The great wave
As they worked to widen a road in the campus, backhoes have carved a portion of the hill near our college building in the University of San Carlos – Talamban so neatly that it left a wall of exposed limestone, so white it looked like a wall of a gallery.
The idea of an accidental outdoor gallery stuck and I went home thinking of what art I could contribute that would be specific to the site. I thought of the trees and how many of them must have fallen for all the road projects made for our convenience and for all the paper artists have to use to express their whims.
There has to be a way for art to pay back nature or to allow nature to speak through it. This thought bugged me as I began sketching at home. I took a block of recycled wood and started carving an image of a bird using a set of small chisels. Done in a mix of expressionist and cubist style inspired by Picasso’s “Guernica”, my “angry bird” has teardrop eyes and a knifelike tongue that points to the sky as it opens its mouth to signify a mute scream.
When I was finished carving, I spread ink on the woodblock using a brayer or ink roller and pressed fresh paper on it using a spoon. When I pulled out the paper, the image was transferred on it as if it’s been newly drawn. I repeat the process in order to make a limited edition or a set of copies.
Returning to the road construction site the next day, I took out some of my newly printed woodcuts and posted them on the makeshift outdoor gallery. I didn’t realize limestone was hard, so I had to pin my prints using shortened barbecue sticks which I would hammer down with a piece of rock.
Stepping out to view it from a distance, I was delighted to see my “angry bird” prints lined up on the dugout limestone wall. I wondered how the backhoe operator and other workers would react to finding images of birds staring at them with twisted teardrop eyes and knifelike tongues, when they resume work.
Exposed to rain, dust, and even students who would steal the artworks, the woodcut prints are meant to be ephemeral or replaceable. In fact, I also prepared smaller versions of the “angry bird series” that I plan to stick on bamboo sticks so I can plant them like little flags all over the construction site.
I would then turn the woodcut, traditionally made to decorate rooms and galleries, into an outdoor installation or public art. The work thus not only reproduces itself, it transforms into another medium.
This is not, however, new with woodcut, which in essence is really a medium of “mass dissemination”. Ancient European print masters like Albrecht Durer and Rembrandt never limited the number of copies they made from their plates. They were happy to share their work with as many people as possible.
It’s the same with the Japanese ukiyo-e (woodcut printing) artists such as Katsushika Hokusai who would “publish” or sell as many copies of their work before somebody else would start selling knockoffs.
Hokusai was famous for his masterpiece, “The Great Wave”, a depiction of oarsmen struggling against tidal waves whose white froth seem to transform into multiple claws all aimed at them.
No stranger to tsunamis, the Japanese woodcut artist thus made a very subtle statement on our vulnerability against nature. This sense of dread and terror is hidden behind the beauty of Hokusai’s work, which is masterfully composed and executed.
It was the French impressionists who discovered Hokusai’s work and those of other ukiyo-e artists, as many of them were just used as wrapping paper for porcelain, dolls, and other Japanese products that began to flood the European market after Japan opened its doors to trading with the West during the 19th century.
Artists like Van Gogh often copied the Japanese prints as part of background elements in their paintings. Since then, ukiyo-e prints like “The Great Wave” have been reproduced into postcards, t-shirt prints, political cartoons, and even an electronic billboard in Tokyo.
But Hokusai would be delighted if he sees his work being transformed into so many waves of copies and reinventions—for therein lies the power of woodcut. My own woodcut prints did not really stay long on the limestone wall. But the pictures I took of them quickly spread on the Internet.
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