The ‘invisible’ Junyee: The artist
the Filipino must experience

For the low-key installation artist, it’s always been the message,
not the messenger—and his large-scale
retrospective set for 2023 will prove that anew

Junyee, an oil portrait done in 2020 by Dominador Laroza, with the photo of a boy, the seven-year-old Junyee, before Mt. Makiling (Photo from Junyee)

Installation art is such a powerful medium because it reaches into the realm of experience-based media that affects us in a different way from a painting, or other forms of art. It is more than two-dimensional, and has the potential to transform the art world by surprising audiences and engaging viewers in new ways. Often imposing on the landscape and public spaces, it is effective in delivering ecological, political, or social messages. Because of its public nature,  many who would otherwise not normally enter a gallery would be able to view and react to it, allowing for the “messages” to be delivered to a wider audience.

This is why I have often wondered why, despite groundbreaking public works by installation artists, they are not given due recognition in our country, even if they are major artistic statements that never fail to elicit reactions, good or bad. Maybe it’s because some of the artists who create them just want the message delivered.

Junyee (Luis Enano Yee Jr.) brings me back to the trailblazing years of postmodern artmaking in the country. I was a curatorial assistant at the brand new Cultural Center of the Philippines (CCP) Art Galleries for brilliant, slightly mad poet, writer, and conceptual artist Ray Albano. Working under him was enough cause for me to set aside everything I learned in art school. It was a work environment that was fertile ground for a green tenderfoot to be stepping on.

Being at the CCP at that time was practically like taking a full course in art curatorship. In this milieu, I met and worked closely with curators, artists, poet-manqués, art critics, photographers, cineastes, scholars, and art groupies from all over the world—brilliant minds who treated every encounter with gallery staff as mentoring as well as entertaining opportunities.

One of the artists I met was a pleasant, soft-spoken man with a Prince Valiant bob who always carried a rucksack full of creepy crawlies and found objects.  Everybody knew him as Junyee.

At the time I met Junyee, he had already mounted several exhibitions in the University of the Philippines campus, participatory but temporary installations held outdoors. These early works went mostly unnoticed by a public that was used to understanding sculpture as an object on a base as a means of identification. I learned about his art mostly from documentation, an essential corollary to conceptual art, ephemeral installations or performances. Unless you had access to the documentation of works that fell under these categories, the work was gone. Despite this, Junyee continued making his art; any space was always a venue for him. He prevailed. He was neither an art dealer’s darling, nor, I think, did he care much for the commercial gallery circuit with its traditional mechanisms used to determine the value of artworks.

In the 1979 work ‘Abortion,’ the viewer had to walk around the work: a huge ovoid nest of branches and twigs, an allegorical message

In 1979, Ray Albano curated a major group show at the CCP’s Main Gallery. Junyee submitted a floor-based, re-mountable installation piece titled Abortion.

I recall that it needed an alcove all to itself. The viewer had to walk around the work: a huge ovoid nest of branches and twigs, an allegorical message. This time his work didn’t go unnoticed, and Junyee was listed for the 13 Artists Award that year. He declined the award, and instead asked for a grant to organize an installation festival. He was given the grant and free rein to handle the exhibits that would transform ordinary public spaces into immersive artistic experiences.

The project, titled Site Works, became a much-anticipated open exhibition for artists who shared the idea of exploring beyond the gallery setting and challenging all traditional  notions of art. The Philippine Site Works Festival was a first art event of its kind in the Asean region.

I left the CCP in the mid-’80s and lost touch with many of my artist friends. Recently, I did get a chance to catch up with Junyee after many long years, and I asked him what themes continue to inform his ideas and beliefs today.

“I grew up in Agusan del Norte, then known as the timber capital of the country,” he said. “My grandfather had a big farm in Surigao where I spent time around vast mangrove forests, learned to swim in the great Agusan River and Lake Mainit.

“We are not a separate entity from nature; man is a part of the system of nature.

We seem to have lost that natural connection and feel superior to nature. Soon we will pay for it. I hope it will not be too late to return to be one with it again, to return home.”

This was the landscape he grew up in and one that he hesitantly left behind with heavy heart when he couldn’t convince his father that art was his calling. It certainly wasn’t  a straight upward passage along one’s chosen path of purpose. He went to Cebu thinking he could enroll at the University of San Carlos for a course in Fine Arts, only to find out they didn’t offer it. Instead of going back home, he worked odd jobs, one of which was as a janitor in a funeral parlor.

The path was a hard and arduous one for Junyee, who eventually got himself to Manila and into the University of the Philippines (UP) in Diliman. Today, Junyee is permanently based in Los Baños, Laguna.

“I had to do these odd jobs, to support myself and to finally get to Manila. There was no support from my father, who adamantly opposed my decision to be an artist. In 1971, I was the art editor of the Philippine Collegian, tasked to deliver copies of the publication  to UP Los Baños, and when I got there, instantly I knew I wanted to stay there.”

