As you purposefully pack your possessions you often become aware that these things that you hold in your hands are the same things that become gateways to memories often joyful, poignant or distressing.
Then you realize that not only what you hold in your hands but also everything else around you transforms themselves into similar portals. This door that saw many hellos and goodbyes, that window that saw you looking wistfully through the grilled windows on a rainy afternoon, that stairway where little feet scampered up and down merrily or stomped in a rage, these same remnants of yourself are hard to part with because they now are you. Your house has become your life.
For Ling Quisumbing Ramilo, re-rooting herself after more than twenty years in New York City has been a similar journey. Returning to settle once more in her family compound in Quezon City and re-weave the threads of her history gave her the impetus to seize these same threads and create anew.
Ling left the Philippines in 1985 soon after she graduated from the University of the Philippines with a degree in visual communications to take up graduate studies in Studio Art and Art Education at New York University. Immersing herself in her new life, she allowed herself to evolve artistically through group and solo exhibitions in New York, Canada and the Philippines.
Then she decided to come back.
Her New York flat was no longer home.
She realized home was family, friends, the sari-sari store up the street, the trees she used to climb, the bougainvillea flowers, the front yard where she and her brother buried old coins one summer not knowing that their mother was about to create a concrete porch over it. Home was the Philippines.
Deciding to settle in her lola’s house fronting her family home she realized that after New York the house where she spent the first six years of her life wasn’t home either. Ling decided to rebuild it.
“When I decided to renovate my lola’s house, I wanted to save as much as I could from the original house. I’m sentimental that way,” Ling said. “It was my way of trying to save something from my youth, my way of reclaiming what were happier, simpler times. I came back home to care for my parents.”
Employing the architectural expertise of Ning Encarnacion Tan, she gutted the original structure, turning old into new and, in the process, created a home for herself. Working closely with Ning, numerous levels were created, doorways and windows were removed, moved around or brought in from others’ memories, light-filled spaces emerged.
She brought her art with her.
Filling the new spaces with her work, she decided that her house must likewise be her art. She allowed her spirit to wander through the same spaces bringing in doorknobs, stairway railings, window panels and other fixtures from shops, selling discarded house parts or simply creating new ones from her own genius.
Ling created her home, her tahanan, a resting place for her soul and a haven where she could re-claim her spirit.
She allowed this solid sense of place to permeate the spaces of her home. They flow into and around each other, melding rooms, inside and outside until garden becomes living area, becomes a lower level, becomes the stairway, becomes her private spaces, becomes the attic and emerges through a light-filled skylight.
In an essentially Filipino manner, spaces exist only in the mind with even supposedly enclosed spaces pierced with surprising openings on the walls and doors. Her personal bathroom, for example allows for an idiosyncratic swinging window in the doorway blurring the line between here and there, in and out, private and social while another has only a disconcerting curtain to guard you from being visually invaded.
One is reminded of the old Spanish colonial bahay na bato with its interconnected spaces and only curtained openings providing visual stopping points.
Although the house was not her family house and Ling did not grow up in it, the house sits in the family compound and occupies the area directly fronting her family home. Bringing her art with her, produced over years of creative birthing, into her new home, she has also brought the same artistic impulse, by now fully honed, into the creation of her largest installation piece yet, her home.
Scrounging among the junk shops of Laong Laan and similar places, Ling has installed forgotten house pieces in ways representative of her own creative spirit. Previously loved capiz and glass windows salvaged from some other past now become pieces looking out into her bright front yard and line the ceilings and walls of the attic providing the illusion of the promise of space beyond into the topmost level. Other details such as window grills, doorknobs, door handles, and cabinet pieces rescued from some dusty bodega punctuate various corners of her house providing bookmarks to memories, if not her own at least reminiscent of hers.
Many parts of the original structure were retained. From the front gate the old worn tiled steps still lead to the front porch and the yard. The wood sliding front door is still there. The living room, opening through generous windows to the front yard still maintains its high ceiling but is now host to Ling’s latest pieces, her forest of wood poles from her exhibits Palimpsest and Madre.
A mezzanine-level former bedroom is likewise intact with its sliding glass windows but whose space is now opened up to the main living space. Original tiles on the living room floor allow you to reminisce on days gone by. Much of the house’s front exterior at eye level is still the original house. At first glance it feels as if nothing has changed. It is only when you enter that you realize the house has evolved into Ling’s home.
Ling has grown up and the house has grown up with her. What once were dark, enclosed rooms have opened up into airy spaces were oneness is the norm. Her art, past and present, melds into the fabric of the house. Walls, corners, rooms and even her front yard hold the evidence of her energetic creativity as paintings, drawings and installation pieces both finished and in-the-making.
“It was my way of trying to save something from my youth, my way of reclaiming what were happier, simpler times.”
Some of those occupying her house are her barangays from Palimpsest. These guests, whimsical pieces of discarded wood from the old house and fashioned into anthropomorphic characters of all sizes crowd her front entryway, her living room and find their way into other levels of the house to nest in. They make their home on tabletops and shelves, or guard the front door and seemingly grin or stare at you disconcertingly. The idiosyncratic works, born out of Ling’s ever-restless mind and spawned from the creation of a home, express an unconscious desire to share space and life.
Based on Madre, a 2008 exhibit, Ling used larger elements from the old house and foraged parts of other houses. Forgotten wood stairway stringers — intriguingly termed madre in the construction vernacular — larger creatures that stand upright in their rough and unfinished state with their jagged edges, evoke nuns hurrying around with their habits stiff and starched.
“I was fascinated with this particular architectural detail,” Ling said. “It made it all the more special when I found out it was called Madre. It’s very symbolic — the piece that holds the steps together, to get to where you’re going. Madre is my tribute to all the stong women in my life.”
These familiar images may have emerged from some past when Ling spent early years in a Catholic girls’ school. Returning to the Philippines has unearthed much from Ling’s memory.
Domestic Bliss, another 2008 exhibit, chronicled Ling’s return to the Philippines.
“I used the renovation of my lola’s termite-infested house to reexamine and address these issues; the place I grew up in, my coming to terms with my aging parents, finding closure from past relationships and reestablishing myself here.
“The collection of works were made simultaneously while renovating my lola’s house which took approximately 3 years,” Ling said. “The objects were constructed and reconstructed mostly from discarded materials used and found in my lola’s house, and from going around New York and Metro Manila.”
These pieces look perfectly at home in her house where things past grow into things present. With her desire to keep the Madre works in their distressed state, Ling has merged her art, her home and her life into one.
Ling is home.