BY FIEL ESTRELLA
PHOTOGRAPHS BY NIKKI BONUEL

Intricate and layered, both in form and statement, Ryan Villamael’s Locus Amoenus (Latin for “pleasant place”) is a living installation that grows and adapts, surging from the ceiling and taking the shape of the space it occupies.

Upon closer inspection, it can be seen that its leaves—borrowing the shape of Monstera deliciosa, also known as the split-leaf philodendron—are actually copies of 16th-century maps, in an effort to comment on the history of the Philippines and the nation’s postcolonial identity.

 

The artist, Ryan Villamael, and details of his piece, Locus Amoenus

The piece debuted in 2016 at the Singapore Art Museum as part of the Singapore Biennale. “In the age of European exploration, greenhouses were used as repositories for fragile species of flora that had been uprooted from newly discovered territories,” Villamael explains. “The idea of an engineered Eden for flora uprooted from native soil felt like the right metaphor for what I wanted to say as part of the 2016 Singapore Biennale’s theme ‘An Atlas of Mirrors.’”

Last month, Locus Amoenus was launched at Ateneo de Manila University’s Areté, where it will ultimately occupy the staircase on a couple of floors. For Villamael, who won a Fernando Zóbel Prize for Visual Art at the 2015 Ateneo Art Awards for his exhibition “Isles,” the return exhibition is a homecoming of sorts. One of its purposes is to reflect how his practice has progressed through the residencies he had won at the time, at La Trobe University’s Visual Arts Center in Australia, Artesan Gallery in Singapore, and Liverpool Hope University in England.

“Winning the three residencies was pretty career-changing for me,” says Villamael. “On a very basic level, it allowed me to see where my work stood on a bigger platform, how it translated to different cultures.” A fitting experience, as Locus Amoenus can also be seen at the MAIIAM Contemporary Art Museum in Chiang Mai, Thailand, and is a part of the ongoing Biwako Biennale in Japan.

“It felt right to do [the return exhibition] with Locus Amoenus because it’s an idea that was developed through experiences in other countries—Singapore and Bangkok—that I’ve always wanted to bring home,” Villamael says. “Locus goes home to Manila with a perspective enriched by these experiences.”

The Edition caught up with Villamael to discuss how Locus Amoenus has shifted and evolved over the years, the challenges behind the piece, and paper cutting as a process.


Since Locus Amoenus was first conceptualized, and as it begins to occupy new art spaces in different countries (including here at the Areté), do you continue to discover, add, or learn new things about it that weren’t there before?

The idea started out as a greenhouse. When I first did it, I didn’t plan on it having editions. I didn’t think the idea could travel, that it could adapt to different spaces and work. I was assigned to do my installation for the Biennale in the Singapore Art Museum’s glass hall, which happens to be the only space where a section of the original colonial building façade from 1852 is still visible. The environment lent itself to the idea—I made a greenhouse.

 

 

In the greenhouse I would make for the show, I would use cut-outs created from replicas of archaic and contemporary Philippine maps. I saw Locus Amoenus as something that could probe the imaging of the Philippines’s history as a country that endured the longest colonial rule in Southeast Asia. The installation is cut from maps that have two sides—a layering that aims to conjoin the historical with the present-day. Creeping down from the ceiling, the Monstera deliciosa looks to colonise its climate-controlled space in the museum. It’s really satisfying to put together because I’m able to involve more people in my process for it, which I had never thought I would experience since most of my work is done in isolation. In a way, it feels like opening up my process to a bigger world.

In the beginning, what were some challenges you experienced with the piece? Are they the same now?

It’s a pretty physically demanding installation. At the same time though, it’s satisfying to put together because I’m able to involve more people in my process for it, which I had never thought I would experience since most of my work is done in isolation. In a way, it feels like opening up my process to a bigger world.

What are your first memories of artmaking?

It’s not really a unique story. When I was a kid, I would draw while waiting for my mom to finish in the office. Living in the province, not having much to do, drawing was really an outlet for me, imagining lives and worlds outside of Laguna. In a way, it was an exercise in world-making.


What do you like best about paper cutting as a process? Are you constantly going out of your way to learn or invent new techniques for it?

I started working with paper not out of desire but out of necessity. After college, I was working as an assistant for different artists and on the side, trying to figure out my own practice. I wanted to paint and I wanted to sculpt but I couldn’t afford to work in those mediums. I ended up with paper because it was what I could afford. I realized I could say what I wanted to say and do what I wanted to do with a very simple material. I think we all have a very personal relationship with paper as a material—we played with it as kids, we write on it, we shape it. I realized I didn’t have to paint or sculpt—paper could be expressive. I’ve stuck with it since then because the material keeps revealing different possibilities.

 

 

Learning or inventing new techniques is part of the practice. There’s problem-solving in every idea: How do I best communicate this idea with the limited materials or means I have?

Since paper cutting is so intricate and detailed, how deeply do you tend to dive into your work? What’s a typical day/schedule like for you?

If I’m working on a show, I’m pretty much working on it 24/7. I get tunnel vision and I get fixated. For whatever time I’m working on the show, it’s all that exists in my life—which is sometimes a good thing but often, bad thing, just ask my family and friends. [laughs]

When you’re working on new ideas and pieces, what would you say are you always looking to achieve with them?

To say the most, with the least.

Locus Amoenus is on view at Areté, located inside Ateneo de Manila University, through February 2019.

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