For Lluch’s Art Fair Philippines installation, her “witnesses” surround a bloody carcass being dragged across the floor.

For Art Fair, Julie Lluch will recreate and reinterpret the Spoliarium—in life-size sculptures

The sculptor makes a statement by repurposing previous works into “witnesses” to a bloody scene.
Barbara Mae Naredo Dacanay | Feb 19 2020

Contemporary sculptor Julie Lluch has assembled her new, old, and larger-than-life sculptures to breathe a fiery installation depicting human rights violation, the images of which are based on Juan Luna’s 1884 classic “Spoliarum.” The collection decidedly stands out among thousands of works shown by 61 galleries at Art Fair Philippines, which runs from February 20 to 23 at The Link in Makati.

In the middle of Lluch’s installation at Galerie Stephanie, entitled, “Irresistible Grace in the Regime of the Plague,” is a bruised, bloody, and half-naked carcass, lying in a pool of blood, and dragged away by rope by a masked man with a gun.

Sculptor Julie Lluch and her 'witnesses' for Art Fair Philippines.

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Surrounding the two stark figures are more than 25 “witnesses,” composed of copies of Lluch’s commissioned old works, the majority of which are larger-than life names. The gallery’s versions are cast marble, made of resin, fiberglass, and marble dust. They are variably tinted with brown, ghost-white, and bronze-like hues.

Jose Rizal

Lluch’s center-stage “witnesses” is Josephine Bracken, who was depicted earlier by the sculptress in a monument in Dapitan, south Mindanao as smiling while reading the letter of her husband Jose Rizal. For Art Fair Philippines, Bracken is shown in tears, holding a three-meter list of names of those who died in the government’s current anti-drug war. The nearby presence of the eight-foot statue of rights defender Jose Diokno underlines Lluch’s theme of upholding human rights.

Her other 19th century historical “witnesses” include national hero Jose Rizal, Emilio Jacinto; and Nazaria Lagos, who was the “Florence Nightingale” of Panay, during the 19th century anti-Spain revolution and the Philippine-American war.

Francisco Balagtas, and President Manuel Quezon (background).

Past and contemporary government officials who surround Lluch’s modern-day Spoliarium include President Corazon Aquino, President Manuel Quezon, Manila Mayor Arsenio Lacson, and Batanes Governor Juan Agudo, who was beheaded by the Japanese Imperial Army during World War II, and whose body was found in 1949. Congressman and San Rafael, Bulacan Mayor Ricardo Silverio Sr., Agusan,del Sur Governor Democrito Plaza, and Binalonan, Pangasinan Mayor Ramon Naval Guico are also depicted. There are artists, too. Poet Francisco Balagtas, and novelist Carlos Bulosan.

Emilio Jacinto

Lesser known “witnesses” include a nun, originally one of a group of seven at St. Paul’s Chartres Garden; two unnamed fishermen, which were part of a bayside monument in Batanes, farmers; and a young boy. The absence of Andres Bonifacio from Lluch’s “witnesses” says a lot about intentional radicalism or art’s limitations, something that is not easily resolved by almost all committed artists.

Lluch and her estranged husband, artist Danilo Dalena, each with a bottle of beer, in their younger and hedonistic days, are also “witnesses.” Entitled “Halcyon Days,” the duo, with their shoulders inseparable, is Lluch’s three-dimensional interpretation of their daughter Aba Sabana Dalena’s old wall painting entitled “Mom and Dad.” Meanwhile, two young women, one asleep after reading a book, the other naked and draped while sleeping on her bell, represent Lluch’s daughter Kiri.

President Corazon Aquino and unnamed fishermen (left).

For the sculptor, all the figures at the exhibit, including her “Picasso Cat” (1987), and “Monkeys” (2016, Finale Gallery), represent “almost everyone, or anything, past and present,” as judges of human rights violations. This makes this issue a universal reaction, not limited by class, status, and gender. All her figures in the exhibit are cuddled, retrieved, and re-kindled like “found objects in my studio,” and not chosen for their theology, ideology or relevant historical roles in advancing non-traditional politics.

The dimension of Lluch’s works is meant to enhance and not dwarf, also to contemporize and contextualize the symbolic carcasses of three gladiators that Luna painted in his “Spolarium” to mirror indirectly the stark injustices of Spain’s colonial rule in the Philippines.

Manila Mayor Arsenio Lacson and Jose Rizal (background).


Powerful images 

When asked what inspired her to rekindle the fire of “Spoliarium” in her installation Lluch says wanted a strong imagery. “I searched for that in Philippine art and ‘Spoliarium’ just cropped up quickly,” she answers. “It was inevitable. Luna’s and my intention were parallel.” Despite the fact that some of her “witnesses” are replication of her previous works, Lluch says her images are strengthened by the historical lineage of her protest art.

