Off to the Venice Art Biennale 2015

May 5, 2015

The Philippines is participating in the 2015 Le Biennale di Venezia to be held May 8- Nov. 22 in Venice, Italy.

Why should we be thrilled by this announcement?

Because this will be the first time, after five decades, that the Philippines is participating in the Venice Biennale which is considered the “Olympics of contemporary art” and “the breeding ground for world-renowned artists.”

Because this will be the second time that the Philippines will be represented in the Venice Art Biennale. The first time was in 1964 – 51 years ago – when Jose Joya and Napoleon Abueva, now both National Artists, represented the Philippines. Exhibited were five hardwood (molave) pieces by Abueva (three of them reliefs) and nine oils by Joya.

Because in this year’s exhibition to be participated in by 90 countries, an impressive exhibition of Filipino artists’ talents will be unveiled before hundreds of thousands of viewers. These are Patrick Flores, PhD, who was chosen by a panel of distinguished experts to put in dramatic play his curatorial concept titled “Tie A String Around the World.”

Flores’ work moves around the legendary actor-director Manuel Conde’s 1950 classic Genghis Khan, which he co-wrote, and which was designed by the equally famous Carlos Francisco. The film was screened at the Museum of Modern Art at the Venice Film Festival in 1952, where it competed with the films of Chaplin, Clement, Fellini, Bergman, and Mizoguchi.

The newly restored Genghis Khan film will be exhibited at the Philippine pavilion which will occupy three rooms at the European Cultural Centre-Palazo Mora, and posited “in conversation” with the contemporary arts projects of intermedia artist Jose Tence Ruiz and filmmaker Mariano Montelibano III.

The participation of the Philippines in the Venice Biennale is due to the impassioned, tireless intervention of Sen. Loren Legarda. When she visited the 2013 exhibition, she wondered why the Philippines had no participation, while smaller countries like the Maldives and Tuvalu had their respective exhibits.

Upon her return home, at the Senate’s budget hearings that year, she asked the Department of Foreign Affairs and the National Commission on Culture and the Arts why the country was not participating in the most prestigious contemporary art exhibit in the world. This resulted in the DFA and NCCA’s writing a letter of intent to the president of the Venice Art Biennale, Paolo Baratta, who responded with a formal invitation to the Philippines to participate in the 2015 event.

The NCCA, DFA and the senator’s office formed the Philippine Art Biennale (PAVB) coordinating committee, and NCCA chair Felipe de Leon Jr. was appointed commissioner of the Philippine participation.

Senator Legarda said she is happy that the Philippines is back in Venice. “It was not an easy journey but it proved that when there is a clear vision and when all stakeholders work together, nothing is impossible. The Philippines’ return is proof of what convergence among government agencies can do.”

De Leon said, “Being the most lucid mirrors of sensibility, harnessing the arts in this Philippine entry can be a most effective and peaceful way of enabling other people to see the world as Filipinos perceive it.”

Foreign Affairs Secretary Albert F. del Rosario notes that as art lovers and culture watchers the world over converge in Venice this year, and with nearly a hundred other countries expected to take part in the Biennale, “the participation of the Philippines provides an invaluable opportunity to foster greater mutual understanding and more active people-to-people exchanges through culture.”

Patrick Flores’ proposal, Tie A String Around the World, was chosen from among 16 proposals submitted to the coordinating committee. His concept for the Philippine pavilion, he says, is “to initiate discussion on the history of the sea and its relationship with the current world, claims to patrimony, and the struggle of nation-states over vast and intensely contested nature.”

The concept is most sensitive, touching as it does the controversial claim of the Chinese over vast areas in the West Philippine Sea. What if the Chinese questions the presentation at the Venice Biennale? The senator and curator were one in saying that that eventuality will be welcomed as the Biennale itself serves as a drawer of conversation, and should attract world attention to the conflict.

History notes that between 1206 and his death in 1227, the Mongol leader Genghis Khan conquered nearly 12 million square miles of territory – more than any individual in history. Along the way, he cut a ruthless path through Asia and Europe that left untold millions dead, but he also modernized Mongolian culture, embraced religious freedom and helped open contact between East and West. He was a great ruler who was equal parts military genius, political statesman and bloodthirsty terror, and father of Kublai Khan.

The Manuel Conde Genghis Khan film, according to Patrick, ends with the Emperor, perched on a rock, casting his magisterial gaze over his dominion and promising his servile woman to “tie a string around the world” and lay it at her feet, a profession of love and a romantic apprehension of conquest.

The film, says Patrick, tells the story of the young Genghis Khan, and his passage into the life of a warrior and vanquisher. “This is a tale of a sui generis ‘master of all men’ and ‘king of kings’ and the formation of empires that have strung the islands of the world. Genghis Khan’s empire stretched ‘from the Pacific to the Black Sea,’ the largest contiguous realm ever. It was supposedly a disruptive intervention, remarkable in its rupture of existing cultures and the radical transformation of others. How the popular media in our time would imagine a retake on the legacy of Genghis Khan in the history of culture is quite instructive.”

The film is the “pivot” of the Venice Biennale pavilion, says Patrick. It is ”the mode at which two contemporary projects are coordinated to finally project the condition of the world and the modes of its conquests as referred by the epic life of Genghis Khan through the Philippine film. That this conquest of the world was depicted cinematically in 1950 in the Philippines was precocious and exemplary. Such condition of the world, however, needs elaboration in the present. The Pavilion risks an interpretation of an archipelago world in relation to the cinema and the sea. Here, the ‘Philippines,’ at once an archipelago and a figurine of the Spanish King Philip, becomes a theoretical mode and method and not just another focus of artistic production outside the supposed centers of contemporary art.”

Flores’ concept for the Philippine pavilion, said Loren, is “to initiate discussion on the history of the sea and its relationship with the current world, claims to patrimony, and the struggle of nation-states over vast and intensely contested nature.”

The two contemporary projects coordinated to the Genghis Khan film are a fascinating (as we can see from the pictures in promotional materials) construction of a ship “Shoal” by intermedia artist Jose Tence Ruiz and an astonishingly breathtaking multi-channel video, “A Dashed State,” by filmmaker Manny Montelibano.

It will be good to have the Philippine pavilion exhibit at the Venice Biennale brought here and shown all over the country.