Friday, May 2, 2008

Within Biting Distance

"Bamboo Boat," installation art by Gerry Leonardo, Feb. 2008, Cultural Center of the Philippines, Pasinaya 2008.
Raul Agner 4/29/08

On any given weekday high noon, human and vehicular traffic at Zobel and Mercedes Sts. in Ermita are at their heaviest. A good part of the student demographic from schools in the hood swarm to the row of kainan for their lunchtime refueling. Caught up in the dizzying swirl of hungry stomachs and eager intestines crisscrossing the narrow backstreets to pick the best hole-in-the-wall are the hapless motorists taking a short-cut route to San Marcelino. From perhaps a smooth 50-kph sweep of Ayala bridge, they decelerate to pushcart speed on left turn to people-clogged Mercedes and Zobel. The scorching heat or the drenching torrential rains, whatever the case, raises the whole commingling one notch higher to inconvenience.
Even so, there's a fiesta mood in this quotidian chaos. Smiling faces, school uniforms (ditched on "wash Wednesdays" in favor of chic, colorful casuals or emo-gothic statements), personal accessories, school thingamajigs, smoking barbecue stands, vehicles of different colors and shapes, lingering election campaign buntings and posters - all make up a psychedelic assemblage reminiscent of a Joya abstract or a Pollock "dripwork." If a background musical score were to be supplied, any opus with displaced tonality would be hands-down appropriate.
Food counters display a slew of mouthwatering offerings to choose from, ranging from the succulent adobo to the hot and spicy Bikol express, from the crispy chicken to the sauce-dipped barbecue and from the crunchy half-cooked toge to the soupy mongo. But reality TV-type hindrances must first be hurdled before one can finally enjoy a piping hot meal, including dodging oncoming vehicles, steering clear of sidewalk grilling stands, vying for the food attendants' attention and jockeying for tables and chairs in trip-to-Jerusalem fashion. Once these are accomplished, then he can settle on the hard-earned chair and put the grub where the mouth is, in partial fulfillment of one's ego's requirements (parang thesis title ah?).
Yes, "in partial fulfillment" because food, wherever or whenever taken, satisfies only half of the human person, the body, but not the soul, which needs a totally different kind of nourishment. And while one won’t find such nourishment in this crowded nook of Ermita, it's not like you'll have to spend a fortune in order to enjoy it. In not a few cases, they can be had for free or at a minimal expense. All it takes is a nosy detective's perspicacity to find them. Art, literature, music, dance, architecture, theater, film - all food for the soul you’ll surely agree (in addition of course to your religious beliefs and practices) - are around every which way you look; and what better place to start than the vicinity of Adamson University.
For the architecture buff, the area around the university provides an eyeful. The dilapidated Meralco building along San Marcelino was a beautiful art deco structure in its heyday but even in its present state of rot, some elements remain artistically pleasing. On the extreme left of its façade is a big cement bas-relief by Francesco Monti consisting of female figures composed in an upward-left movement. Appearing sooty, one cannot quite make out what the figures are doing but its sheer size must have added a touch of class to the building when it was new. There are other smaller sculptures that can be seen in some wall niches and the decorative pattern beneath the second story overhang is quite pleasing. This is balanced by the rooftop iron grills and the main entrance iron gate. Monti was an Italian sculptor who taught at UST before the war. His works can also be seen gracing the exterior of the Manila Metropolitan Theater, itself a fine member of the art deco family that once included the now forever gone Jai-alai building, its disappearance courtesy of then Manila Mayor Lito Atienza. The hood teems with neoclassical stuff too. Easy shoo-ins as best representatives are the Post Office, the National Museum and the Tourism buildings, the Supreme Court, Department of Justice and U.P. Manila buildings. Our own SV building belongs to this grand architectural breed and tradition.
