At the Venice Biennale, ‘the practice of the artist is paramount.’
WORDS LARA S. ACUIN | ILLUSTRATION BRIAN M. AFUANG
Ten years ago, Lani Maestro screened cine-ma from an apartment window at Campo Santa Margherita, a busy square dotted by clubs, shops and cafes, as a satellite event to the Venice Biennale. The video is oriented like a portrait with no audible soundtrack but is marked by the slow shifting of images, mostly outdoor, of clouds, skies and the silhouette of trees, that transition quietly from one scene to the next.
Ms. Maestro would show this same work later at the Museum of Contemporary Art and Design (MCAD) in Manila where I helped her install the video projection from behind a window-shaped hole excised from a wall underneath the gallery’s mezzanine. It was an intimation of the biennale conversing in a totally different register. In Manila, however, within MCAD’s white cavernous space, it produced a recognizable sky. Ms. Maestro’s work displaces in this manner and allows for an awareness and perceptiveness that is surprisingly intimate and familiar. My experience of her work — behind the “window” from inside the wall (where I had to switch on the projector every morning for the museum’s visitors), with the images in reverse mirror — was one of ineffable calm.
Joselina Cruz — Yeyey, to her colleagues — curator of MCAD and this year’s Philippine Pavilion at the 57th Venice Biennale, describes the strange and wonderful process one ineluctably experiences when encountering Ms. Maestro’s work through the words of the artist Manuel Ocampo: “Manuel told me this very interesting thing about Lani. He said, ‘When I see Lani’s work, it’s so strong… It’s in your face and it hits you: it’s very present. But then, the moment you move away from it, you can’t grasp it anymore…’”
Manuel’s response is germane not only for its eloquence but also because it characterizes an artist’s keen and perceptive understanding of a colleague’s practice. The works of Mr. Ocampo and Ms. Maestro will be seen together in the Philippine Pavilion, in an exhibition titled The Spectre of Comparison. The phrase is a nod to Benedict Anderson’s translation of el demonio de las comparaciones, an utterance from Jose Rizal’s Noli Me Tangere. Ms. Cruz explains in her exhibition proposal:
“The phrase encapsulates the experience of Rizal’s protagonist, Crisostomo Ibarra, when he gazes out at the botanical gardens of Manila and simultaneously sees the gardens of Europe. This point of realization suggests the loss of Ibarra’s (and Rizal’s) political innocence, this double-vision of experiencing events up close and from afar: no longer able to see the Philippines without seeing Europe nor gaze at Europe without seeing the Philippines…”
This very same sentiment was invoked by Anderson when he recalled an epiphany he had while he was in Jakarta: he found himself having “to see (his native) Europe as through an inverted telescope.” Using this “as spectral pivot,” the exhibition looks at how Ms, Maestro and Mr. Ocampo’s practices interconnect while considering the myriad conditions and contexts that inform the production of their work. This concern with the dense and complex nature of representation is echoed by the dense and complex history of the biennale itself which is the only one that has kept the nation-based model since its inception. According to Ms. Cruz:
“The Venice Biennale itself is haunted by its own history of national representations, and, more recently, with the fragmented global of contemporary times. With directors, curators, artists and agendas of their respective governments and private funders addressing any number of points across this spectrum, the Biennale becomes the stage for the social and political events of the moment.”
The following are brief extracts of and thoughts on a recent conversation I had with Ms. Cruz — Yeyey — regarding her ideas for the Venice Biennale and other issues surrounding the practice of curating contemporary exhibitions in and from the Philippines.
Lani, Manuel, Benedict, and Rizal
When asked how she sees the exhibition within the larger frame of the Biennale, Ms. Cruz stresses that, at the heart of it, “the practice of the artist is paramount.” The 120-year-old Biennale’s curatorial thematic for this year, “Viva Arte Viva,” i.e., art by artists, underscores this sentiment and is of exceptional import today as artists find themselves immersed in increasingly sophisticated bureaucratic and commercial networks and affiliations that exert immense influence unto the field. Moreover, Ms. Cruz finds this focus on the artist crucial to curatorial work.
This iteration of the Pavilion, the curator shared, is not a literal juxtaposition of the work of Ms. Maestro and Mr. Ocampo — which, initially, could be perceived as polar opposites. Instead, she prefers to look at how the practices of the two artists are enfolded in unique ways: Ms. Maestro and Mr. Ocampo, for instance, are migrants but have also been actively engaged with the Philippines throughout their careers. This has allowed them to see the Philippines simultaneously “as it is” and as itinerants that take on and dissect what the curator calls a “globalized subjectivity.”
