With artists like Ronald Ventura and Rodel Tapaya fetching higher and higher prices at auction, the Philippines is garnering increasing international attention in the contemporary art world. Fans of these artists, then, can look forward to this year’s Venice Biennale, where the Philippines will return after a fifty-one-year hiatus with a national pavilion entitled “Tie a String Around the World”, curated by Patrick Flores.
Speaking at a special art forum organized by Christie’s at Art Fair Philippines in Manila last week, Flores noted that the Philippines’ last appearance at Venice was in 1964, when commissioner Emmanuel Torres presented a two-man show of the modernist sculptor Napoléon Abueva and painter José Joya. “For Torres, both Joya and Abueva were important reference points for Philippine art, especially Joya, who rose to prominence as an established modern painter rooted in the postwar period. Both Joya and Abueva had studied in Michigan in the US, and contributed to the so-called ‘American turn’ in Philippine modernism after World War II.”
The struggle to return to the Venice Biennale, however, was an arduous one. “We needed various government agencies, such as the Department of Foreign Affairs and the National Commission for Culture and the Arts, to cooperate and become invested in the process —essential for our long-term participation. We were fortunate to also have the support of Senator Loren Legarda, who led the open call for curatorial proposals and made a commitment to also join the Venice Biennale of architecture in 2016, the Biennale in 2017, and beyond.”
Senator Legarda also made an appearance at the forum, voicing her support for Philippine artists and insisting on the contemporaneity of their vision. “I don’t want to impose a divide between what is produced by Philippine contemporary artists and what you might see in London, New York, or Berlin. When I went to the last Venice Biennale in 2013, I saw the pavilions staged by some of our ASEAN neighbors, like Thailand and Indonesia. But rather than the differences between Southeast Asian artists and the ‘international’ ones, what was striking to me were the commonalities of the contemporary, if you like, between older participants in the Giardini and those newer nations. I think that Philippine artists are very attuned to the contemporary, and what’s happening in the wider international scene.”
Housed in the 18th century Palazzo Mora, “Tie a String Around the World” will, according to Flores, “investigate the idea of a present-day maritime Silk Road that stretches from Manila to Venice, exploring how water is claimed, inhabited and surveilled.” It will feature Manuel Conde’s 1950 film Genghis Khan, with production and set design by Carlos Francisco, a spectral ship-like installation made of metal, wood, and velvet called Shoal by Jose Tence Ruiz that “references a particular way of making things in the Philippines — a mode of bricolage that’s almost baroque in terms of its finesse, ornamentation, and detail.” Also included is Manny Montelibano’s A Dashed State, which “dwells on the atmosphere of lush locales and the sound of epics, exploring the history of the sea in the long duration, and themes of melancholy and migration.