The Philippines will be participating at the Venice Biennale 2015 after a five decade absence.
The Filipino Department of Foreign Affairs announced on 4 March 2014 that the Philippines will have a pavilion at the 56th Venice Biennale in 2015, after a 50-year hiatus. The announcement has sparked worldwide interest and questions about why now and whether the Philippines is ready for such an international event.
On 4 March 2014, the Department of Foreign Affairs (DFA), the National Commission for Culture and the Arts and the Department of Tourism, in partnership with the Office of Senator Loren Legarda, announced that the Philippines will be officially participating in the 56th edition of the Venice Biennale in 2015, with a national pavilion.
The 56th International Art Exhibition of the Venice Biennale will take place from 9 May to 22 November 2015 and will be curated by African-born curator, art critic, editor and writer Okwui Enwezor, also Director of the Haus der Kunst in Munich since 2011.
The Philippines have not had a national pavilion at the Venice Biennale since their first and last participation at the Biennale’s 32nd edition in 1964. This 50-years hiatus and the sudden news of the country’s participation next year have sparked speculations and questions on why the Philippines are now returning and whether the country’s art scene is ready for such a big challenge.
The DFA has not provided comment on the issue yet, but commentators from the local art scene and the international art community have already started to exchange opinions.
The Philippines curator
The appointed curator of the Philippines Pavilion and Project Manager of the DFA’s Philippines at the Venice Biennale (PVB) Secretariat is contemporary art historian Dr Pearlie Rose S. Baluyut, who is based in the United States. Dr Baluyut has been a Fulbright Scholar and Ford Foundation Fellow, and she holds a BA, MA and PhD in Art History (Modern and Contemporary) from the University of California, Los Angeles (UCLA), received under the tutelage of Albert Boime and Donald Preziosi.
Dr Baluyut has extensively studied and researched on modern and contemporary Filipino art, and her interests include visual culture within the contexts of colonialism, nationalism, diaspora/exile, art patronage and propaganda in popular media. This seems to be in line with Enwezor’s own knowledge and practice, which is informed by issues of diaspora, migration and globalisation, as the DFA press release points out.
In the past, Dr Baluyut has served as Guest Curator at the UCLA Fowler Museum, National Juror of the Philippine Art Awards in Manila and Director of The Sam Francis Gallery in Santa Monica. Baluyut was Assistant Professor in the Department of Art at the California State University, San Bernardino, from 2006 to 2011.
All the galleries and commentators who were asked about the curator by BusinessWorld and ArtRadar, did not know Dr Balayut, although many expressed positive thoughts.
Talking to BusinessWorld, Finale art gallery’s Founder Evita Sarenas, about Dr Baluyut’s international experience and defining what a good curator is, said:
We need someone who understands contemporary art, the art of now.
Dr Baluyut was unavailable for comment. Art Radar contacted the DFA, who replied saying that they would soon announce and hold a press conference to respond to questions from and that they wouldn’t give any information at this stage in order to ensure equal opportunities to all members of the media.
A Philippine heterotopia
The theme of the Philippines Pavilion is in line, as the DFA release points out, with Enwezor’s practice and his interest in diaspora, migration and globalisation. The title for the Pavilion is “Heterot(r)opic”. The DFA press release states that the exhibition,
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 artists selected
A panel of five jurors – composed of acclaimed local and foreign art professionals who are yet to be announced – will review and select participating Filipino artists whose work addresses the curatorial concerns of the national pavilion. Artists of Philippine nationality residing in and out of the country and working in a wide range of media – painting, sculpture, photography, installation, video and digital platforms, and performance – are invited to apply through a global, open-call competition.
The details and guidelines of the competition, including eligibility requirements, online application forms, and deadlines, will be available at the future website of the Philippines at the Venice Biennale (PVB) Secretariat of the DFA.
This selection process is in line with the pursuit of what the DFA calls “a parallel vision of raising artistic standards and sustaining professional practice through a more democratic, collaborative, and international process.”
International curators are unbiased. They will look at quality of work.
Other local gallerists also talked to BusinessWorld and commented on the issue of artists selection and curatorial strategies.
Silverlens Gallery’s Creative Director Isa Lorenzo said:
The form has to be perfect and content has to be relevant. You just want to send one message. If there are many artists, the message is less clear.
