Philippines wraps up Biennale exhibit — literally
- Scott R. Garceau (The Philippine Star) - November 28, 2015 - 9:00am

It’s a wrap.

After six months showcasing Filipino art to the world at Venice Biennale 2015, the video screens and velvet wrappings and installations came down last Sunday, ready to be shipped back to the Philippines after a closing ceremony held inside a 16th–century palace.

The Philippines officially closed its pavilion, “Tie a String Around the World,” with a warm and lively finissage that coincided with the finale of the Biennale — even as Senator Loren Legarda, in a prepared statement, promised the Philippines would be back.

“Our comeback this year in the Venice Biennale is just the beginning,” she said in a statement read by Philippine Consul General in Milan Marichu Mauro. “We will go on — we will participate in the 2016 Architecture Biennale and the 2017 Art Biennale, and so on. We will be participating in these expositions to showcase and celebrate the essence and talent of Filipinos.” 

About a hundred guests, including many local Filipinos, crowded into Palazzo Mora — a rustic Renaissance-era palace rented out by the Philippines along with Seychelles, Mongolia and other exhibitors at the Biennale — for the closing event, where they were entertained by Filipino vocalist Stefanie Quintin (who sang both Tagalog songs and Italian opera), the Venice Community Folk Dancers, and fed Filipino foods (fried lumpia, pancit, puto) donated by the local community.

Senator Legarda wasn’t present — she was busy chairing the Senate Finance Committee back in Manila, which had to be rescheduled due to APEC. Her presence on that committee is crucial: she has promised to support Biennale funding at least until 2019, when her term ends. (In addition to Biennale 2017, Filipino finalists for next year’s Architecture Biennale will be chosen from 13 local entries and announced Nov. 30. The jurors, who will sift through the submissions of top architects, urban planners and cultural heritage archivists, include architect Dominic Galicia [Philippines], architect Minsuk Cho [Korea], curator Shabbir Hussain Mustafa [Singapore], Jang Un Kim [Korea], NCCA chairman and Philippine Pavilion commissioner Felipe de Leon Jr., and Sen. Legarda.

Legarda used the Visayan term padayon (meaning “continue,” “moving on” or “never giving up”) to assure of the country’s ongoing presence at the Biennale — the world’s oldest international art expo, from which the Philippines had been absent for 51 years.

The finissage ceremony is pregnant with meaning: even as art constructs, it eventually must give way to the next expression. On hand to lead the physical dismantling was artist Jose “Bogie” Tence Ruiz, whose sculpture “Shoal,” along with the restored Manuel Conde/Carlos Francisco film Genghis Khan and a video installation by Manny Montelibano, drew an average 600 Biennale visitors daily since its opening last May.

In opening remarks, Philippine Ambassador to Italy Domingo Nolasco noted that the Philippines’ renewed participation in the Biennale “promotes not only the arts, but the political and territorial realities that the Philippines is facing now.” Coming on the heels of a Manila-held APEC in which local territorial disputes were sharply underscored by US President Obama and others, the Philippines exhibit became even more relevant — its message of Filipino identity conveyed through three installations.

“The exhibit makes us proud to be Filipinos,” Nolasco said. “We recognize the importance of culture and the arts not only in people-to-people diplomacy but also in the lives of Filipinos abroad,” including some 100,000 living in Italy — many of whom now speak little or no Tagalog. “Arts and the promotion of culture can be used as tools in integrating in our new environment or host country,” he added.

Artist Ruiz, with his collaborator Danny Ilag-Ilag by his side, gave a brief talk on the importance of the arts, then led a “ribbon-cutting” ceremony with Amb. Nolasco, cutting strips of “Shoal” — its skeleton wrapped in swathes of red velvet — with scissors.

Ruiz and Ilag-Ilag will remain in Venice to help pack up “Shoal” for its redisplay next year, along with the rest of the exhibit, at UP Diliman’s Vargas Museum. An attention-getting reimagining of the BRP Sierra Madre, the grounded and rusting Vietnam-era transport ship that Filipino soldiers still patrol in a mostly symbolic display of territorial sovereignty in Ayungin Shoal, Ruiz’s piece occupies an entire palazzo room from door to door (“like Magritte’s apple,” jokes the artist). Indeed, the imposing exhibit is both a message of defiance and a symbol of diminished resources — “a slum fortress,” as Ruiz describes it. The 9.2 x 3 x 2.6m installation (a 1/12th-scale facsimile of the ship that the artist studied from photographs) is tightly bound in a sinewy collage of velvet fabric and cushions — both comforting and disturbing. “My favorite reaction was that velvet is both dream and nightmare: you both hate your country and you love it,” said Ruiz. 

