By Hannah Jo Uy
Portrait by Pinggot Zulueta
“He bowed and asked for forgiveness for what his countrymen did to the Philippines,” said Renz Baluyot, recalling an encounter with an apologetic Japanese man in his 60s. This chance meeting happened while Baluyot was completing an artist residency in Osaka last August. “It changed my perception,” he said. “I tried to analyze the feelings that experience gave me and ended up wanting to know more about World War II.”
This was a catalyst that sparked his interest in the subject, which culminated in the opening of his latest show “By Sword and Fire,” at the UP Vargas Museum. The collection was borne out of a year’s worth of research and reflection. Baluyot immersed himself in objects from that era, using his time to visit other areas across Japan that bore the haunting memories of such a dark period. He also buried himself in the archives of the Vargas Library.
“I had a few preliminary works for the show but it was not until I did research that everything was completed. I had a lot of documents, photos, and memorabilia, from the perspective of the people in Malacañang because Vargas was secretary to Pres. Manuel Quezon during the Commonwealth and then made Mayor of Greater Manila during the first years of the war.”
Interacting with these objects had a profound effect on Baluyot. “I realized that it was way different from what we’re used to, such as accounts of civilian survivors and army veterans,” he said. “Presented in the show is an interesting contrast on perspectives from a wide array of characters during that time.”
Details representative of the era include a booklet containing a collection of menus, guest lists, and seating plans for the luncheons and dinners at Malacañang, a display of Vargas’ table and Malacañang seals, a Filipino guerilla’s application to be recognized as a war veteran in the hopes of receiving his pension from the US, propaganda materials dropped by the Japanese planes across provinces in the Philippines, snippets of random bombings during December 1941 juxtaposed in his work, Smoke, and news clippings announcing the arrival of the Japanese.
“I think it’s more of the changing histories and relationships between the Filipinos and Japanese that inspired me,” he said. “How we are different and the same in the context of culture and history, and efforts in learning and remembering traumas from the same events. This sort of crossover also inspired me to incorporate certain objects to create artworks that talk about the two countries at the same time.”
Within the show, Baluyot aimed to indirectly present Filipinos and the Japanese as victims of WW2, drawing on the thread of suffering that binds the human condition regardless of race. “Destruction ‘By Sword and Fire,’ as experienced by all nations involved, was the common element,” he said. “We are so used to Japanese culture now, its food, its customs, its entertainment. This kind of show lets us reassess another important event we share.”
Baluyot shared that, recently, he has become more inclined to explore other mediums outside painting to express his idea. “I believe some non-painting works would be more successful in delivering what you have in mind,” he said. “Objects are powerful tools, especially those with provenance that are in line with your ideas. I love painting and I think that it’s a powerful form of art, but now, I sort of want to present a good balance of 2D and 3D forms.”
Though the show has certainly taken on a more archival nature, Baluyot continues to incorporate his use of rust, a symbol that has continued to fascinate him. An example can be seen in his use of Marston matting, a steel matting brought by the US army and used as modular air strips/runways, particularly on flat areas in Philippine provinces, “which are now being used as fences in old houses.” Baluyot has also taken to using jusi fabric, originally used for barong Tagalog.
“Exploration with objects, old and new, as well as incorporating something new to them,” continues to drive Baluyot. This move toward three-dimensional work has evolved to fascinating pieces, most of which incorporate the use of Plexiglass. Application can be readily seen in many of the pieces included in the exhibit, where the material is used to provide an eerie reminder of how these objects are now simply ghosts, alluding, he emphasized, to presence and absence at the same time. “Plexiglass has an interesting quality when made into an object and when lit for it to emit an interesting impression,” he said.
He continues to play on the complementary nature of tradition and modernity in his work, “It was necessary for me to make the installations as their presence contributes to how the audience experiences the works. Also, since some works use actual objects from WW2, I wanted to present them as directly as possible.”
Indeed, history remains alive. It continues to change as it is told and retold, from new eyes, in new voices. In the hands of Baluyot, history is resurrected to provide deeper insight into the collective human experience.
‘By Sword and Fire’ runs until Aug. 26.