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This New Public Art Installation by Toym Imao Is An Emotional Tribute To The Fallen Frontliner

Honoring the frontliners, plants signify hope as the nation continues its battle against the pandemic


If a Filipino ever asks, "Why don't we have more heroes?", they're asking the wrong question. 


In reality we have so many, so very many, and the alternative question to ask is, "Have we even identified our heroes?" More so, what have we done for them?


After all, in a country like the Philippines where progress and protection for all requires sacrifice from a select and selfless chosen, heroes are made every day. And as the COVID crisis continues to rear its ugly head, who our heroes are in this year, perhaps even this decade and generation, are clear as day—the doctors, the nurses, hospital support staff like security guards, custodians and sanitation crew, parking attendants, cafeteria ladies, receptionists, all of them.


As much as we try to give them our collective "thank you's" and "we can neve repay you's," we'll have to try because it's the least they deserve. In our efforts to do so, we have artist Toym Imao to look to for inspiration. His tribute to frontliners, Whispering Flower Bedsis an emotional journey for the onlooker, encompassing the themes of duty above self, legacy, remembrance, life that springs forth after death. 






"We do hope that through this installation, we would continue to be vigilant and demand more from our leaders’ policies and response to this pandemic. That we never forget our fallen frontliners; and remember that our health care workers continue to be our first line of defense and lifeline against this outbreak," Toym writes on his Facebook page where he describes the story of how the project gained footing.


The art installation comprises of 12 discarded hospital beds, all of which have been in use since post-World War 2. 


Once used at the Philippine General Hospital (PGH), the beds were brought outside as they waited to be transported. PGH had been given a fresh set of beds which meant that the old metal frames of beds were sent out for a refurbishing before being sent out to other healthcare facilities to live out the next phase of their lives.


"On February 2, Bibeth Orteza shared with me how much her fellow director/husband Carlos Siguion-Reyna was emotionally overwhelmed by the sight of rows and piles of condemned hospital beds lined up along a side street in the Philippine General Hospital," Toym narrates.


"Coincidentally, I had a scheduled meeting with Dr. Leo Cubillan about an art project for the National Institute of Health two days later. After our meeting, Doc Leo accompanied me to where Carlos saw the beds and I, myself, was overcome with the power that these beds emanated, the stories they could tell," he continues. 

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Toym viewed the beds the same way that a visitor views historical buildings. But instead of wondering what walls could say, given all the things they've seen over hundreds and hundreds of years, Toym fixated on what the humble metal frames of these beds, and the seemingly trivial makeup of screws and rubber and paint that held these frames together, could tell him after witnessing exchanges between patient and family and doctor and nurse, listening in on stories of grief and jubilation. 


It was then that the cogs and gears of creativity within Toym's mind began to turn, faster and faster, until an idea blossomed: beds with flowers. Flowerbeds. Ultimately, Whispering Flowerbeds. 


"There are so many stories to tell and remember. We are currently collecting these narratives into an audio collection which visitors to the installation will hear in the form of whispers coming from the twelve hospital flower beds. (Twelve to represent the 12 months of the pandemic lockdown.)," Toym describes.








And though Toym knew he would have the support of friends, volunteers, and fellow artists for the installation, the collaboration it grew into was one he didn't quite expect. The scale on which it's now is telling of how much the Filipino people feel about the necessary and often terrifying sacrifices 


"To cut a long story short, Doc Leo introduced us to PGH Director Dr. Gap Legaspi who whole-heartedly supported the art installation proposal. Soon enough our creative team expanded from what was planned to be a quiet installation to a tribute program now being planned together with the PGH and the University of the Philippines. Our core team expanded to include director Krix San Gabriel, Katsch Catoy, and Prof. Lisa Ito of the Concerned Artist of the Philippines," he details. 


In particular, the brother of Toym's friend, writer and director Bibeth Orteza, Dr. Neil Orteza, was on the minds of everyone who participated in the project. The doctor was one of the first to fall in the earliest days of fighting for the pandemic last year, right around the time PGH was declared as a COVID center.





"It was so heart-warming to have his three daughters, one a medical resident and two students of medicine at PGH, help us plant the flowers on the hospital beds on the first day of working on the art installation," Toym shares.



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The hospital beds sit at the front of the PGH, facing Taft Avenue, and greeting all those who come seeking help and comfort. For frontliners returning to work, the scene can be lonely and an emotional homerun to their tired hearts, but perhaps can empower and strengthen them anew, too. 


"We encourage other hospitals and health care facilities to do something similar to this temporary memorial to our fallen frontliners since it is a very simple concept that can be replicated with old beds across the country," Toym suggests. 








The event Aluyan ng Paghilom will be held on March 30 at the University of the Philippines' Oblation Plaza in honor of PGH becoming the country's COVID center and all the Filipino frontliners who have worked tirelessly to protect their kababayans during this time. It will be live streamed in order for a wider audience to be able to appreciate the program.


An online platform will also be launched on the same day where stories of the program and art installation, as well as the experiences of those who participated in them, will be posted. 


"Remember the fallen and continue to fight for our rights amidst this pandemic," Toym concludes. 


Images from @toymimao