Tie A String Around the World, Philippine Pavilion, Venice Biennale 2015

The Philippines be back with the theme “Tie A String Around the World” to the 56th Venice Biennale in 2015, after a 50-year hiatus.

“Tie A String Around the World” revolves around the concept of the Philippines as a tropical heterotopia, a real space of crises where utopia – the myth of civilization and the project of progress – is simultaneously represented, negotiated and/or subverted. Emerging from the desire to explore, problematise, and understand the political, economic, social, cultural, and environmental contexts of the late 20th century up to the 21st century that engendered both the development and devastation of the nation and the gathering and dispersal of its peoples through contemporary visual practice, the Philippine Pavilion in Venice signifies not necessarily suspension and fragmentation, but a dialectical dynamism.

The exhibit eschews addressing some of the ugly truths of Filipino experience by instead focusing on (or distracting us with?) the large-scale beauty of the environment and the sumptuousness of good craftsmanship and materials.

In contrast to the hyperreal, frenetic Manila that First World film buffs like Fredric Jameson have come to associate with Philippine cinema, Manuel Conde’s and Carlos Francisco’s Genghis Khan (1950) greets the viewer upon entering the exhibit, located inside the gorgeously decrepit European Cultural Centre. This quirky Tagalog film stars Conde in the titular role, with editing and English voiceovers redone by Pulitzer prize-winning novelist Jim Agee; the film made a brief splash at the 1951 Venice Film Festival and other major festivals with its story of Khan’s coming into power, but eventually faded into obscurity. Flores resurrects Genghis Khan to help claim Philippines’ art history as always having been in dialogue with the West; productively, the film also geographically and politically reorients the Philippines away from its last colonizer, the United States.

Following Genghis Khan, the two contemporary pieces in the Pavilion, Manny Montelibano’s three-channel video piece “A Dashed State” (2015) and Jose Tence Ruiz’s installation “Shoal” (2015), further expand the nation’s time and space — moving the national drama off land and into the sea, slowing down the pace to the swell of the tides. While neither piece performs a romanticized throwback to the pastoral nor celebrates the innocence of underdevelopment, they do make the Philippines look as beautiful as Marcos wanted and wished for.

Panoramas of fisherfolk and farmers on their daily routine, interspersed with aerials of lush green islands comprise much of “A Dashed State,” a long-form video that would be better suited to a film festival than the ADD-enabling Biennale format. There are the small bursts of garbled, non-diegetic sound — radio frequencies being picked up off the coast of the West Philippine Sea, a contested space, and the children walking barefoot towards the camera — they’re living in Palawan, a large island chain that is one part nature preserve, another part dumping ground for US military waste and strategic base for staging surveillance operations. Barely veiled by the stunning views are the rumblings of a slow and ongoing triangulated war of position, but it’s too easy to miss the politics behind the video’s aesthetics. Only the most dedicated viewer will stay long enough with “A Dashed State” to hear local people speak of and for themselves, and it is a (perhaps unnecessary) sacrifice for the sake of making a drawn-out art film a la Lav Diaz rather than one in the fast and dirty style of Brocka.

If “A Dashed State” masks geopolitics with gorgeous camerawork, “Shoal” wraps it in velvet — the large model ship is ostentatious, almost bursting out of the room and onto the Venetian canal just outside the windows. This ponderous, overstuffed piece indexes the BRP Sierra Madre, a rusty, decommissioned US warship that now silently holds down the Philippines’s claim to the West Philippine Sea, and a spectral reminder of the continual American involvement in the archipelago since the 1898 Philippine-American War. In the room with “Shoal,” I am reminded here of Filipino American artist Michael Arcega’s hand-hewn sailing vessels which map — among other things — Lewis and Clark’s journey through the North American continent and other (post)colonial misadventures. At the risk of privileging the diasporic over the homebound, I wish Montelibano could have done more with Venice’s epic platform for the nicely gift-wrapped sea craft left much unresolved.

Patrick Flores’s curatorial vision of linking the Philippines to China to Venice via the “Maritime Silk Road” is a laudable departure from the overworked discourse of the Philippines being simply a poor mimic of the United States. Breaking away from clichés about Filipino art and culture, Tie A String Around The World asserts a Filipino aesthetic that values externalized beauty over the unseemly, slowness over speed — a sharp counter to the most prevalent forms of globalized cultural production coming out of the Philippines, the YouTube videos and Vines made by poor youth with whatever materials and technology they have access to.

Yet in trying to represent an alternative archipelagic history and palette, Flores’s selections defer discussions of perhaps the most pressing political, economic, and social issues facing the Philippines: cronyism and bureaucratic corruption on every level of the state; the plight of Overseas Filipino Workers (OFWs), laboring in demeaning and dangerous jobs all over the world; the extra-judicial killings of environmental activists, indigenous people, and others seen as enemies of the state — topics that may just call for unsightly images and less drawn out modes of production. In its turning to the sea, Tie A String Around The World is less successful in, as stated in the catalogue, “initiating a conversation on the changing configurations of the world,” but still is able to dazzle with its extravagant beauty.


The Palawan Epic
What happens to him, according to the story? As soon as he throws himself towards this space, he has not even chewed a quid when he sees iin the middle of the sea a rock rising hafway up in the space. And he lands on it like a bird. And he says, “It is here that my place will be.” When he scans the horizon, the landscape is open and looks like the circle of a bracelet, the story says.

The anthropologist Nicole Revel cites a passage from the Palawan epic Mamiminbin that summons a “maritime landscape after a narration of the hero’s ordeal through the Hell Amaranthus.

