It’s afternoon on a workday, in the middle of the Makati Central Business District, when this writer got to meet Louie Talents and listen to him talk about the meaning of life, the relevance of an artist’s work, and his relationship with his God, one he had so reflected much on, that some people think it’s almost blasphemous.
It’s overwhelming to be around such brilliance. This is the artist who collected Bibles in cities all over the world, only to burn particular phrases into ashes so the remaining words would speak even more clearly to him. Talents said he uses the Bible for his art because he was “intimately familiar with it.”
The 27-year-old soft spoken artist finished his undergraduate degree in Economics in Xavier University-Ateneo de Cagayan; took up another undergraduate degree, in Fine Arts, Painting, this time, at the University of the Philippines Diliman; and went on a scholarship to Paris, at École Nationale Supérieure des Beaux-Arts (ENSB-A), which produced great artists like Claude Monet and Pierre-Augusta Renoir.
His Palanay art project, which he described as “a bit controversial,” started as his thesis in UP. In Bisaya, “palanay” means “to unwind and reflect at the same time,” said Talents, who was raised a Catholic and spent 17 years studying in the Jesuit school in Cagayan de Oro. “My work actually transforms biblical passages into a diary.”
“What I do is I open the Bible randomly,” he said. “I choose the words or a phrase that struck me most. These are the words that had defined my day or whatever happened [that was] significant in my day. And then having found that word, I will erase the unnecessary words through burning, letter by letter.” To do this, Talents uses a pen-like burning tool which he fashioned himself.
It was a way of reconciling his religious background with his experiences in UP so he could come up with something “very personal.” He admitted the artwork was “playing between what is sacred and profane,” even good and evil.
While the burning process brought to mind the burning bush where God talked to Moses in the Old Testament, it was also reminiscent of the fires of Hell. It denotes the Holy Spirit, filling the disciples as signalled by tongues of flame, but also Purgatory, where souls are cleansed by fire.
He was asked by his teachers both in Manila and Paris about where he stood in this duality. In answer he told of how upset his mother got when he was a child and would scribble on the walls.
“So what I did was I took a piece of paper. I wrote an apology letter to my mom, [saying I would] never do it again, sorry, and the only art I knew back then was to burn the side of the paper to [turn it into] a love letter,” said Talents. “So… is it wrong to make a love letter to my God, again?”
Now on his 15th Bible, he plans on traveling more to be able to complete 40 Bibles from 40 cities worldwide, the number, of course, due to its spiritual importance.
Talents painted 21,000 toy soldiers white for his most recent exhibit, which is part of the Atten-hut! art project. (the number 21,000 after the 21-gun salute in a military funeral.) After such a controversial work as Palanay, he thought, “Why not go back to play as an art process?” After all, when he was younger he would play with such action figures, as well as watch a lot of war movies with his father.
Atten-hut!was first installed in the Ateneo de Cagayan College of Law in June this year, then transferred to the Metropolitan Museum in Manila in July. Talents is negotiating on the date for the next exhibit, to be held at the College of Law in UP Diliman.
“It’s a military command: ‘Atteeen-hut!’” said the artist. One that is used to call attention among those in the armed forces. “So the idea there is to call attention about our problems in the justice system.”
Encompassing issues like the trial of former Chief Justice Renato Corona, the recent death of law freshman Marc Andrei Marcos due to hazing, and the delay of decisions in court, the installation is especially relevant as the country commemorates the 29th anniversary of the death of Ninoy Aquino on Tuesday, August 21. The assassination of the Martial Law-era hero remains an unresolved case.
The exhibit launch in Ateneo de Cagayan was just in time for the freshmen orientation at the law school. The students “found it appealing,” and were soon intrigued when Talents began taking their pictures as they were playing with the toy soldiers.
He told them that it wasn’t like the other exhibits that would be gone after a few weeks. After four years, he planned to come back to the school and tell the students, “Hey, I was not joking. Here’s your chance now. You’re at the bridge of your professional [life]. Maybe when you take the bar and you make it, this is your chance [to change things].”
Formed in the shape of unbalanced scales, Talents wanted to remind them “the importance of truth and fairness… in their student life. The moment they step out of that room, 30 million, 40 million [pesos in bribery] can be given, [and] we all go back again to the old system.”
The location of the exhibit used to be a military barracks during World War II, something he wanted the audience to note. Malcolm Hall in UP Diliman, where the College of Law is housed and where the artist hopes to put his exhibit on display next, was also a military hut in the war.
His exhibit at the Metropolitan Museum was part of a collaboration with the Spanish Embassy and the Department of Foreign Affairs, celebrating 200 years of the Spanish Cadiz Constitution, “and how it relates to the Malolos Constitution we had,” said Talents.
He dreams of bringing the toy soldiers to Berlin, in Germany, “where the war began,” at the end of this art project. The artist plans to make a 12- to 13-foot sculpture of the miniscule objects, in the image of a Filipina Lady Justice.
It will have “a Mindanao sword, from my roots, wearing a UP sablay, and the anatomy of a Filipina.” Grinning, he added, “To point out that a third world country can also donate to a first world country in terms of art.”
“I’m not a lawyer to amend these kinds of problems. I’m an artist, and the possible way, the best way, is to remind them, to make them rethink and revisit the idea of what’s going on. As an artist, that’s where I come in in the picture.”