Ms. Sarenas, from Finale art gallery, wondering why the selection jury is distinct from the curator, commented:
The curator should be there from the start. … It [the selection] should come from the curator. That’s the right way to have a show.
Ms. Lorenzo from Silverlens Gallery also commented on the open call, saying she understands that the organisers have to democratise the process:
But it’s not done in other places. In other countries, the curator selects artists based on a theme or concept drawn up beforehand.
Tony Godfrey, Director of Research at Sotheby’s Institute of Art and Professor of Fine Art at Plymouth University, also addressed issues of representation in his article “If the Philippines were at the Venice Biennale” in Pipeline Magazine in July 2013 (Issue 36, This Is Not An Asia Issue, Page 50, May/June 2013). Godfrey’s question is, “who to choose to best represent the Philippine art scene?” He points out that the art scene in every nation tends to be a collection of cliques and that “that is more true of the Philippines than most,” and therefore,
choosing one artist from such a discordant assembly is inevitably invidious. One will be assumed to be saying not only who is the best artist, but also what type of art is most important.
Godfrey goes on to say that,
Like other Asian nations, the Philippines will have to find a balance between showing the type of art western curators want to see and that which they see as representing themselves.
50 years ago in Venice
The first and last time the Philippines participated in the International Art Exhibition of the Venice Biennale was at its 32nd edition in 1964. The pavilion presented the works of two artists, Jose Joya and Napoleón Veloso Abueva, who have both been awarded the National Artist of the Philippines award for Visual Art.
In an article on Ateneo de Manila University’s Philippine studies entitled ““Because it is there”…The Philippines at the 32nd Venice Biennale: A Close Look” (Vol. 13, No. 2, 1965), art critic and curator Emmanuel Torres wrote:
That the Philippines made it to Venice at all is an achievement difficult to underplay, a thrust in the right – and inevitable – direction.
However, he goes on to criticise the lack of government funding and the DFA’s late appointment of the non-profit Art Association of the Philippines (AAP) as “the implementing body to handle all aspects of the Philippine participation”, barely three months before the opening of the biennale. The Philippines turned out to be the only country that had no government funding. The AAP at that time had to cover costs by raising funds from private individuals and business establishments. Torres says that,
the AAP, which claims “to have worked hard” for the Venice invitation, felt that the Philippines had been waiting for an opportunity like this for years; rather than allow itself to be hamstrung by snarls of official red tape, it decided that this year’s was too good a chance to pass up. What an event like the Venice Biennale might do to stimulate the creative powers of participating artists and to foster the image of contemporary Philippine art abroad was well worth the risks involved, and the AAP met them head-on.
The problems with governmental funding, as pointed out by Torres, could possibly be the reason why the Philippines have not had another national pavilion in Venice in years.
Is the Philippines ready for the biennale?
In his Pipeline Magazine article, Tony Godfrey raises questions as to why the Philippines wasn’t at the Venice Biennale in 2013, when even smaller countries such as the Maldives had a national pavilion. Godfrey points out the same issue as Torres highlighted above:
It is the result partly of a lack of money and partly of isolation, but above all of the lack of any central arts organisation equivalent to the British Council or Singapore’s National Arts Council.
So far, the funding details of the 2015 pavilion are still unknown. The DFA is not commenting until the next press conference. Talking to BusinessWorld, Senator Legarda clarified that she is not funding anything, but only “putting things together. (…) When it comes to funding, it’s best to ask the DFA.”
Funding notwithstanding, Godfrey states that national pavilions do matter, because, he says, the main curated exhibition of the Biennale remains predominantly focused on the West:
If Asian nations want to be seen, they have to get there on their own steam and push into the crowd.
Austrian Rudolf Kratochwill, Gallery Director of 1335MABINI gallery, has been based in the Philippines for 30 years. Talking to BusinessWorld, he remarked that the art selected by the Philippines for the Biennale should live up to “global expectations.” He maintains that the Philippines is indeed ready for the international event:
When you look at the Philippine contemporary art scene for the past decades, it’s really internationally recognised. The art scene is ready for such a challenge.
C. A. Xuan Mai Ardia
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