The sacred and the mythical, the physical and the erotic, the magical and the mundane, the religious and the profane, and music and song all permeate the art of Filipina artist Agnes Arellano. Drawing from rich personal experience and an extraordinary range of influences, she makes some of the most dramatic art in Asia.
Best known for surrealist and expressionist work in plaster (cast and directly modelled), bronze, and cold-cast marble, Arellano's work tends to stress the integration of individual elements into one totality or "inscape".
She has participated in international group exhibitions in Berlin, Fukuoka, Havana, Johannesburg, New York, Brisbane and Singapore. Her works are in the permanent collection of the Fukuoka Asian Art Museum, the Singapore Art Museum, and the APEC Sculpture Park by the Naru River, Busan South Korea.
Agnes Arellano calls groupings of her works “inscapes” — a term she borrowed from the poetry of Gerard Manley Hopkins and applied to her sculpture. An “inscape” is the essence and underlying design of a figure or object which lend it coherence or unity. Here the sculptor does not only scan the surface of a figure but explores its very core for its essential meaning. In Hopkins’ poetry, there is likewise a fragmenting, overlapping and joining of words to create compound units projecting brilliant splinters of affinities that are eventually subsumed into a larger and richer whole. In the visual arts, this is related to the surrealist method of juxtaposing disparate elements to create a spark, which is the third meaning or synthesis.
Agnes reminds us that we often view sculpture by walking 360 degrees around an art object. In an inscape, however, the viewer walks INTO the sculpture — which is a group of two, usually more, figures installed in an environment, and he gleans the central unifying concept fron the totality or ‘gestalt’ of the whole experience of them. He is led or made ‘to go with the flow’, through a series of free-standing, floor, wall, and even ceiling pieces, often with accompanying music or sound sculpture.
Another sense of inscape may refer to an interior configuration of the mind, a complex of intellectual and affective elements as distinguished from landscape which is an exterior view perceived by the senses. In any case, it bears the sense of a significant internal unity.
Agnes is one of the few artists who possess an integral and coherent world view. She has formed her iconography from various religious systems, mainly Hindu- Buddhism, particularly Shiva as Creator and Destroyer, Buddha and his various mantras or hand-gestures and asanas or positions, Tantra and its union of Yab and Yum, the erotic Hindu mithunas or loving couples of the Konarak temple, the yang and yin of Taoist art. These are fused with local mythologies and icons, such as the Bicol Mebuyan and Haliya, the Ifugao bulol, as well as with Christian elements, such as the pervasive Christian Angel of Death hovering over all. But what binds them together are the themes of Eros and Thanatos, Shiva as the god of Creation and Destruction, the many avatars of the Goddess. In her work, man and woman are universal beings, at ease with their bodies and within the world of nature; in the form of nudes, they are freed from shackling conventions, rediscovering themselves in their innermost being.
Agnes Arellano’s outlook was greatly influenced by the death by fire of her parents and sister, leading her to an intense preoccupation with the dualities of life and death, creation and destruction, and immersing herself in oriental philosophy where she sought the answers.
She describes her work as a search:
I am engaged in a search. You might almost call it a need. I am seeking answers to certain metaphysical questions which present themselves in the form of paradoxes, and concern the problem of ‘existence’ or the juxtaposition of, but essential interdependence between, Creation and Destruction.
I look for clues in myth, history, and folklore. These are the fabric of my work, and tend to give it a strong narrative element. However, we are not just talking here of fairy tales. The material has to plumb the psychological depths.
I compare my research sources to a pail of dirty water. I stir up the sediment, and hypotheses emerge. Then I strive to transform this metaphysical matter, which in reality remains a bundle of questions and notions rather than answers, into something which has as tangible a physical form as sculpture.
My work is satori-cal. This may sound intuitive and loose, but one should not forget that Zen Buddhism has a lot of discipline. Zen has deeply affected my work, and its influence can be clearly seen in my floor pieces and sound sculptures. I am not an intellectual. Books alone could never hold me down. So, there is a need for another anchor, and that is sculpture.
When you dig, you go beyond words, or even concepts. The deeper you go, the harder it is to explain verbally. It was difficult for me to grasp this, as I was educated in the Western tradition, and ironically had to be brought back to my roots by Wittgenstein and Watts. Then I became a sculptor, and found the medium for the expression of my continued search.
