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Politics is art, art politics at Venice Biennale

Shipwrecked: Jose Tence Ruiz’s “Shoal” at the Philippine pavilion

At the 56th Venice Biennale, strong political statements, it seems, trumps art for the sake of aesthetics or shock value. Gone are the days when the Philippines could represent itself with the abstract art of Jose Joya and Napoleon Abueva, who exhibited at the 1964 Biennale. Nowadays, it’s about delivering a geopolitical message.

Case in point: Armenia, which won the coveted Golden Lion, happens to be commemorating its 100th year since the Armenian Genocide. Their pavilion, called “Armenity/Haiyutioun,” features contemporary artists from the Armenian diaspora who reflect on their native identity through works tied to the concept of memory.

Another show fraught with political significance is “My East is Your West,” in which India and Pakistan unite for the first time. In this shared exhibition at the Biennale, the two nations reflect on the theme of borders.

Our Philippine pavilion had its own message about borders — and intrusions upon those borders — but I don’t foresee a shared exhibit with China anytime soon.

Considering the 51-year gap, our country represented itself admirably. In an exhibition that has almost doubled in size since the late ’90s, with 89 national pavilions, 44 collateral shows and countless unofficial events, the Philippines got lots of positive attention from critics as well as casual viewers, with institutions like Christie’s putting the Philippine pavilion on its “best of the Biennale” and “must-see” lists. The fact that we were able to shine in such a melee is, without doubt, a historic victory for the country and our artists.


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Art immersion, sensory overload

What’s it like entering the Biennale?

There are two main areas, roughly divided between up-and-comers and more seasoned entrants. Most established countries like the USA, Great Britain and Japan have permanent pavilions in the Giardini, so named because the pavilions are surrounded by gardens and flank a peaceful canal. It’s a stunning, serene setting in which to view art.

Arsenale, on the other hand, is an industrial labyrinth of shipyards and armories, where newer powers in the art world like Ireland, Indonesia, and Mexico are housed inside barracks-length structures made of brick and stone.

The Philippines and first-timers like Bangladesh, India, and Iraq were set up in spaces outside the Arsenale and Giardini.

Technically we are not among the newcomers, having made our debut in 1964, so, does a celibacy of 51 years restore our virginity again?

No one seems to know why our “first time” was also the last time; one can only surmise that the Marcos government had other concerns through the late ‘60s onward, and funding further participation in the Biennale was not one of them. (Credit goes to Senator Loren Legarda, who spearheaded the Philippines’ return to Venice, as well as curator Patrick Flores and participating artists Jose Tence Ruiz and Manny Montelibano.)

Open to the public since May 9, the Biennale runs until Nov. 22, 2015. In case you find yourself in Venice during that period, here is my personal pick of the pavilions among the ones I saw:

All the world’s futures’: Days of future past

Art historian and critic Okwui Enwezor curated the official exhibition, “All the World’s Futures,” about the way capital is used in the world, and it’s a provocative and disquieting vision.

To get to American art star Bruce Nauman’s neon marquees, whose flickering creates random statements about sex, pain and death, first you have to step over Algerian artist Adel Abdessemed’s sheaves of knives on the floor.

In other rooms, artist Tetsuya Ishida’s acrylic paintings of Japanese students staring blankly at an unseen future follow German photographer Andreas Gursky’s large-scale pictures of Asian laborers crammed into factories like ants. At Arsenale, Chinese artist Xu Bing’s twin phoenixes built entirely from industrial parts hover majestically over the water in two boathouses, looking poised to take flight.

There’s almost too much to absorb, and the assault is not just visual but auditory — a young black woman sings “work songs” live in the midst of the Giardini exhibit — but Enwezor’s assemblage of artists from all over the world is an all-encompassing view of not just the state of contemporary art today but also the state of human evolution.

Japan: web of memories

Though it didn’t win, the Japanese pavilion was the universal favorite among Biennale goers, who raved about Chiharu Shiota’s large-scale installation “The Key in the Hand.” Like the most benign of spiders, Shiota wove a web of red yarn suspended from the ceiling, from which hundreds of keys dangle. Caught like flies in the net are two boats — encrusted with the briny patina of ocean voyages — a metaphor for traveling through life and memories.

Italy: Cracking the Italian code

Art academic Vincenzo Trione curated the host country’s pavilion, called “Codice Italia (The Italian Code).” A specialist in new media, Trione chose 12 artists whom he thought best illustrated the evolution of Italian style, from the ‘70s to the present. Standouts for me were Vanessa Beecroft, whose secret sculpture garden could only be seen by peering voyeuristically through a crack between two marble walls; Marzia Migliora, whose cornfield-in-a-cupboard installation magically incorporates the viewer’s image via an optical illusion; and William Kentridge, who explains his wall art “Omaggio All’Italia (Tribute to Italy)” by way of a Pier Paolo Pasolini quote: “Everybody knows that I pay the price of the experiences I embark on, but then there are my books and my films. I might be wrong but I’ll keep on saying that we are all in danger.”

