By: Earl Vinecour
The Asia Magazine, March 28, 1982, pp 3-7 (cover story)
His dream is to create modern versions of Angkor Wats and, unbelievable as it may sound, he seems to be doing just that. He is the incredible Eduardo Castrillo, considered by art critics as the area’s “doyen” of monumental works. These include the largest sculptures in the world. In the Makati Section of Metro Manila, where most of the cities’ modern buildings are located, his colossal sculptures and bas-reliefs are everywhere. Some of them are as high as eight story-buildings and as wide as football fields.
In Singapore, the Sunday Times cited his massive forty-nine-foot-high sculpture at Goldhill Plaza as “successfully capturing the ingredients of Singapore’s multi-racial society.” Similar kudos were won for his works in Kuala Lumpur, Jakarta and Hongkong.
Recipient of half-a-dozen awards and honours, Castrillo has been aptly dubbed the “Henry Moore” of Asia. What is more, he has accomplished all these before his thirtieth birthday. Ironically enough, this “phenomenon”, as the Washington Daily News calls him has never been trained in sculpture, but majored in advertising at Manila’s Santo Tomas University. His chequered career after graduation included brief stints as a comic book illustrator, bill collector, salesman and even janitor. But it was his job as a liturgical designer, working on metallic tabernacles and alter accessories, which sparked his “miraculous” interest in metal …an interest which later became an obsession.
“I suddenly felt as if I had become a tool of Someone Up There,” the lanky artist commented in his cavernous Makati studio, “ and if it were going to be a tool, I want to be the sharpest chisel that would cut the hardest media. My real preparation for an art career was in the streets and slums of Manila.”
His impoverished and sad childhood, he feels, was formative in the development of the themes which were later to become so characteristic of him –the cry for social justice and the stress on self-betterment. It also explains his unique approach of making art accessible to the masses. This he does by donating his environmental sculptures to public parks, shopping centers and crowded urban areas.
Castrillo established this uniqueness with a one-man show in 1966. It was a show that left the critics gasping. His handcrafted abstract expressionist sculptures, made from smythied metal and hammered brass, all suggested a group, rather than a one-man show. In fact, it was the first time that an artist in Asia had used the technique of cutting, forming, and welding metal sheets for monumental and mural sculptures. In the past, such statuaries had been sent to Europe for casting.
“Casting leaves a gap between the artist and his work,” Ed commented. “He ends up with little more than a copy of his model.” Instead, Castrillo works directly upon his brass sheets, cutting, folding, welding, grinding them with hammer and anvil, shearing machine and acetylene torch. “In this way,” he says, “I can grow with my design, change it from day to day.” As it turns out, he must often enlarge his studio as well, extending the roof and widening it to accommodate his “ever growing” monuments.
The most striking feature of Castrillo’s unique style is his ability to put art at the service of improving living conditions, integrating landscape and urban design, habitat and environment – in effect, to be an ecological sculptor. “I try to enhance ecology, not disturb in,” he says. “Art should have a message,” he adds, “to give to the entire public, not just an elite few. Whether it be tangible of abstract, it should free the masses from their daily routine. Escapism, when used in terms of art, is not derogatory. It is something positive because it is a projection of a person into another world. Besides, it’s time that the fine line between fine art and applied art disappeared…to return to the old way of mixing aesthetics and function.”
Another feature of Castrillo’s style is his attempt to anchor himself to his cultural origins. “I’m just a primitive,” he laughs, “hoping to show the ingenuity of my own race and yet, at the same time, to have an international appeal. We Asians are too defensive about our art. We know more about western culture than our own. So how can we expect the westerners to understand the essence of Asian art?”
Despite his claim of being a primitive, Castrillo’s style is very much a composite of both eastern and western techniques and approaches, even being influenced for a time by the West’s Art Deco tradition and the Mexican muralists. He admits this western influence, and says that “with supersonic communication, its unavoidable … you can call me, therefore, a ‘international primitive’ …someone who grows out of one culture and yet feels comfortable in all.
To really appreciate the grand scale of Castrillo’s talent –more than 300 creations to date- requires a day long tour though his kingdom and playground: Metro Manila. There can be found his enormous murals and reliefs, depicting themes of social conscience, such as the plight of migrant workers and refugees; and monumental cut formed-and-wedged figurative sculptures with asymmetrical shapes and angular contours all of an Angkor Wat scale. At the ultra-modern Metrobank for example, he utilizes seven-storeys of the outside wall as a frame for a gigantic bronze bas-relief depicting commercial growth through an abstract use of charts and graphs. Further out of the central city, his Redemption looms over the landscape with surrealistic eeriness.
It is generally regarded as the largest sculpture of it’s kind in the world. Based on Da Vinci’s Last Supper, it abstracts Christ and the apostles to superhuman dimensions, soaring to metallic heights of fifty-four feet and occupying an area of 600 square meters. The work took two years to complete and is so overpowering in its statement that a visit to it is a highpoint for thousand of pilgrims. His environmental wall at the Solidaridad, on the other hand, is a grotto-like affair of angled metallic lines and heavy planes; and his twenty-nine foot Youth’s Cry of Defiance at Fort Santiago is a haunting human abstract composed of scrap-metal. Christ the Cross, at the Don Bosco Church , is an unusual mix medium of wood and metal. The body of Christ becomes part of the cross, thus successfully merging theme to technique.
One of the most inspiring of his non-Biblical works is a ten-story colossus which was unveiled by President Marcos. Called Tribute to Humanity, it occupies the top of Mount Batulao and can be seen throughout the area.
But these are only one expression of Castrillo’s many-sided creative talent. There are also his chrome-and-plexiglass abstract reliefs which are said to have evolved out of his metallic work. They mark a departure from his other work in that they are lightweight, transparent and polychrome. He combines these new features in such shapes and forms that they become ideally suited for impoverished lighting, and managed to look goo din any kind of illumination. “I intend to make the viewer a participatory element in lighting them, up sideways, bottom ways or topways, to suit personal fancy,” he says.
In an even lighter side is what Castrillo calls his “body sculptures, sculptured metallic jewellery that is mini-scale of his asymmetrical and angular monuments. They appear bulky and heavy at first, but are amazingly light weight and, what is more, fun and even gay. ‘Why can’t modern man enjoy decorating his body the way primitive man did?” he asks rhetorically, and answers with 250 different designs. He has ear, nose, finger, and even toe rings, thigh and breast clasps–all high fashion and serious art.
“You have made me begin to doubt some long held views of art,’ commented the famous American philosopher, Paul Weiss, after viewing Castrillo’s jewellery exhibit in Washington D.C., “for you seem to have successfully united sculpture and craftsmanship with a gain to each.”
It is Castrillo’s jewellery which, in fact, reveals more of the private man, far more than do his highly impersonal and superhuman metallic sculptures. For he enjoys wearing these mini-creations, and they have become a hallmark of his personal image and lifestyle. They reveal an artist, therefore, who has the unique capacity to feel at home in opposites –in sculpturing both Angkor Wat-sized monuments with sublime themes of social justice; and in crafting small decorative art for the human body –from the sublime to the mod world of contemporary fashion.
As Philippine art critic Emmanuel Torres so aptly put it: “No idea in three dimensions, be it…big or small, lies beyond or beneath Castrillo’s aesthetic reach…he is a master of sculpturing both mountains and rings, and what is more, enjoys doing both.