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Curator Tessa Maria Guazon and Filipino artist Mark Justiniani unearth buried memories and drowned secrets at the 58th International Art Exhibition of the Venice Biennale

Published

By AA PATAWARAN

Photos (Venice) ANDREA D’ALTOLE and PAOLO LUCA, and (Oslob) FRANCISCO DACUYCUY

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I WAS ON THE BEACH Watching the clear water splash on the shores of Sumilon Island

I was on a 24-hectare coral island off the coast of Bancogon in Oslob, Cebu, but I was thinking about the lagoon, the Venetian Lagoon in Italy.

I was on Sumilon Island in southern Philippines, but I really was elsewhere, at Arsenale in Venice.

I was on the beach, the sun on my face, the gentle summer breeze brushing against my skin, clear water splashing around my ankles while I sat on crushed corals on the sand, but I really was on my toes, walking as if on a tightrope, over the clear glass surfaces of Filipino artist Mark Justiniani’s three-module installation, Arkipelago, that interprets the Philippine participation, “Island Weather,” curated by Tessa Maria Guazon, in this year’s Venice Art Biennale, the 58th International Art Exhibition since it was inaugurated in 1895.

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THINGS MAGICAL AND MUNDANE A detail of one of the installations

Yes, I was on the beach, alone at the glamping site of the Bluewater Sumilon Island Resort, but I was really at the 320-square-meter Philippine Pavilion at Artiglierie, one of the major exhibition halls at Arsenale, 10,441 kilometers away in northern Italy. At the four-day preview before Venice Biennale 2019 opened to the public early this month, the Philippines’ Arkipelago was among the most talked about of this year’s expositions, not only among the national participations but also the other presentations both individual and collective. Named among the top five must-sees by both The Financial Times in London and The Atlantic, not to mention more than a handful of art websites, it was cited by venerable publications like Art in America.

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I WAS REALLY AT ARSENALE Looking at the Philippines through the glass of Justiniani’s three-module installation called Arkipelago

I had an entire stretch of beach to myself, the whole strip of the Sumilon coast exclusive to glampers booked in the five luxury tents on the shore, all of which at this time were occupied by my friends and family, who were out on the old town of Oslob on a tour of the old colonial churches. So yes, for at least five hours, from just after breakfast on the beach to about two hours after noon, I was alone in paradise, but not really, not in my head. While the sun baked my skin, I was really on my feet in cold, rainy Venice, staring down into the abyss of Justiniani’s work, through the glass that was more a portal to my history of being, a collection of things that appeared to have been swallowed by the past, such as a table set for a dinner that never happened, so the table would now appear like a thing that time forgot, still waiting to serve its purpose.

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I was on the shore, my lower body submerged in water clear as crystal, but I was thinking of that table from my sunken past, still set for dinner beneath the surface of memory with the remains of my colonial history, the gilded tablecloth, the tarnished silver, the fine china, at which I would imagine Filipinos of yore would sit down to relish tastes drawn from their Hispanic aspirations or ties. I would be at that table—or want to be—if I were alive back then, just as in my time I was on a very exclusive stretch of island coast, just outside my 14,000-peso tent for two per night, but in my head, I was in Venice walking on artworks, peering at intriguing objects under my feet, say, a stack of paper listing debts, a catalog of financial woes and worries, or medals alternating with guns as a metaphor for a promising past lost in a violent present or an angry present annihilating a hopeful past.

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PEACE AND QUIET Bluewater Sumilon Island Resort’s weather and natural beauty evoke a certain sense of calm that gets you moving from your glamping tent to exploring the island’s many scenic spots

Justiniani’s three-island installation may be representational, conjuring up the three major island groupings of the Philippines, as each island takes from biomorphic forms that echo the rich flora and fauna of the archipelago. The islands, like Luzon, Visayas, Mindanao or like every one of our 7,641 islands, including Sumilon, appear to float in liquid light, in space more vast even within the confines of the Philippine Pavilion, just as the streams, the lakes, the bays, the rivers, the seas, and the Pacific Ocean surround us, at once connecting and separating us, at times serving as barriers, at times serving as conduits. It is also these interconnected bodies of water that moor us to the larger world, just as by these waters, from Spain toward the western side of North Africa before crossing the Atlantic down to the southern tip of South America, which is now the Strait of Magellan, all the way to the Pacific, on which, adrift like a string of pearls, that larger world, the so-called West, our colonizers, found us, claimed us, changed us, and later named us the Philippines.

