Art, diaspora, and double vision

No pain like this body
Paolo Luca

Art, diaspora, and double vision
By Roel Hoang Manipon


The centuries of colonial rule and the decades of continuing diaspora have shaped the Filipino identity—a point of discussion in “The Spectre of Comparison,” the Philippine Pavilion for the 57th International Exhibition of La Biennale di Venezia or Venice Biennale in Italy.

“This exhibition questions the processes with which our identity as a nation has been formed, our curious condition as an archipelago of varied languages and ethnicities brought together by this modern construct; that these processes occurred in the context of hundreds of years of colonialism and occupation is not insignificant,” explains Senator Loren Legarda in the official catalogue for “The Spectre of Comparison.”

Joselina Cruz, the curator of the 2017 Philippine Pavilion, explains that “The Spectre of Comparison” is drawn from the novel Noli Me Tángere by Jose Rizal. The phrase encapsulates the experience of Rizal’s protagonist, Crisostomo Ibarra, when he gazes out at the botanical gardens of Manila and simultaneously sees the gardens of Europe. This point of realization suggests the loss of Ibarra’s (and Rizal’s) political innocence, this double-vision of experiencing events up close and from afar: no longer able to see the Philippines without seeing Europe nor gaze at Europe without seeing the Philippines.

Legarda, the visionary and principal advocate behind the Philippines’ return to the Venice Biennale, said, “‘The Spectre of Comparison’ ensures it is impossible for us to comprehend who we are without the painful hauntings of our history. This was the case for Crisostomo Ibarra, for Rizal, and I am sure for Lani Maestro and Manuel Ocampo. These artists are all immigrants, as so many Filipinos are or have been: the West exists as both perpetrator and refuge; the Philippines as the home suddenly ripe for critique.”

The 2017 Philippine Pavilion features Filipino artists Lani Maestro and Manuel Ocampo, who both have lived and practiced outside of the Philippines, but have maintained active engagement with the country throughout their careers. Their practice and their subject matters are deeply involved with their experiences as immigrants or citizens of a new diaspora that also reflect the complexity of a contemporary Philippine identity.

Cruz described the Pavilion as one that put more focus on the artists’ practices. “I do not want the phrase, ‘the spectre of comparisons,’ to overburden the works of Lani and Manuel, because the works are not about that. The phrase is about their work, not the other way around. It is embodied in their process, in their practice.”

Maestro’s practice moves fluidly through various forms of artistic engagements and installation incorporating a variety of media such as sound, film, text and photographs. Prompted by concerns that simultaneously call attention to and displace her materials and subject matter, her practice produces a shifting ground that makes it difficult to place Maestro as simply politically inclined.

Ocampo’s practice, on the other hand, developed and matured in the United States in the early 1980s. A painter by trade, he has been decidedly critical of systems across contemporary culture. Most glaring are his figurative works which in no uncertain terms critique power structures that exist in the Philippines, and across other contemporary systems.

Rizal’s experience and understanding of Europe and the connections he continually made as he flipped back and forth between the contexts of home and the foreign crystallized the double-consciousness of a colonial émigré of the nineteenth century.

“The power of art to widen the imagination and sphere of possibilities for human life cannot be underestimated. The anxieties and doubts that ensue when questions of identity arise, as in the predicaments of Maestro and Ocampo, can be fully explored and understood, even if not resolved, through art,” said Legarda. “I celebrate that this year’s Philippine Pavilion argues for the diasporic experience as an intrinsic part of the Filipino identity, as that identity and the nationalism that it fosters continue to shift and remake itself, producing great art in its wake.”

“The Spectre of Comparison” accords this global gaze to Ocampo and Maestro, not just as the simple in-between location or a knowledge of two (or several) worlds, but as a more complex imagining of the local and global as each artist re-define political resistance within their experience of shifting localities throughout their artistic careers. Woven within this twinning of practices is the space of the spectre of comparison that haunts the imagery and making of nationalisms fraught with colonial and imperialist pasts.

Ocampo places emphasis on the power of images and how images are tied to history. His paintings use known images only to reverse their meaning and transform their oppressive appearance into liberatory power.

“The Spectre of Comparison” presents the paintings of Ocampo—Torta Imperiales, Crème de la Crème, Twelfth Station, and Cooks in the Kitchen, vis-a-vis Maestro’s works—No Pain Like This Body, these Hands, and meronmeron. […]

Cruz said people were surprised with her selection of artists because of their contrasting styles, but explained that the strong international practices of the artists and their respective experiences as Filipino immigrants were important in bringing them together.

Meanwhile, NCCA chairperson and commissioner for the Philippine Pavilion Virgilio S. Almario said, “It is only fitting that our exhibit for the 57th Venice Biennale is titled ‘The Spectre of Comparison.’ It stirs the conversation to many points of discussions; and one of them is to ask what it means to be Filipino and what being Filipino means to a world that is more fragmented than ever, yet it is connected via technology.”

“The Spectre of Comparison” marks the third participation of the Philippines at the international art exhibition after a fifty-year hiatus since the country’s first and last participation in 1964. In 2015, Patrick D. Flores’ curatorial proposal titled “Tie a String Around the World,” which featured artists Manny Montelibano and Jose Tence Ruiz, was selected to represent the Philippines at the prestigious event.

The following year, the Philippines participated for the first time at the 15th International Architecture Exhibition of La Biennale di Venezia with its pavilion, “Muhon: Traces of an Adolescent City” at the 18th-century Palazzo Mora, curated by Leandro Y. Locsin, Jr., Sudarshan Khadka, Jr. and Juan Paolo Dela Cruz of the Leandro V. Locsin Partners, which featured the works of six architects/architectural teams and three contemporary visual artists.

For the 2017 participation, which is a joint project of the NCCA, the Department of Foreign Affairs (DFA), and the Office of Senator Loren Legarda, with the support of the Department of Tourism (DoT), the Philippine Arts in Venice Biennale (PAVB) Coordinating Committee announced an open call for curatorial proposals in July 2016. It received twelve proposals, which were deliberated upon by five jurors—Dr. Eugene Tan, director of the National Gallery Singapore; Florentina P. Colayco, president of Metropolitan Museum of Manila and a full professor at the College of Fine Arts of the University of the Philippines; Luis “Junyee” E. Yee, Jr., one of the pioneers of installation art in the Philippines; then NCCA chairman and Philippine Pavilion commissioner Felipe M. de Leon, Jr.; and Legarda. Cruz’s proposal on an exhibit that relates to notions of nationhood, diaspora and identity was chosen for the Venice Biennale.

Established in 1895, the Venice Biennale is one of the most prestigious and oldest cultural exhibitions in the world.  The International Art Exhibition, which takes place every other year, is considered by many as “the Olympics of contemporary art” that exhibits global trends and engages in critical discourse, transforming the city of Venice into a Mecca for curators, artists and art pilgrims who traverse the globe to be part of this international spectacle. […]

An achievement for the country this year is the transfer of the national pavilion from the eighteenth-century Palazzo Mora, where the 2015 Philippine Pavilion was housed, to the Artiglierie of the Arsenale, one of the main exhibition spaces of the Venice Biennale. The Arsenale is the largest pre-industrial production center of the world, and was a symbol of the military, economic and political power Venice had back in time. The Venice Biennale first used the Arsenale in 1980 on the occasion of the First International Architecture Exhibition. […]


Excerpts from “Examining the Filipino Identity: The Philippine Pavilion at the 57th International Exhibition of La Biennale di Venezia,” originally published in the May-June 1917 issue of the NCCA magazine, Agung.

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