‘The oriental chrysalis is quitting its cocoon’

Jose Rizal, Benedict Anderson, and the Philippine Pavilion at the 57th Venice Biennale.

WORDS  SAM L. MARCELO | PHOTOGRAPHY  PAOLO LUCA

In 1884, Jose Rizal toasted artists Juan Luna and Felix Resurrección Hidalgo in Madrid, Spain, by saying: “Genius has no country. It blossoms everywhere. Genius is like the light, the air. It is the heritage of all.”

Nationhood is the crux of The Spectre of Comparison, the Philippine Pavilion at the 57th Venice Art Biennale. Curated by Joselina Cruz, director and curator of the Museum of Contemporary Art and Design, De La Salle-College of Saint Benilde, the exhibition features the work of Lani Maestro and Manuel Ocampo, Filipino artists who built their careers beyond Philippine shores just like the ilustrados of the Spanish colonial period.

The Spectre of Comparison is drawn from the novel Noli Me Tángere written by the Filipino patriot and novelist Jose Rizal when living in Berlin in 1887. Originally written in Spanish, the enigmatic phrase el demonio de las comparaciones… suggests the experience of the loss of political innocence: the double-vision of experiencing events up close and from afar no longer being able to see the Philippines without seeing Europe nor gaze at Europe without seeing the Philippines,” writes Ms. Cruz in her curatorial statement.

She also quotes historian and political scientist Benedict Anderson, who, in his essay “The First Filipino” (1997), said: “Here indeed is the origin of nationalism, which lives by making comparisons.”

“Nationalism” is a loaded term, weaponized by populist politicians such as Donald J. Trump, who wishes to build a “big, beautiful wall” along the US-Mexico border to keep migrants out of the land of the free; Theresa May, whose hard stance on Brexit calls for tighter control of British borders; and, closer to home, Rodrigo Roa Duterte, who is waging a bloody war against drugs under the guise of patriotic duty.

How does one represent a country that may no longer reflect one’s own values? In careful language, Ms. Cruz explains that living in the Philippines, as it is now, inspires ambivalence: “There exists dual-citizenship, desired by many Filipinos — allowing the freedoms to pass across borders and live life in a first-world situation, but with concurrent Filipino citizenship that gives them the comforts of home and tradition, and (in some past time — and hopefully in some future — but definitely not in the current present) the pride of being Filipino.”

Lani Maestro at work on one of her neon creations and the resultant piece, these Hands. — Kurt Stier

Both Ms. Maestro and Mr. Ocampo, who left the Philippines around the time of Martial Law, were chosen because they embody these tensions. The former is Canadian and Filipino, while the latter is American and Filipino. They consider themselves to be on the periphery, outsiders making art in self-imposed exile. Only a couple of the works on display — Mr. Ocampo’s Torta Imperiales and Ms. Maestro’s meronmeron — were created specifically for the Biennale and yet the show, read in light of current events, is damning. No Pain Like This Body (2010/2017), a ruby-red neon inspired by Harold Sonny Ladoo’s brutal novel about Indian immigrants, is installed on a wooden wall. It is the only fabricated wall in a space that leaves the Artiglierie’s original structure uncovered, despite the accompanying complications of hanging a show without benefit of boring holes into a heritage building.

Exhibition view of works by Lani Maestro: No Pain Like This Body, 2010/2017, Installation with ruby-red neon, 140 x 61 cm each; meronmeron, 2017, Installation, wood benches, variable dimensions; these Hands, 2017, Installation with blue neon, 700 cm.

With the election of the wall-obsessed Trump, the red-glowing words “no pain like this body” — a phrase borrowed from an immigrant writer — and “no body like this pain” gain a sharper edge. And the supplicating tone of these Hands, a blue neon work that reads “If you must take my life, Spare these hands,” becomes even more heartbreakingly resigned to the idea of death. Comfortable with it, even. The dolorous text can be interpreted as a response to a President who says: “If I think you should die, you will die.”

The quiet violence inscribed in Ms. Maestro’s elegiac neon becomes plain in Mr. Ocampo’s lurid canvases. Cooks in the Kitchen has dark-skinned immigrants turning the tables on their colonizers — disemboweling them, trussing and stuffing them before skewering them on a spit and roasting them. There are entrails everywhere. Left to his own devices, Mr. Ocampo would have turned the Arsenale into an abattoir. Twelfth Station, which refers to the death of Jesus on the cross in the 14-step Catholic devotion, replaces the crucified Christ with an outsized roach decked out in a crown of thorns and a blingy rosary.

Manuel Ocampo, Twelfth Station, 1994, Oil, acrylic, collage on linen canvas, 173 x 127 cm. Collection Galerie Nathalie Obadia, Paris / Bruxelles.

As art critic, curator, and essayist Demetrio Paparoni explains: Mr. Ocampo “underscores how images and shapes are used throughout time with different meanings, and that they assume positive or negative symbolic values according to the moment in history that makes them its own, or the different way in which they are approached.”

He adds that the painter’s juxtaposition of “religious, sociopolitical or anthropological origin, such as the figure of Christ, to interact with those of saints, demons, monks, Ku Klux Klan hoods, crosses, swastikas or African statues… end up finding their end point in history — in its mystifications and in the contradictory implications of the relationship between colonizers and the colonized.” Nowhere is this more apparent than in Torta Imperiales, a pair of massive paintings, four panels each, flanking one entrance to the Philippine Pavilion.

In her curatorial overview, Ms. Cruz writes that Torta Imperiales is “a parody, a take on the Spanish word tortazo, torta being its shortened form, which connotes a slap on the cheek,” and that the work is “the (imperial) slap by the artist to everything he has ever critiqued, likely to include the Biennale itself as well the governing arm that supports the exhibition.”