While our past does not necessarily colonize our future, a complex knowledge of it helps in fortifying the values we will carry as we decisively chart an unforeseeable fate. —Loren Legarda

I was in the sun under a nearly cloudless blue sky on Sumilon, but at Arsenale, where I was back in my head, I was in the dim room that was the Philippine Pavilion, the subdued lighting reflecting the shadows where many of our memories as a people are buried. Onto those islands I walked, sans shoes, negotiating the delicate glass, worried that I might fall, that the glass beneath my feet would crack, at once drowning in the shadowy depths and dizzy from my imagined height, disoriented, unsettled, tantalized like the many other viewers around the world drawn to the depths of Justiniani’s work. I would liken the experience to a confrontation, such as with a past long ignored, forgotten, denied, defied, or even revised, especially as I peered through the surface at the objects representative of the way we were, the way our ancestors or predecessors lived, some of them still in use in some parts, like the glass-domed electricity meter, some of them obsolete, like the implements of the sakada in sugar plantations whose glory days are now all in the past, the others dismissed as myths or fallacies or superstitions in a time gone all too practical, all too unmagical like the dancing paper dolls of Siquijor. When I asked Justiniani which of our many buried memories we should unearth completely out of the rubble of time to confront directly and see clearly, he said, “If you ask me what our biggest problem is as Filipinos, I think it is our inherited idea of what God is… our source, not just physically, but also spiritually.”

And then, there was the weather. Guazon named her curatorial concept for the Philippine participation in this year’s biennale “Island Weather” after all. So, on Sumilon, in my five-hour solitude, I was in the sun on a clear, calm day, but in my head I was sniffing storms in the air, perched atop the observatory-like metal structure protruding out of the glass in one of the three modules of Justiniani’s art, looking down on a collection of objects specific to our watery region, such as spices, minerals, and a lush, diverse plant life.

How else can we explain looking at its depths, disoriented and walking timorously on its surface, despite knowing we are staring at mirrors and standing on shallow and safe ground? —Rio Alma

I was basking in the glory of a summer day when the water temperature was just right, the wind was gentle, but I was on the Philippine Pavilion’s replication of the Manila observatory, the Observatory of Ateneo Municipal de Manila, founded in 1865, the first of its kind in the Spanish empire, in fact the first of its kind in the Far East.

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Basque historian Aitor Anduada, according to Guazon, “surmises that conditions in the Philippines favored the promotion and unprecedented growth of geophysical sciences in Spain’s insular colonies. He notes that observatories in the Philippines, Cuba, and Puerto Rico exercised considerable autonomy compared to their counterparts in peninsular Spain, whose operations were more bureaucratic.” Little did we know then, while we were observing actual typhoons and other weather disturbances and, thanks to our unique position in the midst of the China Sea and the Pacific Ocean, enjoying the advantage of being a true watchtower for typhoons from the Western Pacific, that, in no more than a century, the Philippines would be among the countries most adversely affected by climate change, which—as over 190 nations have collectively only recently concluded at a United Nations Climate Change Conference—is caused largely by human activities.

“I was on the beach, but I was thinking about the bay.” These words are not mine but American indie rock musician Kurt Vile’s, from his song “Bassackwards” off his 2018 album Bottle It In. And I was singing it in my little private paradise on Sumilon Island, while I was going backward—not bassackwards, I hope— back to the Philippine Pavilion in Venice, back to my country’s recent history, back to my country’s distant past, hoping I could acquire from it some clues about me, which, on this cloudless, sunshiny day on Sumilon Island, I could see more clearly.

Island Weather, featuring Arkipelago, is a collaborative undertaking of the National Commission on Culture and theArts in partnership with the Department of Foreign Affairs and the Office of Senator Loren Legarda. The Venice Biennale runs until Nov. 24. | www. philartsvenicebiennale.com

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