‘I belong to the country of making art’

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‘I belong to the country of making art’

By Sam L. Marcelo

Over four days in May, citizens of the international art world — artists, curators, collectors, critics, and camp followers — descended upon the sinking city of Venice to preview the 57th International Art Exhibition. Oligarchs moored their super yachts along the Arsenale stop, while plebeians stepped off vaporettos churning through the Grand Canal.

‘I belong to the country of making art’
No Pain Like This Body, installation in ruby-red neon by Lani Maestro — Office of Senator Loren Legarda

Imagine for a moment, walking from the pigeon-filled waterfront promenade to the Arsenale ticket gates and into the Corderie, one of several factory-like buildings in the naval-complex-turned-exhibition-venue. Built in 1303, the Corderie (or “rope walks,” since it was where the ropes and hawsers of the Venetian fleet were made) stretches out for 316 meters.

It was from these shipyards that Venice, in the 14th century, flourished into a pint-sized superpower through overseas trade. Historian John R. Hale wrote of Venetian agents buying up “Indian spices, carpets, damasks and jewels in Alexandria and Beirut, wood and furs in Scandinavia, wool from England, cloth from Flanders, and wine from France.” Goods flowed via trade convoys that left from the Arsenale’s docks heading to Greece and Constantinople; to the Black Sea; to Syria, Egypt, and the north coast of Africa; and to England and Flanders.

Today, it’s the other way around: Venice hosts 86 National Pavilions in all (the Philippines being one of them) along with the works of 120 artists invited from 51 countries in the main or central exhibition, titled Viva Arte Viva. The world comes to Venice bearing objects and ideas strange, wonderful, and inscrutable — a man sweeping dust into a rectangle of light (see Edith Dekyndt’s One Thousand and One Nights) or shoes stuffed with plants (see Michel Blazy’s Collection de Chaussures).

‘I belong to the country of making art’
THE SPECTRE OF COMPARISON: the exhibit. — Office of Senator Loren Legarda

It helps to remember what these high-ceilinged spaces were built for, given that many of the exhibitions they house speak of nation, migration, and identity. A line can be traced, after all, from the European Age of Exploration to the Age of Imperialism. As Hale explained of the Renaissance: “all Italians believed that the civilization they had in common was far superior to most others. Like their ancestors, they looked upon most non-Italians as barbari, barbarians.”

We are not barbarians. And all that’s left of Venice’s maritime power rests on the shoulders of its singing gondoliers. But the issues — separating “us” from “them,” “other”-ing, being seen as less than equal — these issues still remain, albeit with a different cast of characters. We haven’t even touched on the beginnings of the Biennale itself.

At this point, you have two choices: you can either make a beeline for the Philippine Pavilion, located in the Artiglierie, the building right after the Corderie, or you can tarry and enjoy several of the “trans-pavilions” that are part of Viva Arte Viva, the central exhibition curated by Christine Macel, chief curator of the Centre Pompidou in Paris who was appointed artistic director of this year’s edition of the Venice Art Biennale.

‘I belong to the country of making art’
THE SPECTRE OF COMPARISON: Manuel Ocampo at work setting up his paintings for the show. — Andrea D’Altoe

You will pass a video wall set aflame by the sunsets of Charles Atlas (Kiss the Day Goodbye), Ernest Neto’s gigantic crocheted cytoplasmic tent (Un Sagrado Lugar), a pile of bright-colored yarn boulders courtesy of Sheila Hicks (Escalade Beyond Chromatic Lands); and a labyrinth of steel and mirrors from Alicja Kwade (WeltenLinie), among many, many, many other things vying for your attention.

By the time you reach the end of the Corderie, your feet may be tired (woe to you if you opted for fashion over comfort; better to come clad in comfortable sneakers similar to the ones in Mr. Blazy’s terrarium, but without the plants). Your brain, exhausted. Your eyeballs, fried. You have gone through just one building. The rest of the Arsenale remains. And the Giardini della Biennale. And the Palazzos. And the official satellite events. And the unofficial ones. Not to mention the museums that contain the best examples of Venetian art.

