The zen garden as an art installation

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In “High Noon at Cagayan Garden,” photographed here at the Bellas Artes at Las Casas Filipinas de Acuzar in Bataan, Alfredo and Isabel Aquilizan reconstruct a zen-like garden, allowing for tranquility in the midst of the city. Photo from BELLAS ARTES OUTPOST/WEBSITE

Manila (CNN Philippines Life) — Don’t most excruciatingly vapid conversations involve the weather? Fear not, not here. Alfredo and Isabel Aquilizan’s “High Noon at Cagayan Garden” forecasts unchanging weather at the Bellas Artes Outpost: it’s sunny until October. The Cagayan Garden here was transported from Bataan, where it was originally installed from January until June. The artists created the installation during their residency with the Bellas Artes at Las Casas Filipinas de Acuzar, the open-air museum and luxury resort peppered with a collection of reconstructed and restored Spanish colonial-era mansions and heritage houses.

According to the show notes, Alfredo and Isabel Aquilizan were inspired by the Cagayan palafittes that were transplanted in 2000 from the province where Alfredo was born. Here, he and Isabel appropriate found wooden blocks and posts, and marble pellets left over from the building of the church at Las Casas, to create a space that resembles a zen garden.

High Noon.jpg Alfredo and Isabel Aquilizan's work recreates unrelenting noon with the help of strategic light engineering by Mark Wilson. Photo by PAOLO CRODUA

“High noon” refers to that time of day when the space would be drenched with an inimitable equatorial light, as the sun pierces through the floorboards and choreographs a chiaroscurist dance, a pas de deux of shadow and fleeting light.

Unrelenting noon is recreated at the Outpost, with the help of strategic light engineering by Mark Wilson.

With the garden, the artists set out to explore themes of “dislocation and transformation, memory and collective history.” In previous works, Isabel would talk recurrently about narrative and similarly, here, how each piece of timber can hold the heft of a private life. She is intrigued by the irrecoverable history of a weathered plank or a rusted nail.

Perhaps there lies one of many triumphs of the Cagayan Garden, because the pile of meta-decontextualization (i.e., the overlapping narratives of displacement that are at play here, conceptually) inescapably raises the question: What more does it do apart from being a stylized representation of the Real Thing, the underside of a modest dwelling on stilts? Several things, in fact.

High Noon2.jpg Sun pierces through the floorboards at Bellas Artes Outpost. Photo by PAOLO CRODUA

First, its presentation as contemplative space can prescribe the subject of all contemplation within it. The zen garden’s architecture is but an invitation, not the subject. In many ways, the Garden, with the still light, is like a photograph, a suspended memory. The meditation it allows and encourages, beyond its ability to be a spatial tranquilizer, must also necessarily be about the paradoxical duality of the constant movement that it takes to result in an experience of stillness.

Second, the Garden’s formal simplicity provides a window from which to scrutinize the artists’ thought process. It’s an unadorned illustration of how the artists detect the gravitas of found objects, and value them as medium for art-making, thus, providing a key to understanding the Aquilizan philosophy — perhaps one that they themselves will not articulate as such, however probed. While many of their past works thrive critically due in part to their exotic locale, quibbles of quirk, or sheer formal chutzpah, the Garden presents a juncture in their oeuvre that proves that their legion enterprises are gestalt.

The accompanying installation, “Thrones,” are ten wooden chairs built and used by Bellas Artes craftsmen in daily work. In Bataan at noon, when the craftsmen take a break, the chairs are empty. The titling itself point toward the artists’ intent to venerate the laborer. The viewer can sit on them, and in so doing perhaps commune with its king or queen some 150 kilometers away.

High Noon3.jpg The "High Noon" installation is accompanied by "Thrones," ten wooden chairs built and used by Bellas Artes craftsmen in daily work. Photo by PAOLO CRODUA

What is proposed here, of course, is not some kind of mystical telepathy, but simply shared experience, though only short-lived and largely abstract. Are the chairs, each unique and customized for the specialist’s purpose, displayed here to be viewed as portraits, as if with an inveterate humanity? Perhaps — they only succeed insofar as alluding to one paltry facet of it, however.

At the press preview of “High Noon,” the Aquilizans spoke in a brief presentation about their body of work. The couple recalls the 2010 iteration of “Another Country,” where, in a gallery in Taguig, the artists laid out a collection of makeshift bollards, those ubiquitous concrete and PVC pipe sculptures commonly found in corners of parking lots.

The collection began and grew when Alfredo urged his friends to steal the posts around town, via an open call on his Facebook page. Isabel remembers the many “How I nicked this” stories. Alfredo says, “There is no better way to strengthen friendships than through theft.”

There is something particularly telling here about the Aquilizans’ approach to art. For them, art happens in and through relationships and within them, the mischiefs and the secrets.


“High Noon at Cagayan Garden” is on view at the Bellas Artes Outpost until Oct. 14. For more information, visit the website.