The idea of an art biennial in Manila is reason enough to get excited about the London Biennale’s Manila Pollination. The dominant mainstream market-oriented gallery system and the annual celebratory art fairs in Manila have generally meant a lack in critical rigour and artistic vision – two elements that art goers hope a biennale can make up for.
Founder (in 1998) and co-curator of the London Biennale Filipino artist David Medalla says in the curatorial note that this biennale is about ‘challenging and transforming the notion of the art world “biennale” as a large state or corporate-sponsored event… by throwing open borders and encouraging a more intimate and community-based dialogue between the artists and audiences’. Originally only based in London, this alternative biennale has evolved to include various communities in other countries through what are called “pollinations” in places like Rio de Jainero, Berlin, Belgium, and Rome. This is the first Manila Pollination of this scale, as opposed to an obscure exhibit or two in the past.
Cutting across seven sites, three cities in Manila plus one province, with two talks, four minor parallel exhibits – one imagines the multiple sites is what Medalla might have meant about opening borders and engaging dialogue. But the impact of the event was more modest than the geographical stretch, which would’ve meant traveling between cities for three hours at a time, and from the city to the province for a good five hours. Parallel events also ran for too short a time – a few days – to make any deep impression.
Still, the centerpiece of the biennial, and the focus of this review, is the main exhibition at the Manila Metropolitan Theatre. Built in 1931 by Juan Arellano, the art-deco structure, a National Cultural Treasure and National Historical Landmark, was recently re-acquired by government from private ownership after the Marcos dictatorship had used it as collateral for a loan. The Met had slowly fallen into decay and been closed for two decades. Following its hosting of the London Biennale the theatre will close for renovations.
Curated by Manila-based interdisciplinary artist Josephine Turalba, the Met exhibition aimed at working with the space ‘to explore built, temporary, and imagined architecture for understanding shared histories, culture, and interconnectedness’. Yet there was little in the show that worked with a sense of architecture and space, and only few site-specific pieces. There was also an unexplained title –Syncronisation Syncopation – which came across as little more than a convenient umbrella for a generally inexplicable gathering of works. The exhibits were mostly out of sync with each other, cutting across themes of faith and Catholicism, protest and gender, nature and the environment, the indigenous and the personal creative processes of artists, and so on.
Amid the mixed bag of works one stood out: Azra Aksamija’s Memory Matrix (2016), installed in front of the theatre. Up close, it was a matrix of fluorescent Plexiglas pieces, laser cut with symbols of vanishing heritage sites across the world. Mounted on heavy iron metal frames that held a grid, the pieces were used to form an image of two jeepneys, colourful decorated vehicles that are an iconic mode of transportation in the Philippines but are being phased out in favour of a modern, streamlined transport system. Light and fragile, they looked like they might blow off in the wind – perhaps symbolic, in an age when cultural destruction is widespread enough to be considered a war crime, of the crises facing cultural sites and symbols across the world.
What stood out as well were works that did choose to speak of the history of the space. Toym Imao’s White Lady (2016) was a white papier-mâché installation featuring a sculpted female figure accoutred with traditional Filipino wear, with butterfly sleeves reminiscent of the Philippines’s former First Lady, Imelda Marcos. Consequently the work served as a reminder of the ghosts that exist within the halls of the Met, including the two-faced Marcos dictatorship that on the one hand championed culture, and on the other used it as propaganda tool to mask violence and repression. Imelda herself, as Governor of Manila, had restored the Met in 1978, bringing it back as a venue for awards and performances during the martial-law period. Imao captured this in his admittedly rather literal-minded sculpture reminiscent of the former First Lady who, from the front, holds an image of reconfigured human-like three little pig heads, mouths agape as if in song, looking up at Her. From behind it is revealed to be a skull-faced figure holding human heads as torches.
Another notable work is Leo Abaya’s Bottometer (2009), a white chair and cushionlike footrest in a dark room, imprinted in black paint by the body of the last person who sat on them, a reminder of the mark we leave at each historical moment, deliberately or not. Art collective In Demand (2016) meanwhile was an installation of an old Metropolitan Theatre sign with bubble wrap, stamped with the word SALE, highlighting the fragility of heritage and its entrapment in commerce.
The two works on the first floor lobby by Turalba and Agnes Arellano was unexciting, despite their eye-catching use of bullets. Heart of Dionysus (2016) is supposedly inspired by the myth of Dionysus and his resurrection from his own heart. But the resultant work was bizarre: a tapestry made of bullet shells and a shotgun which are arranged to depict a gigantic bullet. This is purportedly a symbol of the Met’s rebirth. More head-scratching goes on at Angel of Death and Six Bullets (2009), which also worked with the myth of creation and destruction, bringing in a cold-cast marble work that was previously exhibited in Fukuoka, Japan. Carved into the marble is the Angel of Death, standing guard above doors and a smoky haze of destruction, flanked by six human-sized bronze bullets, three on each side. Maybe the work made more sense in Japan’s nuclear context. Because under the original Angel of Death, ‘smoke’ allegedly came out from a ‘nuclear explosion’, but in the context of Manila it’s just dry ice, or maybe pollution.
Which does make you wonder why The Met was chosen as this biennial’s main site at all. Was this just a matter of romanticising the site of heritage and all that it stands for – history and decay, neglect and reminiscence – by using it as an art space? If so, the biennial has missed an opportunity to exhibit a more representative set of contemporary works and concerns, marginal practices included, and to start a real conversation about art, heritage and cultural practice in the Philippines.
Published in Art Review Asia, December 2016.