(Update: Officials at the state-run Cultural Center of the Philippines shut an art exhibit on Tuesday after it provoked heated debate as well as threats and hate mail for combining Christian symbols with phallic objects.)
MANILA, Philippines (AP) — Former Philippine first lady and art patron Imelda Marcos on Monday joined Roman Catholic leaders in denouncing an art installation that combines religious symbols with phallic objects.
The exhibit at Manila's Cultural Center of the Philippines by contemporary Filipino artist Mideo Cruz has provoked heated debate about freedom of expression in the predominantly Catholic nation.
Critics vandalized the installation last week by removing a wooden penis from a poster depicting Jesus Christ. Another sculpture shows a penis hanging from a wooden cross while another portrays Christ as Mickey Mouse.
Marcos, the flamboyant widow of former dictator Ferdinand Marcos and founder of the cultural center near Manila Bay, said after visiting the exhibition that the work was a "desecration" and no longer represents art.
"To desecrate some kind of a symbol for what some religions hold sacred, it is no longer right," she told reporters.
Cruz did not immediately respond to an Associated Press email seeking comment. The center's head of visual arts reached by phone refused to comment.
In recent interviews, Cruz calls himself "a visual artist who commonly tries to cross borders of discipline in producing my works."
Cultural center chairwoman Emily Abrera was quoted as saying by Inquirer.net, the online portal of the Philippine Daily Inquirer newspaper, last week that it was part of the artists' duty to challenge prevailing beliefs.
"It is part of our culture to question, to seek answers, to look behind the surface and try to dig out what our real values are," she said.
The archbishop of Manila, Cardinal Gaudencio Rosales, said Cruz and his supporters may have abused their freedom of expression.
He told church-run Radio Veritas on Monday that freedom entails "the responsibility not to attack cultures and the responsibility not to destroy the values of people."
Several Catholic lay groups have threatened to file charges against Cruz and the exhibition organizers, and one group called Pro-life Philippines has written a letter to the cultural center demanding that the exhibit be taken down.
Bienvenido Lumbera, who was declared a national artist for literature and chairs a group called Concerned Artists of the Philippines, said that the Philippine Constitution guarantees freedom of speech and the demand "to suppress the show smacks of the religious fascism."
An introduction to Cruz's work says it "speaks of idolatry and the deconstruction of neo-deities."
It describes the cross and the image of Christ as representative of Filipinos' cultural past because the Southeast Asian nation was ruled by Spain and conservative Catholic friars for almost four centuries before it was administered as an American territory for 48 years.
It says the artwork seeks to depict "the transformation of the deity ... to an epitome of neo-liberal economy."
A wall collage opposite the cross is made up of posters of local celebrities, NBA stars, Christ, President Barack Obama, Coca-Cola and the Telletubies, characters from children's TV show. Unfurled condoms, wooden rosaries and wooden penises adorn the wall.
The exhibit opened June 17 and runs through Aug. 21.