Ryan Villamael, installation view of Locus Amoenus, 2024. Photo: Courtesy Esplanade – Theatres on the Bay

Ryan Villamael

Singapore and Manila

Esplanade Singapore and Silverlens Gallery

The main concourse of Esplanade Singapore, the national performing arts center, is usually filled with bustling crowds and tourists taking pictures. I have visited a fair number of times, but right now it’s like stepping into a garden. A grand climbing vine canopies over a large swathe of the atrium and casts a shade so dense that not a ray of sunshine would penetrate (if the ceiling were see-through). The effect is bold and picturesque, precisely adapted to the space. And though the illusion of lush foliage is impressive, this vine neither fades nor dies. Ryan Villamael’s monumental Locus Amoenus (on view through July 7, 2024) is tour de force of cutting paper, and it gives a captivating sense of life and fragility.

Villamael inflects spaces, locations, and structures. Like a form of drawing in space, his work is sculpture and non-sculpture; architecture and non-architecture. Resembling Monstera deliciosa (an invasive tropical plant, also known as the “Swiss cheese plant”), his gracefully shaped work—clambering over the trellis, dangling above escalators and parapets—gives a new character to the entire concourse space. Thousands of large, heart-shaped leaves, some patterned with holes, glow in shades of pastel orange-red, blue, and purple. Some look like large pouting buds, thick as blossoms, in a tint between carnation and lilac, each bountiful bunch of blooms shaped like those of a bougainvillea bonsai tree. Previous iterations of Locus Amoenus, encapsulating ideas of landscape, botanical analysis, and architectural form, have been installed at the Singapore Art Museum, the Ateneo Art Gallery in Manila, and the Biwako Biennale in Shiga Prefecture, Japan.

A closer look reveals that both sides of the leaves are made from repurposed vintage maps, with the lines positioned to resemble delicate veins. The metaphor at the heart of Villamael’s work at Esplanade Singapore—as well as in his recent solo exhibition, “Return, My Gracious Hour,” at Manila’s Silverlens Gallery—looks to personal and collective memories surrounding the American and Spanish occupations of the Philippines (where the artist was born), and how those memories reflect and embody trauma and identity in the present.

Ryan Villamael, Memories of My Town, 2023. 30 framed paper works and 8 powder-coated metal leaves, dimensions variable. Photo: Courtesy Silverlens (Manila/New York)

The invocation of nature—privileging rural society as a bastion of the Philippine communal spirit—was reflected in Memories of My Town (2023), the centerpiece of the Silverlens exhibition. Villamael installed sculptures of anahaw fronds (the national leaf of the Philippines), along with Monstera and banana leaves, along one wall, the long, graceful stalks towering upward like the long-handled pheasant feather fans of ancient emperors. Swaying gently in the air, they cast shifting shadows on the wall and floor. Thirty small wooden frames hanging neatly among the sculptures featured book-size floral cutouts, superimposed on black and white archival photographs of scenes in Luzon and Manila Bay, showing nipa houses, bamboo bridges, and coconut groves, all taken during the American occupation. The photos effectively register rural aesthetics and the ideology of colonialism, but it was in the precisely cut paper fragments of intricate, multi-veined leaves and stems that Villamael achieved a hallucinatory poetics. Combined, these two elements articulate Villamael’s ambition to connect sculpture to architecture, or more precisely, to the rural environment where he grew up. In his hands, botanical art, a beautiful fusion of art and science, is a coming home.