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Beefed up beyond the shoebox: Art Fair Philippines 2016

Mark Justiniani will be part of the Art Fair Philippines (AFP) 2016 special exhibitions.

Ang mall ay ang modernong plaza ng bayan / The mall is our modern town square… — Rolando Tolentino

 

Fifteen years ago, Rolando Tolentino drew on the idea of the mall as a “terrain of cultural oppositions” between those with power and those without. In his influential work on malls/ malling as institutions of ideology and pop culture, he wrote: “Sa loob at labas ng mall kong sawi/ kaliluha’y siyang nangyayaring hari.”  He urged us to contemplate and take on everyday acts of subversion in the face of the prevailing, powerful structures that dominate our social lives. Within this slick and shiny plaza “shaped like a shoebox” where “the lighting is even, as if it were constantly high noon... (and) toilets always work,” Tolentino saw a space for agitated negotiation and interrogation.

Flash forward to 2016. Art Fair Philippines is in its fourth year in a parking lot inside one of Makati’s super-busy and buzzed-up swaths of shopping complexes. With a 16,000- strong visitor attendance from last year, the fair continues to thrive on this fizzy buzz and has now expanded from last year’s two floors to three — from 4,000 to over 6,000 square meters of space — roughly two-thirds the size of the Philippine Arena’s dome.

Indeed, while art fairs may not always be the best context to look at art, they are capable of bringing an interesting mix of people together, some of whom, for various reasons, would probably never visit a museum or an art space on their own. Toss in artists, prominent local galleries and galleries from outside the country, auction houses, press, your toxic Makati girls and boys, curators, academics, dealers, designers, beautiful people, lost people, families, students and, of course, collectors for a few days — it’s both awkward and amazing. The mingling of artworlders and non-artworlders is impressive and about as general as “general public” could get in the country’s largely middle-class CBD.

 

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Offering parallel projects that extend their program toward more non-commercial platforms, the fair is also a site of opportunity for the patient and curious. This year, the fair’s “Beyond the Link” activities include a lecture by Dr. Patrick Flores on Purita Kalaw-Ledesma’s master’s degree thesis, “A Critical Analysis of Modern Painting in the Philippines Today,” tours of the recently renovated National Museum and other nearby museums in the city, and talks and panels on installation art and photography organized by the Ateneo Art Gallery.

Art fairs are strange things, a combination of stuff — nice/ cheesy/ brilliant stuff — that its visitors are made to grapple with, the majority of whom are normal people. They are not there to acquire. It is, perhaps, a shorter, more dressed-up version of Tolentino’s shoebox mall: while mingling may be par for the course, buying is not.

Grappling with the art, however, is still possible. The lectures and discussions are enjoyable and  instructive. The fair’s bright spots, its artworks, may still be able to surprise and even nudge us to look outside and beyond the parking lot, the shoebox, and Makati. Terrific moments of the fair from past years include, among others, Mark Justiniani’s fascinating tunnels of building innards and Louie Cordero’s tongue-in-cheek pingpong tables.

For this year’s special exhibitions, it’s Alfredo and Isabel Aquilizan’s work that promises to be both uncomfortable and compelling.

Together with long-time collaborator Antonio Calma of the Mabini Art Group — an assembly of landscape painters who trace their lineage from Fernando Amorsolo’s conservatism consequently excluding them from modern and contemporary art discourse (and their accompanying markets) — the couple will bring Calma’s gallery from Mabini in Malate to the art fair. This displacement of locus invites us to reflect on the nature of the art fair itself: What does context and appropriation mean to a capricious and mysterious art market? How is value determined? And for whom?

Money and art are inextricable; and while the latter will always seem pale in the light of the misery and conflict outside and beyond the mall and Makati, Tolentino reminds us that negotiations are possible. Productive dissonance has been and is in the offing: power dressing and lunching are not always just for the powerful.

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Art Fair Philippines 2016 will run from Feb. 18 to 21 at The Link in Ayala Center, Makati City. For information on the artists, galleries and collateral activities of the fair, visit artfairphilippines.com.

The Philippine STAR is a media partner of AFP 2016.

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