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Flight of Freedom: 93 Birdcages Soar at the Museum MACAN

The exhibition Isabel and Alfredo Aquilizan: Somewhere, Elsewhere, Nowhere at the Museum MACAN can no doubt be considered a world on its own. The Filipino artist-duo’s unique practice is centred on assembling and turning found objects into distinguished forms that articulate issues of displacement, migration, and identity. 

Collaborative beginnings

Alfredo was born in 1962 in Ballesteros, a small town in the north of the Philippines, and Isabel in 1965, in the centre of Manila. They first met in high school in 1975 and got married in 1986. In 1996, the same year that Alfredo received the UNESCO-Aschberg scholarship to study at Norwich School of Art, the couple started collaborating for the first time.

Indeed, it was the distance between them that inspired their series Northwind, which has since spawned several versions. The first version of the work consisted of baby sweaters that were shaped to resemble female genitalia. At that time, Isabel, who remained in the Philippines, was expecting their first child. 

Together, they emerged as artists in the late 1990s and early 2000s. In 1999, they participated in the third Asia Pacific Triennial of Contemporary Art, where they met Dadang Christanto. It was the Indonesian artist who later inspired them to migrate to Australia, where they live today. To date, the artists have made notable contributions to the global art scene over the past two decades. 

Taking flight

The duo’s extensive exhibition at the Museum MACAN is divided into several parts. Each presents a body of work, which altogether reflects the duo’s artistic journey. 

As one moves from one section of the show to another, they will discover familiar objects surrounding them: toothbrushes, flip-flops, cardboard boxes, blankets, and many other household items. Isabel and Alfredo view everyday materials as important elements in their practice. The objects that they use carry a sense of familiarity and shared experiences. 

Being able to connect with the objects on different levels prompts viewers to reflect on their own journeys and the stories that we share with others. Amongst 50 artworks on display is one that the Museum MACAN commissioned. 

Suspended from the ceiling of the museum, Caged is a 10-metre-long installation consisting of 93 traditional teak birdcages. These were made from reclaimed wood and were crafted by local artisans in Yogyakarta. During an artist residency in Yogyakarta in 2015, the duo grew intrigued by the lives of the people around them. Alfredo observed how the locals kept birds as pets and he was impressed by the diverse styles of birdcages, which were made with high levels of craftsmanship.

What’s intriguing, however, is that the bird cages in the work were combined to form an aeroplane’s left wing. 

Here, the artists play with the paradoxes present in the work’s medium and form. A cage is an object that protects, but simultaneously limits whatever is inside it. Moreover, it’s ironic that while wings are seen as enablers of freedom when the installation only has one, meaning that it’s unable to fly. 

With this in mind, the work seeks to highlight the idea of longing; the aspiration to leave or return home; and the feelings experienced by people who are displaced. Touching on the work’s themes, the duo states,

“We started by connecting the idea of birdcages with ideas of freedom, of oppression, of being confined. But at the same time, we look at it in another way – it also talks about safety and refuge.” 

On the significance of Indonesia to the artists, Aaron Seeto, the Director of the Museum MACAN expressed, “Indonesia is of particular importance to Isabel and Alfredo Aquilizan. They have forged strong relationships with many artists and the artistic scene in Yogyakarta, over many years… We hope this exhibition allows people to reflect [on] their own personal stories, perhaps of transmigration or even their daily commute. We are also proud to be able to commission and present a new work. The idea of this work came to the artists on a previous visit to Yogyakarta, and we are extremely happy to be able to bring this idea to life.”

Between art and life

With their monumental installations that take over the Museum MACAN, Isabel and Alfredo show that they know no limits between art and life. 

The presentation of many artworks extends into the audience’s space–in fact, some invite the audience to be part of the works. As audiences approach Caged, the installation comes alive with birdsong, reflecting the work’s interactive nature and the creatures that birdcages are meant for. 

By doing so, the artists highlight the binary of absence and presence. Viewers are invited to contemplate the absence of physical birds while listening to recorded bird sounds. These elements once again prompt audiences to consider the ideas of freedom and captivity, as symbolised by the birdcages and the single aeroplane wing. 

Displaying works from over 20 years of their collaborative practice, Alfredo and Isabel Aquilizan lure us into an artistic universe filled with objects and stories that are close to our lives–while remaining critical towards the histories and cultures that shape society. The commissioned work Caged, in particular, plays a significant role in articulating the artists’ reasons for art-making: longing, displacement, and freedom.


Caged is on display at Isabel and Alfredo Aquilizan: Somewhere, Elsewhere, Nowhere, which runs at Museum MACAN till 8 October 2023. Click here for more information.

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