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Published  14/04/2022
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Leeroy New – interview: ‘I am trying to challenge myself to use only reused and recycled materials’

Leeroy New – interview: ‘I am trying to challenge myself to use only reused and recycled materials’

Filipino multimedia artist Leeroy New has just “docked” three “ships” made of bamboo and waste plastic in the courtyard of Somerset House in London. Commissioned to mark Earth Day 2022, they take inspiration from sci-fi, mythology, marine life and his climate-change-threatened home nation

Leeroy New at Somerset House, London, 2022. Photo: Juliet Rix.

by JULIET RIX

Born in 1986 in General Santos City in the southern Philippines, a two-hour flight from Manila, Leeroy New showed early determination to be creative in a setting short of art. After a childhood drawing monsters and aliens (and a few other things), he attended the Philippine High School for the Arts before graduating from the University of the Philippines College of Fine Arts in Manila. Trained as a sculptor, he first came to international notice after Lady Gaga wore one of a number of performers “wearables” he has produced.

Using a wide variety of media and modes, New’s work crosses over into film, theatre, fashion and product design. Most recently, though, he has focused on large-scale site-specific installations, mingling his interests in sci-fi and mythology, innovation and the environment. He has worked increasingly with reclaimed and upcycled materials, particularly the waste plastic that threatens the marine and the terrestrial environment in the Philippines and around the world.

New’s studio is in Manila, but he spends much of the year travelling and working across the world. Studio International caught up with him in central London as he completed the installation of three huge “ships” that seem to float up to three metres above the courtyard of Somerset House.

Juliet Rix: You do a lot of site-specific installations. Is that how you prefer to work?

Leeroy New: Filipinos don’t tend to go to arts centres or museums to entertain or enlighten themselves. It’s not something that had really caught on when I was studying – and, for the general population, it still hasn’t. Pre-colonially, art was integrated into daily lives. We didn’t have specific spaces. Art was carved into our coconut graters or sung and chanted. Most Filipinos are too busy surviving to bother with art, or that is what the government tells us: “We have no time for art; we have more important things to take care of.” So, we discover and reclaim spaces for ourselves and don’t rely on institutions. That’s where the choice came from to do site-specific work, creating immersive experiences in public spaces, allowing people to encounter something new. They don’t have to see it as art – we don’t make any claims. If they can relate to it in some way, that’s a good start.



Leeroy New, The Arks of Gimokudan, Somerset House, London, 2022. Photo: Ben Queenborough, PA Wire.

JR: Somerset House is quite a site. How has it been creating sculptures of bamboo and waste plastic in this grand, historic, neoclassical courtyard?

LN: There’s a lot of contrast! In the urban streets of Manila, and even in the rural areas, you see a lot of the materials I have used here – a lot of reclaimed, reused plastics – turned into decor and festival ornaments. We tend not to throw things away; everything is reused. There’s a very intuitive, vernacular way of putting things together. That is in such contrast to this courtyard – now my frame – which has such different materials and such different ways of working.



The Arks of Gimokudan by Leeroy New. Artist's Rendition, 2022.

JR: There is nothing ephemeral about the monumental stone structures of Somerset House, is there, whereas your sculptures are here for just a month. What will happen to them after?

LN: We will return it all to the recycling facility. Next door to where we were building the frames for the ships in Kent, there was a recycling sorting centre. That’s where we found all the DVD cases and plastic containers, and some of the bottles. They will go back there. In fact, the lady from the sorting facility was here earlier. She was all smiles and taking so many pictures.

JR: You have constructed your sculptures out of one cheap sustainable organic material, bamboo, and one cheap, unsustainable manmade material, plastic. What made you bring those two together?

LN: It took a while for me to reconcile bringing these materials together because the training in fine arts back home isolates materials, and I get all this unsolicited advice to use more “noble” materials.



Leeroy New, The Arks of Gimokudan, Somerset House, London, 2022. Photo: Juliet Rix.

The Philippines still has a very traditional way of thinking about art. My work with performers, making costumes, treating my sculptures as immersive spaces for performance and human activity, was not at all part of the dominant way of viewing art in the Philippines, which was still dominated by paintings. Paintings are easily monetisable, digestible, collectable, as opposed to creating alternative spaces for new creative experiences.

JR: Did they struggle with the fact that you might make a piece of art that did not last?

LN: Oh yes. And I did, too, because I had to find different ways to support the work I wanted to do. I did some collectable pieces and collaborated with theatre-makers and made wearables, so I was not dependent on one sector.



Leeroy New, The Arks of Gimokudan, Somerset House, London, 2022. Photo: Juliet Rix.

JR: You famously produced a costume for Lady Gaga?