It describes Mamiminbin’s voyage to another world and his arrival at the abode of the Lady of Fishes,a rock in the middle of the sea. Revel locataes the wondrous world of his voice and this utterance:

“In the southern highlands of Palawan,’la isla de la Paragua,’ lives a society of blowgun hunters and swidden agriculturists. Surrounded by lush vegetation of thousands of species and a peculiar fauna -both fauna and flora are akin to those in Borneo and Luzon-the people live in an intense relationship with nature. They call themselves ‘Palawan,’ which is also the island’s name.” It is uncanny that when the hero scopes the skyline, he sees an open landscape, much like the sphere of an ornament linked to the limb.

Genghis Khan
Created by the National Artist Manuel Conde, with production design by the National Artist Carlos “Botong” Francisco

In another time in the Philippines, the film on the incomparable conqueror Genghis Khan would unreel. It ends with the Emperor, perched on a rock, casting his magisterial gaze over his dominion and promising his servile woman to “tie a string around the world” and lay it at her feet, a profession of love and a romantic apprehension of conquest. The Philippine Pavilion moves around Manuel Conde’s Genghis Khan, a germinal Philippine film made in 1950 in Manila and Angono; re-edited and annotated by the American writer-critic James Agee.

Screend at the Museum of Modern Art and the Venice Film Festival in 1952. It was written and designed by Carlos Francisco. As the Philippine returns to Venice in 2015 after 51 years,so is the film revisited as a trajectory into the very idea of Venice as the place that first recognized the country through the moving image

This travel, specifically the distance and time traversed, indexes an aspiration. It also offers an opportunity to reflect on the condition of the world today and the potential of a Philippine Pavilion to initiate a conversation on the changing configurations of this world– on the volatile meaning of territory, country, nation, border, patrimony, nature, freedom, limit, and the “present passing.”

The film is the pivot around which the Pavilion turns, the node at which two contemporary projects are coordinated to finally imagine the condition of the world and the modes of its conquest as referenced by the epic life of Genghis Khan.

A massive installation by Jose Tence Ruiz.

At a tangent to Genghis Khan, the work of Jose Tence Ruiz, Shoal, references the Sierra Madre. The New York Times describes it as the vessel of Vietnam War vintage that the “Philippine government ran aground on the reef in 1999 and has since maintained as a kind of post-apocalyptic military garrison, the small detachment of Filipino troops stationed there struggling to survive extreme mental and physical desolation.” Ruiz evokes the spectral ship, which conjures as well the fabled mountain range, as an ambivalent silhouette of a shoal through his assemblage of metal and velvet. The trace that is also a monument thus settles into and becomes a reef-outpost-detritus-ark floating on a contested vastness, at once forlorn and prevailing both as saga and shipwreck.

A Dashed State
A multi-channel video by Manny Montelibano

For his part, Manny Montelibano presents the multi-channel video price, A Dashed State, on the West Philippine Sea. It dwells on the atmosphere of a lush locale,particularly the sound of epics and radio frequencies that crisscross the expanse, and the vignettes of seemingly uneventful life ways of islands.

The film invites discussion on 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. From the vantage point of Palawan, threshold to Borneo and the South China Sea, Montelibano films the conditions of the impossible: what makes a common sea and where lie frontier and edge, melancholy and migration?

The Philippine Pavilion casts its lot with the prospects of the world being strung like islands in an archipelago, with water around it, replenishing or flooding it, ferrying its people across or forcing them to be where they are. But this shifting, sedimented site that is the Philippines is built as strata of the elements, very much the way Venice, in the vision of the historian

Fernand Braudel, “rises over an engulfed forest,” an overlay of water, land, country, shoal, epic, reef, country, vessel-and all the strings around the world.

Venice Biennale 2015
The 2015 Art Biennale closes a sort of trilogy that began with the exhibition curated by Bice Curiger in 2011, Illuminations, and continued with the Encyclopedic Palace of Massimiliano Gioni (2013). With All The World’s Futures, La Biennale continues its research on useful references for making aesthetic judgments on contemporary art, a “critical” issue after the end of the avant-garde and “non-art” art.

Through the exhibition curated by Okwui Enwezor, La Biennale returns to observe the relationship between art and the development of human, social and political reality, in the pressing of external forces and phenomena: the ways in which, that is, the tensions of the external world solicit the sensitivities, the vital and expressive energies of the artists, their desires, the motions of the soul (their inner song ).

La Biennale di Venezia was founded in 1895. Paolo Baratta has been its President since 2008, and before that from 1998 to 2001. La Biennale, who stands at the forefront of research and promotion of new contemporary art trends, organizes exhibitions, festivals and researches in all its specific sectors: Arts (1895), Architecture (1980), Cinema (1932), Dance (1999), Music (1930), and Theatre (1934). Its activities are documented at the Historical Archives of Contemporary Arts (ASAC) that recently has been completely renovated.

The relationship with the local community has been strengthened through Educational activities and guided visits, with the participation of a growing number of schools from the Veneto region and beyond. This spreads the creativity on the new generation (3,000 teachers and 30,000 pupils involved in 2014). These activities have been supported by the Venice Chamber of Commerce. A cooperation with Universities and research institutes making special tours and stays at the exhibitions has also been establihed. In the three years from 2012-2014, 227 universities (79 Italian and 148 international) have joined the Biennale Sessions project.

In all sectors there have been more research and production opportunities addressed to the younger generation of artists, directly in contact with renowned teachers; this has become more systematic and continuous through the international project Biennale College, now running in the Dance, Theatre, Music, and Cinema sections.