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A hymn to ‘being’ and ‘longing’ and how they combine to bring about nationhood at the Philippine Pavilion of the 57th International Art Exhibition-La Biennale di Venezia


By AA Patawaran

It might seem a little strange that curator Yeyey Cruz, in putting together the theme for the Philippine Pavilion at this year’s Venice Biennale, has chosen transnational Filipino artists Manuel Ocampo and Lani Maestro to represent the Philippines.

This is the Venice Biennale after all, the oldest and the biggest art exposition in the world. Viewers with varying degrees of awe, wonder, and incredulity, people like you and me from all over the world, will go from pavilion to pavilion and, in ours, they will try in so many languages and in so many cultural contexts, whether with complete cluelessness or with familiarity, whether with prejudice or openness, to cull from the works an understanding not only of art but also of the prevailing moods of our time and of who we are and who they are, the state of humanity, from the Filipino perspective.

  • Filipino Pride the Philippine Pavilion at the Venice Art Biennale features ‘The Spectre Comparison’ curated by Joselina Cruz, featuring artists Lani Maestro and Manuel Ocampo

  • Mabuhay! The entrance to the Philippine Pavilion at the Artiglieri in Venice, Italy

  • No Pain Like This Body, installation with ruby-red neon by Lani Maestro

  • Joan Young of the Guggenheim Museum in New York

  • Bro. Dennis Magbanua of the De La Salle-College of St. Benilde (DLS-CSB)

  • The featured artists Lani Maestro (left) and Manuel Ocampo, with the curator Joselina Cruz

  • Behind the scenes the artists and curators during the set up of the Philippine Pavilion at the 2017 Venice Art Biennale

  • Behind the scenes the artists and curators during the set up of the Philippine Pavilion at the 2017 Venice Art Biennale

  • Twelfth Station by Manuel Ocampo

  • Cooks in the Kitchen by Manuel Ocampo

  • Crème de la Crème by Manuel Ocampo

  • Joselina Cruz, curator of the 2017 Philippine Pavilion

  • Ambassador Domingo Nolasco, Philippine Ambassador to Italy; Department of Tourism (DOT) undersecretary Falconi Millar; NCCA chairperson and Philippine Pavilion Commissioner, National Artist Virgilio S. Almario; Department of Foreign Affairs (DFA) undersecretary Linglingay Lacanlale; and Consul General Marichu Mauro, Consul General to the Philippine Consulate in Milan, Italy

  • Elvira ‘Tootsy’ Echauz-Angara, Consul General Marichu Mauro, Lani Maestro, and Senator Sonny Angara

  • Jose Tence Ruiz, one of the featured artists at the 2015 Philippine Pavilion, the country’s comeback participation after a 51-year hiatus at the Venice Biennale

  • Renaud Proch, executive director of the Independent Curators International (ICI) and one of the jurors for the 2015 Philippine pavilion

  • Jaime Augusto Zobel de Ayala and wife Lizzie


    That Cruz’s take-off point for her curatorial theme is a phrase from Jose Rizal’s Noli Me Tangere, “el demonio de las comparaciones,” which, as later examined by historian and political scientist Benedict Anderson in his Spectre of Comparisons: Nationalism, Southeast Asia, and the World (2004), has been borrowed for the exhibition title, “The Spectre of Comparison,” makes Ocampo and Maestro just the perfect choice for this year’s Philippine participation in the biennale, our second since our return to the Venice Biennale in 2015 after a 51-year hiatus.

    Like Ocampo and Maestro, Jose Rizal was transnational, meaning he was beyond borders. In fact, as Cruz explained to me, “When he wrote Noli Me Tangere(1887), [Rizal] wasn’t even a Filipino. There was no such thing yet—we were indio or ilustrado, insulares or peninsulares but we had no concept of Filipino yet.” The execution of Rizal in 1896 sparked tiny uprisings and it was only around this time that “the ilustrados, who led the revolution, began to refer to themselves as Filipino.”

    Truth be told, as with every stroke of genius, it all just fell into place. Geography was the least of her considerations when Cruz decided that Ocampo and Maestro, based on their bodies of work and the consistency of their practice, would provide the spectre of comparisons she sought to present to the biennale audience.

    “As much as a pavilion that we can call our own serves as a platform for the world to see us through our art—Venice is a site charged with exercises in soft power and cultural diplomacy—I most value what its artists, curators, and the exhibition form can do to problematize our own slippery understandings of our nationhood, complicating and expanding what is already, for ourselves, difficult to pin down,” explains Cruz.


    The location of this year’s national pavilion also gave the curator and her team—not to mention the office of Senator Loren Legarda, the principal architect of the historic return of the Philippines to this global art exposition that began way back in 1895 in Venice—additional pressure. While Palazzo Mora, where the 2015 Philippine Pavilion was housed, was a gem of a building, an 18th-century treasure on Strada Nouva at the Carneggio in the heart of Venice, it was in the peripheries of the biennale. Thus, the move this year to the Arsenale, the main exhibition space of the biennale, as well as to a very central and strategic space, the Artiglierie, within the Arsenale, is an achievement worthy of the most moving, most elucidating of artistic expressions and insights.

