Sunday, February 08, 2015

Return to Venice: The Philippines Participates in Biggest Art Expo After 50 Years

Manuel Conde's 1950 film Genghis Khan will be the peg of Dr. Patrick Flores's exhibit at the Philippine Pavilion of the coming Venice Biennale, where the Philippines will return after 50 years of absence.
             In the middle of January this year, a team from the Philippines arrived in Venice, Italy. Led by Dr. Patrick Flores, curator and art scholar, the team went to Palazzo Mora to set up the Philippine Pavilion for the 56th Venice Biennale, which will take place from May 9 to Nov. 22. After about 50 years, the Philippines is again participating in the biennale, considered by many as one of the biggest and most well-known expositions of contemporary art that transpires every two years, with the support of the National Commission for Culture and the Arts (NCCA), the Department of Foreign Affairs (DFA) and senator Loren Legarda.
The Philippine exhibition will occupy three rooms at the Palazzo Mora, a total of 153 square meters, and will display Dr. Flores’s “Tie A String Around the World,” which attempts to look at the links between geography and politics, and the notions of nation, territory and archipelago, through National Artist Manuel Conde’s 1950 classic film Genghis Khan. The film will be shown newly restored. The exhibit will also feature works of intermedia artist Jose Tence Ruiz and filmmaker Mariano Montelibano III, purported to be in conversation with the film.
The inclusion of Genghis Khan, which will play a pivotal role in the exhibit, reminds people of another Philippine participation in the romantic Italian city known for its canals. Co-written and designed by Carlos Francisco, who would later became National Artist, Genghis Khan was shown at the Museum of Modern Art and at the Venice Film Festival in 1952.
About 50 years ago, painter Jose Joya and sculptor Napoleon Abueva, who also became National Artists, represented the country in the 32nd Venice Biennale in 1954. Other Filipino artists have made appearances. Aside from Conde, Brillante Mendoza screened his Thy Womb and Lav Diaz his Melancholia at the Venice Film Festival, considered part of the biennale. Both received the La Navicella Prize. In 1995, interdisciplinary artist Alwin Reamillo’s installation work Tres Persona non Grata, a collaboration with his wife Juliet Lea, was exhibited at the 46th Venice Biennale. In 2003, Alfredo Juan Aquilizan and his wife Maria Isabel Gaudinez were invited to exhibit their work Project M201: In God We Trust. But these were only part of a larger exhibit. There was no concerted effort to put up a whole pavilion to showcase Filipino artistry, a fact that came to the attention of Legarda.
During a senate hearing on the budget of the DFA and the cultural agencies of government, the senator raised the question why the Philippines was not participating in the upcoming biennale while other Asian nations were getting ready for it. She was able to convince the NCCA and the DFA to work on a Philippine entry.
“I know that Filipinos have what it takes to be part once again of the Venice Biennale. This will also be a big boost to Philippine contemporary art and will provide our Filipino artists and curators the opportunity to be recognized abroad. Hopefully, our participation in the 2015 Venice Biennale will be the start of our strengthened presence on the international stage,” she said.
The idea was hatched a few months after super typhoon Haiyan devastated many parts of the Visayas, but “art is a very important facet of rebuilding our nation especially after Yolanda, after Glenda,” Legarda insisted.
“People might ask, and this has been asked of me, why join in the Venice Biennale now after Yolanda? I think, all the more now, after Yolanda. Art will become an even more important platform to highlight Filipino creativity. I believe that art should be an enabler of development and that is the reason why, all the more, the Philippines should be in the biennale next year,” she said.
On the other hand, Felipe M. De Leon, Jr., chairman of the NCCA, pointed out the crucial role of arts and culture in national development, saying, “Once you encourage people to express themselves, you strengthen what is called cultural energy. Cultural energy is the motivation to work, to engage meaningfully in social interaction and so on. Look at the Renaissance. The Renaissance began as the flowering of the arts and all the rest followed suit-the betterment of science and technology, economy. People are not aware that the moment you develop the arts, everything else follows. The moment you develop the arts, everything else follows, and this is the reason why after Yolanda, if we would like to develop economically and socially, it begins with the arts.”
Legarda also expressed that there is a need to put Philippines' voice in the international level, especially of the Filipino artists in contemporary art scene of the world, and the biennale is a very good venue.
