Pioneering installation artist Junyee couldn’t have timed it better if he had planned it himself.
He had been working on a large bamboo installation on the front lawn of Vargas Museum at the University of the Philippines (UP) Diliman campus, on the subject of the current COVID-19 crisis. The work, titled “Kwarantin,” was to have opened on March 14, but due to the “community quarantine” that was declared just the day before, the opening was canceled.
“My ‘Kwarantin’ was quarantined!” quipped the artist when we reached him in his studio in Los Baños, Laguna.
He had actually started work on the installation on Feb. 18 and finished on Feb. 22, well before the government’s declaration of a state of emergency, and certainly before the subject of a “quarantine” came up. He had titled it “Quarantine,” he says; the title was later changed to the Tagalog spelling.
“I was asked by [Vargas Museum curator] Patrick Flores to do a bamboo installation long before this deadly virus thing, and I already had several designs, but I changed it when COVID-19 struck,” he says.
“‘Kwarantin’ is Junyee’s spare take on a timely issue that bears immense weight on people all over the world uncertain about a possible contagion,” reads the curatorial notes.
“With the assistance of Pitopito Artists Group Cavite, Junyee constructs bamboo beds enclosed in tall, uneven rails and with black marks dispersed across the space. The beds are strewn on the museum lawn to index a state of unrest. The artist, believing in the endless possibilities brought about by bamboo as material, invites viewers to reflect on the limits set not only by the virus on everyday activity, but also by the tentative responses of governments toward the viral problem.”
“Kwarantin” was intended as an interactive installation, says Junyee. Viewers were to have been provided with flashlights to place around and under the structures of the piece at the opening.
“This COVID-19 put all of us, the whole world, in fact, under quarantine,” says the artist. “It’s not just the patients or suspected individuals, but all of us dreading the possibility that we might be next, and praying that it ends soon. Until then our fear puts us in quarantine… I tried to capture in my installation not just the place or the people quarantined in that place, but the universal feeling of fear of this deadly demon.”
Born in Agusan del Norte in 1942, Junyee studied at the College of Fine Arts of UP Diliman. It was while he was an apprentice with National Artist Napoleon Abueva that, in 1970, he created an outdoor work made of bamboo strips and various objects that he titled “Balag,” after the Visayan word for “trellis.” It is widely acknowledged to be one of the first installations in Philippine art.
Junyee’s work in that vein has won critical acclaim both locally and internationally.
He also established Sining Makiling, an art gallery in the UP Los Baños campus. INQ