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Venice Biennale as a site for interpretations of national life

“‘The Spectre of Comparison’ evokes Rizal, but it also conjures the spirit of the late, great Benedict Anderson, who, while exposing the ‘philosophical poverty’ of the notion of nation, also acknowledged its rootedness in utopian values, in love, solidarity, community,” writes Senator Loren Legarda.

This is the message of Senator Loren Legarda in the official catalogue of the Philippine pavilion, “The Spectre of Comparison,” in the 2017 Venice Art Biennale.) 

It is with great pride and honor that we bring “The Spectre of Comparison,” this year’s Philippine pavilion, to the 57th Venice Art Biennale. The success of the Philippine pavilion at the previous Biennale in 2015, the first in 51 years, was followed by the first Philippine participation at the Architecture Biennale last year. The Filipino voice in Venice is present, and must henceforth be consistent.

Filipino artists are no stranger to their work being represented in the Biennale’s main exhibition: it is heartening and quite poignant that Christine Macel has this year invited David Medalla, a titan of modern art history and contemporary art, alongside exciting young artists Katherine Nuñez and Issay Rodriguez. Yet the space for an official Philippine representation remains significant and necessary. As much as a pavilion we can call our own serves as a platform for the world to see us through our art — Venice is a site charged with exercises in soft power and cultural diplomacy — I most value what its artists, curator and the exhibition form can do to problematize our own slippery understandings of our nationhood, complicating and expanding what is already, for ourselves, so difficult to pin down.

The Venice Biennale, in its very nature, is a site where interpretations of national life are constructed, where they are imagined, then enacted. At this current moment, when nationalism has — both in the West and closer to home — taken on a particular form that is ugly and hateful, the framing of art away from its transnational, globalized reality can feel reductive, even regressive. Nationalism is a troubling notion, yet the nationalisms of Europe in 2017 are not the same as that which led to anti-colonial revolt in late 19th-century Philippines. “The Spectre of Comparison” evokes Rizal, but it also conjures the spirit of the late, great Benedict Anderson, who, while exposing the “philosophical poverty” of the notion of nation, also acknowledged its rootedness in utopian values, in love, solidarity, community. From these ideals emerge art, and, in the case of the Philippines, national liberation.

This exhibition questions the processes with which our identity as a nation has been formed, our curious condition as an archipelago of varied languages and ethnicities brought together by this modern construct; that these processes occurred in the context of hundreds of years of colonialism and occupation is not insignificant. The specter of comparison ensures it is impossible for us to comprehend who we are without the painful hauntings of our history. This was the case for Crisostomo Ibarra, for Rizal, and I am sure for Medalla, for Lani Maestro and Manuel Ocampo. These artists are all immigrants, as so many Filipinos are or have been: the West exists as both perpetrator and refuge; the Philippines as the home suddenly ripe for critique. The effect must be vertiginous and dizzying. I celebrate that this year’s Philippine pavilion argues for the diasporic experience as an intrinsic part of the Filipino identity, as that identity and the nationalism that it fosters continue to shift and remake itself, producing great art in its wake.

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