Diaaalogue Editor Susan Acret spoke with the West Australian-based Filipino artist about his collaborative works and social sculptures, his peripatetic life, and his philosophical journeys
Susan Acret: You have lived in Perth, Western Australia, since 1995. Can you tell us something about your decision to move from the Philippines to Australia?
Alwin Reamillo : I first came to Perth in 1992 to take part in the Artist Regional Exchange (ARX3), where I met my former partner, Australian artist Juliet Lea. Juliet was also a participating artist in the event.
We collaborated on many projects and called our collaborative art/life partnership Reamillo & Juliet. As we were to become parents, the decision to move to Western Australia became a practical option. As a growing multicultural society, Australia could provide a good and safe environment for a young family. As practicing artists, Perth also seemed to provide opportunities for creative work.
S.A: Has arts infrastructure and opportunities for artists in the Philippines improved since you left?
A.R: I’m not quite sure if things have improved significantly. Before I left the country, I was based up north in Baguio City. The early 1990s was an exciting time to be living and working there. There was a vibrant artist community, the Baguio Arts Guild, which was lead mostly by established senior artists who had relocated there from elsewhere. While this small community of artists was already active in the mid 1980s, it was really in the next decade that it blossomed. Many acknowledge that it was the 7.8 earthquake that hit Baguio in 1990 which really consolidated the group. This tragic event would catalyse the creative energies of the arts community, prompting the artists to take charge in organizing themselves to set up soup kitchens, music events, art exhibitions and workshops for traumatized kids, etc. The Baguio Arts Festival (BAF) was born out this tragedy and it was to develop as an international arts festival, becoming a major venue for Filipino contemporary art. It has significantly rejuvenated the local tourism industry and attracted international curators and visitors to the city. I mention this because it is one indicator of the changing attitudes at the time, a collective response to bureaucratic lethargy and chronic government inaction.
S.A: You’ve participated in many exhibitions in Australia and the Philippines, and in a number of other Asian countries. Can you tell us about the joys and challenges involved in constantly working in different cultures and environments? Is your work a means of working through the journeys you make in life?
A.R: I’ve always been interested in travelling to different places and to experience and learn more about the diversity of cultures. My artistic practice is fundamentally grounded in understanding the dynamics of trans-cultural movement and mobility and how art can shape new ways of thinking.
A great number of my conceptual works deal with building collaborative sculptures that allow movement, dialogue and exchange in different cultural contexts and meeting and engaging with people. I guess you could say that I like the sense of anticipation and uncertainty in encountering the unknown. And the various challenges and, perhaps quite unexpected realisations that come about as I am forced to adapt to the communities and contexts I find myself within.
One always gains a new perspective in every cultural encounter. One also experiences a heightened awareness of one’s self in a context of difference, but this sense of antagonism that arises doesn’t necessarily remain fixed; through constant engagement one soon realizes that there are many more commonalities that differences.
Ideas of travel, migration or movement are reflected in my play on the relationships of meaning generated in terms such as craft, or vessel, or vehicle. Craft referring to a process of making a creative form of some sort, but also referring to sea/water vessels. I create works that are vessels, vehicles, or crafts, fusing these literal meanings or states with these alternative references. The art-cars or helicopters are vehicles, quite literally in the form they take, but also become vessels of culture, and projects that mobilize communities, becoming vehicles of change.
S.A: I’ve read you describe your work as ‘social sculpture’. Your works are collaborative and involve working with local communities. Can you talk about the processes involved in creating such work?
A.R: I started borrowing this Beuysian term ‘social sculpture’ when I was a young art teacher at the Philippine High School for the Arts (PHSA). There was a book on Joseph Beuys in the school library, which stood out in the visual arts section among books on more traditional painters and painting. Nobody seemed interested in borrowing the book but I found his multi-disciplinary approach as an artist/educator/activist quite appealing. Beuys’ radical notion of ‘sculpture as an evolutionary process — everyone is an artist’ — had a profound impact on my thinking. The notion that any individual has the potential to be a truly empowered, creative and productive being and thus can participate in the shaping of human society; this idea of creative empowerment through active participation in society appealed to me, given the kind of uneven society we have in the Philippines.
Social sculpture emerges out of a cultural context of engagement, it is dialogical, immersive, and participatory. The artist’s role is pivotally hinged on his capacity as facilitator. For the past 7 years I have been involved in initiating cross-cultural collaborative projects in various contexts, mostly in the shape of large-scale sculptures. I now call these cross-cultural bayanihan projects.
S.A: Can you explain the meaning of the Filipino word bayanihan in this context?
A.R: Well, the popular usage of the word generally refers to the traditional practice of community group work. Traditionally referring to a community’s coming together to physically relocate/lift a family’s bamboo/wooden house in rural Philippines. Bayanihan has more recently been used to promote a positivist image of Filipino culture and has circulated in the national imagination. As we become more urbanized or upwardly mobile we tend to lose the sense of community spirit in the meaning. In relation to my practice, I aim to reinvigorate the more traditional meaning of the term, whereby I actually try to generate a situation of collective action to achieve a common goal. This is directly related to the voluntary group work I hope to involve in the creation of the projects. Through the process of collaboratively creating an artwork, the sense of community spirit begins to emerge.