LN: Yes. That was almost 10 years ago, when she had an army of stylists looking for new things for her to wear. It was surreal. The stylists just borrow stuff and you’ve no idea if they’ll end up using it. Then, all of a sudden, it was on her Marry the Night video. It’s the black one she wears when she’s on the car with the explosions in the background. We just thought: “This is crazy.” We were young creatives in the Philippines. Those things don’t normally happen. We just considered it dumb luck.

JR: How did the Somerset House commission come about?

LN: Karishma [Rafferty], who used to work here, contacted me in 2019 after seeing some work I did in a show about megacities, which involved 10 artists each from five megacities, including Manila. I had done an iteration of my alien worlds made from all sorts of discards and industrial objects. At that time, I was also using a lot of new materials. This work for Somerset House has undergone a transformation in the pandemic, challenging us to use no new materials, to use strictly what we could collect.

JR: Does the plastic problem feel close to home for you?

LN: In the Philippines, we don’t have the most effective waste-collection systems. That is compounded by the density of the population and how global brands customise their packaging to make it more accessible to poorer communities. Instead of the bigger bottles of shampoo, they produce 100 smaller (unit cheaper) sachets. The sachet economy produces even more plastic that goes into our waterways and our oceans.



Leeroy New in his junk space helmet, Somerset House, London, 2022. Photo: Juliet Rix.

JR: Your sculptures are described as three ships?

LN: I’ve done a series of bamboo spaceships back home and in Malaysia. The first bamboo spaceship I did was in 2012. It was really part of the frustration of wanting to create a sci-fi language for the Philippines but not having access to hi-tech, modern, sleek, polished materials. So why not start by making a spaceship out of bamboo?

Ships and vessels come in all sorts of forms in the Philippines. Being an archipelago of 7,000 islands, we are highly dependent on the waterways, the ocean and marine life. Our words for “village” and “boat” come from the same root word, and so does our word for “house”. And the concept of “water” is embedded in those words. Our geography informs so much, and it is the source of political unrest too. China is claiming the West Philippine Sea as the South China Sea and is using intimidation strategies. When you flip the ship closest to us (on the left as you enter the courtyard), putting it upright, it has the silhouette of a modern battleship with the plastic bottles as towers. The ship behind it is a flipped [upside down] Spanish galleon.

Flipping things is one of the basic strategies for creating alien forms in the sci-fi language – you just disorient, change how people see the shape and the silhouette, and suddenly it’s completely different. That was the source for these forms – flipped vessels. The one at the front (furthest into the courtyard) comes from the balangay, the pre-colonial boat (and the name the word for village comes from). It’s a simpler form.



Leeroy New, The Arks of Gimokudan, Somerset House, London, 2022. Photo: Juliet Rix.

JR: When I first walked into the courtyard, the forms looked quite organic to me, more like sea creatures. I wondered whether that alternative, that combination, was deliberate?

LN: That’s what happens. I start from a basic recognisable form, and it goes in different directions, and I allow it go there. Sci-fi imagination for the future is no longer strictly mechanical; it’s also bio-organic. We are imagining bio-mechanic, synthetic creatures, vessels, architecture and forms. It all merges now. There are developments with cyborgs, implanting devices in our eyes, in our skin. This is where we’re headed, and the materials I end up using have embodied these worlds overlapping. Before, I would do a bamboo vessel, strictly bamboo, but now these materials are merging into one another.

JR: It’s an interesting combination with the bamboo frame, creating the shape, then the reused plastic around it …

LN: like a skin, a cladding. In architecture, they’d say cladding; in creature design, it would be called a carapace, scales or skin. It does create something more creature-like. People have referred to the “battleship” one as “the prawn” because of the whiskers.

JR: The traditional boat also seems very like a marine creature, with its streamlined shape and what I guess are outriggers, which, when turned upside down, look very like fins?

LN: I am in love with designing creatures and aliens. Growing up in a small fishing port city in the southern Philippines, where at the time there was no internet and no access to art, I had to seek out other sources for art, and I saw creature movies, fantasy, and horror movies. I figured when I saw these fantastical creatures, someone must have come up with these, someone had the idea to put these very different features together in a very arbitrary but very creative process.

JR: Was there no other art at all?

LN: There were a few paintings in the local mall, and I was like: “Wow – I want to do those!” This was what I thought art was, those few paintings of rural scenery, farmers in rice paddies, still lives of local fruit. Like with the creatures in the movies, I was drawn to the human element – someone created that!
 
JR: What did your family make of your artistic endeavours?

LN: The Philippines is very conservative. There is still no clear divide between church and state, no divorce, and where I was from was particularly Catholic conservative. It didn’t take much for people to think you were weird. And drawing monsters – you were weird! My father said I belonged to the Addams Family. He said it affectionately because, as well as drawing monsters, I was drawing fruits and winning “Nutrition Month” poster-making contests.

