Art is a necessity," declared Dutch National and international art consultant Jonathan Benavides, the brains behind Volume and Form, the first Urban and Environmental Sculpture Exhibition in Asia. This project has assembled 150 sculptors from 16 Asia-Pacific countries to exhibit their works all over Singapore, from May to October 1999.
Three months after the installation of the whole exhibition last May, I was invited by Volume and Form to view the exhibition. Each participating artist is invited to experience Singapore and see the sculptures displayed in different venues such as The Singapore Art Museum, Four Seasons Hotel, Botanical Gardens, Changi airport and in other major parks and banks.
As an artist, I was glad and honored to be a part of it and to represent our country. To think that I almost did not make it because when Volume and Form got in touch with the Art Association of the Philippines, AAP president Ramon Orlina said that he did not know where to contact me.
By February this year, Volume and Form found my number through the help of the Philippine Embassy and Jonathan Benavides himself gave me a call. I learned about the exhibit and finally received my official invitation two months before the opening. The requirement was for each artist to submit two artworks. By some stroke of luck -- late as it may have been -- Benavides chose eight works for me to exhibit.
Participating artists from the Philippines are Jun Yee, Agnes Arellano, Rey Paz Contreras, Ramon Orlina, Reginald Yuson and Paz Santos. I saw the works and they were all displayed in honorable places.
Over a delightful dinner of Indian cuisine, Jonathan Benavides and partner Frans Sterk, who are both from Holland, talked about this major project, which so far has brought them a lot of joy but not without pain and heartache.
"Art is essential to the quality of life. It uplifts, it inspires, it heals and it delights." Jonathan said with conviction, it sounds like a credo that each person must have in his heart. I sensed something more -- that he was also saying this with a bleeding heart. He must have encountered situations where people did not understand what he wanted to convey in such a project and in the process, he was hurt or frustrated.
"For a long time, I have nursed a dream to bring art directly to the people -- an exhibition where one can view and enjoy art as freely as they come in more natural venues without necessarily going to a museum. Anyone -- rich, poor, educated, uneducated, young or old -- can encounter art and be touched by it, and in the process, unearth his own personal richness. Art in a familiar environment can touch the mind, warm the heart and spark off fresh ideas."
Why in Singapore? Jonathan explained, "Singapore has a wonderful infrastructure with its beautiful modern buildings and parks which make it an excellent venue. I also see that the government is eager to make it an art capital and people may be ready to receive an uplifting intellectual, emotional experience in these times. Volume and Form is a celebration of art, a gift to the people of Singapore and the whole of Asia to enjoy. With participating countries such as China, India, Japan, Korea, Hong Kong, the Philippines, Vietnam, Taiwan, Myanmar, Thailand, Indonesia, Australia, New Zealand, New Caledonia, Malaysia and Singapore -- the unique qualities of their art and culture are represented here. We hope that world attention will turn to this region, restoring confidence in Asia.
"It should also be noted that such a big project can only happen with the help of major institutions and we were pleased with the positive response of the Singapore Tourism Board, the National Heritage Board, the National Parks Board, the Civil Aviation Authority and the National Arts Council. A host of other sponsors including Time Magazine altogether made the project a reality," he said.
With just one more month before the end of the exhibition, was Singapore ready for a project of this magnitude?
Jonathan and partner Frans alternately said, "We had a few disappointments. We also found ourselves in shock over certain things which normally should not be problem, let us say, in Europe. But when you are pioneering something, it goes hand in hand with teaching people how to do things. This is something so new to Singapore and therefore nothing could possibly be perfect. At the beginning, my staff and I would be dumbfounded about problems we did not expect to encounter. But we no longer want to talk about our pain and heartaches. There are redeeming factors and there are still good people that keep us going. To understand a project like this, one must have depth -- an inner feel of the fine message that goes with it. For those who are shallow -- then it is difficult. To sum it up, we are happy to have been the first to start something like this. Now, similar festivals can be organized in other forms of art, not necessarily sculpture. With the problems we encountered, everyone can learn from it -- we certainly did. Our main consolation is we pioneered it and no one can take that away from us."