    The largest pre-industrial production center of the world, the Arsenale holds the vestiges of Venice’s military, economic, and political might in the Middle Ages and during the Renaissance. La Biennale di Venezia first employed the Arsenale in 1980 on the occasion of the first international architecture exhibition.

    Be that as it may, as it sounded to me, during an intimate conversation with Cruz and the two featured artists in the morning before the vernissage on May 11, two days before the biennale opened to the public, I found the forces behind the exhibition more introspective than expressive. Like in 2015, with the late filmmaker and National Artist Manuel Conde, video artist Manny Montelibano, and installation artist Jose Tence Ruiz staging our comeback to the biennale under the curatorship of Dr. Patrick Flores, this year’s Philippine Pavilion is at once universal and particular to our experience as a people.

    The complexity of nationhood, to Filipinos past and present, is our contribution to the ongoing discourse among nations in this age of shared troubles like the migrant crisis, climate change, and the power of technology to connect us as well as to isolate us from each other. In this biennale, the discussion on identity and pride within national borders, as expressed in the combined works of Ocampo and Maestro, is at once a whisper and a scream. It’s not only because both artists, as Cruz puts it, “belong to two states—Ocampo, Filipino and American; Maestro, Canadian and Filipino”—it’s also because both of them have very fluid, very complex notions of nationality, just as many Filipinos do, even those who have not gone overseas, to whom nationhood is an abstraction. After all, by virtue of our history, we are Spanish (or, in fact, Mexican), we are American, we are Chinese, we are Polynesians, we are Malay, we are wherever in the world we are. The OFW phenomenon, as well as the ability of many overseas Filipinos to adapt so quickly to foreign environments, is a testament to our global nature.


    In the works of Ocampo and Maestro, the physical body is an object by which the self is subjected to various explorations and discoveries, a “site” from which freedom is lost and in which it may be found. Geography, or where the body is, is not irrelevant to the idea of self, yet both artists reference the world at large in their works.

    Ocampo’s Cooks in the Kitchen, oil on linen, is a parody of colonialism, in which the colonizers, portrayed as black savages in a chef’s uniform, are fueled by curiosity so ravenous that in their hands the colonized is ripped open, guts spilling out. His paintings transcend genres that they are often labelled anti-art, and his canvas transcends nations or borders, inhabited as it is by Klu Klux Clan hoods, monks and saints, swastikas, tribal ornaments, traditional Spanish clothing, bowler hats, black skin, white skin, Afros, Chinese characters, Catholic iconography, even Disney elements.

    Maestro’s, on the other hand, while even more body-centric, is also a paean to “otherness.” Her installation with ruby-red neon No Pain Like This Body, mounted on a wooden wall that, in this time of US President Donald Trump—although she came up with it in 2010—carries a political statement about migration and separation, was inspired by the book No Pain Like This Body by Harold Sonny Ladoo, a Trinidadian migrant in Canada, as well as her exposure to “the poverty, homelessness, prostitution, and drug abuse” of Downtown Eastside in Vancouver, the poorest district in Canada.


    Nevertheless, despite their global scope—Ocampo has lived in Spain, the US, the Philippines, then back to Spain; and Maestro now shuttles between Canada and France—they remain rooted to the culture of their birth, whether they venerate or vilify it, whether their art is clarified or confounded by it. As Maestro said when asked if she remained true to being Filipino when she accepted the offer to take part in this biennale, “I’m Filipino. I can’t be otherwise.”

    “I always move around,” said Ocampo, by way of explanation. “After nine years of being illegal in the US, I get my green card, so I move to Spain. My paintings deal with identity, belonging, homeland and make fun of them.”

    Indeed, though they have different ways of addressing the questions they raise, Ocampo and Maestro do raise the same questions. They both identify themselves in a self-imposed exile from their birthplace, but whatever their reason is for leaving, for returning, for leaving again, the Filipinos in general can relate to it, even the Filipinos who have never had the opportunity to leave, who gaze out on the horizon wondering what is out there.

    Poet, translator, linguist, National Artist for Literature, chairman of the National Commission on Culture and Arts (NCCA), and commissioner of the Philippine Pavilion Virgilio Almario agrees. “We are transnational,” he says. “The Spectre of Comparison’ substantiates our desire to go global while remaining Filipino.”

    As it happens, Maestro has an interesting definition for belonging, a quest in the human heart for a sense of home. “Belonging,” she says. “It’s ‘being’ and ‘longing.’ Exile is the best condition, the best way to find oneself. The feeling of being ‘other,’ an outsider, the feeling of homelessness, it’s interesting. This is what set me free.”

    But this is how “The Spectre of Comparison” delivers on its mission, which is not so much to provide answers as to provoke questions. “These questions are never fully answered,” says Legarda, the visionary and the guiding light behind these artistic ruminations on a global platform. “But [raising these questions] is of great relevance to Filipinos who are in the Philippines, to Filipinos who are abroad, to Filipinos who are still searching for themselves.”

    The Philippine participation in the Venice Biennale is a joint project of the NCCA, the Department of Foreign Affairs, and the Office of Senator Loren Legarda, with the support of the Department of Tourism. The 57th International Art Exhibition-La Biennale di Venezia runs through Nov. 26.

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