Huddle with artist Leeroy New

A Filipino artist creating armies of extraterrestrial beings and sculpted bodysuits

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Sculptor and multidisciplinary artist, Leeroy New has been reimagining giant insect exoskeletons, designing fantastic headgears, sculpting body armours fitting for extraterrestrial wars, and creating an army of Aliens of Manila, the city where his studio is based. His work has a powerful outlandish quality that compels one to react to his art and wonder about his inspirations and art training. In this interview, Leeroy takes us through his journey as an artist, his creative decisions that paid off, and the responsibility to defend freedom of expression. 

Leeroy took over our Instagram on 25th July 2020, and gave us a glimpse into his life, ideologies, upcoming projects, his studio and a kitchen garden he is growing as a step towards becoming sustainable. Head over to our Instagram @designyatra; we have saved all stories from his day-long takeover under highlights titled Huddle 2.

Here is a transcript of the interview, if you prefer reading over watching/listening. It is edited for ease of reading. Here you go:

My name is Leeroy New. I’m a practicing artist and designer. I’m generally based in Manila, Philippines and my work is about costuming, performance, spatial installations, and production design.

What kind of art were you exposed to as a child?
I come from the south of the Philippines, a city called General Santos City. It’s like, one of the most southern most parts of the Philippines. And I guess this was the time before internet and before all of these other relatively new technological innovations, and so we didn’t really have access to contemporary art. All the art that I ever saw in our local malls were these very few paintings of still lives, farmlands, farmers toiling in the fields and other nice landscapes. These are works that you would normally see artisans peddle in the streets. And yeah, these were the works that kind of I thought were art. I mean, that was the only conception of art that I had. And these were the kind of art that I wanted to do at that time. You know, but at the same time, I was also drawing monsters, pages and pages of creatures and monsters, which I guess I got from stories that my grandmother told me or like sci fi movies that I would see and the few comic books that we’ve had, and illustrated card games. So those were generally my references for art as well.

Who were your early inspirations?
I was lucky enough to get into the Philippine High School for the Arts in Makiling, Los Baños. It’s a government school so it’s a scholarship. If you pass the entrance exam, you get in there for free you get to study art for free. And my professors, the instructors there and the teachers that we had did installation art, sculptures made out of sawdust or baby sweaters or like other found objects, you know, kinetic sculptures. So that was kind of a shock to me coming from this small town, thinking that art was simply about painting landscapes and still lives. Yeah, I guess my initial influences would be those professors as well because that… this encounter compelled me to try out as much as I can, it kind of like broke the rule of art making, the initial preconception of art making that I had. And this was a crucial moment, because this was the time that everything that I saw, I thought I could, use or, you know, create something that is still part of the idea of art making. And yeah, so my art professors in that art school, and after that, you know, I looked towards different creative industries for inspiration and references, and I guess, this idea that looking towards other artists is kind of incestuous. Someone mentioned that to me and that kind of stuck, you know, and since I was already collaborating in that school because that school also had the theater department, the dance department and creative writing department and musicians, I basically was boarded up in the school with these other kids. And it was natural for us to collaborate with each other. And we’d end up you know, designing the sets for the theater majors or the costumes for the dancers. And it was kind of a very holistic setup. And this influenced my appreciation of other art forms. So, I look towards architecture, fashion, product design. So yeah, so that’s where I get my influences from.

What do you hope to achieve through your art practice?
I’m still trying to achieve that up until now. It’s been evolving a lot. I guess back in college, you know, we just really wanted to do art and to show our art, the stuff that we did. But then came the questions of how do you survive as an artist in the Philippines and what kind of work should we be doing, you know, knowing that the art gallery and museum system is not organic to the Filipino psyche. The Filipinos don’t go to museums, art museums or galleries to enlighten themselves or to entertain themselves. And this started a path for myself to explore public sites, creating artistic interventions in public spaces, collaborating with my theater artists friends who did guerilla board, you know, who performed in theaters. To me, it was just trying to tap into all these different platforms as much as possible. And hopefully, by exposing myself to all these platforms, I get to a point where I realize the most effective means for the application, the presentation of my work. And up until now, that question is still driving me to continue the work that I do.

A moment or project where you witnessed your art create an impact you had wished for…
Yeah, I guess at some point, when I was one of the few crazy people who insisted on doing large scale public works in the Philippines even though being an artist itself already, like doing painting, was already a struggle. I had to go and try to create installations all over the facades, the buildings or like bamboo structures in the desert. To me, it was all exciting. These were like part infantile fantasies, part positioning, you know, I also knew that, these models of art making had to be done in order to create a kind of an audience or a sphere of influence for them. Like I just had to insist on doing these things and eventually, the different industries started to catch on to the language of public art, activating spaces, and I guess, at the right… you know, I kind of laid the foundations for them to recognize me totally as one of the artists of my generation to engage in that kind of work. So, yeah, it kind of paid off, you know, this bet I had with myself to just pursue this.