“We need to engage the international community on the cultural level. I hope that through our participation in the Venice Biennale, more Filipino artists will be encouraged not only in exhibiting their craft, but also in promoting the relevance of arts in nation building,” she said.
After months of working to gain support for a Philippine participation, Legarda was able to enlist the help of NCCA, which conducted an open call for curatorial proposals beginning July 25, 2014, with a deadline of August 28. The deadline was later extended to September 3. There were 16 submissions.
The call was for curators, and the chosen curator selects the artists in accordance with his vision. Noted Filipino art critic Cid Reyes, who was one of jurors in selecting the proposals, said that in the recent years, there has been a growing importance of the curator.
Mami Kataoka, the chief curator of the Mori Art Museum in Tokyo and also one of the jurors, explained: “Because of the growing scale of the community of contemporary art globally, you can no longer grasp the whole view, and then it becomes a matter of choice and a matter of contextualization, of how you can find connection and context of one piece to another. The curator has the role of making a story, of making a context. So it’s our work to find the artist who has the voice, who has the strongest and most convincing content in the human element and how the work conceptually and also physically speaks to the audience.”
Kataoka, one of the key figures in documenting and analyzing trends in Japanese contemporary art, was one of the three foreign jurors invited by Legarda to select the submitted concepts. The others were Paul Pfeiffer, a New York-based sculptor, photographer and video artist; and Renaud Proch, the executive director of Independent Curators International, a non-profit organization in New York. The foreign jurors were drawn in to provide an international perspective. They were joined by Legarda, De Leon and Reyes in the judging panel, deliberating on the submissions for two days, from September 4 to 5, at the NCCA Boardroom in Intramuros, Manila. 
A panel of local and international jurors deliberated on the 16 submitted curatorial proposals at the NCCA in September 2014 (Photo by Marvin Alcaraz/NCCA)
 De Leon said they were looking for something “creatively original, that stays with you for a long, long time; something distinct, something that has not been done before, very contemporary, very relevant at the moment, that can have impact, captivating and even if not, not necessarily magical, that enriches you.”
“I would like to have entries that can be approached, entered on many different perspectives and enjoyed in many different levels,” he added.
Reyes said they needed to be more discerning in selecting our representative.
“There's more to just participating in the Venice Biennale than meets the eye. It’s really not just submitting beautiful paintings, and whatever decision the jury would arrive at is really a critical reflection of the state of the country right now, a reflection of the arts, a reflection of the culture, which is obviously a manifestation of the Filipino soul,” he explained. “And I cannot fully emphasize enough that the country has been absent from the international scene for the past 50 years, and while fortunately now we are participating once again, we feel that we must learn from the lessons of the past with the one and only participation this country was entitled to. So we think now, especially in the Asian scene where Filipino artists, amazingly and impressively, come from young generations, it is a great challenge to the jury to really harness this (and come up with work that) will be the most reflective of the current state of the country.”
The jurors were impressed with the quality of the submissions, mentioning being “actually surprised and seduced by the artists.”
“I think the practices of Philippine arts are so diverse so diversity is the commonality,” Kataoka said.
Proch mentioned that there is “a strong sense of cultural context shared by all these proposals that is connected to local issues,” including those tackling identity and “negotiating the relationship between the Philippines and the rest of the world.”
On the other hand, Pfeiffer particularly observed that those who submitted entries were “generally younger, up-and coming creative people.”
“These are the children of the age of global communication. It is amazing to me (to see) the kind of sophistication and self awareness of what it means to be in a specific context that is, for better or worse, linked in so many complicated ways to the global context. And we all have innate facilities to navigate this territory,” Pfeiffer added.
The jurors narrowed the entries to three and then finally chose Dr. Flores's concept of a pavilion as “a poetic and political meditation on the history of the world through the extensities of the Philippine, a foil perhaps to the more aggressive instincts of expansion around us-in the past and in ‘present passing.’”