Suggestive of many other things — a straitjacket, a tumor, perhaps even the externalized heart of the Filipino, plus of course “the whole Catholic ‘velvet bishop’ thing,” says Ruiz — “Shoal”s wrapped exterior functions beyond the political associations of this year’s Biennale theme, “All The World’s Futures.”

The 1952 Conde/Francisco film Genghis Khan, restored in 2012 as a specimen of Philippine cinema’s Golden Age, was actually meant to break the country into Hollywood’s then-flourishing “historical epic” market. (It was even entered into competition at the Venice International Film Festival that year.) As NCCA assistant for the pavilion Alexa Carreon noted, the film was exhibited directly across the hall from the Mongolia exhibit at Palazzo Mora — which raised some issues. “We were a little concerned because they thought the film (Genghis Khan) was a parody,” she said. “I’m just glad they didn’t find it offensive.” Indeed, viewed today, Genghis Khan has layers of post-colonial meta meaning: the original Tagalog dialogue was overlaid with narration by American writer James Agee to “interpret” the action for a Western audience; and the impressive imagery (shot in Antipolo, of all places) is somewhat undercut by the politically incorrect makeup meant to suggest Mongol warriors and princes. This, too, ties in with the theme of colonization.

Manny Montelibano’s tri-screen video installation, A Dashed State, depicts various shorelines of the Philippine archipelago in an often-hallucinatory collage of split-screen effects and sound — particularly the recital of a kudaman that is periodically interrupted by Chinese radio signals. Carreon notes the NCCA originally wanted Montelibano to film in Pag-asa, where the actual shoal dispute with China is active, but with roving pirates and Chinese ships nearby, it was felt “there was real danger.”

All three parts of the Philippine pavilion will be installed at Vargas Museum next December for two months.

At the finissage, a statement by NCCA chairman de Leon was read by Mariel Algabre, head of Cultural Diplomacy Unity at DFA-Office of the Undersecretary for International Economic Relations, after which NCCA representative and program host Riya Lopez gave thanks to Global Art Affairs Foundation’s Rene Rietmeyer for assisting the Philippines in renting space at the palazzo along busy Strada Nuova, as well as local FilCom president Darwin Gutierrez for local support. Next year, the Philippine entry to the Architecture Biennale will also be housed at Palazzo Mora, though the 2017 art pavilion is likely to be relocated to the larger Arsenale space.

Sen. Legarda reflected on staging the Philippines’ first Biennale entry in over half a century: “We have succeeded in mounting a world-class exhibit that is both sophisticated and has given an urgent concern, the struggle for power and ownership of the West Philippine Sea, an international spotlight.” She noted the positive feedback for curator Patrick Flores’ theme from international jurors Renaud Proch and Mami Kataoka. Proch — who said he wants to conduct a curatorial intensive in the Philippines to help train emerging curators — noted “how Flores’ curatorial proposal offered many points of entry to the pavilion,” while Kataoka noted the pavilion’s story had been well interwoven with a connection to Venice’s own water-based history, yet made contemporary. The pavilion was also well reviewed by Christie’s (included in its “10 Must-See” list), Artshub, a-n The Artists Information Company and The New York Times.

Asked what she took away from the experience, Legarda said: “I learned that the most engaging exhibits are not just eye-candy or atmospheric, although it heightens the experience, but more important is to have a sharp, layered curatorial proposition, one that will make people really think. I enjoy aesthetically pleasing and impressive artwork but it’s the story, the voice behind the work that fascinates me.  I also learned location in Venice matters — those in the Giardini and Arsenale are the usual crowd drawers — but if you have a strong exhibit, the audience will reach out to you.”

As senator, Legarda hopes the efforts of the NCCA, the DFA and her office will ensure government support and funding to keep the ball rolling. “As long as I am still a senator, which is until 2019, I can assure that we will have a Philippine Pavilion at the Venice Biennale. After my term, there will have been five national participations in the Venice Biennale and I hope that would be enough to convince our government agencies to continue the project annually.”



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