Heart of glass

(The Philippine Star) - October 29, 2015 - 10:00am

MANILA, Philippines – Cutwork meets history. “Behold A City” is Ryan Villamael’s foray into the realm of photography as material and image source for his art. He pushes his métier by tracing his blade along the contours of built heritage pictures, as a way to reclaim what war has lost or what little sense of patrimony has been sacrificed in favor of the vulgar remedies that come with the upkeep of a dysfunctional metropolis aspiring to be modern.

Much has been written about pre-war Manila as one of the most picturesque capitals in Colonial Southeast Asia. The city was a brew of Art Deco, Baroque, Euro-American Revivalist architecture and planning across the civic, commercial and domestic spheres of peacetime life. That this was set against a tropical context complemented by warm people enhanced its unique charm.

In the Second World War, Manila suffered enormous destruction — second only to Warsaw — so much so that America’s $803 million in rehabilitation aid until 1953 could not bring the city back to its former glory.

The photographic images of Manila before and after the war are a study in contrast. What were once spacious tree-lined streets dotted by monuments and promenades, or else flanked by colonial and modern edifices, have been reduced to charred structural carcasses of their former selves. Across the peaks and valleys of rubble, Manila was a charred landscape straight out of dystopian movie.

What has become of the city 70 years since liberation? Exactly what is meant when the eponymous utterance is exclaimed? What has been neglected, despoiled or demolished in the name of development? Is the idea — the city, after all, is the reflection of its citizens — an ugly reminder or a simplistic aphorism?

In his role as itinerant observer of places, the artist conjures his own Manila. He reframes it as a historical-artistic imaginarium — a space to recompense for the quixotic task of preserving what little has remained. It is his playground to neutralize ersatz quick fixes for irreparable damage that breed kitsch sensibility. It is his gesture to rectify the inability to overcome the hurdles arising from the complex issues surrounding built heritage. 

Set up over a mirrored map that doubles itself visually, this place is city that floats like a ship (“a place without a place, existing on itself, closed in on itself, but given over to infinity…”) the way ships go out to sea from port to port, to search perchance for colonies and treasures.

There is a practice wherein keys to the city are given to exemplary citizens or guests for their civic contributions. Being symbolic, the keys do not really unlock any door or gate. In medieval times, from whence the practice was derived, giving keys to the poor signified their freedom from serfdom. The giving of keys today is a gesture to signify that the recipients are free to come and go as they wish.  

In this show, the artist does not only bestow the key of his city to the viewer. In more ways than one, he also gives it to himself. He does so in order to be free of a helplessness that stems from the neglect and general apathy towards history and built heritage, whereby nostalgia is a convenient palliative. 

* * *

“Behold A City” is on view from Oct. 29 to Nov. 21 at Silverlens Gallery.

ACIRC ART DECO ATILDE BEHOLD A CITY CITY COLONIAL SOUTHEAST ASIA EURO-AMERICAN REVIVALIST IN THE SECOND WORLD WAR NBSP RYAN VILLAMAEL SILVERLENS GALLERY
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