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At Large

Plagiarism, sex and ‘UPlift’

In the midst of all our troubles — an MIA President, a battle on its last legs but still lethal to everyone caught in it, and an ongoing deadly war on drugs — we have the “UPlift” controversy.

In the scheme of things, the provenance and meaning of a piece of sculpture donated to the State University would be of, well, little significance. And I don’t think sculptor Fernando Cacnio foresaw the amount of trouble he was courting with his art piece depicting a naked woman levitating with nothing but her long hair anchoring her to the ground.

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On social media, the sculpture has been dubbed “the female Oblation,” a reference to the iconic sculpture by National Artist Guillermo Tolentino of a similarly naked man standing, gazing at the sky with his arms outstretched. Since the statue stands on the plaza fronting UP’s administration building, the Oblation has become a symbol not just of the university but also of Filipino youth said to be “offering themselves for the nation.” Even from a distance, the Oblation is compelling and, though the figure is static, conveys strength of purpose and true commitment.

On the other hand, the so-called “female Oblation,” which stands (or rather lies or floats) in front of the UP Theater, takes on a more passive stance, supine and seemingly helpless. And there lies the roots of much of the criticism, quite apart from the accusations of plagiarism that currently hound Cacnio.

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The hoo-ha over “UPlift” arose from photos posted online of similar cantilevered figures of women. The most similar, uncannily so, was a grouping of sculptures called “The Virgins of Apeldoorn” by Dutch artist Elisabet Stienstra, revealed to the public in 2001.

In his own defense, Cacnio asserts that he did not model his work after the Dutch sculptor’s, stating that he had never seen or heard of Stienstra or her virgins. Still, the verisimilitude is uncanny.

A crucial difference is that the virgins of Apeldoorn are semiclothed, with draperies over their torsos, the “fabric” likewise holding down the floating forms. In defense of Cacnio, his daughter has noted that “floating” forms have long been a staple of his work, many of which are depictions of dancers balanced on one leg or otherwise struggling to maintain their equilibrium.

The controversy, though, has served to reopen the public debate over art and integrity, and what constitutes plagiarism or an innocent homage or even subconscious influence. As for dubbing “UPlift” the female Oblation, Cacnio’s own daughter
acknowledges a certain similarity but says her father “never set out to create another Oblation.” She told CNN Philippines: “My dad says it’s about rising. It has a different message from the Oblation in UP. It’s about aspiring for honor and excellence,
and enlightenment.”

But the trouble with “UPlift,” says artist Imelda Cajipe Endaya, is “the imaging of woman as object, of being gazed at.” If the piece was created in response to a call for an official work of art for the university, says Cajipe Endaya, “it should have been reviewed and approved by an academic, critical body, and if woman is a theme, the university should have consulted its Center for Women Studies. Otherwise Cacnio’s work can be displayed as [a] temporary exhibition like there have been many around the campus. The university in putting up permanent public art must be truly principled and responsible and exemplifying the ideals and principles that it teaches.”

The sculptor’s daughter likewise takes umbrage at the “sexualization” of the woman figure in “UPlift,” saying that “personally, I find myself insulted as a woman, as a person, that when we see a golden woman, looking like she is lying down, we see sex.”

But it is not a sexual creature that my friend Rochit Tañedo sees in the floating figure. It is, she says, an “aswang,” the undead ghoul of Filipino mythology, “a dead spirit embodied, rising.” Another woman friend asserts: “Women are life-giving, not undead.” Even if he puts the plagiarism accusations behind him, Cacnio, I’m afraid, will still have the women to contend with.

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TAGS: At Large, female oblation, Fernando Cacnio, Guillermo tolentino, Inquirer Opinion, Oblation, plagiarism, Rina Jimenez-David, Uplift
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