Written by Vicki Holder
Photography by Alfredo and Isabel Aquilizan, Pillars: Project Another Country, 2019, Auckland Art Gallery Toi o Tāmaki, 2019
Three giant artworks are suspended dream-like from small dinghies in the Auckland Art Gallery’s North Atrium, confronting the meaning of community, family, home and relationships.
With their strong socially and ethically aware narrative, Alfredo and Isabel Aquilizan have dedicated a large part of their careers to travelling and exploring the concept of “home” and “belonging” around the world. Their work is in community-based interactive projects where participation is key.
Auckland Art Gallery director Rhana Devenport first encountered the Aquilizans when she worked with them at the Asian Pacific Trienniale in 1999 and was delighted when they came to Auckland last year to create a project at the creative learning centre.
“I threw out a challenge which was, if you come up with an interesting idea for the atrium, we would consider it. And, of course, they came up with a spectacular idea based around the housing crisis and the crazy Sky Tower mashed up into two simultaneous projects.”
She says, the themes the Aquilizans explore and the discussions their work evokes are vitally relevant for Aucklanders today and for the city’s future. “With 39 percent of people living in the Auckland region having been born overseas, these are conversations that truly matter in today’s world.”
This exhibition began with a series of cardboard dream house workshops where the Aquilizans were taken out to Otara and various other places where migrants live in the city. Among their first to take part in the workshops was a group of young Tongan boys, then international students of 17 to 19 year olds who had come to Auckland from places like Peru, Russia, France, Egypt and the Philippines.
Alongside these workshops, gallery visitors were also invited to take part in the project by creating their own homes from recycled boxes, cardboard tape and glue. It formed part of an ongoing series of site-specific projects at the gallery that use art-making to prompt conversations about what makes a home.
The cardboard homes then became part of the installation, large-scale artworks suspended from the Gallery’s North Atrium.
The Aquilizans themselves are no strangers to the feeling of transience that governs the lives of immigrants. In 2006, they moved their own family from Manila to Brisbane in search of a better life for their children with very few possessions in tow.
Says Alfredo: “The country was rife with corruption. There were many economic and political problems. Much of the population were living in poverty.”
Isabel adds: “Around 5000 Philippino people leave the country every day.”
They had been considering a move to Australia and serendipitously, an invitation came to participate in the Sydney Biennale. After making the difficult decision to migrate, they started to consider how the personal upheaval in their lives would serve as a metaphor for displacement.
Before they left, each of their five children was given a traditional Philippino balikbayan box into which they could put a few of their most prized personal possessions to ship them to Australia.
They could not bring everything. Into these small boxes the children neatly packed toys, books, clothes, papers and precious objects. The boxes themselves became the Biennale artwork recalling the family voyage and signifying the displacement and trauma the children endured by having to select only a few of their favourite things.
What many people didn’t know, items they left behind were placed in similar boxes and were also exhibited at a gallery in Manila where they became a reminder of the heartbreak all migrants suffer when they leave.
Both exhibitions made a profoundly stark statement about the importance of keeping a connection to remind of a home left behind. Says Alfredo. “We’re concerned with the idea of keeping a home, finding and defining identity, dealing with the pleasure and the hardships of a journey and orienting oneself.”
As fringe dwellers, they recognise the fragile existence that can lead people to make art from whatever is available all around them and to take pleasure in simple things.
Their work is a journey or a dialogue undertaken with their audiences. “Our approach is more participatory than institutional and can be seen to contribute to a tradition of art that’s socially and ethically concerned about ideas and narratives of other people.
“We love having the ability to connect because it’s difficult to move to a place where we don’t know how to belong. We’re lucky to share this with everyone and to learn who our community is.”
The workshops gave them the opportunity to engage with communities, mining a rich vein that threads throughout their art practice. Installations often result from these workshops or activities in which visitors have been invited to participate and become a document of what has taken place.
While the end result is always stunning, they don’t share the obsession with the visual. “Everything about this practice is the experiential and the notion of art making; taking time to slow down.
“It’s not the object, it’s about putting things together, like the exercises we go through every day. These are important aspects of the work we do. It reminds us that we have things but in the flick of a finger, they will go away.
“What stays is the impact of doing.”
Which speaks loudly of the ephemeral nature of home in today’s transient world.
Exhibition details: From Pillars to Posts: Project Another Country 10am – 5pm daily at Auckland Art Gallery Toi o Tāmaki