The Philippine Star
A TREE FULL OF Christmas SPIRIT
GERRY LEONARDO NEVER HAD A CHRISTMAS tree in his home. Whether it was not part of his budget for the holidays, or he was just too busy, he never got around to putting it up – even if his daughter asked him for one every year. Now she is 17 year old and has gotten tired of asking.
“I don’t want a Christmas tree in my own house. I want one in my community,” says Leonardo, who prefers to see himself as a toymaker more than an artist. His kinetic sculptures indeed evoke a playful quality of toys meant to engage the viewer.
Leonardo’s sense of community – and his lack of affinity towards the traditional Christmas tree – made him the perfect choice for the Cultural Center of the Philippines’ search for an unconventional tree this holiday season.
It began last year, with a partnership with OMNI Light (Yatai International Corporation), who put up a 50-foot traditional Christmas tree. “We wanted to improve on that with an art installation instead of a traditional Christmas tree,” says Ariel Yonzon, CCP department manager for production and exhibition.
“We would like to believe that the Philippines is quite strong in the contemporary arts sector… We’ve already seen all the Christmas trees at the malls, we’ve seen a million LED lights. So, we wanted to push for a re-imagining of the Christmas tree,” he tells STARweek.
The CCP launched a design contest for the tree with the theme “Paskong Pinoy” and Leonardo’s entry – a towering woman figure made up of individually decorated buoys – stood out among the rest.
Yonzon says, “What was so strong about the concept was the idea of community and charity. The metaphor of the buoys that give life either in the form of sustenance in the catch or to keep you afloat, is just a strong image. That’s what set it apart.”
The use of the buoys in the design was likewise symbolically significant – “We are an archipelago with a lot of fisherfolk. We derive our livelihood from the water,” says Yonzon.
The woman depicted in the tree is the goddess Mebuyan of the Bagobos and Manobos, which may be the last thing you would expect in a Christmas tree design, but the sculpture highlights the ideas of nurturing, comfort and giving – which is the true spirit of the holidays.
“It is a 180-degree turn from the traditional Christmas tree. It is a conceptual essence of Christmas – of nurturing, of giving. And it is so Filipino,” says Yonzon.
Leonardo adds, “The concept is everything we believe in – nurturing each other, unity, giving and receiving.” He also married influences from across the country in his piece – the higantes of Luzon, reflected in the huge figure itself; the pintados of the Visayas, represented by the patterns decorating each ball that makes up the structure; and the goddess Mebuyan from Mindanao folklore.
The use of the buoys was a concept that Leonardo had been toying with for a long time. “It was very personal to me,” he says. “I’ve always thought of floating 1,000 buoys to talk about those who perished during Ondoy.”
Leonardo’s kinetic sculptures have often explored the idea of water – from the iconic Gintong Balanghai trophies of the Cinemalaya Independent Film Festival, to the largescale monument of the Balanghai in Taguig, to the Bamboo Boat installation he put up on the CCP Lawn years ago.
He is fascinated by the traditions and rituals surrounding water – there are many among the Southeast Asian countries – our Filipino ancestors even believed in rowing to the afterlife, as depicted by the figures on the manunggul jars, Leonardo points out.
Leonardo’s tree concept revolves around a play of words: the goddess’ name Mebuyan, which permeates into “may buoy ‘yan” (that has a buoy) – and can even be read as “may bulan”
(there is a moon).
Setting up the piece was no small feat – just the scale of the tree alone was daunting. Yonzon and Leonardo recall the original boom crane operator walking out on site because he did not think raising up the heavy woven head would be possible.
Leonardo was finally able to convince an operator – the third one that they had talked to – to do the job, in the spirit of Christmas.
The buoys also had to be thought through for pricing, the weight of the sculpture and other concerns. Leonardo eventually compromised by using treated paper lanterns that would evoke the same shape and idea of the buoy.
The sculpture is lit from within – another difference from the conventional trees with garlands of lights wrapped around it. According to Leonardo, the lighting gives the idea of light radiating from within.
As the project evolved, a new play of words came up, giving it its final title: Puno ng Diwa which, depending on the accent, can be read as “full of spirit” or “tree of spirit.” Leonardo likes to add a “-ta” at the end, making the title “Puno ng Diwata.”
The community tree is not just shared by the thousands who pass by Roxas Boulevard every day. It was also a communal experience of creation, with students, teachers, volunteers and institutions contributing their own balls to make up the tree. Leonardo, who teaches at the Philippine High School for the Arts, engaged the students, as well as the community in Los Baños, in designing the balls. Teachers from Abra all the way to Mindanao, attending a workshop organized by the National Commission for Culture and the Arts, had a decorating activity as well. Even early birds who attended the CCP tree lighting event were given the chance to draw on their own ball or write a Christmas wish or message – a freedom wall of sorts.
Getting the different sectors of the community involved was the most time consuming part of making the tree, says Leonardo, but it was also the most important aspect – “It had to be done” – as community involvement is really the essence of the piece.
The Puno ng Diwa (or Diwata, however you choose to call it) will stand until Jan. 3 and will continue to grow throughout the holiday season, as more people send in their decorated balls. It is a Christmas tree just as Leonardo envisioned it – a unique symbol of the season of giving and nurturing that is shared by the whole community.
And no, the toymaker still has to put up a Christmas tree at his home.