S.A: Your father was a piano maker whose company operated for more than 30 years and was the only manufacturer of grand pianos in Philippines, until the company closed in 1997. For the Mang Emo + Mang-himo Grand Piano Project you found the company’s original craftsmen and re-established the company in 2007. Can you tell us about this project? And also about the title?
A.R: The Mang Emo + Mag-himo Grand Piano Project (ME+MHGPP) initially began in 2005, to commemorate the 20 years that had past since my father’s death. It was conceived as a conceptual portrait of a gifted but unsung piano maker. Decimo Zabala Reamillo, or Mang Emo as he was fondly called, was the primary maker, inventor and creative backbone of the Javincello + Company, maker of Wittemberg Pianos, a company he co-founded in 1961 with his brother Cervantes and nephew Marciano Reamillo Jacela.
Looking back, I think he was an artist who dedicated himself to his art and craft more than anything else. Through the years, the company established its reputation as a leading maker of quality upright pianos in the Philippines and the only maker of grand pianos. The company has probably produced around 2000 upright pianos. The production line of grand pianos came later in the early1980s. When Mang Emo passed away in 1985, Javincello & Company continued with its operation and managed to sustain the production of upright pianos, though the quality of the instruments began to decline. When the country was hit by the Asian financial crisis the company ceased its operation.
To develop the project I had to track down three of the former piano technicians who worked with Mang Emo: Jaime Pastorfide, who was my father’s technical assistant; Rabino Sabas, a master carpenter; and Tranquilino Tosio, our varnisher. They had been forced to abandon their professions as skilled crafts people and take up jobs in street food stalls or industries such as construction or cabinet making.
The piano for my work was made from remnant structural parts of the last grand piano unit that was left unfinished when the company closed down: a cast-iron plate/frame, a wooden backpost and lyre pedal and a leg. That was it. We were lucky to find a 1989 Wittemberg parlour grand at PHSA, which the school loaned us for a month so we could use it as a template model for new measurements. As we had to start from scratch, it was really amazing to see the piano makers improvise with what was available. From the old Wittemberg grand, I retraced and re measured the dimensions/specifications of the keys and had the whole action and keyboard fabricated in Japan. The piano action was fabricated by the company’s former supplier, Watanabe Musical Instruments in Hamamatsu.
The project title included the word Mag-himo, a word from the Waray language, my parents’ first language and spoken in eastern Visayas in Central Philippines. Mag-himo means to make, to create, to craft, which I used to emphasize what my father’s memory meant for me: his passion as a creative maker and his ability to bring people to work together to craft instruments that create beautiful music. This project was a way of paying tribute, not only to his creative spirit, but also to the unsung makers from our family workshop.
S.A: I understand that the Piano project is an ongoing one that has taken place in several countries, and currently Nicanor Abelardo Grand Piano Project is on show at the UP Vargas Museum in the Philippines. Can you tell us something about this particular re-incarnation?
A.R: The Nicanor Abelardo Grand Piano Project (NAGPP) project breathes life into the musical legacy of one of the leading composers of the Philippines, Nicanor Abelardo. Nicanor Abelardo pioneered in the research of traditional Tagalog folk music, and he is considered the country’s first modernist composer and wrote the first piano sonata.
Like the ME+MHGPP, the project takes the form of an installation, which also functions as a stage/workshop space for the restoration of three found pianos and their transformation as art case instruments. The pianos being transformed also function as conceptual portraits of the composer. For the project, we found 2 Wittemberg upright pianos built in the early 1990s and a dis-used Grotrian Steinweg parlour grand from the UP College of Music. This project is part of an artist residency at the UP Jorge B Vargas Museum and Filipiniana Research Center to celebrate the Centenary of the University of the Philippines, where Abelardo also attended and lectured.
The installation thematically focuses on Abelardo’s classical work, ‘Mutya ng Pasig’ (Muse of Pasig), which is animated through text, objects, found piano parts and imagery drawn from photographs and popular culture. The grand piano will be developed in September when I return to Manila and will be launched for an all-Abelardo concert, performed by distinguished alumni and students of the university and other guest pianists.
S.A: Are you working on other projects/exhibitions, or is this one all consuming?
A.R: I am writing this interview from my current location in Townsville, North Queensland, where I have returned to mentor/collaborate with a group of artists who participated in the Thuringowa Helicopter Project in October 2007. The artists have been working with similar community groups to develop a new project, which will culminate in performances and exhibitions in August/September 2008. This is an important project as I am able to return to a region where I have previously worked to observe the developments that have taken place as a result of the initial project. The project is based around the creation of a submersible deep-sea exploration vessel and a shadow play based on the exploration of concepts and experiences that lie beneath the surface; of individuals, society and the world around us. The Thuringowa Helicopter Project is also currently being prepared for a national tour around capital cities in Australia as part of 2009 Kultour.
I am also currently preparing an exhibition of a new series of mixed-media objects in the form of toy piano wings, as part of an installation at Gallery East in Western Australia in August 2008. And another exhibition of the same series will take place in Manila in December at Galleria Duemila. There will be heaps of movement for me, I guess, in the coming months.