A wreath of flame. An awe-inspiring conch shell. If you have been a religious attendee of UP Diliman’s year-end celebrations over the past few years, you might have noticed a distinct change in the artistic installations people are used to seeing in the University’s Oblation Plaza.
Everyone from nostalgic alumni to casual visitors have most likely marveled at the keen attention to detail and the rich symbolism that characterize the massive themed structures in front of Quezon Hall over the past few Decembers. At the heart of these displays are the giant lanterns enfolding the Oblation—UP’s most iconic figure—that give a meaningful and otherworldly beauty to events like the Pag-iilaw and the Lantern Parade.
Famously designed by UP artist Toym Imao, these figures serve as concrete representations of the overall Celebration themes—themes that define UP Diliman’s identity and purpose in contemporary Philippine society. But what do they mean, exactly, and what is the process that goes into making the themes that inspire them?
“The year-end celebration is a reminder and a celebration of the good things that UP Diliman contributed to the community—to the nation, and even to the world,” says Dr. Sir Anril Pineda Tiatco, the celebrated dramaturg, scholar, and director of the UP Diliman Information Office (DIO), one of a select core of artists who convene yearly to develop the year-end theme celebrating UPD’s important national role.
Tiatco and colleagues DIO Deputy Director Jem Javier, UP Theater Complex (UPTC) Director Jose Estrella, and UPTC Technical Director Barbie Tan-Tiongco come together as early as August to exchange ideas on both the theme and the central image for the installation. By the time the UPD Committee on Year-End is constituted a month later, the group is more than ready to present their initial ideas.
“As soon as the committee approves the theme and the image, we immediately discuss them with the artist,” Tiatco says. “Imao provides a series of studies. We talk about his studies until we come up with something – a compromised version, in a way.” Some important constraints on the final output, he notes, are: (a) a tight budget, (b) comprehensibility (can the community relate to the piece?), and (c) aesthetics. The last can be a tricky variable to navigate, especially when different artists can have different visions and creative backgrounds to inform them.
“I remember in 2016, it took three weeks before we finally used Himig ng Diliman as our central theme. Originally, we wanted to use Tipunin ang mga Tinig, but we thought it was uninteresting and not indicative of how UP Diliman should present itself to the public”.
The end-results of these long discussions, however, are now storied parts of UP Diliman’s history.
The debut year for Tiatco and his colleagues was 2015. It featured the year-end theme Dingas (spark), which celebrated, according to Chancellor Michael Tan, UP Diliman’s role as a spark and facilitator of national discourse. Capturing this ideal was the installation Sulo (torch), which saw the Oblation surrounded by sparks of molded steel and plastic. In-between the space between the sparks were three bamboo triangles representing the islands of Luzon, Visayas and Mindanao.
“In a way the dingas or spark is a testament to UPD’s character as a trailblazer,” Tiatco says, “but subtly it is also a reminder to be careful because others are there to follow. It is a reminder of our social, political, cultural and even moral duties. I believe that ‘spark’ is both exciting and daunting.”
The following year’s installation was Budyong at Tambuli, named after the instruments of the same name. In precolonial times, Tiatco says, the sound of the budyong heralded the coming of a visitor or of imminent danger. “What we wanted to present back then was the role of UP Diliman as an institution that heralds the community and its role in announcing the coming of danger.” Here he recalls Imao’s reminder about UP’s tradition of progressive action and thought that warns against threats to the liberties of the people. “The installation vis-a-vis the theme Himig ng Diliman symbolizes UP Diliman’s voices and narratives of the joys and achievements, and at the same time the struggles and dissents.”
“This year,” Tiatco promises, “we will be playful and childlike.” Indeed, the year-end theme for this month’s celebration is UP Diliman: Paaralan/Palaruan, inspired by the author Johan Huizinga’s idea of the centrality of “play” in the foundation and formation of culture. Games, the idea goes, are rule-bound, but also contain within them the possibility of these rules’ being transcended and remade by their own players for the better.
Complementing this theme is the lantern-installation, Mulat, which sets the Oblation against a giant eye woven with colored threads that represent diverse ways of seeing. This eye watches over a field of outlines of children at play lining the plaza—representing those who have been lost in senseless conflict, and glowing against the darkness. The University here is represented as an entity watching over the people and an initiator of movements that level the playing field “against threats to society and those who do not play fair.”
“There are two important images—children and an eye,” Tiatco says. “The kids are happily playing and a huge eye is watching over the kids. Sort of saying that we are responsible for the children. We should take care of our kids. We mould our children—their becoming is our responsibility.”
While the mere presence of these structures no doubt inspire wonderment due to their sheer immensity and craftsmanship, Tiatco hopes to emphasize their more functional community role.
“While it is true that they are symbolic, I want to emphasize that these are installation arts,” he says. “These art objects are necessary because they help us reflect about the world we live in, and about UP Diliman.” More specifically, their presence allows us, the beholders, to “defamiliarize” ideas and situations that we believe to be commonsensical.
“Most of the time, we only recognize the importance of an object when we start defamiliarizing them,” Tiatco emphasizes. “I think that’s what these huge installations have been trying to do since 2015.”
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