I specifically choose methods and materials for my sculpture which require a high degree of spontaneity. Thus, most of the major works in my ‘inscapes’ have been at least partially created through direct modeling with plaster, even though they were later recast into other materials, such as synthetic marble. The direct modeling method forces me to stop thinking any further about subjects which I have researched for several months, thus allowing the visual and tactile medium of sculpture to fully take over my energies.
Sculpture finds its magnificent flourishing in the art of Agnes Arellano who creates a rich and complex art from various inspirations, sources, materials and sensory experiences. Her artistic formation has likewise been shaped by various life experiences absorbed into her oeuvre.
Agnes Arellano (b. 21 November 1949, San Juan, Rizal) was born to a life of ease in the quiet and genteel district of Pinaglabanan in San Juan del Monte. She belonged to a prominent family of architects that included her father Otilio (b. 1916), her grandfather Arcadio, and grand-uncle Juan.
Arcadio Arellano (1872-1920, Tondo) was the third of fifteen children of Bartola de Guzman and Luis Arellano, a builder who was assistant to Juan Hervas, the Spanish consulting architect of the City of Manila in the late 19th century. He had nine children by his wife, Amalia Ocampo, one of whom was Otilio (1916-1981), an architect who was Agnes’ father. Agnes recalls that on Sundays, when she was still a young girl, the family would visit their widowed grandmother, wife of Arcadio, who died when Agnes’ father was only four years old and so his schooling was supported by his older brother Juan.
Juan Arellano (1888-1960, Tondo) was the younger brother of Arcadio. He married Natividad de Ocampo, a singer, who had a son, Oscar, also an architect. When he was only twelve years old, his father Luis died, and his brother Arcadio took care of his schooling. Juan left his lasting presence on the Manila landscape with the Legislative Building (Old Congress), the Manila Post Office, both in the neoclassical style, and the Metropolitan Theatre in Art Deco.
Though Agnes’ father Otilio was an architect, Agnes remembers that he was more a “builder of men”, devoting his spare time to civic work, such as helping out-of-school youth. Her mother, Liwayway Almario, taught English in high school and sang on the radio until her marriage and the outbreak of war. As wife and mother, she devoted all her energies to home and children. Artistically inclined, she played the piano by ear and tended her beautiful garden. Her father was newspaper editor and fictionist Rosauro Almario (a.k.a. Matanglawin and Batang Simoun), who wrote in Spanish and Tagalog and was exiled for writing critically of the American regime.
Agnes grew up as a good Catholic girl, properly instilled with the fear of God and fear of sex. She recalls that her household was devout — her sisters Maria Lourdes (Honey), Maria Felicitas (Citas), and she went to church on Sundays for Mass and on Wednesdays for the novena of Our Lady of Perpetual Help. Citas and she led the church choir and together with other Marian devotees would take the image of Our Lady to different households in San Juan.
She describes her idyllic home as a two-minute walk from the parish church in one direction and school (St. John’s Academy) in the other. At the non-sectarian and co-educational school, she grew up with boys and girls from different religious backgrounds. As students, they were made aware of their long Spanish history and were proud to be English speakers always apace with the latest American trends. But any tendency which she may have developed towards colonial mentality was counterbalanced by an exceedingly intelligent aunt who hated the Church and America with equal venom.
Agnes has a musical side, a gift from her mother who gave warm support to her musical inclination. At one point in her youth, Agnes formed a singing duet, “Twin Echoes”, with her sister Felicitas, playing acoustic guitar and singing folk songs. A brother, Deogracias, found his artistic outlet in singing and playing the flute as well as photography and computer graphics. To this day, music forms an important ritual in family gatherings with eldest siblings Chuckie (Carlos), a banker, art patron/collector and publisher, and Honey (Dra. Lourdes Carandang), a renowned clinical psychologist, author and National Social Scientist.
Agnes Arellano studied psychology at the University of the Philippines where she graduated in 1971 and later enrolled in a master’s degree in Clinical Psychology at the Ateneo de Manila. However, the road veered and led instead to psychedelics and a brief experimentation with mindblowing substances. The appeal of psychology lay in its probing of the mind in its rational and conscious as well as in its intuitive, unconscious layers. This was in the mid-Sixties when anti- Vietnam protest was the climate of the times, giving birth to the Make Love Not War hippies and flower children. It was the period of the Beatles and New Age philosophy with the books of Fritjof Capra, Alan Watts and Carlos Castañeda. Timothy Leary was sought for inspiration in his personal voyage involving the death of the ego which paralleled the Tibetan Book of the Dead. In retrospect, Agnes believes that she found great spiritual value in her experience with entheogenic substances. Entheogenic, as opposed to psychedelic, means “the god generated within”.
