Venice Architecture Biennale 2018: Filipino identity shines in Venice

June 3, 2018

Humanity, humility and, at some point, humiliation are portrayed hand in hand as the Philippine Pavilion at the ongoing Architecture Biennale in Venice, Italy presents the talent that is genuinely Filipino. In the process of exhibition, several truths, perceived and projected, are unraveled. Some truths are meant to comfort. Others are designed to challenge the heart, the mind. Such is the intricacy and depth of the Philippines’ architecture pavilion in the oldest art platform in the world. (The first Venice Biennale   was held in 1895.)

But first, a simple understanding of The City Who Had Two Navels, the title of the country’s representation at the Venice Architecture Biennale, curated by Dr. Edson Cabalfin. Of course, Cabalfin admits, the inspiration for his curatorial masterpiece is the novel of National Artist Nick Joaquin, The Woman Who Had Two Navels. Translated into architectural showcase, The City Who Had Two Navels becomes the national platform to showcase the Filipino creativity in design and architecture. It defines the identity of the Filipino and presents it to the global stage using architecture as the element.

“The installation of this year’s Philippine Pavilion is an artistic narrative of our history and our identity that presents an argument of how the Philippine-built environment depicts traces of colonialism in our lives,” says Sen. Loren Legarda, the prime architect of the Philippine participation in the Venice Biennale. After 51 years of absence in the oldest international art platform, Legarda pulled all the stops to get a spot at the Venice Biennale in 2015. This is the fourth time the country is participating. And what an honor it is for the Philippines to showcase side by side with the 62 other countries participating in the architecture exhibition with the theme Freespace. Overall biennale curators are Yvonne Farrell and Shelley McNamara.

The Philippine exhibit, ongoing from May 26 to Nov. 25 at the Artiglierie, Arsenale, dissects two truths to address Freespace (Pookginhawa). The first is the truth of the past, showcased in the first navel called (Post)Colonial Imaginations. It pokes the query: “Can we truly escape the colonial?” The second truth speaks of the present, shown in the second navel called Neoliberal Urbanism. It asks the question: “Is neoliberalism a new form of colonialism?”

Cabalfin’s genius is sensitive and humble as he presents in the first navel historical truths that humiliate the senses. Occupying a spot in this side of the exhibit is a page in a tome depicting a group of Igorot men and women presented at the 1904 St. Louis Fair in Missouri. The fair, as everybody knows, is a display of power because it presented the Philippines as the new conquest of the US. Such is the power of the past — you remember it to shape the present, the future. Presented, too, are, the 1887 Exposicion General de las Islas Filipinas in Madrid and the 1998 Expo Pilipino in Pampanga and other expositions during the colonial and post-colonial Philippines.

“Architecture is not about objects. Architecture is about the relationship of people with the environment,” says Cabalfin.

The De La Salle-College of Saint Benilde, a collaborator at the Philippine Pavilion, takes this definition and comes up with a riveting diorama projecting an image of what the Philippines would have looked like in 2050 if it were not colonized and if Spain and Japan had respectively won in the Spanish-American war and World War II and had been in control today.

Uniquely, the contribution of TAO-Pilipinas, a women-led NGO that gives voice to the poor with human settlement projects, is another indication that the first navel touches on the humanity and dignity of the people.

“With The City Who Had Two Navels, the message of the Philippines to the world is that we don’t live in the past anymore. With this, we bring to the international stage our sense of humanity, of generosity. What we are now is shaped by two forces — the colonial past and the neoliberal present,” says National Artist and National Commission for Culture and the Arts (NCCA) chairman Virgilio Almario.

The Office of Sen. Loren Legarda, the NCCA, the Department of Foreign Affairs, with the support of the Department of Tourism, worked together to bring to fruition the Philippine participation at this year’s Venice Biennale.

The second navel, which tries to answer if neoliberalism is the new form of colonialism, features the concepts of the University of San Carlos where architects and students focused on Cebu’s Colon Street, the oldest street in the Philippines. The sentimental preservation of Colon Street, as evidenced in the rendering in second navel, is challenged by the rapid movement of modernization. Is the past being taken over by the present? If so, is take over the new colonizer?

“I do not pretend to have the ultimate answer to that. But the whole point of the pavilion is to exercise the might of the mind to question what is in the present. Are we being colonized anew by neoliberalism?” Cabalfin tells The STAR.

The second navel also has the ingenious collaboration of UP Diliman, College of Architecture and two independent photographers Marvin Maning and Jinggo Montenejo.

In between the two navels is the eye of the Philippine Pavilion, which is the cyborg-like video installation of filmmaker Yason Banal. The installation depicts numerous vignettes that posit on stories of individuals living in urban cities. A kilometric text is superimposed on the screens that show people in action. Some words are written upside down. Everything is a depiction of a world in disarray yet functioning just the same. Yason has the perfect commentary on urban dwelling.

“Colonialism never left us,” Yason says.

“Whether or not we agree with Dr. Cabalfin’s view of our Freespace is not the point. It presents us a view, which we can freely discuss,” Legarda adds.

Architecture, Legarda points out, “has the power to create an urban space of seemingly robotic people ready to accept a monotonous life with the belief that development is all about economic progress.”

Like a true environmentalist, aside from being the country’s formidable force in the art and culture scene, Legarda says, “Architecture does not only contribute to the economic development of a country, it also has the strength to revitalize the society, inspire people to create livable and sustainable communities that respect history and is in communion with nature.”

The City Who Had Two Navels is the country’s umbilical cord to the world of art, to the world of understanding, to the world where humiliation of the past is transcended into a humane act of presenting our uniqueness.

In the Olympics of art and architecture that is the Venice Biennale, the Filipino identity shines through.

Source: The Philippine Star