Art Radar checks into “The Spectre of Comparison”, the Philippine Pavilion at the Venice Biennale 2017.
The exhibition in the Philippine Pavilion features the work of Lani Maestro and Manuel Ocampo. Art Radar spoke to curator Joselina Cruz about the Pavilion.
Defined by the lyrical, stark neon light pieces and wooden benches installation of Lani Maestro and the mockingly fierce paintings derived from multiple sources by Manuel Ocampo, the Philippine Pavilion at the 57th Venice Biennale is curated by Joselina Cruz and is a joint project of the National Commission for Culture and the Arts (NCCA), the Department of Foreign Affairs (DFA), and the Office of Senator Loren Legarda, with the support of the Department of Tourism (DOT).
The exhibition entitled “The Spectre of Comparison” has “el demonio de las comparaciones” (‘demon of comparison’) as its takeoff point, a phrase lifted from the 19th-century novel Noli Me Tangere, written by the country’s national hero Jose Rizal. The English translation of the paragraph from where the phrase comes from helps in understanding its context:
The Botanical Garden drove away these agreeable recollections; the demon of comparison 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 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 days. (Translated by Charles Derbyshire, 1912)
As seen in the passage above, the book’s main character Crisostomo Ibarra recalls the gardens of Europe, the place he stayed for several years, as he passes by the botanical garden of Manila, and eventually, the worsening state of the protagonist’s hometown is revealed. Maestro and Ocampo, like Ibarra and its creator Rizal, spent much of their lives abroad, having their attitudes shaped by the state of being an outsider. Their works in “The Spectre of Comparison” are therefore demonstrative of the hero’s vision.
The Pavilion is characterised by a conversation with the past (in this case, Rizal’s revolutionary novel), an unveiling of how individuals see and compare their country to the outside (scholar Benedict Anderson pointed out that nation originates from comparison) and a revelation of attitudes. Although all of such characteristics do seem appropriately fit for the Venice Biennale, curator Joselina Cruz reveals to Art Radar:
The proposal for the Philippine pavilion was not a response to the main thematic of the Biennale. The proposal was done independent of the Biennale.” It instead sprung from her “high regard for the artists and their compelling practices.
She explains what makes Maestro and Ocampo stand out:
Both their practices are charged with the intricate politics that come not only from their history or their background, but also from the contexts they’ve occupied across time, geographies and their aesthetic choices. Both of them also have artistic profiles that occupy a position in the global imagination, both having been part of other larger exhibitions in the past. This meant that their acquaintance with the platform of Venice was not one of that of an ingénue, but one which was well-informed and (has) a depth of understanding. Maestro was 28 years old when she won the Bienal Prize at the 1985 Havana Biennale; Ocampo, on the other hand, was 27 when he was included in Los Angeles Museum of Contemporary Art (MOCA)’s 1992 exhibition “Helter Skelter”, a show which defined the 1990s art scene in LA. That same year Ocampo was included in Jan Hoet’s Documenta IX. What was important for this biennale was that for this instance, they were representing the Philippines, and this for them was important.
Why Rizal as the Takeoff
In recent years, fictional works by Filipino authors have been garnering international acclaim, such as Jessica Hagedorn’s Dream Jungle (2003) and Miguel Syjuco’s Ilustrado (2010), both tackling parallelisms between the Philippines and its colonisers, the consequences of colonialism and the Philippines as a nation in crisis. Within this literaty context, Art Radar was curious to know why Cruz opted to reference Noli Me Tangere (1887) over more recent Philippine literature. To this the curator expresses her motives:
I don’t think it hurts to go back to the classics. Noli Me Tangere was important because it is a work of fiction which was prescient of a nation-becoming; it was describing a Philippines peopled by Filipinos, which was to be peopled by Filipinos…. at that time of its writing, it wasn’t. In 1884, the fact of a nation, of a Filipino nation, of being Filipino as an identity, or as an identity claimed were all still notions, ideas brewing in the mind of the ilustrados. We, the Philippines, was not a country, much less were we a nation. Rizal did not tackle colonialism in hindsight, he was part of it; and he wrote a novel which was so incendiary as to encourage, even incite, the revolution towards independence from Spain. And consequently, (this work led to) his death, his execution.
Here, it is interesting to note that Rizal himself was just in his twenties when he envisioned the Filipino nation and identity, relentlessly described the actions of the Spanish colonisers, and criticised his people’s blind obedience to authority and religion.
The Pavilion’s Place in the Arsenale
One factor of the Philippine Pavilion that the media kept highlighting is its move from the Palazzo Mora in 2015 to the more accessible Arsenale in 2017. While Cruz sees this as “quite critical, especially for a country like the Philippines, which would like to be ‘officially’ seen and considered as part of the contemporary art scene,” she also recognises “art-fatigue” or the “chance of getting lost in the noise” of the visually demanding Venice Biennale.
Fortunately, this fatigue is somehow lessened by Maestro’s installation entitled meronmeron. Commissioned for the Biennale, this central piece consists of several wooden benches that allow visitors to sit/pause, focus on, recollect and discuss the thoughts and memories that are generated by the surrounding artworks: the unadorned yet full-of-feeling lighted text pieces of Maestro and the blunt paintings of Ocampo that intermix several sources (religious iconography, consumer products, famous etchings, political images and cartoons).
When asked what she would like visitors to take away from the “universes” that Maestro and Ocampo have created for the Philippine Pavilion, Cruz replied,
I wouldn’t want to tell the audience what to think or feel or experience from the show. The artists have done their work, I’ve done mine. The work is there for the public…
The glaringly contrasting quality of Maestro and Ocampo’s work has resulted in the Philippine Pavilion being labelled as not cohesive. Whatever one may think, it is interesting to know the other connections seen in “The Spectre of Comparison”: first, Noli Mi Tangere is not the only nationalistic novel that the pavilion brings to mind. Maestro’s red neon piece contains the title of Trinidadian writer Harold Sonny Ladoo’s classic No Pain Like This Body. Like Rizal, Ladoo spoke of the inhumane struggles in the Indian settlements of central Trinidad. Additionally, he illustrated how the abused ricefield workers take on the role of the abuser once they were in their homes. (Ladoo’s murder is said to be caused by the novel.)
Secondly, Ocampo’s commissioned piece for the 57th Venice Biennale entitled Torta Imperiales includes images from Spanish painter Francisco Goya and legendary cartoonist Tex Avery. Apart from poking fun at religion, Ocampo’s works brilliantly weaves the hilarious and horrific with contemporary realities. And finally, though nowadays mostly associated with his work with Warner Brothers, some of Avery’s creations were not aired for being too risqué – something that Ocampo went through during his career.
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