She realized soon enough that experimenting with mind-blowing substances was rife with danger. Agnes luckily escaped drugs’ deadly downward spiral by leaving the country on a pilgrimage in 1975. Martial law was in effect and the dictator Marcos had imposed a strict travel ban, but during the Holy Roman Catholic Year, the government allowed pilgrimages to the sacred sites in Europe.
It was the experience of travel which led Agnes to art. In Italy, she relished Michelangelo, while devouring the pages of “The Agony and the Ecstasy”. In Amsterdam, fired by a fervor for “Vincent” in the popular song by Don McLean, she forfeited her return flight home and stayed behind to slowly savor the Van Gogh Museum. She then took a train to Paris, not knowing her language but “utterly bewitched” by her beauty, and stayed for a further year and a half. The brilliant, artistic city of Paris provided the answer for her longing for self-renewal. Paris brought out the full blossoming of this entrancing young woman. Her love of life, spontaneity, gaiety, and natural charm came to the fore in the giddy and stimulating environment of the city. Yet, admirably enough, she had a purposeful side, for she graduated in 1976 with the Cours de langue et civilisation françaises (degré supérieure) at the Université de la Sorbonne.
Finally, she went back home and, given a grant by her father to go back to school, she proceeded to study fine arts in earnest. She was back into a blissful student life — that by now included trips to such diverse places as London and Bali. She chose to major in sculpture under the guidance of Napoleon “Billy” Abueva, pioneering modernist in sculpture and National Artist. With some classmates, she participated in a student show, “Five Faces”, including Carol Walley, Juan Mor’O Ocampo, Jack Taylaran, and Mulawin Abueva in an exercise in casting their faces and body parts in plaster. She also put up a naughty installation of colored condoms in the waiting shed in front of the UP Arts and Sciences Building.
Possibly one of her most innovative uses of materials was the installation “Antropy” (a play on the words “entropy” and “ant”) for a group show in 1984. This was a black-ant colony designed in mixed media of white crushed marble on top of garden soil with corals and stones to mark various spaces. For three months the ants re-organized their environment, and their tunnel workings could be observed through the clear walls of an acrylic cube.
Agnes also acknowledges the influence of Chabet (Roberto Chabet Rodriguez) in the spirit of conceptual art, the semiotic use of materials, the shedding of artistic inhibitions, the witty and mischievous aspects of art, the spirit of freedom in exploring ideas, and the use of a wide range of cultural sources. Equipped with the necessary training, approaches, and inspirations, she graduated with a Bachelor of Fine Arts in 1983.
It was 1981 when tragedy struck. She was in a remote island in Spain when news reached her that her parents and sister had perished in a fire that razed their ancestral home to the ground.
This utter devastation by Agni, god of Fire, was the single most influential event in her life. According to her, she remembered her first experience of “paradox” and the eerie annulment of contradictions, a time warp, a feeling and energy so different from the mundane that it could be called divine.
She remembers standing on the beach, exploding inside from the bad news of Death, when suddenly all she could hear was the surf crashing on the shore. She could smell the rosemary and thyme that she had trodden on the night before and noticed in between her toes tiny flowers growing in the sparse grass. In the next-door cottage, a baby was crying. In that critical moment, time seemed to stop and the world acquired a supernatural clarity. This terrible event proved to be very significant in her work, which became permeated with the themes of fire and death, creation and destruction.
Soon afterwards, she married a family friend, Michael Adams, a British investment banker who was also a poet and writer. With Michael, she bore her only child, a daughter, Michelle Maria Celina (Mishka), although she has also two stepdaughters and a stepson, three children from his former wife. They accumulated a vast library and together set up the Pinaglabanan Galleries founded over the ruins of her ancestral home. But fire once more was the unwanted guest when in 1998 the warehouse of the galleries burned down, together with the entire collection of contemporary art culled from many years of exhibitions, including Agnes’ own sculptures and molds.
All text above is taken from the artist's first monograph entitled "Inscapes: The Art of Agnes Arellano", written by Alice G. Guillermo, and published by Onion and Chives.