While crushed rocks are sprinkled on Manila Bay to make it look like Boracay, on another side of the capital, artist Leeroy New scavenges for softdrink and soy sauce bottles by the Pasig River. He would transform the rubbish into aliens and monsters that are as much social commentary as they are works of art.
The 34-year-old interdisciplinary artist was always a weird kid. Growing up in General Santos City, New reveled in sticking out from the crowd. He was drawn to horror, sci-fi, and folk stories, drawing pages and pages of monsters from worlds barely imaginable from the one he was confined in. Or at least, at the time, worlds he was just yet to see.
“What’s fascinating about the idea of monsters is they are human constructs, they’re man-made. And basically the physical configuration of monsters, ikaw bahala since they’re borne out of people’s humanities and imaginations,” Leeroy said.
When New was born in the mid 1980s, the Philippines was starting to recover from decades of strongman rule. While he grew up with a fairly comfortable life, his fantasies would always gravitate toward the otherworldly. The idea of despotic monsters and grotesque aliens easily became the characters in what he referred to as "the sci-fi landscapes of his dreams”.
Leeroy New finds beauty in the city's filth
Which is most probably why it's easy for him to deal with urban monstrosities on a daily basis, from painting the walls of the Pasig riverside under Manila’s sweltering heat to turning them into alien-like body wear.
New does not shy away from dirt. He looks for it. Manila’s trash became the vehicle for him to fit into a world that he wanted to belong in and change at the same time.
“I see it all the time, I’ve conditioned myself to look for it. I moved towards what was available here in Manila,” he said. The first time he went to Divisoria, he immediately fell in love with its cultural significance feeling as though he was getting a pulse of the country itself. He traded paint brushes for plastic bottles, paint canvasses for street walls, and the usual paint for plastic tubes – he was devoted to the idea that he was using what the people were using.
His work was informed by the Filipino sensibility to transform surplus materials into decorative pieces for celebrations and fiestas, and it became his second nature as he consciously distanced himself from what is deemed traditional in art.
During his time at the UP College of Fine Arts, New was already impatient. His time at the Philippine High School for the Arts (PHSA) was a huge cultural reset not just for a teenager who was suddenly plucked from the South of Mindanao, but also as a young artist who was suddenly exposed to the idea that art has moved on from merely painting. Here and there, he would propose to galleries and he possessed a kind of arrogance which only came from his genuine need to do more.
“I was generally declined in these galleries. Owners would say, ‘People think you’re too young, come back when you’re much more experienced.’ I didn’t take it personally because for me, so what? There are always the streets where I can present my work in.”
On his third year, he and his friends put on fake MMDA uniforms and painted along EDSA. While he did succeed in putting on his own show at the UP Vargas Museum in his last year in UP, it was his ambitious street works that brought him to the art world’s consciousness.
He collaborates to evolve as an artist
Weird. Biomorphic. Organic. These have been used to describe New's ever-changing body of work that is “always in a state of flux and realization” as he tackled the idea of public spaces as platforms for creative production.
Getting unsolicited advice from gallerists on what sells (usually the opposite of his doings) did not stop Leeroy from building the worlds he only once imagined. “If you wanna do something that seems new to you, then you have to put yourself in new territories and I do that by working with different contexts, people, locations and environments,” he said.
New's openness allowed his work to grow and encompass different creative industries in his conscious effort to collaborate with filmmakers, theater makers, costume designers, performance artists, among others. In his ongoing work for the Pasig River Art Project with urban planner and designer Julia Nebrija, New worked with a number of concerned artists in the hopes that beautifying the river’s mundane surroundings could draw attention to the long-standing pollution problem.
"Kapag nagamit ang Pasig river as a cultural platform, laking cultural venue for creative production. But the dream has always been to clean it up, which requires a whole lot more of commitment."
He said that too often he is just a "guinea pig" used to show that things can be done, and hopefully from there, the desire for it develops.
"We acknowledge that of course this is just a starting point, and art itself needs to evolve. I also wish I were a scientist, a biologist, an eco-scientist or something else, so I can do more. But this is why collaboration needs to happen,” he said.
It's hard for him to look away
New refuses to be defined for one particular work. The time he spends collaborating with different fields helps him enrich his craft and to continue learning about different kinds of people and the different monsters they faced in their own worlds.
“I believe in the human element of art making. You get to work with carpenters, engineers, and all kinds of volunteers in a way that just heightens the different social dynamics. And once you’re caught in the middle of all that, it’s hard to look away," he said.
His other project entitled, "Aliens of Manila" is geared towards the invasion of public spaces as a means for him and fellow creatives to visually reflect their thoughts on Philippine society.
“With what’s happening now, you can acknowledge the fact na i’m definitely more comfortable than others who have no choice but fight everyday. Tayo, may choice pa tayo to step back eh, pero some people, they really are right smacked in the middle of it," he said.
Most recently, Leeroy has been taking his work to the streets, armed with his own oddly formed masks which often carried their own calls. He has been active in protesting against issues like the passage of the Anti-Terror Law, ABS-CBN's shutdown, and the killings of human rights activitists in the Philippines.
“I really don't have all the answers and i'm figuring this out as I go along. We’re all the products of our own misinformation, miseducation, and we constantly have to unlearn different things. Which is why i’m not posing as an expert here. I’m just another person who's contributing with the means I can and i'm just trying to be conscious of how i’m able to divert my energy and resources in a way that hopefully will mean something in the long run,” he said.