And then you chance upon the first National Pavilion in the Artigliere coming from the Arsenale entrance, and spy wooden benches inside. It’s a central location, across the café that serves good polpo su purea di fave. Near the water closets, too. And so you enter. The wall text isn’t obvious, tucked away as it is in a dark corner. And so you sit. And gaze at neon works that bathe the space in red and blue.

‘I belong to the country of making art’
THE SPECTRE OF COMPARISON: Crème de la Crème by Manuel Ocampo. — Office of Senator Loren Legarda

There is a diptych that reads “No pain like this body” “No body like this pain.” Missable if you don’t look up — but oh, so beautiful — “if you must take my life, Spare these hands” pleading from above an arched iron window. These minimal pieces of poetry, glowing with Flavin-esque and Kosuth-like fluorescence, share the space with luminous paintings of blood, guts, and a crucified cockroach.

This is the Philippine Pavilion, where The Spectre of Comparison, the official representation of the Philippines at the 57th Venice Art Biennale, inhabits the space without overpowering it. The walls were left bare on purpose to expose the Artiglierie’s history as written in brick and mortar and to have the works converse with the architecture and original intent of the hall (it was where naval cannons and other weapons were made and maintained). It is the first time the Philippine Pavilion is right in the thick of things instead of in a Palazzo far, far away; it feels only right to acknowledge the import of the Arsenale.

Curated by Joselina “Yeyey” Cruz, director and curator of the Museum of Contemporary Art and Design, De La Salle-College of Saint Benilde, the show features the work of Manuel Ocampo (the paintings) and Lani Maestro (the neons and the installation of benches in the middle of the space).

‘I belong to the country of making art’
THE SPECTRE OF COMPARISON: The entrance of the Philippine Pavilion at the Artiglierie, Arsenale in Venice, Italy. — Office of Senator Loren Legarda

The benches, titled meronmeron, occupy center stage. Functionality is the installation’s concept: the benches bridge the works of Ms. Maestro and Mr. Ocampo since the room can be viewed in the round while seated. Sitting, and the introspection that sitting encourages, is important to the exhibition. The title itself, The Spectre of Comparison, is borrowed from a scene from Jose Rizal’s Noli Me Tangere, where Crisostomo Ibarra, while sitting in his carriage, passes through the busiest district of Manila and reminisces:

“The sight of the Botanical Garden drove away these agreeable recollections; the demon of comparisons brought before his mind the Botanical Gardens of Europe, in countries where great labor and much money are needed to make a single leaf grow or one flower to open its calyx; he recalled those of the colonies, where they are well supplied and tended, and all open to the public. Ibarra turned away his gaze toward the old Manila surrounded still by its walls and moats like a sickly girl wrapped in the garments of her grandmother’s better day.”

It is also while seated on Ms. Maestro’s benches that you can appreciate the scale of Mr. Ocampo’s Torta Imperiales I and II, two brash 600 x 400 cm oil and acrylic paintings made specifically for the space, which tower over everything else. Composed of four panels each, they are filled with art historical references, propaganda images, and Catholic iconography.

‘I belong to the country of making art’
The Philippine Pavilion at the Venice Art Biennale features The Spectre of Comparison curated by Joselina Cruz, featuring works by artists Lani Maestro and Manuel Ocampo. — Office of Senator Loren Legarda

Cavorting through these canvases, one finds references to Goya’s Caprichos; thick-lipped depictions of African-Americans drawn from Looney Tunes and Merrie Melodies cartoons that were censored for their racist overtones; He-Man, the blond and blue-eyed übermensch (an Aryan Master of the Universe), cast as a member of Hitler Youth; and skulls, bats, and text (“utopia.” “evolutionen,” “social protest painting of the season”). There’s a lot to parse.

In the exhibition catalogue, art critic, essayist, and curator Demetrio Paparoni writes: “While Ocampo never explicitly reveals the iconographic sources he draws upon, more often than not, they are clear to see. He considers each interpretation of his work to be pertinent. Like Goya, Ocampo crowds his work, he opens it to all interpretations and underscores the damage brought about by superstition and ignorance.”

This is not Mr. Ocampo’s first rodeo. In 1992, a 27-year-old Mr. Ocampo participated in documenta IX, an exhibition of contemporary art which takes place every five years in Kassel, Germany. According to documenta’s own literature, it is “still remembered as one of the most popular of all documenta exhibitions.” It was a controversial outing for Mr. Ocampo, whose paintings were censored for showing swastikas. In 2001, he was chosen for the main exhibition of the 49th Venice Art Biennale.

