Leeroy New is an acclaimed Filipino artist who combines sculptural installation, fashion, theatre, film-making and product design with an emphasis on repurposing and imaginatively revisioning waste and sustainable materials to suggest organic forms. He’s best known in Australia for his astonishing installations across building facades such as La Puerta Del Laberinto (2017) at Castlemaine Art Museum and Balete at the Biennale of Sydney this year. He designed a costume for Lady Gaga’s “Marry the Night” music video and his work has been exhibited in Asia, North America and Europe. He is in Australia to present new works at Carriageworks for the Vivid Sydney festival 2022 and at Melbourne’s Rising festival. He chose to discuss Hayao Miyazaki’s animated film Nausicaä of the Valley of the Wind (1984).
Can you tell me a bit about the film?
It had a lot to do with humanity’s relationship with the environment. What I recall is vague images. Giant slugs; this heroine cruising on her flying machine; giant insects as a kind of threatening figure at the beginning but in the end turning out to be benign, the ones to save them. These little things, these references to how we should rethink our attitude to our environment, the use of natural forms – that comes out in my work. It felt like Nausicaä was up against the world, trying to tell this other narrative that people were resisting, which ended up becoming true.
The film came out two years before you were born. Did you see it when you were a child?
Yes. In hindsight it’s a surprise that I had, where I was from, south in the Philippines in a small city known for its fishing. We didn’t really have any access to art back there: there were hardly any art books, none that I could recall. I had an idea of what art was. There were a few things in the small local mall, I knew there were four or five hanging there, versions of still lifes and landscapes, localised subject matter. The landscapes were rice paddies or the still lifes would depict local fruits. Fishermen toiling on their boats. That’s what I thought art was. And what I wanted to do. But I was also interpreting all these things that I’d consume as a kid – film, TV, graphic novels – as artistic and creative objects. I didn’t realise at the time but these different manifestations of the creative act helped determine how I do my work.
Growing up I also saw shows about special effects, movie magic, and it was fascinating knowing that people actually made those sets, those costumes, scale models of landscapes. It predetermined my attitude towards art as a kind of worldbuilding, as a kind of myth-making, a kind of active means to transform my immediate environment through large-scale sculptural installations or through the creation of the alien characters who’d inhabit these spaces.
The fantastical, the organic, the world of the impossible, the unexpected...
It was a way for me to participate in the world that I live in. On the surface it does feel like representing an alternative world. But there was a point where I decided to not just consume these objects of creative production, but I wanted to participate in the transforming of my own environment as well. Trying to find ways to make art effective and practical. So my work has evolved into doing large-scale sculptural structures to interact with public spaces. And through my collaborations with other designers, urban planners and agricultural scientists, I’m trying to learn to move my work from the realm of fiction into something more practical and immediate.
Somewhere along the way during my time in art school we realised that Filipinos aren’t necessarily a culture of gallery-goers and museum-goers. If Filipinos felt they were too busy trying to survive, maybe the art should evolve and reflect the needs of the people. Instead of making works inside art-sanctioned spaces, if people have hardly any time to visit, why not do work out in the streets, out where people were actually moving: street corners, alleyways and so on. My friend and I did street art – we even donned fake street-cleaner uniforms to make it look legit. Then from painting on the walls I moved to actually building and doing sculptural interventions in public spaces.
Miyazaki’s film brings out the weirdness in figures such as the insect creatures the Ohms – the otherworldly sense of what is actually natural, our real world. That’s in your work, it feels familiar and also strange.
I always refer to natural forms for inspiration. I try to draw from nature in terms of the materials that I use or the forms that end up coming out of my explorations of different materials. It makes sense because a lot of technological advancements tend to emulate nature, not just in form but also function, and I think it makes sense for us to seek out these connections and have them manifest in the technologies we develop. A lot of sci-fi films or books that I consumed as a kid did not necessarily have my specific context in mind. I guess I focused on exploring a kind of Philippines sci-fi, figuring out a place for someone like me in the future and how that would look – wanting to participate, to create a future for us, not just consume sci-fi content in the form of graphic novels and movies but be a mover and someone who can actually help create a distinct visual language for our sci-fi future.
The film was one of the first to take that idea of something both beautiful and political in popular culture, like manga or animated children’s films. The mischievous sense of inserting art and message into unexpected places. Lady Gaga does the same, and you designed a costume for her. Can you relate this stealth art attitude to Nausicaä?
Definitely in the different archetypes that were presented in that film, as opposed to the Disney princess archetype, the good-and-evil archetype, Nausicaä of the Valley of the Wind was one of the first films that did not have a clear protagonist/antagonist dynamic. Even the strong seemingly antagonist character, that other warrior-woman, had a redemption in the end. Both of them were just acting based on what they thought or knew was true. The goal was not for Nausicaä to defeat that conqueror-woman, but to exchange their mythical truths with each other. That alone was groundbreaking for someone growing up in a traditional, conservative Catholic upbringing, which was all “good versus evil”, “the angel has to defeat the devil”, and all that. What Nausicaä proposed was a kind of balance and an acknowledgement of each other’s existence.
These are films that I go back to. The themes have endured and still resonate with me. It’s like my own personal mythology, these stories, and they’re still very much alive in my head, and in what I do.
This article was first published in the print edition of The Saturday Paper on June 4, 2022 as "Leeroy New".
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