“Watching the Watchmen”: Welcoming Visitors from the North

By: Jon Lindley Agustin

The giant bulol seems to stand guard in front of UP Vargas Museum. Photo by Luis Adrian Hidalgo.

Ever wondered what the dark lofty statue standing in front of the Vargas Museum is? It seems to challenge the Oblation’s robustness because of its intimidating aura.

This November and December, the university museum will become the temporary home of the bulols, as part of the museum’s special exhibit before the year ends. Without a doubt, the most notable one may be the meters-high dark sculpture in front the building, which due to its size, truly grabs the attention of the passersby.

Standing atop the green grass, the tall bulol is actually a version of the statue known as the “Ifugao rice god,” by artist Ronald Ventura. The rice god is often found inside the rice granaries in the North and is worshiped by the natives who believe it is possessed by a nature spirit. Usually made of narra wood that represents wealth and happiness, the presence of a bulol in one’s land brings about good harvest.

Ventura is a graduate of the University of Santo Tomas with a degree in Fine Arts. His vast array of awards include the Cultural Center of the Philippines Artists Award in 2003, Taiwan International Biennial Print and Drawing  Competition finalist in 1999, and first place in the Lithograph Competition of the National Commission for Culture and the Arts. He has been in major exhibitions around the metro and outside the country in Japan, Korea, and Italy, among others.

His recent exhibition, titled “Watching the Watchmen,” is the centerpiece of the Vargas Museum this month.

A installation artwork laid on the museum walls provide backdrop for the sculptures. The artwork, bearing the same title as the exhibition, stretches about ten feet and consists of pen drawings, tiny dolls, papers, horse figurines, hotel brochures, account receipts, recurring images of the bulol, pizza boxes, cigar boxes, and images of Disney characters like Mickey and Minnie Mouse.

Cartoon characters, in the oddest way possible, are seen in various sizes in other artworks in the exhibit. The images of Minnie Mouse, Flounder – the yellow fish in “The Little Mermaid” – as well as Tweety bird lurk in the artwork “Never Ending Battle: Heavenly War,” a pen and ink creation on fabric.

Bulols in the city

Like many travelers and migrants, the bulols would have never reached Manila without ramifications on their physical appearance. The artist did not employ conventional styles in depicting the statues; rather, he gave it an interesting contemporary touch.

One is a bulol with both arms raised high up in the air forming the “rock on” hand gesture. Across it is an old-looking bulol with dangerously veined hands laid on top of his chest. There are also two bulols with elongated noses who seem to be engaged in a sexual conversation. Walk further inside the museum and one can see more long noses, two of them belong to opposite sexes and are twisted and wrapped around one another, as if symbolizing intercourse.

The most striking version and probably the most unique, are the bulols showing themselves as huge chunks of human muscles with the full detail of the red fibers. One of them, the female, has two hearts instead of bosoms.

The statues are placed inside the museum with pen drawings depicting war and chaos as their backdrop, as if welcoming them to the chaos of the urban.

The bulols may be stationary and rigid, but their inner meaning provides us with reasons of their existence. Whether it is true that they are possessed by nature spirits, the natives’ belief of them as guardians of the harvest remains, and hopefully, they bless the university in a bountiful way.

These bulols came all the way from the North to guard the harvests of the urban world. Like the Oblation and the towering bulol in front of the museum, it is always nice for us to welcome them with open arms. And through Ventura’s one-of-a-kind representation, they can only tell us: rock on.

 

“Watching the Watchmen” runs until December 14, 2012 at the GF Lobby and west wing gallery of the museum. For more information, visit www.vargasmuseum.upd.edu.ph