Photos by Gian Nicdao
What kind of feeling do you get from seeing a vine creeping up a wall? Whether it’s a garden trellis or an abandoned house, the sight hits you with a sense of smallness — you’re beholding nature, thriving, consuming something artificial.
Looking at Ryan Villamael’s latest artistic project, Locus Amoenus, evokes a similar feeling. Locus Amoenus is made up complicated paper constructions and latticework, delicately cut and hung in the shape and form of Monstera deliciosa, an invasive species of plant. The material that Ryan uses isn’t just regular paper, but copies of maps of the Philippines, dating as far back as the 16th century (which, by the way, have surprisingly eye-catching color palettes).
Ryan remembers seeing a quote by French Post-Impressionist painter Henri Rousseau: “When I go into the glass houses and I see the strange plants of exotic lands, it seems to me that I enter into a dream.” It stuck with him, and he stuck a post-it with the quote on it on the wall of his studio so he wouldn’t forget. Then when the time came for him to submit a proposal for the 2016 Singapore Biennale, the concept of Locus Amoenus started to form.
“In the age of European exploration, greenhouses were used as repositories for fragile species of flora that had been uprooted from newly discovered territories,” Ryan says. “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 Biennale’s theme ‘An Atlas of Mirrors.’”
If you look up pictures of Locus Amoenus being displayed at Singapore Art Museum where the biennale took place, it does look like an otherworldly greenhouse as in Rousseau’s dream. That’s partly because of the venue though — another unique feature of Locus Amoenus is that as an installation, its adapts to the shape of the space it occupies. Along the stairs of Arete, it looks more like it was transplanted from an old house in the province, an alien against the malls of the new building.
More than the look, it’s the use of maps that makes the project so conceptually rich. “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,” Ryan explains. “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 colonize its climate-controlled space in the museum.” It makes you feel almost uneasy, seeing archaic renderings of Philippine cities take the shape of something carnivorous. The realities of colonialism, imperialism, and violent land disputes characterize our history, and Ryan grapples with these themes with a work of art whose title is the Latin translation for “pleasant place.”
The realities of colonialism, imperialism, and violent land disputes characterize our history, and Ryan grapples with these themes with a work of art whose title is the Latin translation for “pleasant place.”
Next month, Ryan’s beast of botany and cartography will be taking root in the Biwako Biennale in Japan, which takes place Sep. 15. No matter where it is, Locus Amoenus effectively transports you to another world. “I just wanted to make an experience with Locus Amoenus. In very basic terms, it’s me shrinking in size, going inside my bell jar works, and getting a worm’s eye view of the work. I wanted it to be experiential.”
You can check out Locus Amoenus at the Ateneo Art Gallery of Ateneo De Manila University. It will be there until Feb.2019.