Pinaglabanan. It’s a Tagalog word that means “fought over.” Located in what is now San Juan City, Pinaglabanan is where Andres Bonifacio and his Katipuneros kicked off the 1896 revolution against Spain.
A monument commemorating the historical event was built in this genteel neighborhood, with its Spanish-style homes occupied by the descendants of well-to-do Revolutionary families. In one of these homes lived the family of Otilio Arellano, an architect among an illustrious family of other architects. The proximity of Otilio’s house to the Pinaglabanan shrine was more than geographical, for this site would also have to be fought over.
In 1981, while Otilio’s daughter Agnes was on a remote Spanish island, she received the tragic news that her parents and her sister Felicitas had perished in a fire that had razed their home. The news devastated her. But she resolved that the grim specter of destruction would not have the last word. Creativity and life would once more flourish in that place that held such wonderful memories. She vowed that from the ruins of the ashes, the phoenix would soar. “We dedicated the place and the Art that would rise from there to the spirits of the family’s dear departed,” she says. And, thus, Pinaglabanan Galleries came into being.
Together with Bobby Chabet, who also hailed from San Juan and was Arellano’s erstwhile mentor at the UP College of Fine Arts, Agnes chose the name Pinaglabanan for its local significance and its revolutionary appeal. Chabet, who became the Galleries’ first director, had a penchant for the avant-garde and for exciting new modes of expression.
Arellano envisaged a place where artists would have the freedom to explore and the license to experiment. So although the art market may not have been ready, Arellano decided to take the risk.
On Oct. 10, 1984, Pinaglabanan Galleries was unveiled under a full moon. It may have been a soft opening, but the atmosphere was electric with cultural and social luminaries. Its initial exhibit brought together three outstanding artists—Danny Dalena, Jaime de Guzman and Antonio Austria—and one upcoming young sculptor, Tito Sanchez.
Due to Chabet’s keen eye for talent, the coming months had many young artists exhibiting there for the first time; most of whom have since become renowned.
“One artist wanted to paint our narra tree blue and use it as the focus of her hanging installation of blue-patinated brass shards and mirrors,” says Arellano. “It was to represent the ‘aftermath of a nuclear holocaust.’ We just made sure the tree would suffer no permanent damage and that it would quickly recover from the intervention. Then the artist was free to execute her concept. Another artist sawed a hole through the gallery wall to show what was behind and inside the space. This was allowed and assisted, as long as the wall could be restored for the next exhibit.”
A second thrust of Pinaglabanan Galleries was to acknowledge living masters who had not been given due recognition. But it wasn’t just marginalized artists who found a home there. Lucrecia Kasilag, as a birthday present to Chabet, once conducted a “bamboo orchestra” playing an avant-garde piece by José Maceda. “It was so rare and ethereal,” Arellano recalls.
More than 1,000 sq m comprise Pinaglabanan Galleries. The architectural office of Arellano’s father had been spared from the fire and was transformed into four indoor exhibition areas.
A unique feature then was the Black Gallery, which proved a challenge to visual artists. Several used lighting installations along with murals. David Medalla and Kai Hilgemann used tiny lights reminiscent of the night as seen from a descending plane.
But what distinguished Pinaglabanan was that two-thirds of it was outdoor space, split up into a two-level sculpture garden. It was ideal for installation art, which was just emerging as an art form that time.
At one point, Arellano’s life-sized inscape, “Bosch and the Hollow Men”—a tribute to both Hieronymus and Pepito Bosch—was in the lower garden, while her collaboration with architect and bamboo artist Ning Encarnacion, husband and poet Michael Adams, and younger brother, musician and photographer Deo Arellano in “Fire and Death: A Labyrinth of Ritual Art,” turned the grounds into a maze, with the dead ends dealing with different beliefs and philosophies.
Ritualist Robert Villanueva made a living labyrinth of corn planted in two spirals, which grew taller as the exhibit wore on. Joe Bautista had his “Bermuda Triangle,” a triangular mirror ensconced over a triangular sod of grass, reflecting both earth and sky. Tito Sanchez filled the lawn of the lower garden with little white-plaster people no higher than one’s knee. Ground spotlights lit them up as they all ran in one direction while the resident frogs were observed leaping over the miniscule men in white.
All manner of art was given a proper atmosphere in which to develop. There was performance art, as exemplified by Ronnie Lazaro dressed in white overalls that were tied at crucial points by garters to the wall while the blindfolded actor, wielding a baseball bat, lunged at anyone he heard approaching.
The literary arts section produced the “liberated” bimonthly art magazine “San Juan,” which boldly proclaimed, “We publish anything,” and was given free to gallery-goers during openings. In the editorial credit box, it asked that all libel suits be filed in the municipality of San Juan. The editorial staff consisted, at various times, of Krip Yuson, Joy Dayrit, Alfredo Navarro Salanga, Marian Pastor Roces and Cesare Syjuco, although diverse artists and writers, such as Pandy Aviado, were regular contributors.
Each gallery season was opened with “Chromatext”—an exhibition that entwined literature and the visual arts. Writers would get together and shift modes to painting and installation art, or poetry/text mixed with photography, film or video, as well as other creative combinations. Arellano says: “Chromatext was a cradle of sorts for the development of performance art.”
Pinaglabanan Galleries so energized the Philippine contemporary art scene with its cutting-edge exhibitions and extravagant openings that it naturally drew the crème of the art world and the literati into its orbit. Diverse styles and types of art and art-making were encouraged to flourish together, and philosopher Pepito Bosch was often there, vividly adding to the intense discussions on “What is art?”
But although it drew in, it also reached out. It fostered regional exchanges, traveling to different provinces, such as Davao and Bicol, searching for art. It tapped the Baguio Arts Guild, bringing stalwarts Robert Villanueva and Santi Bose down to perform a Cordillera ritual around the dap-ay they built in the sculpture garden, which included imbibing tapuy in their G-strings. Another time, Kidlat Tahimik and German wife Katrin de Guia transformed the venue into the mythical Lemuria.
Curators from various international biennales would come to Pinaglabanan and be taken around to survey the local art scene. In 1986, the Berlin-Manila Exchange happened. Swiss-German artist Luciano Castelli came and showed his punk-erotic canvases alongside the works of painters Fernando Modesto and Raul Rodriguez and sculptors Dan Raralio and Agnes Arellano while a band eructed punk music.
“At the opening, the atmosphere got so charged that one visitor was caught about to slash one of the Castelli oils,” recalls Arellano. Films of Knut Hoffmeister, Rainer Fetting, and Salome were shown alongside Kidlat Tahimik’s “Perfumed Nightmare.”
In exchange, two years later, Arellano went to Berlin with six fellow artists: sculptors Dan Raralio and Edson Armenta, painters Marcel Antonio, RM de Leon, Raul Rodriguez and filmmaker Raymond Red. They brought with them Peque Gallaga’s “Scorpio Nights” and other shorts from the Mowelfund, as well as an old-style jeepney replete with festive colors and a steed of chrome horses up front.
On November 19 at the Crucible, 6 p.m, Agnes Arellano pays homage to her ancestor, Juan M. Arellano, in her exhibit “Salome: Homage to Juan.” Arellano is renowned for his landmark buildings such as the Post Office, the old Senate, and the Metropolitan Theater, but few are familiar with his masterful Impressionist paintings, and even less so with his erotic nudes.