What has been your favourite platform to showcase your work?
I enjoy creating, the physical challenge of building things, large scale structures on site in like the most unique landscapes, or not the safest landscapes. The idea that people can actually interact with your work you know, and while doing the work itself, you get to interact with a lot of people, your collaborators for that particular work, the many negotiations you have to deal with depending on what kind of space it is. And a lot of these large-scale installations that I do are performance spaces as well. So, we get to play with it too. To me, it’s about maximizing the work, you know, trying to draw out its potential in as many different ways, creative responses as possible. And I like dragging in my friends, my collaborators are also my friends to like, you know, maximize the work that I did through their interventions into the work. Since I also do the costumes that they wear, I already have the space and I’m also helping out design and create the characters that inhabit the spaces. So, it really branches out, it’s really a lot of different platforms through these intersections of collaborators and industries. I think that’s an effective way to draw out the potential in the work.

Most challenging project till now?
It just keeps getting harder. It doesn’t get any easier. I think that’s the point of it. Every time I finish a work I’m like hungry for the next challenge, kind of. Well, now, I mean, I’m one of the artists to do an installation for Burning Man, for the next Burning Man. You know, just the thought of that is already quite daunting, you know, like, me being based in Manila. And just the logistics of it, you know, and the scale of it, it’s the work that I propose to do is also a kind of like architectural interactive playground. And so, it’s really that, it’s like I went into this path where it was never supposed to be easy to begin with. So yeah, I guess I just go towards the next harder thing after you know the last one.

Most challenging material you have worked with.
I encounter some new materials where I have no clue, I have had not any training or experience with it. And I have to figure it out, then and there, on the spot, in the limited period of time, sometimes, and I guess that’s also part of the thing where one of the pleasures of exploring as many materials as you want is the pleasure of experiencing a new material, the challenge of figuring out. Although I have to say that I have not had much access to like the more technologically advanced means of production. I guess it’s still hard to like make use of 3D printing or what other more advanced means of production there is. So, I tend to gravitate towards, focusing on my ability to make things with my hands and, by using simple techniques for crafting things, if it means I have to like collaborate with a team because of its scale so the means of crafting it has to be in a way accessible or easy, so that information is easy to transfer. But yeah, I like the challenge that is constantly being presented to me by people like ‘hey, can you work with this? We have piles of this, can you work with this?’ And the college art student in me has a trouble saying no most of the time, like, ‘Okay, I think I need this. I think I have something I can use this for’ etc. So yeah.

How has the Covid-19 pandemic affected your practice?
I think like most people, it has affected us in a way that we did not expect. We’re past our fourth month of lockdown. And you know, cases are still rising. And the political situation and climate is not good. People are not happy with the response of the government, etc. And during this lockdown, we’ve had to make ourselves useful. All my projects had to be called off or rescheduled or canceled, and also the trips out of Manila. So, it’s a major blow to my practice, my livelihood. But, as long as we can contribute to the situation, we try doing that. My studio for example, we provide face shields that we donated to the medical facilities at the start of the lockdown. There was a desperate need for PPEs and our medical facilities weren’t prepared, our government wasn’t prepared and we all pitched in, in the industry like people I know from the fashion industry created VP bunny suits. Design studios made face shields out of the resources that they had. After that, you know, this idea of creating face shields kind of appealed to me. I mean I naturally tend to transform things into wearable pieces. So, this was already one step there, I just had to like, you know, tweak it. People were sending me images of our front liners, using improvised PPEs out of garbage bags and plastic bottles for the face shield. And I’ve also seen protestors of Venezuela and Palestinian refugees transform plastic bottles into gas masks, you know to keep the tear gas and other smoke from entering their nostrils. So yeah, people were sending me these images, because they’ve seen my Aliens of Manilla series. To me, I just thought these were like ingenious. We are at the time where we are left to our own devices and we have to make the most out of it, you know, contribute to the fight during the situation. So, I came up with a series of face shields using plastic bottles, discarded plastic bottles, which I had collected that was meant for an installation before the lockdown. I mean, meant to be completed when lockdown hit. So, I was left with these piles of plastic bottles. So, I started experimenting with stylized statement face shields in between doing the improvised face shields that we donated. And I’ve ended up coming up with a series.

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