Visual arts groupies have many venues to visit. First off is the National Museum where the humongous Juan Luna masterpiece, the "Spoliarium," hangs as a proud testament to world class Filipino artistry. If one is looking for an equally impressive Filipino mural, there’s a Botong Francisco at the Manila City Hall and a freshly restored one at the Fleur-de-lis Theater of St. Paul University, Manila. In-house, we have the three newly acquired Amorsolos, all bequeathed by Sofia Adamson, late wife of the late George Athos Adamson, former Dean of the College of Engineering. Hunting for contemporary art is a no-brainer; all one has to do is go to nearby commercial and alternative galleries like the Galeria de las Islas and NCCA Galleries in Intramuros, the Kanlungan ng Sining at the Luneta, or the Philam Life building and Hiraya Gallery along U.N. Ave. Bobi Valenzuela, well-known and respected art curator, and Manny Chaves, his assistant, used to hold court at the Hiraya during the ‘80s and early ‘90s. Hiraya, still open at present, used to be an exhibition space that showed works that were not only well-crafted but also rich, relevant and progressively Filipino in content. Some of the best contemporary Filipino artists came out of that cul-de-sac: Santi Bose, Imelda Endaya, Emong Borlongan, Charlie Co, Nune Alvarado, Noel Cuizon, Mark Justiniani, Bobby Feleo to name a few. Skip the Mabini area tourist art galleries for they have been painting to death the same subjects over and over again from way way back.
Music enthusiasts also have different venues to pick the preferred free musical fare. Fridays at Paco Park is concert day with both amateur and professional performers giving out their best. Classical pieces, timeless kundiman, pop music are some tunes to sit down to in the quaint and airy ambience of the former cemetery. Sundays at the Luneta open-air theater are concert days too but with a more variegated offering. If you’re lucky, you can catch such rare gems as Joey Ayala, Grace Nono, Lester Demetillo, The Wuds, Susan Fernandez Magno, Noel Cabangon or Bayang Barrios. But they come few and far between. Last April 6, 2008, park habitués were treated to a four-hour music and dance concert by a cross-section of the best cultural groups and individuals within and outside Metro-Manila. What a rich variety of Pinoy talents and artistry on the occasion of “Concert at the Park’s” 30th anniversary.
Museums, where our Filipino soul can best be felt, are also in the vicinity. With the National Museum just a few brisk steps away, Adamsonians couldn’t get any luckier. With its new addition – the Museum of the Filipino People housed in the old but refurbished former Finance building, the neoclassical twin of the Tourism building which in turn was the former Agriculture building right up front – the place is a cultural gold mine waiting to be explored. In Intramuros, the culture-hungry Adamsonian can visit the San Agustin Museum, the Archdiocesan Museum of Manila and inside Fort Santiago, the Rizal Shrine. Along Roxas Boulevard stands the Museo Pambata beside the U.S. Embassy. In case one has a day to spare, he can purposely go to the Cultural Center of the Philippines not only for its shows but also to see the beautiful non-conventional set-up of the Museo ng Kalinangang Pilipino. In the CCP galleries and hallways, one has the added bonus of seeing ongoing art exhibitions by select contemporary visual artists.
Admittedly, theater is rarely free but tickets are not always prohibitive. If one is really interested in experiencing it, then he wouldn’t really mind the cost. An alternative to theater is performance art done usually by visual artists who act out their ideas and convictions alone or with the support of fellow artists or friends. These are for free. Last April 25, 2008, the Kanlungan ng Sining at the Luneta, home of the Art Association of the Philippines, held the “Tupada,” a performance art event joined by artists coming from different parts of the world.
There are more in the vicinity for the Adamsonian’s educational uplift. Public art, historical buildings, old churches, plazas, and many other cultural events abound. So next time you feel like spending another hour on a TV gossip show or get that itch to play a round of DotA (Defense of the Ancients!) or any other mind-zapping computer game, skip it. Think of these alternatives. Think about the finer things in life that your soul badly thirsts for. You may not realize it but you may be already culturally dehydrated and in danger of spiritual meltdown.
Food for the body, culture for the soul - no diet could be more perfectly balanced than this.

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