JR: So, they were supportive but bemused?

LN: Yes, I was doing things that were positive for the community, but also drawing things that reminded them of the things they were warned about in church.



Aliens of Manila: New York Colony, 2019. Courtesy of the artist.

JR: Is the love of strange creatures also where your interest in mythology came from?

LN: Yes. The Philippines has quite a hybrid way of practising Catholicism. Pre-existing supernatural mythological belief systems melded, but were also twisted by the colonisers. A lot of pre-existing cultures of nature-worship were demonised. But I would hear stories from my grandmother about taming supernatural creatures when she was younger, creatures that would do her bidding. In the rural areas, there is still a strong sense of the supernatural.

JR: That’s an interesting mix: the deeply traditional, age-old mythological monsters and the futuristic sci-fi aliens?

LN: In a way, they are one and the same – people projecting narratives to help them understand their past, their environment or their future.



Chrysalis Vessel, Paoay Sandunes, 2014. Courtesy of the artist.

JR: In your title for this work, The Arks of Gimokudan, most people in the UK will get the resonances of the word “ark”, but what about Gimokudan? I understand it is an underworld, a place of the dead, of the afterlife?

LN: It’s from the mythology of the Bagobo tribe of Mindanao in the south of the Philippines – a mythology that existed way before the arrival of the Spanish and the Americans. I grew up with Greek mythology and contemporary superhero mythology, but now a lot of us Filipino creatives are trying to actively and consciously refer to precolonial myths that we’ve discovered in our university life and in our own research. We are bombarded with other cultures’ stories and there is a need for us to seek out our stories buried underneath. The word would be unfamiliar to most Filipinos, too, but it matters that we use these words and names. Most people in the Philippines fail to realise that there are so many mythologies. We speak about 180 dialects and there are so many stories to draw from.

In this work, the word Gimokudan adds a layer to the world I’m creating, and the idea that the forms are capsized – flipped over – refers to how, in the Philippines, we see the underworld; it’s the exact opposite of this world. For example, when it is day here, there it is night. It also has to do with our relationship with the water. Anything beneath the ocean is the afterlife.



Leeroy New, The Arks of Gimokudan, Somerset House, London, 2022. Photo: Juliet Rix.

JR: So, by placing the viewer beneath the upturned vessels, underwater, have you placed us in the underworld?

LN: Yes, the waterline seems to be in the architecture. Someone pointed out that the vessels settle on this line.

JR: The line of smooth stone partway up the facade of Somerset House?

LN: Exactly. And by flipping the boats, it refers to this dual world: life/after-life.

JR: And to the climate crisis? Coming from a country of low-lying islands, are you particularly aware of the climate crisis?

LN: We had a terrible typhoon just before Christmas when a few islands were decimated. These events remind us that we don’t want to be the poster country for climate disaster.

This work is like a terrible scene: looking up and seeing piles of plastic bottles, probably what the view is like when you are under water and trash is floating on the surface.

JR: Which is, sadly, the view for some aquatic creatures in certain parts of the ocean.

LN: Yes. And we’ve used cut-offs from fishing nets on some of the feet [of the sculptures] and to hang some of the bottles from. These are the materials you would see in our waters.

JR: Do you plan to continue working with found and waste materials rather than new ones?

LN: That will drive a large chunk of my work. It’s not a perfect strategy. Trying to live ethically in this world is a challenge, especially for artists who have to work with materials, but it is something I’m trying to challenge myself with. Eventually, I would also like to explore new materials that are alternatives to plastics. The ideal is to do away with plastics. Recycling is only an interim solution. We need to create alternatives and to reuse not recycle.

JR: What are you doing next?

LN: More site-specific work with found material. I’m doing something in Melbourne, Australia, for the Rising festival in June, and I was chosen to do something for Burning Man in the desert in Nevada in 2021 that I hope will happen this year.

JR: Do you have any particular ambitions for the future?

LN: I love working with different specialists and I’d like to turn some of the works I do into something more practical. In fact, I have a project in Manila. It’s like a Mars colony of structures made from woven bamboo, and I’m working with an environmental scientist who is weaving agricultural systems into the structures, so they grow food. Eventually, the plants will take over. It’s a mix of bio-architecture and using cut-up waste plastic bottles as an alternative to UV plastic to protect the plants from the elements – moving out of the realm of fiction to something more real and practical.

Leeroy New: The Arks of Gimokudan is on view at Somerset House, London, until 26 April 2022. Commissioned for Earth Day 2022 on 22 April (a global event championing transformative environmental change), the installation is free to view in the courtyard and is floodlit after dark.

Click on the pictures below to enlarge

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