VENICE — “People say I’m extravagant because I want to be surrounded by beauty. But tell me, who wants to be surrounded by garbage?” infamously asked “Iron Butterfly” Imelda Marcos in the eponymous 2003 documentary Imelda. As an international style icon and cultural ambassador for the Philippines under Ferdinand Marcos’s brutal dictatorship — lasting from the declaration of Martial Law in 1972 until the 1986 People Power Movement — Marcos’s desire for beauty extended to her support of the arts if not to improving the lives of the archipelago’s people. Marcos’s lasting legacy to the nation remains Manila’s Philippine Cultural Center, built literally atop of the bodies of exploited laborers, and she was duly horrified by the nation’s depiction as anything less than beautiful in works by oppositional artists like Lino Brocka, whose dystopian films, including Manila in the Claws of Night (1975) and Insiang (1976), illuminate in neon lights the city’s dark underbelly for an international audience ignorant of the devastating impact of the Marcos regime.
It is a surprise, then, that under Marcos’s watch the Philippines had no presence at the Venice Biennale — as noted by current Philippine Secretary of Foreign Affairs Albert F. del Rosario, the Biennale is the premiere stage for the exercise of “soft power” and forms of discursive hegemony, which the Marcoses trafficked in extensively. Fifty-one years after its first (and last) appearance and almost 30 years since the end of Martial Law, however, the Philippine Pavilion is back in Venice with curator Patrick Flores’s Tie A String Around The World — a group show that seems to have taken Marcos’s preference for extravagant beauty to heart. With the Philippines, like the United States, gearing up for a major election season and the Marcos dynasty still trying to claw its way back into power, the nation is as ever concerned with putting on its most appealing face to the world. The Venice Biennale is by far the largest contemporary art platform with a Philippine presence in recent memory; perhaps unsurprisingly, then, the exhibit eschews addressing some of the ugly truths of Filipino experience by instead focusing on (or distracting us with?) the large-scale beauty of the environment and the sumptuousness of good craftsmanship and materials.
In contrast to the hyperreal, frenetic Manila that First World film buffs like Fredric Jameson have come to associate with Philippine cinema, Manuel Conde’s and Carlos Francisco’s Genghis Khan (1950) greets the viewer upon entering the exhibit, located inside the gorgeously decrepit European Cultural Centre. This quirky Tagalog film stars Conde in the titular role, with editing and English voiceovers redone by Pulitzer prize-winning novelist Jim Agee; the film made a brief splash at the 1951 Venice Film Festival and other major festivals with its story of Khan’s coming into power, but eventually faded into obscurity. Flores resurrects Genghis Khan to help claim Philippines’ art history as always having been in dialogue with the West; productively, the film also geographically and politically reorients the Philippines away from its last colonizer, the United States, instead directing it towards China as a major political rival.
Following Genghis Khan, the two contemporary pieces in the Pavilion, Manny Montelibano’s three-channel video piece “A Dashed State” (2015) and Jose Tence Ruiz’s installation “Shoal” (2015), further expand the nation’s time and space — moving the national drama off land and into the sea, slowing down the pace to the swell of the tides. While neither piece performs a romanticized throwback to the pastoral nor celebrates the innocence of underdevelopment, they do make the Philippines look as beautiful as Marcos wanted and wished for.
Panoramas of fisherfolk and farmers on their daily routine, interspersed with aerials of lush green islands comprise much of “A Dashed State,” a long-form video that would be better suited to a film festival than the ADD-enabling Biennale format. It’s easy to mistake Montelibano’s work for the opening credits of a National Geographic special or even Anthony Bourdain’s latest romp in the Third World, unless you’re watching it on island time — patiently and almost ploddingly. There are the small bursts of garbled, non-diegetic sound — radio frequencies being picked up off the coast of the West Philippine Sea, a contested space that China wants to reclaim as part of the South China Sea, and the children walking barefoot towards the camera — they’re living in Palawan, a large island chain that is one part nature preserve, another part dumping ground for US military waste and strategic base for staging surveillance operations on the Chinese. Barely veiled by the stunning views are the rumblings of a slow and ongoing triangulated war of position, but it’s too easy to miss the politics behind the video’s aesthetics. Only the most dedicated viewer will stay long enough with “A Dashed State” to hear local people speak of and for themselves, and it is a (perhaps unnecessary) sacrifice for the sake of making a drawn-out art film a la Lav Diaz rather than one in the fast and dirty style of Brocka.
If “A Dashed State” masks geopolitics with gorgeous camerawork, “Shoal” wraps it in velvet — the large model ship is ostentatious, almost bursting out of the room and onto the Venetian canal just outside the windows. This ponderous, overstuffed piece indexes the BRP Sierra Madre, a rusty, decommissioned US warship that now silently holds down the Philippines’s claim to the West Philippine Sea, and a spectral reminder of the continual American involvement in the archipelago since the 1898 Philippine-American War. In the room with “Shoal,” I am reminded here of Filipino American artist Michael Arcega’s hand-hewn sailing vessels which map — among other things — Lewis and Clark’s journey through the North American continent and other (post)colonial misadventures. At the risk of privileging the diasporic over the homebound, I wish Montelibano could have done more with Venice’s epic platform for the nicely gift-wrapped sea craft left much unresolved.
Patrick Flores’s curatorial vision of linking the Philippines to China to Venice via the “Maritime Silk Road” is a laudable departure from the overworked discourse of the Philippines being simply a poor mimic of the United States. Breaking away from clichés about Filipino art and culture, Tie A String Around The World asserts a Filipino aesthetic that values externalized beauty over the unseemly, slowness over speed — a sharp counter to the most prevalent forms of globalized cultural production coming out of the Philippines, the YouTube videos and Vines made by poor youth with whatever materials and technology they have access to. Yet in trying to represent an alternative archipelagic history and palette, Flores’s selections defer discussions of perhaps the most pressing political, economic, and social issues facing the Philippines: cronyism and bureaucratic corruption on every level of the state; the plight of Overseas Filipino Workers (OFWs), laboring in demeaning and dangerous jobs all over the world; the extra-judicial killings of environmental activists, indigenous people, and others seen as enemies of the state — topics that may just call for unsightly images and less drawn out modes of production. In its turning to the sea, Tie A String Around The World is less successful in, as stated in the catalogue, “initiating a conversation on the changing configurations of the world,” but still is able to dazzle with its extravagant beauty.
Tie A String Around The World continues at the Philippine Pavilion (European Cultural Centre, Palazzo Mora, Strada Nuova, Venice) of the Venice Biennale through November 22.