“I am happy for Dr. Flores for having been chosen as the curator for our national pavilion at the Venice Art Biennale 2015. His proposal exhibited intellectual rigor and depth and immense creativity. It was actually a tough choice to make because there were many other good proposals. The selection process was a democratic, inclusive process with no less than highly respected and credible people in the international contemporary art world as part of the panel of jurors,” revealed Legarda.
She further said:  “We thank all our curators and artists who joined the open call. Though their works were not chosen, we are grateful to them because they joined us in this undertaking and they allowed us to better appreciate Philippine contemporary art. Even our international jurors were very much impressed with the quality of most of the 16 submissions.”
A professor at the University of the Philippines' (UP) Department of Art Studies and a curator at UP's Vargas Museum, Dr. Flores's “Tie A String Around the World” has the movie Genghis Khan as a unifying thread.  The film tells the journey of Genghis Khan to being a warrior, ending with a scene of him on a mountain, “casting his magisterial gaze over his dominion and promising his woman to 'tie a string around the world' and lay it at her feet. This is a tale of the ‘king of kings’ and the formation of empires that have strung the islands of the world. Genghis Khan's empire stretched from the Pacific to Europe, the largest contiguous realm ever.”
“As the Philippine representation returns to Venice in 2015, so is the film revisited as a trajectory into the very idea of Venice as the place that has recognized the country some sixty years ago through the moving image,” his proposal reads. “This travel, specifically the distance and time traversed, indexes an aspiration; at the same time, it offers an opportunity to reflect on the condition of the world today and the potential of a Philippine Pavilion in Venice to initiate a conversation on the changing configurations of this world—on the volatile meanings of country, border, territory, nation, patrimony, freedom, nature, limit, community—via the Philippines.”
The other works included those of Jose Tence Ruiz, who will reference the BRP Sierra Madre as a tangent with Genghis Khan.
“Ruiz evokes the spectral ship, which conjures as well the fabled mountain range, as an ambivalent silhouette through his assemblages of wood and other media that morph from cart to cathedral and other intricate structures. The trace that is also a monument thus settles into a reef-outpost-detritus-community floating on a contested vastness, at once forlorn and prevailing. The project is imagined to refer to the Sierra Madre but it is also meant to disperse an allegory, so that it could open up the experience to various intuitions of the world; it could, therefore, assume the shape of another vessel like Genghis Khan's horse, or it could just be a land mass. It is envisioned to be dense and intricate to recall the quickchange Philippine Baroque and respond to the medievalist sensibility of the film Genghis Khan,” Dr. Flores explained.
On the other hand, Mariano Montelibano III will make a multi-channel video piece on the South China Sea. “Tentatively, it will dwell on the atmosphere of the locale, particularly the sound of radio frequencies that crisscross the expanse; an episode on Christmas time in the place; and the story of a family living in the islands. They will be organically linked as one video project.  It is difficult to contemplate the form of this video at this point, but it may well avail of ethnographic and documentary techniques that scan the horizon of the West Philippine Sea and probe the depth of lives in that part of the archipelago that is claimed by countries like China and Vietnam. The film invites discussion of the history of world making and the history of the sea in the long duration, and in relation to the histories of empires, nation-states and regions.”
“The main theme of the Pavilion broadly conceives a metaphor of the world today and its incursions through the archipelagic history of the Philippines. It, therefore, touches on a current geopolitical predicament but only through the lush history of Philippine modernity as mediated by film and the robust expression of contemporary art,” Dr. Flores’s concept says.
Manuel Conde attended the 1952 Venice Film Festival where his Genghis Khan competed.
Manuel Conde, who was later declared National Artist, also starred in the film

Noted Filipino art critic Cid Reyes, who was one of jurors in selecting the proposals
Senator Loren Legarda advocated for the Philippines' participation at the Venice Biennale

Renaud Proch, the executive director of Independent Curators International, a non-profit organization in New York
Mami Kataoka, the chief curator of the Mori Art Museum in Tokyo
Paul Pfeiffer, a New York-based sculptor, photographer and video artist

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