna, Kali and Mary Magdalene welcome the visitors with their outstretched arms and penetrating gaze. Against their backs are yantras — cosmic diagrams — that inscribe and further affirm their identity.

A work in progress, and possibly her most notable work, “Project Pleiades” began with Agnes’ version of the sky goddess Haliya, who is said to have six sisters. In the Bicol folklore, Haliya is in conflict with the sea serpent deity Bakunawa who has eaten her other sisters, all representing the moon. The story of the seven cosmic sisters is near universal. In Greek mythology, the Pleiades, of course, are the seven daughters of the Titan Atlas and the Oceanid Pleione who, upon the hot pursuit of the hunter Orion, were transformed into a cluster of stars by Zeus.

“Project Pleiades,” then, is a symbolic reunion of the sisters — or at least the goddesses the artist has deemed to be related — expressed in sinuous sculptural forms possessing cold, marvelous terror and piercing beauty. For the four goddesses at the Art Fair — all of whom are standing, which is a first in the artist’s repertory — Agnes used a live cast of her body (“from the ‘80s,” she said with a smile) as well new casts “for the relevant body parts, like the hands in different ‘mudras’ or gestures.” Initially, the piece would be in plaster, the medium Agnes uses as clay for modeling. Once she achieved the desired form, the sculpture would be recast into cast stone. As a final touch, she would stain the surface of the sculptures with tea, the color of mottled flesh.

The project is also a way for Agnes to concretize the things that she wants to happen in her life, as opposed to before when she would inflect her works with experience she had already gone through. “When I was making Dakini” — for an exhibition held at Mo Space in 2014 — “it was like all the important things that could happen in my lifetime had already happened,” she says. “I’m now in the crone stage. Whatever you do to the sculpture, that’s what you want to happen in your life. For Dakini, she has this weapon that cuts all defilements and attachments to things that keep us in a state of unenlightenment.”

Aside from a curved blade, Dakini also holds a skull bowl, with which to transmit knowledge as an act of communion. As a Tantric sky dancer, she resembles Haliya. Inanna, the multi-breasted cow goddess from Mesopotamia, carries a piece of looped rope as well as a nautilus shell, which is the addition of the artist. With hoofed feet, she has Mebuyan as the local counterpart. With four arms, Kali — the Hindu goddess of Time, Death and Destruction — holds an axe and a severed head (which is an inside joke between her and partner Billy Bonnevie, as it resembles him) on her two right hands, while her two left arms are open in a gesture of benediction. Around her neck is a string of 50 skulls which, according to the artist, represent the 50 letters of the Sanskrit alphabet.

Probably attracting more attention than usual would be Mary Magdalene, the favored disciple of Jesus Christ, since the audience, presumably mostly Catholics, are already most familiar with her. Here, she is “daughter of Isis, high-priestess, and initiated in Indian mysteries” and reveals stigmata. She doesn’t hold any attribute, as her power “comes from within.” She is also unique among the other goddesses in that Mary Magdalene existed historically and is said to have even borne the child of Christ. A slight rise marks her belly.

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In her work, Agnes has been consistently depicting goddesses from different cultures as a kind of counter-force to the wrathful gods she was raised to believe in as well as the patriarchal society that relegates women to a lowly position and makes them distrust their bodies and sexuality. “I learned that my dream in which I was spitting my teeth one by one was fear of sex, but for me it was defiance: I was using them as weapons,” she said.

While she may not label herself and her work as distinctly feminist, Agnes, who will give a talk together with Jose Tence Ruiz on Feb. 18, 3  p.m., also at Art Fair, has unstintingly represented not only a woman’s body — which, in itself, is already a brave act — but its grandeur and capability, its mythic and spiritual dimensions, its earthiness and transcendence. Representation, as the feminists would say, is power. Her works, while classical in temperament, align with some of the more cutting-edge works by female sculptors such as Louise Bourgeoise and Kiki Smith for their primal and archetypal quality.  

Plumbing these depths, Agnes’ artistic methods create a seam along the collective unconscious, in which the archetypal symbols of her work awaken an intense feeling on the part of the viewer. Stripped of social conventions, they reveal startling truths. These truths are what we recognize in a myth regardless of its origin. “They not only unlock the mind but also communicate in a very universal way,” she says. “I feel like a teacher. I kind of use this iconography to pass on what I’ve learned.”

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