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How art became our best ambassador

Medal of genius: Filipino artist David Medalla, shown here with Adam Nankervis, is regarded as one of the founders of kinetic art. He was even gifted with a medallic sculpture by the great Marcel Duchamp.

Much ado was made this year, when the Philippines made its comeback to the Venice Art Biennale after a 51-year absence — and rightfully so.

“In my several visits to museums and contemporary art spaces for many years, I took note that even countries such as Tuvalu and Maldives participated in the Venice Biennale. That made me more determined to have a Philippine participation, our second national pavilion in the Venice Biennale after 51 years of absence,” Senator Loren Legarda explains.

The country’s triumphant return to the biennale was made possible by the “almost flawless” convergence of the National Commission on Culture and the Arts (NCCA), the Department of Foreign Affairs (DFA), and Senator Legarda’s office, an office that has long established itself as a staunch champion of local arts and culture.

“The fact that they were willing was enough to make me try to do it. I thought we can get the support of the government,” she says. “So I tried and true enough, the government gave its support to the project.”

The 1964 pavilion 51 years ago became the starting point of the long march towards the country’s return to the biennale. A 1965 essay titled “Because it is there… The Philippines at the 32nd Venice Biennale” proved to be important research for Senator Legarda.

“I note that at that time, we did not have our own space. Napoleon Abueva showcased his sculptures, including the ‘Allegorical Harpoon,’ and Jose Joya, his abstract paintings such as the ‘Hills of Nikko,’” she explains. “Our national pavilion exhibited works that were supposedly ‘behind’ compared to the emerging movement at that period, which was pop art.”

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Among the 16 curatorial proposals submitted to Senator Legarda and the rest of the panel for this year’s pavilion, it was Patrick Flores’ Tie A String Around the World proposal that stood out. If the 1964 pavilion seemed “behind,” the 2015 bid was effortlessly timely.

“Patrick is a brilliant writer and a creative curator who connects one thing from the other. Tie A String Around the World is mind-boggling and leaves you with questions. One thing that caught my attention was the employ of the film Genghis Khan, which was a hit at the Venice Film Festival shown in 1952 and how it was used to anchor our return to the Venice Biennale after 51 years of absence,” she says.

“The Philippine Pavilion hints at the West Philippine Sea issue but brings it to a broader perspective. Patrick tied together the works of Manuel Conde and Carlos Francisco for Genghis Khan, Manny Montelibano for A Dashed State, and Jose Tence Ruiz for Shoal, to make a poetic and political reflection on the history of world making, the links between geography and politics, and the notions of nation, territory and archipelago.”

One of the highlights of the country’s pavilion is a performance titled “Pangarap sa Panglao” by the internationally acclaimed Filipino artist David Medalla, set for Aug. 20 at the Philippine Pavilion, as we all as Aug. 18 in the Giardini and Aug. 22 at the Peggy Guggenheim Collection.

“David Medalla has a cult following and rightly so. I greatly admire his work and what he stands for. I met him in London and he is indeed a talented artist. I had this wonderful, inspiring talk with him. He is one of the few people who is as passionate about Philippine culture as I am.”

Medalla is the stuff of legend. Born in Manila, he was only 12 years old when he was admitted to Columbia University in New York. Since then, he’s become a pioneer in kinetic art, participatory art, and live art, a true figure on the international art scene, having given lectures or participated in exhibitions in places like the Museum of Modern Art in New York, the Sorbonne in Paris, Tate Britain, and Galeria Baro in Brazil. He also co-founded the Centre for Advanced Creative Study, now known as Signals London

“I want Filipinos and the world to be inspired by David Medalla,” Senator Legarda says. “He is celebrated and globally renowned but remains Filipino through and through. His performance is titled ‘Pangarap sa Panglao.’ According to Philippine Pavilion curator, Dr. Patrick Flores, Medalla’s performance works well with the concept of the Pavilion. Medalla is known for engaging concepts which defy category. I expect to be amazed and inspired.”

During the Biennale’s vernissage, Senator Legarda was proud to note, in a previous interview with the Philippine STAR,  that “our artists were not left behind.”

Senator Loren Legarda: “I want Filipinos and the world to be inspired by David Medalla,” she says. “He is celebrated and globally renowned but remains Filipino through and through.”

“We can all be very proud of Philippine contemporary art and what our curators and artists are able to offer and contribute to the global contemporary art scene,” she said. “Receiving great reviews and being included in at least four lists of must-see national pavilions — first, it was the A-n The Artists Information Company, then came the review from art auction house Christie’s, followed by that of Art Radar and Artshub — it’s really very rewarding and made me even prouder of this project.”

Of course, in a country like the Philippines, where food and shelter aren’t givens, where education is almost a luxury and cultural preservation is still severely inadequate, it’s difficult to find support for the arts. There’s a long-held notion that, in a hierarchy of needs, art and culture shouldn’t be high on the priority list for a Third World country just finding its footing economically.

“Government needs to support both contemporary and indigenous art,” Senator Legarda explains. “We are a nation full of talent, creativity and ingenuity. Art and culture should be a priority because it shapes our identity, a facet of nation building… Our textiles and our handicrafts are sources of livelihood for many people and they are sources of pride. These works, handed down from one generation to the next, are invaluable; these are threads that bind our past and present and mold our future.”

Senator Legarda is one of the country’s most influential supporters for arts and culture, perhaps its fiercest warrior in government. In the recent past, she’s headed the initiative to bring the Brillante Mendoza movie Taklub to the 68th Cannes Film Festival (where it eventually won a special commendation from the Ecumenical Jury), the country’s first permanent textile gallery (Hibla ng Lahing Filipino in the National Museum), a collaboration with state universities and colleges in the Cordillera Region for the documentation of indigenous forest conversation systems, as well as continued support to our weavers and the schools of living tradition.

“I have dreams and vision of what art and culture can do to improve the lives of our people,” she says. “Art is an enabler of development. Art and culture appreciation is essential for nation building. It instills pride of place. It was a matter of communicating this vision and encouraging the agencies that can rightfully turn it into reality.”

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