ART AND POLITICS

The six-month-long Biennale cannot be matched in terms of scale and exposure. In the previews and vernissage alone, the Philippine Pavilion was visited by the likes of Manolo Borja-Villel, director of Spain’s Museo Nacional Centro de Arte Reina Sofía in Spain; Aaron Seeto, director of Indonesia’s Museum of Modern and Contemporary Art in Nusantara (MACAN); Ute Meta Bauer, director of Singapore’s Center for Contemporary Art in Singapore; Pablo León de la Barra, Guggenheim UBS Map curator, Latin America; and Adriano Pedrosa, artistic director of Brazil’s Museu de Arte de São Paulo Assis Chateaubriand.

Aside from being a platform for artists, the Biennale has also long been a political forum, with national pavilions feeding off the issues fomenting intellectual and creative debate.

Take Germany, for example. Adolf Hitler renovated the German Pavilion in 1938, replacing the wooden floor with marble slabs. An eagle and a swastika, both Nazi symbols, were given prominent places at the entrance. The result — one of 28 permanent structures serving as national pavilions in the Giardini — was an imposing building that became a prime example of Nazi architecture.

In 1993, artist Hans Haacke smashed Hitler’s marble floor to smithereens (the eagle and the swastika were removed in 1945). And this year, the German Pavilion took home the Golden Lion for best national representation for Anne Imhof’s Faust, a durational performance that responds to the venue’s history. Faust was described by the jury as “a powerful and disturbing installation that poses urgent questions about our time… [and] pushes the spectator to a state of anxiety.”

‘BECAUSE IT IS THERE’

The Philippine Pavilion has been housed in three different venues in the three times it has been invited because, unlike Germany, the country does not have a permanent structure. It debuted at the 32nd Venice Art Biennale in 1964 with sculptures by Napoleon Abueva (the Allegorical Harpoon being one of them) and abstract paintings by Jose Joya.

Emmanuel Torres’s essay titled “Because It Is There,” published in 1965 in Philippine Studies by Ateneo de Manila University, is a lively read that documents the trials, travails, and triumphs of that maiden voyage: “That the Philippines made it to Venice at all is an achievement difficult to underplay, a thrust in the right — and inevitable — direction.”

The essay also recounts how fraught our first outing at Venice was: “the Philippine participation was the only one which did not enjoy the support of government funds. We felt as if we had just been pushed overboard — Joya, Abueva, and myself — bag and baggage into the Grand Canal,” Mr. Torres writes, adding that it was largely through the efforts of the Art Association of the Philippines (AAP) that the show came together.

He continues: “The main purpose of our going to Venice was not to angle for prizes but to be noticed officially; and this we accomplished. A small splash, but a good start. (What matters is that if a bigger splash is to follow the initial plunge, the time to prepare for it is NOW.)” (Emphasis his.)

“NOW” took 51 years. It was in 2015 that the Philippine Pavilion returned to Italy thanks to Senator Loren Legarda, whose son’s interest in contemporary art sparked her own. Tie A String Around The World, which revolved around the territorial dispute between the Philippines and China over the West Philippine Sea, found its way to Palazzo Mora — this time, with government support. Curated by Patrick Flores, it was composed of a blood-red velvet ship by Jose Tence “Bogie” Ruiz, a multichannel video by Manny Montelibano, and a re-edited and annotated version of Manuel Conde’s film Genghis Khan.

That is not to say that the Philippines was absent in the intervening years between 1964 and 2015. Alfredo and Isabel Aquilizan were included in Zone of Urgency, curated by Hou Hanru as part of Francesco Bonami’s international exhibition at the 59th Venice Art Biennale in 2003. The couple was also part of Frontiers Reimagined, a collateral exhibition of the 2015 edition. Mr. Ocampo, meanwhile, was shown in 1993 as part of Drawing the Line Against AIDS, an exhibition under the aegis of the 45th Venice Art Biennale at the Peggy Guggenheim Collection; and in 2001, in Plateau of Humankind, the international exhibition curated by Harold Szeemann for the 49th Venice Art Biennale. Kidlat Tahimik’s Perfumed Nightmare was shown in Rosa Martinez’s Always a Little Further at the 2005 Biennale. The point here is that the Philippines was in Venice — somehow — just not as a national pavilion.

Manuel Ocampo at work setting up his paintings for The Spectre of Comparison. — Andrea D’Altoe

And so we return to the word “national,” to The Spectre of Comparison, to Mr. Ocampo and Ms. Maestro, who, as Ms. Cruz writes, are artists who “have lived in two, several, or many worlds,” and “artists whose art-making produces a fragmented global — a discursive and complex imagining constructed through a consciousness of worlds built across temporal and geographical zones.”

She might as well have been paraphrasing Rizal, who was much more succinct and poetic in his toast to Luna and Hidalgo: “The Philippines’ patriarchal era is passing. The illustrious deeds of its sons are not circumscribed by the home, the oriental chrysalis is quitting its cocoon.” 


The Spectre of Comparison, the Philippine Pavilion at the 57th Venice Art Biennale, is housed at the Artiglierie of the Arsenale in Venice and is open to the public until Nov. 26. It is a project of the National Commission for Culture and the Arts, the Department of Foreign Affairs, and the Office of Senator Loren Legarda, with the support of the Department of Tourism.

Sam L. Marcelo, who was part of the editorial team of the exhibition catalogue, was at the vernissage of the exhibition as part of the media delegation invited by the abovementioned agencies.

To read more about the 57th Venice Art Biennale, click here.