The furor about the “floating woman” statue at the University of the Philippines-Diliman has died down, but the debate on the nature of art and its inspirations flows on.
Sculptor Ferdinand Cacnio’s “UPlift” was recently installed in front of the UP Theater (Villamor Hall). The 7-foot long brass statue is of a naked woman floating on her back, face upward to the sky; the entire mass is tethered to the base by the figure’s long hair.
It simultaneously reaped praises and was the subject of heated controversy. Accusations of plagiarism were bandied about, citing the “Virgins of Apeldoorn,” a group of three similarly floating women statues in the Netherlands.
Cacnio denied copying the said artwork. Others defended him, giving examples from Cacnio’s body of work over the years that explore this theme of buoyant females.
The discourse on the matter asked the questions, how is art made? If one creates a work that looks similar to another, is that imitation or inspiration?
In visual art, there are common tropes that emerge from time to time, as artists exercise their own take or vision on a particular theme. An exciting aspect of creation is the technical side: how would I execute this myself? What if I make it in another medium or material? How can I make it ‘mine’? That seems to be what happened here.
It’s a popular enough theme. Google “floating woman statues” and you’ll find images of such works from other countries and times that look basically the same.
Cacnio’s UPlift is lovely and appealing. Its form and figure conform to current standards of beauty and is thus pleasing to the eye. The pose is natural, and looks like a woman floating in water, with the legs slightly submerged lower than the head.
Cacnio has been quoted as saying that the statue’s outstretched arms symbolize openness, “the most important quality of a UP education.”
Now, on to another issue. There are some who call it “the female Oblation,” perhaps as a shorthand or easy label. A marvelous artwork that UP and the country can be proud of, yes. But as a symbol of UP and all it stands for, as the Oblation is, no.
Why ‘no’? Because of semiotics.
Cultural artifacts, even gestures and actions, are symbolic. When we see a thing, what often comes to mind are the meanings attached to it, and we interpret that thing according to our frame of reference.
For instance, when I saw UPlift was, my first thought was, why is she on her back? Is she asleep? Dreaming? In a trance? Swimming in Boracay? She seems disconnected from reality, helpless, powerless, without agency. Worst interpretations: does this mean a woman does her best work on her back? Is she being abducted by aliens or beamed up by Scotty?
Far better representations of what women are and strive to be as UP students and graduates are “Dakila” and “Magdangal,” also sculptures on the campus.
I’ve always admired Sandra Torrijos’s “Dakila,” which stands in front of the UP Center for Women’s Studies.
It is a stout figure of a woman dressed in a Philippine flag made of tiny tesserae (mosaic tiles). On her head is a crown of leaves, in her hand an open book, with an image of a little girl on a page. It’s a work full of symbols: patriotism, strength, steadfastness, the sense of identity as a Filipino, the love of nature, motherhood and nurturing, knowledge and learning, the young as hope and future.
Similarly, Napoleon Abueva’s “Magdangal,” a sculpture in metal, conveys strength and power.
She stands feet apart and firmly planted, head to the side in an alert pose. She seems to be walking, on her way somewhere with purpose. Her body is not sexy like UPlift’s, in fact it is stocky in comparison, but it is gorgeously muscled, with jutting breasts, defined abs, and robust thighs and calves. I’d take Magdangal’s body over UPlift’s any day; it looks like it’s sturdy enough to take me where I need to go.
The university is fortunate that it now possesses the Cacnio work in addition to these two and the many other sculptures that grace the campus. UPlift is now part of UP lore.
Whether it conveys the idea of openness, as the maker intended, is a subject that will spark spirited discussions, even as all works of art invite our attention and engagement as we attempt to decipher their hidden meanings.
Dr. Ortuoste is a California-based writer. FB: Jenny Ortuoste, Twitter: @jennyortuoste, IG: @jensdecember, @artuoste