‘I belong to the country of making art’
Lani Maestro at work on one of her neon creations and the resultant piece, these Hands. — Kurt Stier

“There’s more responsibility representing your country, I guess, psychologically,” he said. A beat. A pause. And then the take-no-prisoners attitude that earned Mr. Ocampo his “bad boy” reputation couldn’t help but make him add: “It’s great. I’m grateful. But seeing how it is, it’s just one big art fair — a more sophisticated art fair, maybe, but it’s still big business. That’s the reality. It’s one big fucking business. I’ve been around for 30 years. You just have to do your thing without getting pulled in by the hype and stick it to them even more — use this platform to critique.” Whether he was referring to the Biennale, the Philippine government, or both is anyone’s guess, although “both” would be a wise bet.

Ms. Cruz invited Mr. Ocampo and Ms. Maestro to collaborate on The Spectre of Comparison because, like Rizal and his protagonist, both artists are “knowledgeable of several worlds.” Mr. Ocampo is Filipino and American while Ms. Maestro is Canadian and Filipino. Combined, their resumes span the globe. As Ms. Cruz writes in her exhibition essay titled “Of Demons and Spectres”: “Ocampo’s and Maestro’s practices are both invested in the Philippines as initial inspiration, but are hardly beholden to it.”

Said Ms. Maestro during a press conference with Philippine media: “I belong to the country of making art. That’s where I feel free. I feel like a citizen of the world. The whole notion of exile is interesting because it talks about the idea of belonging, which is two separate things: to be, and longing. We are born alone. We die alone. Exile is the best condition in life.”

‘I belong to the country of making art’
An installation with blue neon. — Office of Senator Loren Legarda

“The feeling of otherness is important; it’s an interesting condition,” she continued. “Once I accepted I was an ‘outsider,’ I became free. I could be anywhere in the world and feel free and grounded in terms of my so-called identity because I accepted that I could be ‘outside’ or ‘other’ everywhere else. It’s nice to be claimed by many people.”

The Spectre of Comparison is plugged into the hive mind of the international art world. A brief survey of neighboring pavilions shows similar preoccupations — nation, migration, identity. Right next door at the Chilean Pavilion, Bernardo Oyarzún’s Werken uses traditional Mapuche masks and LED signs looping a list of Mapuche surnames to highlight conflict over land and indigenous rights. The Tunisian Pavilion’s The Absence of Paths is composed of three kiosks scattered around the Arsenale, wherein a visitor may apply for travel documents and a “freesa.” In the Mexican Pavilion, in the building across the Artiglierie, Carlo Amorales’s Life in the Folds tells the story, in encoded typography, of an immigrant family being lynched, of “being between.” And the South African Pavilion, through the experimental films of Candice Breitz and Mohau Modisakeng, meditates on “the past and current state of ‘refugeeness’ within a global context of exclusion and transience.”

“These are stories I recognize,” said Ms. Maestro. “Perhaps these are all different ways of saying things that are difficult.”

‘I belong to the country of making art’
Cooks in the Kitchen by Manuel Ocampo. — Office of Senator Loren Legarda

At the vernissage, the mood was less serious. La Biennale, aside from being where curators do their shopping, is one big party. Spumante, just enough to wet your lips and tickle your throat, was passed around. Mr. Ocampo, beer in hand, disappeared with his paint-splattered shoes to a pavilion less populated. Ms. Maestro mingled with people she hadn’t seen for decades. Tasked with welcoming the crowd that gathered in the Arsenale, Ms. Cruz reminded everyone of the The Spectre of Comparisons’ purpose: “This exhibition is not solely about the idea of nation or nationalism, or the idea of representation,” she said, “but more about questioning their viability in this day and age.” And so within the walls of the Artiglierie, a place once used to make maritime weapons, people raised their plastic glasses and toasted questioning the viability of nationalism under the watchful eyes of William McKinley and Skeletor.

The Spectre of Comparison, the Philippine Pavilion at the 57th Venice Arte 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 above-mentioned agencies.