Los Baños, a university town with an aesthetically appealing backdrop of forests, a tropical mountain ecosystem, and natural springs, is home to the University of the Philippines College of Forestry and Animal Husbandry. The place rekindled memories of Junyee’s formative years in Agusan. The mystical allure of the town’s Mt. Makiling had taken a hold on Junyee.

To this day, Junyee lives in Los Baños in fulfillment of his desire to remain close to nature—fitting for a naturalist with an ecological conscience. It is telling that his work is now receiving belated mainstream recognition, as these themes he has been addressing since the 1970s have become particularly urgent.

With 1980’s ‘Wood Things,’ he proved that art was not defined by the things installed, but by the dialogue surrounding them as works of art

In 1980, Junyee held his first one-man indoor installation exhibit at the CCP’s Small Gallery. Wood Things was a turning point in Junyee’s artmaking; with this exhibit, he proved that art was not defined by the things installed but by the dialogue surrounding them as works of art—discourse generated by artists, critics, art historians, and curators. The art world took more notice, critics wrote about the show, and art publications made mention of him.

At that time, a handful of brave Postmodernists, namely Santiago Bose, Robert Villanueva, Lani Maestro, Judy Sibayan, Genara  Banzon, and Shop 6, like Junyee were starting to expand the definition of art, and by the end of the ’80s, Installation Art, whether indoors or outdoors, was changing the country’s art landscape. These artists were influential in the early development particularly of the installation, performance and conceptual  genre in the country.

In 1982, Junyee received an invitation to the Paris Biennale, and he was joined by Ray Albano, Johnny Manahan and Nonon Padilla. This was a historic participation, after the country’s 10-year absence from international biennales. For this, he re-mounted his work Wood Things—dried banana leaves and stalks and spikes from kapok pods. Hundreds of these “ bugs ” covered a floor, creeping up to the ceiling. Recognition came at last, though mostly within Conceptual and Installation Art circles abroad. Invitations to biennales, awards, and international projects followed.

In 2007 Junyee made an outdoor installation that covered a hectare within the grounds of CCP for an Earth Day celebration. Angud: A Forest Once was a work of 10,000 pieces of angud (the end part of a tree trunk where it is tapered off and a hole is drilled for hauling the log down the river) from the forests of Real, Quezon province. This was a powerful intervention using artistic expression—a symbolic protest against illegal logging.

Junyee makes use of endemic, organic materials and biodegradable found objects as reflections on the continuity of life in space, in the biosphere, in nature.  He uses rocks, roots, twigs and vines, dried pods, banana fiber, grass, husks, bamboo, and coconut shells in creating his narratives and primordial environments. Sometimes they are beautiful, sometimes they are not, but always they surprise and mystify. The works are made simply to be walked around and contemplated. All of the viewer’s senses are engaged: sight, touch, hearing, and smell. A viewer experiences the entire piece, or becomes part of the entire piece. Going even deeper, a viewer could potentially start perceiving space differently.

His works were never about him being seen, but about how you reacted

The negative impact we as human beings have on our planet, the exhaustion of its resources, are recurring themes that persistently dominate Junyee’s works. Nature is his point of departure, and his interventions are creative ways of sharing these beliefs and his deep respect for the planet with us.

In 2023, Junyee (Luis Enano Yee Jr.) will have a retrospective at the CCP that will run for four months. It will be a unified and interactive experience that will be installed all throughout the CCP’s exhibition spaces, indoors and outdoors including the CCP’s great front lawn. For many, the retrospective will be the chance to encounter the entire arc of Junyee’s artistic career (from the ’60s to the present) and get a sense of the breadth of his work, from installations, sculpture, paintings, prints, drawings, and documentation of early public structures, to plans of gardens and residences he designed.

For Junyee, the response his works get is more important than the skills and work  put into them. Impact rather than craftsmanship is the point. Maybe this is why he was always “invisible.” His works were never about him being seen, but about how you reacted, how they changed you, how they made you rethink your values and attitudes. It was always about the message, and not about the messenger.

“When I go, I would like to be allowed by the Almighty to roam the mountains, rivers, brooks, lakes of my youth. These places the youth of today may never get a chance to commune with. If I could live with nature forever, that would be magical!”

For Junyee, nature’s child, that would be his prayer.


by Junyee

I  came  to visit my hometown
To see and feel the places where I’ve been
I see nothing much have changed
But the feeling is not the same.

I approached the corner where my heart used to falter
Knowing that the tailor’s shop no longer there
I wonder  where’s the tailor’s daughter now
I wonder if she ever felt the same.

The Church seem smaller than in my youth
And the saints stand as rigid as before
They will always be there I imagine
But they have not remain the same.

I went to the river where I learned to swim
Surprise that there’s kids there swimming
The water still flow in the same direction
But the river is not the same.

I walked the street where we used to live
Hoping to meet some neighbors
The feeling is replaced with longing
Our house was no longer there.

I came to visit my hometown
But I could never come home again.

Read more:

How and why Johnny became Johnny Air Cargo

David Medalla: The artist came home

Lilianna Manahan designs hope in these dark times

About author


A former magazine editor, she writes about arts and culture, both as journalist and as friend to many of the country’s foremost artists, designers and the culturati.

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