Jonathan in turn asked me: "What is your view as a visiting and participating artist?" Candidly, this is what I said:
On my first visit to Singapore in 1994, the first thing I bought was the big red book of Lee Kuan Yew. This was a heavy book which just came out in the bookstores. I handcarried it with much care all the way to Manila. I did not want any bump or scratch on it because I wanted to display it in my home. It is still there. That is how much I admire the man -- this is the man who made Singapore.
I flew to Singapore convinced that I would like what I would see. True enough, arriving at the airport, so polished and filled with live orchids, I was immediately impressed. I also found it a wonderful country in terms of infrastructure, cleanliness and security -- I could only wish Manila would be more like it. The streets are properly paved and clean where people can walk long blocks without a car. You cannot imagine how something like this would help our horrible traffic situation. The trees were all so beautiful, I would literally stop walking every so often to look at them. But the people moved differently and their facial expressions were also different -- this made me uncomfortable at times.
Sometime in 1996, I opened a magazine and saw a glossy spread of the Singapore Art Museum -- I thought it was awesome! I told myself that I would go back and visit it. When I was finally there, I stood in front of this newly renovated, pristine, cream-colored building and it gave me promise. Inside, I was awed by the way they enclosed the balconies with thick-tempered glass for air-conditioning purposes. Later, after noting most of the physical transformation that had been implemented, I became aware that nothing was moving me in terms of artistic spirit. I waited and waited for any feeling to grab me. I finished my tour and it did not happen.
All day I thought about this and I was searching ... there was something missing and I could not put it into words. I realized how disturbed I was by my museum visit when I went to bed and couldn't sleep. Staring at the ceiling, I knew I had to figure it out if only for myself what bothered me so much. Then the word struck me and this somehow solved my problem. The soul.
Like a tennis player who had just hit an ace, I was screaming and stomping my feet knowing I had found the missing element: SOUL! This was why I could not feel anything before. Not even Dale Chihully's vibrant glasswork could give the spark, the life and the soul that a museum gives to a visitor and makes him want to go back again and again to see something new. It was the soul.
Now 1999, Volume and Form at the museum was quite a revelation. On the second floor where the exhibit starts at the lobby, the work of Sui Jian Guo of China made me breathless. I thought, WOW, this is sculpture! After that, I went around carrying the gallery guide and circled the corridors of the right side of the building where other sculptures were displayed. Our very own Manuel Luis Yee from UP Los Baņos made a beautiful centerpiece among artists from New Zealand and Australia.
Compared to my first visit, there was a notable change. Upon entering the museum, the guard outside the main door, and the gentleman selling tickets at the reception were smiling, and graciously greeted me the four times I went back and forth that day. I observed them for a while and they were the same way to everyone and I thought that this was a pleasant surprise. It is always very encouraging for a visitor to be welcomed that way.
At the Botanical Gardens, the sculptures simply looked marvelous. They were all exquisitely placed. I sat in a corner to observe the people for one full hour and noticed that most of the time, the foreigners stopped for a closer look at the sculptures.
I did see a number of locals turning their heads to view the art pieces as they walked or jogged by.
Frans Sterk said that on Sundays, from the time the sculptures had been installed, it is now a favorite venue for picture-taking for weddings. It does make one wonder whether they actually feel for the art or if they see the sculptures as some kind of visual entertainment like props for a stage set. Nonetheless, the fact that they have noticed and even want them to be part of a memorable occasion is already a good sign.
When it comes to art, perhaps it will take a while to truly touch the heart of the Singaporean people in a more spontaneous way. Certainly, no amount of money can do that overnight -- it is just not possible. Fortunately for Singapore, the government cares enough and seems eager to find a cure to the human vacuum. Quite enviably, here is a government bent on opening avenues to expose its people to beautiful art and in the case of Volume and Form, the collective soul of the artists of Singapore and its neighbors in the Asia Pacific region can only bring about positive energy and vibrations.
As Jonathan said, "One has to start somewhere."
Lucky for Singaporeans they have someone like Jonathan Benavides to pioneer such an artistic project which definitely has touched many people -- probably without their even knowing it. Most probably too, this is one reason why I met kinder Singaporeans at the shops and on the streets -- more of them with a gentler look, wearing more smiles than before.