KAWAYAN DE GUIALady Liberty, 2014/15/18, fiberglass, wood and scrap materials, dimensions variable, photo by Mm Yu, courtesy Manila Biennale.

Open City

Manila Biennale

Also available in:  Chinese

Survivors of war often carry scars. The inaugural Manila Biennale, and its works under the theme of “Open City,” presented its own array of wounds. The concept evokes several interpretations. It references the idea of passages, of the possibilities that spring up after entry and exposure. It also directly relates to the traumas witnessed by the walled area of Intramuros, the site of the biennial, which withstood three aggressive colonizing forces and one of the worst air bombings of the Second World War, when Manila was declared an “open city” by US General Douglas MacArthur and more than 100,000 civilians were killed. Through this theme, the biennial seemed to ask: What does it mean to be a survivor of an open city? And was it all worth it?

The monthlong exhibition labeled itself as “artist-centric,” and was curated by artists Ringo Bunoan, Con Cabrera, Cocoy Lumbao and art critic Alice Sarmiento. Installations by 44 artists and artist collectives were placed on six sites around Intramuros, spanning gardens, plazas, museums and chambers. These sites included a complex of houses, Plaza San Luis; a fort, Baluarte de San Diego; the reconstructed Jesuit Mission House; a citadel, Fort Santiago; Plaza de Roma, a public square in front of the Manila Cathedral; and the museum Bahay Tsinoy.

Re-staged works were shown alongside new site-specific installations commissioned for the event, a juxtaposition that tackled the social narratives of the present and the historical evolution of these locations. The re-staged artworks were an inquiry on context, shifting their line of questioning during multiple transformations, as in multimedia artist Kawayan de Guia’s fiberglass-and-wood replica of the Statue of Liberty. This particular work was first shown in 2014 on top of a building overlooking a public market in Baguio City, as part of a barter-for-art project; at the time, it was titled De-liberating a Fall as an investigation on capitalism, but for the 2015 edition of Art Fair Philippines, the sculpture was reworked as Remains (2015) and completely wrapped in 35mm film, with only one arm holding a torch and part of the head lying on a floor, as a commentary on the notions of freedom. For the Biennale, the work was shown as Lady Liberty (2018), with two heads instead of one, and crafted with additional scrap wood and iron sheets sourced from Intramuros. Visitors were invited to vandalize the work, signaling the Philippines’ status as an ongoing site of political conflict.

While some works mined present tensions with explicit imagery, others sought to present postcolonial narratives through alternative presentations. For example, Felix Bacolor’s dramatic mixed-media installation Thirty Thousand Liters (2017), made of wooden pallets and 150 stacked pieces of blue metal drums with a total volume of 30,000 liters, spoke of contemporary trauma by presenting a disturbing visual representation of how much blood has been spilled since the current government began its war on drugs. In contrast were the interventional, fake “historical” markers by the Cebu-based collective KoloWn, titled Parallel (2018). Tampered photographs, printed on tarpaulin signage on wooden stands around Fort Santiago, Baluarte de San Diego, Japanese Cannon, Bahay Tsinoy and Plaza Mexico, depicted fictitious scenes such as a battle against robots, or a spaceship landing on a fort in 1644.

To survive an event means that one has also witnessed it. In this way, the act of remembering can also be a political one. Filipinos are often criticized for their selective memory and collective forgetting that allows the son of a former dictator to run for the second-highest office in the country, and for corrupt politicians to return to public service. Controversial issues from the Second World War remain unresolved. The drug war continues unabated despite protests and an alleged death count of more than 12,000. Given this context, the biennial succeeded in exposing the horrors of past and present, no matter how painful. Perhaps this dialogue with history is enough to encourage change and question political systems. For what is the use of commemoration if not to save us from ourselves?

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