Novelist Carlos Bulosan.

Lluch has also chosen not to immortalize any of the paintings of the class-oriented and revolutionary art works of social realists, her colleagues, in the 70s. “They are too close for comfort,” Lluch explains. “Wala pang iconic sa kanila. I admire them, but I haven’t seen any sculptural potential among their works.” In contrast to them, “Spoliarium is very sculptural because of Luna’s classic human figure,” she says.

Pointing out the extra strength of her new installation as enriched by Luna’s classical images, Lluch says they are strong because they are three-dimensional with overwhelming spatial presence. “Big works tend to be heroic,” she points out. “I wanted a centerpiece. I like to grab attention not to myself, but to what I want to say. I hate shrill art, really, but this time I want to shout. We talk about [killings in the drug-war]. One must not stop shouting now. People are getting indifferent.”

Of all recent art works on drug war killings, Lluch’s installation is more ambitious, making her a restless, consummate, and true to form artist. In comparison, the rest of her kind tend to be talky, commentary, and fail on form.

President Manuel Quezon, foreground and Iloilo heroine Nazaria Lagos.

Somehow, protest art with classical images (a necessary disjunction actually) lasts longer in the imagination, and in time, become classical and iconic. When asked if classical images are necessary bridges of revolutionary fervor, Lluch says it doesn’t matter what style you use. “The real problem to be solved is creating balance between form and content, and avoiding propaganda.”

With the astounding impact of her new installation, will Lluch be in the league of Luna and Rizal who, after brilliantly depicting revolutions, fail in joining the bloodbath? “Just like Rizal, his novels cost his life,” she says. “You don’t expect everybody to go to the battlefield. We could not even go to rallies now because of age and the heat.”

Unnamed farmers and a young boy.

Still, Lluch remains relentless in bashing lines of limitations. “I believe that artists should be aware of what is happening and react accordingly,” the sculptor, who is active, angry, energetic, and imaginative at past 70, says.


Feminism and protest

If some of the figures used by Lluch as “witnesses” are judged as silent, indifferent, and more self than socially and historically conscious about the real meaning of “Spoliarium,” the assemblage might possibly be “politically-corrected” with changes of figures and re-blocking.

This is not possible with her “Halcyon Days” as Dalena and Lluch are sealed together, their shoulders joined.

'Halcyon Days' featuring Lluch with estranged artist-husband Danilo Dalena in their younger days.

Halcyon means a highlight that could not be repeated in time. Though nothing can bring back the hour of the former couple’s splendor in art, Lluch’s remembrance of that moment signifies their equality. This is a hindsight, a realization after both were burned by the fire of their passionate creativity. “It is a personal history, a marker,” she says.

“I don’t have to think why that was made. I just put in the tableau what is available,” Lluch adds, but hints that art lures reactions, which in turn break indifference.

Something that Lluch has never been indifferent about is her feminism, and it led to struggles with Dalena. She thinks her beliefs then as a woman, when they were still together in the 80s, might have contributed a lot to their relationship. “I paid for that freedom,” she reveals. “I didn’t give him up. He gave me up.” Dalena has since remarried journalist Nini Gaviola.

'Halcyon Days' featuring Lluch with estranged artist-husband Danilo Dalena in their younger days.

Lluch’s feminist forms, in colored terracotta, remain her best, heart-felt, strongest, and unforgettable artworks: “House on Fire” (1991) is owned by Ateneo Art Gallery; “Cutting Onions Always Makes Me Cry” (1988) is with Fokouka Asian Art Museum; “Trousers Worshippers,” which has a woman passionately pressing trousers on an iron board, is with the Union Bank; “Piscean deluge,” which shows a woman swimming to survive a deluge along with animals, is part of Gilda Cordero Fernando’s collection.

Meanwhile, her “Thinking Nude” shows a woman looking at her nude body. “It is about self-knowledge,” says Lluch. The piece is owned by the Singapore National Museum. “Aerobics Series,” a criticism of woman who make an effort to be beautiful to please men, was bought by Abe Cruz. “Picasso y Yo,” depicts a distraught woman before a burning fish, her daughter in harlequin costume, refusing to eat a cat.

In 1979, she presented a cactus, a phallic symbol, in Sining Kamalig. (Feminist Wilhelmina Orozco accused her of “worshipping the phallus.”) A year later, she started making flowery vaginas in a show in Galerie Bleu. At the time, art critic Leo Benesa told her to drop “Dalena” and use her own brand name.

Looking back, she says that she was trying to find out how far people can take these images back then.

Because? “Feminism is a political art,” she says, simply.