That both artists also recognize and are critical of the political and cultural paradigms within which they operate suggest another intersection in their practices. Ms. Maestro’s incorporation of media, space and language in unusual permutations is motivated by a concern with the conditions of “difference” that are shaped by complex, political subjectivities and structures of power. Conversely, Mr. Ocampo critiques religious, political and cultural institutions — including the art world’s machinations — in his paintings; but, at the same time, he is devoted to the construction, apprehension and persistence of painting as a medium.
An affinity between the two is forged by way of Rizal’s demonio and Anderson’s spectre. Ms. Cruz describes this constellation of ideas as a rendering of a “peculiar translation” of the story of modernism to the present.
As a curator working with all these elements — including the biennale’s much criticized format with regard to its funding, political agendas, “festivalism,” and alleged trivializing tendencies among others — Ms. Cruz approaches this project with full awareness of what it means to “enter” Venice: it means being complicit, even implicated, in the perpetuation of concepts of “nation” and other systems of the art world that keep Venice afloat in more ways than one. But within this context, she still hopes to produce “interesting incursions, what others have called ‘ruptures.’” And the most viable way to do this, according to the curator, is to “always place the artist at the forefront.” Ms. Cruz underscores that exhibitions should always, always be about the art: “It has always been the art. The art is never there to simply ‘serve’ the concept of the exhibition.”
PART OF THE GLOBAL CONVERSATION
Much has been made of the conceptions of nation via the biennale exhibition, but the question remains a productive one. This is perhaps even more so in the case of the Philippine Pavilion where conditions (and feelings) of nationalism and internationalism are inscribed in its recent history. The Web site for the Philippine Arts in Venice Biennale — a collaborative undertaking of the National Commission for Culture and the Arts (NCCA), the Department of Foreign Affairs (DFA) and the Office of Senator Loren Legarda — quotes the legislator responsible for the restoration of the Philippine Pavilion as thus: “It seemed odd that the Philippines, a nation rich in culture and in people with remarkable artistic talent and skills, was not part of the oldest, most prestigious art biennale in the world.”
The biennale’s implacable and confident sprawl is thus perceived to be the platform for “constructions of the global” to come into contact with the desires of the local. The ambitious and enthusiastic displays of contemporary art in Venice (and beyond, in art fairs as well, lest we forget) attest to the sustained relevance of establishing a “national“ pavilion within a tightly organized, seductively mediatized “international” exhibition.
Ms. Cruz insists that the Philippines has always been part of this global conversation, whether we were aware of it or not: “It’s not us, from the Philippines, speaking with everybody else; rather, we’re part of the conversation. … Our engagement is not any less if we’re not in Venice.” She hopes that the proposition for the Philippine Pavilion will substantiate this engagement; The Spectre of Comparison is an effort in addressing our anxieties on global representation and recognition that have always been part of contemporary art discourse.
Of demons and gray areas
Curiously, there is an often overlooked parallel between Anderson and Rizal that Ms. Cruz reminds us of: their experiences overlapped as they were travelling in two different directions. For Rizal it was East to West, and, for Anderson, West to East. For Rizal, coming face-to-face with the devil was “a melancholic evaluation.” Anderson’s loss of innocence, on the other hand, was an “a-ha” moment, a spark that allowed him to make sense of an experience from over 20 years ago. Despite these seeming contradictions, it was their ability to summon this comparison that made Anderson and Rizal “meet.”
In an e-mail exchange with Ms. Cruz, the curator shares why Juan Luna and Felix Resurreccion Hidalgo, despite being Rizal’s contemporaries, did not cross paths with the demonio that haunted the National Hero. The spectre, it seems, only reveals itself within the frustrating binary of local/global that plagues the contemporary:
“Hidalgo and Luna, both vaunted as the two leading painters of the 19th century in the Philippines who ‘made it’ in Spain — you know, gold and silver — did not necessarily come across the devil of comparison (Luna, maybe yes, but Hidalgo, no). As a curator I think there always needs to be a consciousness of the local — although that consideration brings out the complexity nowadays of the itinerant/nomadic local — because it is only from our localities that we can experience the global. This is the spectre of comparison, for those open to confronting it. This continuous flipping.”
With regard to the position of the curator within the contemporary art biennale, Ms. Cruz suggests that the spectre is a means of establishing one’s place in the face of dominant “world” exposition: “I work within this space — it was, is, called the liminal (simply put, a gray area) — but the spectre is not gray. It is beyond the idea of the liminal. It is a position — as with el demonio — a very precise position. This position allows us to be complex individuals. I don’t subscribe anymore to this (however, useful the term) ‘liminal.’”
Winner of the 2015 Purita Kalaw-Ledesma Prize for Art Criticism, Lara S. Acuin was the former Head of Exhibitions at the Museum of Contemporary Art and Design.