At first, the figures in Grace Alfonso’s public art “Culture of Sharing Wisdom” appear to comprise a tableau – a set of motionless figures attempting to tell a story. But a closer look seems to reveal that there is no grand narrative to tell here. Each figure, while close to each other, seems to be evoking its own world — personal, contextual, individual.
Each figure stands or sits firmly in his or her own space — gazing at different horizons and not sharing glances with each other.
Their seeming disconnection is countered by the kataka-taka laves that surround and crawl between them. The katakataka or “wonder plant” (Brophyllum pinnatum), as the creator of these figures said, represents the “essence of wisdom that flows within the University of the Philippines Open University”. It symbolizes how knowledge can possibly be co-created in this digitally connected world. The leaves appear both on the ground and on the figures’ arms, as if blurring the internal and external dichotomy of knowledge conceptions.
The alternation of lines and shadows on their bodies represent the rhythm of life, in which this culture of sharing knowledge is enacted every day. And so while the figures are not exactly directly speaking to each other, they are in fact communicating with each other through the matrix of knowledge systems that embed the worlds they live in. The figures are therefore both in the same and different lifeworlds at the same time – thus altering traditional notions of space and temporality, which open and distance e-learning has been known for.
Where traditional sculptures in the university stand on a pedestal beckoning to be iconized or even venerated, the four figures stand or sit on the earth. They are part of the natural environment – more exposed not only to the elements but also closer to observation by the viewing public. Taking a good photo of the more iconic sculptures on campus requires a long shot or that from the ground, both of which emphasize the grandness of the figure. In this new work, viewers can easily take pictures of themselves side by side with, behind, or even while sitting on the figures themselves. The space created allows for more ways of engaging with the viewers, which makes it at home in the open or flatter world that we currently live in. Just as the configuration allows for greater participation, it also exposes the work to all kinds of scrutiny. That the figures are not cast in classical or ethereal poses, also makes them more “susceptible” to less “heroic” story weaving. In other words, this is a spot more suited for selfies and meme-making.
The figures are located just outside the main entryway to the UPOU main building. They seem to proclaim the dawning of new ways of creating knowledge in this post-industrial world. In spite of this, the work also seems to draw inspiration from the pre-colonial or dare I say, the imagined pre-Filipino.
Just like the Oblation standing inside the campus, theirs are distinctly Filipino faces, bodies, and complexion. And yet these figures have a more pre-colonial feel to them. The bodies and faces seem to be caught between the primitive and the modern. Is the woman on the left sitting on a box waving at a person on a videoconference or is she saying incantation on a sick person as a babaylan would? Do the stripes on their bodies make them humanoids or pintados?
Although the work seems oblique in its pre-colonial musings, it is more lucid in its affinity with modernity’s hope for knowledge and its role in nourishing societies, as embodied by the katakataka leaves enveloping the figures. The katakaka motif was first immortalized in the UP Oblation, which its creator, said symbolizes the heroism of the Filipino people.
Katakaka, just like the quintessential Filipino, is resilient as it is able to “sprout into a young plant” wherever it is thrown. It is in the continuous regeneration of knowledge – its creation, adaptation, and re-construction – to where the future of the post-industrial Filipino learner lies. It is in the application of this adaptive knowledge in Philippine society where its meaning finds resonance.
The wisdom of the pre-modern, the rationality of the modern, and the possibilities of the post-industrial, all intersect the Filipino learner’s body and mind. It is up to him and her to keep asking questions, search for possibilities, and share understanding amidst the cacophony of voices in this digital age. Maybe art is saying that more than searching for Truth, what is important is for us to keep a sense of wonder, or pagkataka-taka. To wonder is to open up possibilities. Ang pagtataka ay pagbubukas sa maaari pang mangyari.
Author: Prof. Primo G. Garcia (Chair, UPOU Cultural Committee)
Photographer and Voice Actor: Keizer Philip B. Ancajas (Student, UPOU Bachelor of Arts in Multimedia Studies)