Culture / Art Republik

Manila Biennale 2018: Open City

The inaugural Manila Biennale takes Filipinos out of their comfort zone

Feb 19, 2018 | By Art Republik

Biennales are typically large-scale exhibitions of contemporary art, orchestrated by government agencies, public art organisations and philanthropists. Well-organised biennales take about two years to put together, which is why the more prominent ones occur within this time cycle. Often, they are named after the city that hosts it.

As far as traditional definitions go, the inaugural Manila Biennale, running currently in the Philippine capital from 3 February to 5 March, is rather iconoclastic, considering that it took only nine months to plan— four and half to put together— and involved little to no public government funding.

This biennale, led by popular performance artist, activist and social critic Carlos Celdran, is fully managed, run and funded by artists. “No government institutions were harmed in this endeavour,” says Celdran, a colourful, outspoken character whose anti-establishment views and opinions often land him in hot water with the local government and the Catholic church. He adds, “Take comfort that not much taxpayers’ money was used to put this up”.

Agnes Arellano, ‘Angel of Death’, 1990, cold cast marble, copper, brass, broken glass, 231.2 x 152.4 x 60.9 m; ‘Bronze Bullets’, 1990, bronze, 180.3 x 30.5cm, 6 pieces. Photo by Rache Go


The only public agency with any real involvement in the Manila Biennale is the administrative body of Intramuros, Manila’s historical 400-year-old “walled city” which was chosen as the main staging platform for the range of cultural activities and auxiliary events— comprising talks, public art commissions, exhibitions, and workshops— that the art festival has produced and is currently promoting.

Nearly 100 artists from the Philippines and overseas contributed time, knowledge and their own art to “bring back the soul” of the ancient walled city. “This was all about artists doing it for themselves,” Celdran emphasises. “Intramuros has always been the laboratory of Manila’s culture. It’s where Philippine history was made and its culture defined, from the Galleon Trade established in the Spanish times, from nipa huts all the way to volcano ash-carved churches.”

Zeus Bascon, ‘Dead Masks’, 2014 – 2018, acrylic and various materials on tarpaulin. Photo by Rache Go.

Unfortunately, since its destruction in the Second World War, the walled city’s relevance and history have been all but forgotten. Former First Lady Imelda Marcos tried to bring back Intramuros’ glory in 1982, but the area again fell into disrepair and out of the public consciousness when the Marcoses were driven out of power a few years later.

Manila Biennale has accomplished what none of the post-Marcos governments could: bring the spotlight back to the historical site. For these four weeks in February and March, Intramuros’ parks, gardens and communal centres are transformed into combination fantasy lands and art-fuelled theme parks that showcase jarring monumental installations and out-of-the-box performance pieces unlike Manila has seen before. While themes range from vintage Japanese animé to American colonisation to religious metaphors, the collective underlying message of the art featured at the first Manila Biennale alludes most to the politics of national identity.

In essence, this very first Manila Biennale has forced the city’s citizens to remember and re-evaluate what it means to be Filipino, an intranational debate that still exists nearly 70 years after the Americans granted independence to the Philippines.

Kawayan de Guia, ‘Lady Liberty’, 2015, fibreglass, wood, various scrap materials. Photo by Rache Go.

Kawayan de Guia’s ‘Lady of Liberty’ probably presents the most obvious allusion. Presenting a cheeky knock-off of the famed New York landmark, the installation touches on issues of Western imperialism and capitalism, and recasts how the fall of the Americans during the Second World War led to the subsequent desecration of Manila. Not by accident, the artwork looks out to Tondo, one of the most impoverished districts in the Philippine capital.

On a more macabre note, Oca Villamiel uses dismembered doll parts and objects scavenged from various dumpsites and junkyards in the Philippines to create a chilling visual commentary on how the “horrors of war and the loss of innocence” is still crippling the nation’s search for the true Filipino identity.

Alwin Reamillo, ‘Bayanihan Hopping Spirit House’, 2015, wood, bamboo, various materials. Photo by Rache Go.

By contrast, Alwin Reamillo’s contribution, takes on a more positive stance. His ‘Bayanihan Hopping Spirit House,’ a curious reinterpretation of both the Filipino bahay kubo (a wooden stilt house indigenous to the Philippines) and the Thai spirit house (small wooden shrines to the protective spirit of a home or structure), represents the ancient Filipino concept of bayanihan, which revolves around collective immersion and community effort. The term’s root word, ‘bayan,’ (pronounced ba-yan) which means town, nation and community, also inspired a new way of saying “biennale”. As Celdran explains, this undertaking was actually a “bayan-nale”, the result of the combined efforts of a community of artists, art enthusiasts and deep-pocketed patrons.

But while most biennales are criticised for being high-end soirees for curators, gallery owners, collectors, and artists, the Manila Biennale, as Celdran emphasises, was created mainly to benefit and engage a generally middle-class Filipino public that does not necessarily patronise the arts.

Kiri Dalena, ‘In the dark times, will there also be singing? Yes, there will also be singing. About the dark times’, 2017, neon lights. Photo by Rache Go.

The Manila Biennale’s executive director wanted to snap locals out of their mall-ing habit and bring them to a creative public space that offered a different take-away from the latest denim find at yet another generic department store. “It was really all about bringing people out of their comfort zone, out of the mall, out of their boxes.” As Celdran points out, there is more to Manila then colossal temples dedicated to central air-conditioning and consumer retail.

Surprisingly enough, the public responded to Celdran’s Pied Piper call. On its opening weekend, the Manila Biennale welcomed about 14,000 visitors to Intramuros, numbers the citadel has not seen in recent history. And Celdran is not overly concerned whether Manileños liked what they saw or not. “Even if they went down to Intramuros and hated it, the fact that they still showed up means that we already won.”

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This article was written by Ana Kalaw for Art Republik.


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