HEART OF GLASS
Sculptor Ramon Orlina has opened borders through his work
and has taken and odyssey through East and West
By Rod Paras-Perez
Globalization and world class - the two corporate buzzwords of the 1990's. They conjure up images of open borders and products bereft of any particular address. Yet between the buzzwords and reality there is an apparent counter-movement asserting definite borders as well as specific addresses. For example, there's the European Union and the Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation forum.
Both groupings appear emblematic of humankind's eternal longing to be free and at the same time, somehow remain tethered to a spot on earth like a kite anchored on a child's hand. There is an underlying tension in the situation.
It is a tension more than equally felt in the arts, especially among artists around the Pacific Rim. Asian artists had to master essentially Western visual idiom and then had to break away from its fetters to achieve anything of significance. They needed to eschew their visual conventions yet somehow, by tapping deep into their roots, they were able to imbued their works with a world-class aura that somehow still bears a hint of its origin- it's particular address. It is what ultimately makes the works and enriching experience for everyone: East or West.
Ramon Orlina, premier glass sculptor from the Philippines, recently opened his first solo exhibition on the other side of the Pacific Rim - in Seattle where the first meeting of APEC heads of state was convened.
Moreover, what was culturally significant was the special niche Seattle occupies in attracting glass sculptors. It is the home base of well-known glass master Dale Chihuly, whose works are in over a hundred museums around the world including the Metropolitan Museum of New York and the Victoria and Albert Museum in London.
Orlina's show was also the inaugural exhibition for the Bryan Ohno Gallery in Seattle. Ohno is a well-regarded presence among glass connoisseurs. He has been closely associated with the management of Dale Chihuly's art. He regards Chihuly as truly a master of this, century and, moreover, Ohno calls both East and West his home; his commitment to Orlina's works embodies the sentiment.
Ohno actually knew Orlina's works before he met him. Ohno said: "I have known and admired Orlina's work for many years. My first encounter with the artist was at the new Singapore Art Museum, formerly a colonial style Catholic school historically designated and slated for renovation. Orlina was commissioned to replace a large stained-glass window in the chapel damaged during the World War II. In replacing the stained-glass, he created a sculpture that now captivated light from a contemporary point of view."
The encounter made Ohno more determined to introduce the works of Orlina to the United States. But then, opening borders is something Orlina takes as a matter of course. Before his Seattle exhibition, he had made the Asian borders so porous he was exhibiting in Manila, Hong Kong, Kuala Lumpur and Singapore and doing commissioned pieces throughout Southeast Asia. And when one of his exhibitions opened at the Grand Hyatt in Hong Kong, collectors from Singapore and Taipei flew in to make their reservations for his glass sculptures. Even his lifestyle embodies a rather open viewpoint. He married a Malaysian barrister, Lay Ann Orlina, whose roots can be traced to China. And to his first-born, he gave the name Naesa - ASEAN (Association of Southeast Asian Nations) backward.
Orlina's participation exhibitions are equally far-ranging. These include the Tokyo International Art show, the Osaka Triennale in sculpture, and the Suntory Prize Exhibition in Tokyo. He also exhibited in the National Museum of History in Taipei and the National Museum of Singapore. But his most exotic exhibition appearances came at the VII Biennial International De Arte Valparaiso in Chile and the XII Grand Prix International d'Art Contemporain de Monte Carlo in Monaco.
Orlina's cosmopolitan stance also carries nonconformist tendencies. Except for his Bryan Ohno Gallery show in Seattle, his solo exhibitions were mounted in what can be termed as alternative spaces - mostly hotel lobbies - away from the artist-gallery-collector circuit but not excluding established museums or institutional galleries. It's a tension-charged stance so palpably present in his sculptures, too.
Next to clay, glass is possibly one of the oldest materials to accept man's vision. Glass is traditionally blown into shape while hot and malleable. This is the method used by American master Chihuly who has given glass a most contemporary feel. Glasswork can also be cast, in the same way as bronze. The foremost practitioner of cast glass sculpture is the Czech Stanislas Libensky. But Orlina does not follow the usual way of handling glass. He neither blows nor cast his works. Instead, he molds the glass as a sculptor would a piece of marble or any stone. Often by painstakingly grinding each work into the shape or form he wants. His mode is the oldest way of making sculpture although not necessarily that of working glass.
He also uses recycled industrial glass. Once in a while, Republic Glass in the Philippines is closed in order to clean up the accumulated glass droppings - known as cullets - on the factory floor. They come in boulder-like blocks, in various sizes and configurations. He then studies the blocks before deciding what form his work will take. In the true sense of sculpture, the finished work is ineffable melding of material and Orlina's idea or vision.
Initially, the very size of the available cullet limited not only the form but the scale of his works. So his early sculptures were intimate and small in size - table pieces. Occasionally, commissioned works demanded a more monumental scale such as the mural -size commissions similar to the Singapore window. His handling of glass then shifts to the material as paneling or sculptural facings.
Moreover, eventually Orlina explored modular combinations of units which gave him more freedom in working with large-scale pieces. He also discovered alternative sources of crystals and glass blocks which now gives his work a grater range of colors.
Essentially, he works his abstract forms. This leaves his art without any cultural hang-ups and readily acceptable from culture to culture. This is true, but only to a point. There is actually an underlying sensibility which is partly a legacy of the Philippine Neo-Realist movement - the group who emerged immediately after World War II led by three modernist vanguards, Vicente S. Manansala, Hernando R. Ocampo and Ceasar F. Legaspi. All of them were eventually grouped as National Artists. Yet their legacy was as role models - passing on to successive generations of artists their vision.
It was a mode of vision which abstracted reality by reducing what was seen to its essential form. This was of course in a Western context the legacy of Cubism. But it was Cubism put into Filipino setting.
Even when Orlina ventures into a more pronounced reference to reality - such as his series of torsos with vivid suggestions of generously nourishing breasts - the sense of abstraction can still be felt in the fluent swing of the enveloping line. And sometime he ventures into more explicit imagery, conjuring an image echoing into infinity.
His link with the past filters into his works. There is a sense of place, an address, a sort of anchor in an otherwise freewheeling world of endless portability. Like more artist in Asia, his roots provide the uniqueness in his work. Yet as the Zen master will ask: "What is the sound of one hand clapping?" So tradition and a global vision are sometimes reduced to pure form. From bereft of a sense of place. Sometimes even from purposely devoid of personality. And form free of national borders. Yet it is possible?
There are aspects in Orlina's glass sculptures which lend themselves to pure form - and contemplation. There is an immediate allure inherent in glass as a material. But the ultimate defining factor is how the artist made his work exist with light. Not simply the light embracing and revealing the form with glass, but also it penetrates the work. And changes its form.
These elements, by themselves, may entail a lifelong pursuit. And they may open the door to globalization. But that will be a matter of "one hand clapping". Fortunately, architect Ramon Orlina, now glass sculptor par excellence, continues to handle both tradition and innovation in perfect ten harmony. That's the hallmark of a master.
Monday, Jan. 13, 1997