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August 18, 2003

REINERIO A. ALBA

His art has been labeled as “ephemeral,” a description, which may well be consistent with his last and final performance: himself wrapped in his favorite tinggian blanket while lying on a pile of wood that was later set on fire. His friends and loved ones danced in a circle around him, playing the drums and gongs for the next six hours.

Installation artist Roberto V. Villanueva succumbed to leukemia in February 1995, three years after being diagnosed with the disease and being given only three months to live.

We can say that it was a matter of a great miscalculation on the part of his doctor. Or was it plainly the artistic spirit of Villanueva that refused to be told when its final wick would be pinched?

Villanueva dreamed of becoming a doctor in order to heal. However, he instead found himself pursuing a course in Fine Arts at the University of Santo Tomas upon realizing that art can do the same minus the rigid study habits that a medical course requires.

In 1992, the Cultural Center of the Philippines honored him along with 12 other artists (Paz Abad Santos, Nunelucio Alvarado, Cesare Syjuco, among others) for his distinct and important contribution to the promotion of our culture and the Filipino identity through his art. It was on the same occasion that he was able to come up with an exhibit solely dedicated to his mother (who died while he was on a study grant in the United States) with sampaguita, everlasting, various fruits, rice cake, etc. as materials for his installation.

In an interview in The Varsitarian (January 1993), he talked about his view on animism or his belief that everything in this world is possessed by a spirit, a belief that had become his prime consideration in choosing the materials for his installation pieces as well as in putting them up. ”Tulad ng sa mga Igorot, ‘pag may ginawa silang structure at may tatamaang bato, hindi nila aalisin ang bato sa kinaroroonan nito. Ililiko na lang nila ang structure,” he said.

In the same article, he cautioned our young artists against timidity in their art. “Kaya umalis ako sa teaching…to sustain art, nag-paint ako, nag-sculpture, gumawa ng film documentary…” In the same breath, he expressed his complete bias against art contests. “Hindi ko pa rin kasi masakyan ang logic ng competition. How can you compete art? Masasabi ko ba na mas maganda ang art ko sa art mo? Art is art.”

He also emphasized the need for our young artists to focus instead on their Filipino roots rather than adapt a European mode to which the Filipinos have long been exposed to.

Some of his memorable installation pieces are: “Archetypes,” “A Cordillera Labyrinth” (a spiral labyrinth 45 m in diameter and 600 m in length made of bamboo and reeds) set up at the Cultural Center of the Philippines grounds in 1989, “Panhumuko” (an installation made of bamboo around an abandoned open well depicting man’s surrender to the power of nature, coupled with a ritual-like performance that he executed in the refugee camp for Pinatubo victims where the Aetas themselves danced with him), his “Atang Ti Kararua” -1992 (three bamboo floats made of twigs carrying offerings for the souls of people who died in the Baguio earthquake) that was made to float down the entire length of the Central Park Lake in Manhattan, and his “Ego’s Grave -1993” (a pit, which he dug for 17 days causing him to collapse during the first Asia-Pacific Triennial of Contemporary Art in Brisbane, Australia), along with other art installations, which took him to New York, Japan, Australia and Vietnam.

The only installation, which, unfortunately, Villanueva could no longer accomplish was the erection of 40-foot long copper needles at various sites worldwide. This was a project that resulted from the international competition for outdoor sculpture sponsored by a Japanese museum. The project’s rationale of acupuncturing the world clinched for Villanueva a $50,000 cash prize funding then.

At its heart, all of Villanueva’s installations, seen as “grand interpretations of common indigenous elements,” are also, clearly, his expressed desire for life, a desire more keenly felt by him. It is the artist wanting to escape from the solitude of his death, from the wilderness of anonymity. But then again, anonymity should be the least of his worries – his ephemeral installations are most securely brightly afloat in the vibrant river of Philippine visual arts.