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IMPERIALISM (IN CHINESE CHARACTERS)

Multidisciplinary artist Josephine Turalba on the looming geopolitical hegemony of China

Published

by TERENCE REPELENTE
Images by PINGGOT ZULUETA

Josephine Turalba and her Life-size Parachute Installation, Mixed media, 2020 (left)

Josephine Turalba and her Life-size Parachute Installation, Mixed media, 2020 (left)

In one of Josephine Turalba’s visits to her mother’s home in Parañaque, she recalls noticing an eerie growth of commercial establishments—small groceries and restaurants—that had Chinese characters in their signage. According to her, she has observed the same in Makati, where establishments that primarily cater to Chinese nationals seem to be springing up, left and right, like mushrooms.

“As I inquired into my own conflicted feelings, I began to do research on POGOs, Spratly controversy, and the BRI (Belt and Road Initiative) of China,” she says. Exploring this “feeling,” Josephine developed new sets of questions that stemmed from her observations related to the growing number of Chinese nationals in the country: “Why is it that there are so many condominiums and homes rented out and sold to Chinese nationals? How do we feel about the President nurturing closer ties with China despite his nervousness over its expansionism in the West Philippine Sea?”

But is it all paranoia? She asks herself. The country has been home to Chinese nationals for many years, but why is it, all of a sudden, a phenomenon? These questions and observations became the springboard for Josephine’s ongoing exhibition, “High Wire High Seas,” at the Galleria Duemila in Pasay City.

Following American political analyst Robert D. Kaplan, the name of the exhibition describes the world’s current geopolitical condition. “‘High Wire’ refers to the tight rope of the circus. I also wanted it to refer to what Kaplan wrote in his book, The Return of Marco Polo’s World. He talks about how geopolitically, the world is more fragile, like in a taught string. If one part is plucked, the whole network vibrates,” she explains, adding that, on the other hand, “‘High Seas’ refer to the open waters that are considered not within any country’s jurisdiction.

Josephine’s space-assimilating exhibition offers a number of entry points for discourse. But one of the key elements of the show is the Visual Glossary of Expansionism and Easternization hanging at the center of the space. In the glossary, Josephine lists down negative and positive terms associated with the global expansion of China. The symbols that represent the terms are seen throughout the exhibition, most notably in the parachutes of the scattered shiny, red-painted Paratrooper pieces that swarm like locusts, occupying parts of the gallery space.

145 Paratroopers, Parachute cloth with Toy Plastic Paratrooper, 2019 (left) and Don't Call Them Disputed, Engraved Wooden Planks, Gold Paint, 2020 (right)

145 Paratroopers, Parachute cloth with Toy Plastic Paratrooper, 2019 (left) and Don’t Call Them Disputed, Engraved Wooden Planks, Gold Paint, 2020 (right)

In most of the works, the artist makes use of toys as material. For her, these materials bring in the element of a child-like “game.” “I used toys (paratroopers, discarded toys on the nine collaged reefs) to make ‘light’ of the grave subject matter I am tackling,” Josephine says. “I use this device as a portal that would entice the viewer to digest deeper issues. Aside from that, viewers can engage at the lightest level by playing with the paratroopers. Plus, I love it when children can also enjoy the exhibition at a very whimsical and playful level. The reflections can come at a later time in their lives. I incorporate layers into my works so that the viewer finds something at every turn and the meanings of the works go deeper as the viewer moves beyond the first engagement. I leave clues behind for them to navigate as my work unravels the sensitive topic.”

Salvaged from her previous project “DMZland,” the exhibit’s centerpiece is a survival parachute repurposed into a military encampment tent, with war paraphernalia and nautical maps of the Spratly Islands and Scarborough Shoals lying on the floor. Inside the tent, a video installation, Undercurrent, which, according to Josephine, anchors the whole exhibition, plays on loop. “The compilation of news footage from news agencies such as ABS-CBN, GMA 7, 60mins, Al Jazeera, and Channel News Asia intercut with political analysts who talk about the BRI,” she says. “This exhibition is a beginning of an ongoing research project. It intends to spark critical thought about what is happening globally. I invite viewers to question, investigate, and reflect.”

In general, “High Wire High Seas” tackles China’s thirst to overwhelm the Philippine economy with its excess capital, its loans, grants, neoliberal economic policies, with the goal to plunder and exploit the country’s labor and natural resources. Moreover, the exhibition exposes China, which declares that it remains a socialist nation “with Chinese characteristics,” for what it truly is: an imperialist country.

Finally, the exhibit is, in a way, an assertion of national sovereignty. “As much as I do not advocate lecturing our leaders on how to handle international relations, I do feel strongly nationalistic about the victory of the Philippines at the Arbitral Tribunal regarding the Spratlys,” Josephine says. “I invite my audience to consider supporting the many possible ways to protect and preserve Philippine territorial and maritime sovereignty specifically in the West Philippine Sea. It is for the future of our nation.”

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