Great Britain: Sex and dessert

Part of the wave of Young British Artists that swept the Brit art scene in the ’90s, Sarah Lucas’ penchant for irreverence is still front, center and thrusting upwards in her exhibit “I SCREAM DADDIO” (all caps necessary), a collection of torso sculptures from which cigarettes jut out of all the lower-half orifices.  The titillating effect, which the artist says was deliberate, is nullified somewhat by the creamy yellow in which all the walls are drenched. “The sculptures are set in a sea of custard,” explains Lucas, who opened the pavilion with a rock concert at the Giardini. “My overall conception for the show is that it should have the appearance of a dessert. A confection. Still, the proof of the pudding is in the eating.” Rock on, sister.

Spain: Dali and the moderns

Spain honors Salvador Dali in its pavilion, with contemporary artists like Francesc Ruiz using the surrealist master as a starting point for their work. In the foyer you can sit on Dali’s Mae West lips sofa or gold Leda chairs and watch films about him, then enter the adjoining rooms and take in installations by Pepo Salazar and the Cabello/Carceller collective, which take the piss out of American pop culture and pornography.

The Philippines: We can hold our own

Of course I’m biased, but I agree with artist Jose Tence Ruiz, who combed the Biennale with the rest of the Philippine delegation and said we can hold our own in the global art world. Our sea-based story parallels that of watery Venice’s, and coincidentally, our pavilion was right beside Mongolia’s, birthplace of the conqueror Manuel Conde portrayed in the pivotal film Genghis Khan!

At the opening Vernissage, the line of Filipinos and foreigners waiting to see the Philippine pavilion snaked around Palazzo Mora, and here are some of the reactions from the visitors who took in our exhibit “Tie a String Around the World.”

“It was a proposal that really told a story and offered many points of entry to the pavilion and to the curatorial proposal, from sculpture, from installation, from video,” said Renaud Proch of Independent Curators International. “From the point of view of history, from the point of view of politics, it seems very relevant to today’s concerns and today’s world. Great pavilion.”

Said Mami Kataoka, chief curator of the Mori Art Museum in Tokyo, Japan, “Knowing the story that the Philippines has not participated for half a century, I was curious to see what was missing in between. I think a lot of the jury and judges, including myself, were fascinated by the starting point, Genghis Khan, but also association with the sea territory issue, which had been surrounding us in Southeast Asia. The story had been very well interwoven and to see also its connection to Venice, to see how the story of half a century ago had been activated through the curatorial thread.”

Nicole Revel, professor emeritus of linguistics at Paris Descartes University, watched Manny Montelibano’s three-channel film installation “A Dashed State,” in which the filmmaker meshed two sound epics from the Pala’wan tribe and radio signals recorded facing the West Philippine Sea, and she was struck by his use of sound, which the filmmaker says is influenced by Stanley Kubrick’s powerful use of Ligeti and micro-polyphony.

“When I was told by Manny Montelibano that the voice of the buzzing sound, the voice that overwhelms is a treatment of the voice of Usuy, this wind kind of sound, I could understand that electronically, this is possible,” said Revel. “One thing I would have liked to be able to listen to maybe for one minute is the peacefulness of the initial song in the nightscape because it’s a soundscape of the night with insects and you can perceive the insects but they are covered by this buzzing sound of wave, which is an expression of the anguish of the artist. Aesthetically, it’s beautiful and done with the drone, is even more extraordinary.”

Singapore pavilion curator Shabbir Hussain Mustafa, who also viewed the film, “immediately realized that there is so much density, so much emotion. I was somehow at first a little puzzled, but then as I sat through it, a bit like a Patrick Flores exhibition, you have to wait for the good things. It will not just come to you. It is not a pack of instant noodles. Then you wait for that last moment, the final moment when you experience the legendary Jose Tence Ruiz’s wreck, baroque structure, object. I’m still resisting using the word ‘sculpture.’ It’s a small space, a highly charged experience and I came out with more questions than answers and for me, fundamentally, that’s how exhibitions succeed.”

When the Venice Biennale closes in November, “Tie a String Around the World” will be exhibited at UP’s Vargas Museum. I can only hope that Sen. Legarda, the NCCA and DFA will set up a permanent committee and set aside a permanent budget for the Venice Biennale. Continuity is what’s most important for us now.

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Follow me on Facebook (Therese Jamora-Garceau), Twitter @tjgarceau and Instagram @tj108_drummergirl.

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