Artistic souls | Inquirer Opinion
Pinoy Kasi

Artistic souls

/ 01:16 AM December 18, 2015

DISTINCTIONS BLUR when we talk about painters and sculptors, musicians and opera singers, playwrights and poets, all lumped together as “artists.” We think, too, of artist as being born that way, with innate talents.

Think now, can architects be considered artists; and journalists, writers? Conventional opinion is that you have to learn to become an architect or journalist, getting a college degree and, in the case of architects, getting a license to practice.

This year though, the awarding of two prestigious prizes reflect a questioning of the disciplinal boundaries. Earlier this year, the Turner Prize, traditionally awarded to painters and sculptors, went to a group of architects called Assemble, also described as “urban regenerators” for bringing back to life deteriorating urban areas. More recently, the Nobel Prize for Literature, usually given to poets, playwrights and novelists, went to Svetlana Alexandrovna Alexievich, a Belarusian investigative journalist and non-fiction prose writer.

I thought I should write about Assemble and Alexievich because they do challenge the disciplinal boundaries still strong in our academic programs and in the practice of our professions.


Let’s look at the work of Assemble and Alexievich so we can see how it relates to the Philippines.

Demolish, rebuild

Assemble was awarded the Turner Prize mainly for their work in Toxteth, Liverpool, a district where houses were built in 1900 mainly for artisans. In 1981, the government identified the houses for demolition but residents resisted, and Assemble came in to help regenerate the community, using local materials. There’s more than recycling here, the buzzword that you hear now is “repurposing” of materials.

If you visit Assemble’s website ( you’ll find more of their projects. Click on School of Narrative Dance and you’ll see how they transformed a piazza (plaza) in Rome into a temporary home for a dance school. “Folly for Flyover” shows a disused flyover converted into an art venue. What do you do with an old, disused gas station? Click on “Cineroleum” to see how it becomes a cinema.


I found “OTOProjects” most impressive, showing how an old demolished building is rebuilt with the building’s own rubble.

Also impressive was how Assemble comes in to work with a community and then leaves. So the Liverpool urban regeneration project now has its own website, with residents selling products made from repurposed materials. Another project for a children’s playground in Glasgow, Baltic Street Adventure Play, appeals for donations of used furniture and other materials that can be repurposed for their project.


There are more than enough places in the Philippines for urban (and rural) regeneration projects, and they need not be limited to old heritage sites. Think of the house you grew up in, the corner of your town plaza, some building in your school that’s been neglected. Think too of how renovations can be worse than demolition when done without an artistic eye.

Emotional history

Let’s look now at Alexievich. I had never heard about her or read any of her five books, but going through the excerpts available on the Internet and through her Nobel Prize lecture, “On the Battle Lost,” has made me understand why the Nobel Prize judges consider her journalistic work to be grand literature.

Alexievich wrote her five books by gathering stories about specific historical periods. “War’s Unwomanly Face” comes from the stories of Russian women who were recruited as soldiers during the Second World War. “Zinky Boys” is about Russian soldiers who fought in Afghanistan, supposedly to defend a socialist regime. “Zinky” refers to the zinc coffins used for the Russians killed in the war. “Voices from Chernobyl” interviewed survivors of the terrible nuclear plant meltdown in 1986. “Enchanted with Death” and “Second Hand Time” deal with the post-Soviet period.

Alexievich starts her Nobel Prize lecture recollecting her childhood years when she would listen to stories of older women about the Second World War. “None of them,” she writes, “had husbands, fathers or brothers.” Some of them still hope for their missing loved ones to return, even if without arms or legs. Listening to those stories convinced Alexievich to look for truth, which she describes as splintered, by becoming a “human ear.”

The Nobel Prize jury cited Alexievich for her “polyphonic writings, a monument to suffering and courage in our time.” Polyphonic, many voices. . . and stories. Alexievich asks herself in her lecture what literature is, and notes how “everything overflows its banks: music, painting—even words in documents escape the boundaries of the document.” Her work has been to “collect the everyday life of feelings, thoughts and words.”

In her lecture, she shared powerful stories, mainly of women. There’s a medic who rescues a wounded soldier and finds out he’s German, but she bandages him anyway. She goes back out into the battlefront and drags in another wounded soldier, who turns out to be Russian. The two soldiers want to kill each other. The medic recalls, “I’d slap one of them, and then the other,” blood from each other flowing down their legs.

There’s another Russian medic remembering how her boyfriend, another soldier, proposed marriage as they stood by the Reichstag in Berlin and how upset she had felt being proposed to amid “the filth, the blood, the war.” She tells him: “First make a woman of me: give me flowers, whisper sweet nothings. When I’m demobilized, I’ll make myself a dress.” The woman describes the soldier’s tears running down his badly burned scarred face. She accepts the proposal.

Alexievich shares her own narratives, one of the most powerful ones about her giving an Afghan child a toy. The child uses his teeth to accept the gift, and Alexievich learns this is because he has lost both arms, the mother telling the writer: “It was when you Russians bombed.” Alexievich writes, “Someone held me up as I began to fall.” When she returns home, she tells her father, “We are murderers, Papa, do you understand?”

If there is no lack of places for regenerative architecture, there are countless stories from Filipinos waiting to be told, and retold as fine literature.

Alexievich’s Nobel Prize lecture, which is on the Internet, should be prescribed reading in high schools and universities, with its reminders to seek truth in our complex human condition. A bit more ambitiously, maybe her stories will inspire a next generation of journalist-writers, just as Assemble’s work might encourage more social and environmental awareness among architects.

I’m hopeful. May our schools allow a nurturing of the artistic soul to be found in all of our students—not just in the arts and humanities but also in natural and social sciences, architecture and engineering, business and management, medicine and the healing professions.

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TAGS: art, artist, award, opinion, sculptor, talent

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