Portrait of Patrick D. Flores. Photo by Billy Kung for ArtAsiaPacific

Salvage Operation

Patrick D. Flores

Philippines Mongolia Italy
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It’s a drizzly March afternoon in Hong Kong’s Kwun Tong industrial district, located on the eastern side of the Kowloon Peninsula. Patrick D. Flores, curator of the Philippines Pavilion at this year’s 56th Venice Biennale, is in town for the opening of his latest exhibition, at Osage gallery, “South by Southeast.” Co-organized with Romanian curator Anca Verona Mihulet, the show forges conceptual links between contemporary art of Southeast Asia and Southeast Europe, by way of the geopolitical conditions that shaped the two regions’ histories and contentions for power. 

Based in Manila, 46-year-old Flores is considered one of the Philippines’ most active curators and art historians. Since 2009, he has been curator of the prestigious Jorge B. Vargas Museum at the University of the Philippines, where he is also a professor of art studies. At the same time, he is an adjunct curator at the National Gallery Singapore, opening later this year, which will feature one of the largest public collections of modern and contemporary Southeast Asian and Singaporean art. 

In September 2014, Flores was announced as the curator for the Philippines’ return to the Venice Biennale following a 51-year absence, which Flores speculates was primarily due to the country’s economic condition and the government’s general lack of interest in the arts. He attributes the comeback this year to the support of Philippines senator Loren Legarda. Flores says Legarda was able to convince President Benigno Aquino to “carve out a bit of subsidy from the national budget” for the Biennale, “quite a difficult task given that we had just experienced a devastating typhoon”—a reference to Typhoon Haiyan, also known as Yolanda, which in 2013 affected 16 million people and caused an estimated USD 15 billion worth of damage. 

Reflecting on the show’s premise, Flores explains, “The last time the Philippines exhibited at Venice was in 1964, so I thought it would be fitting to return to Venice with something that has already been there and that also talks about the changing configurations of the world.” The pavilion’s framework is based around Genghis Khan, a 1950 film by Manuel Conde (1915–1985), which was the first Filipino film to be shown at the Venice Film Festival, in 1952. Two of the Philippines’ officially recognized National Artists were involved in creating the movie: Conde directed and acted in the production, and Carlos Modesto Villaluz Francisco (1912–1969) co-wrote the script and designed the costumes and the set. 

The 90-minute black-and-white film follows Temüjin, the young Genghis Khan (played by Conde), as he outwits his enemies and comes to power. At the end, Khan and his lover Lei Hai stand on a hill overlooking the land before them and he says to her, “It is written in the stars that the day will come when I will tie a string around the world and lead it to your feet”—an expression of love and a desire for conquest that were adapted by Flores for the title of the pavilion, “Tie a String Around the World.”

Genghis Khan encapsulates layered interpretations and touches upon core issues of Flores’s proposal, one being the formation of nationhood for the Philippines: “The film talks about world-making in the past as an access to world-making in the future—it grounds a very robust history of modernity in the Philippines from the 1950s to the present. I wanted to implicate the history of modernity as an entry point into the contemporary—otherwise, the pavilion in Venice becomes a singular spectacle.” 

The Philippines Pavilion will take over three rooms inside the Palazzo Mora, on Strada Nuova, away from the busy main thoroughfares of the Biennale around the Giardini and Arsenale. “We’re sharing the Palazzo with the National Pavilion of Mongolia and also the Seychelles. Coincidentally, these countries make interesting links to the Philippines, since Seychelles is an archipelago, and Mongolia, of course, connects us to Genghis Khan,” he says. “The modesty of the space is okay. I think the pavilion should be in relation to the economy of the country.” 

One room of the pavilion will present the restored version of Genghis Khan alongside drawings Francisco made for the film. The other two rooms will house projects by multimedia artist Jose Tence Ruiz and filmmaker and video artist Mariano Montelibano, who will each be taking up one room. Flores believes both of them possess an “intellectual preparedness” that allows them to respond to the pavilion’s concept. 

Ruiz will be creating an installation called Shoal (2015) that references the BRP Sierra Madre, a dilapidated Philippine Navy ship that has been stranded on the Ayungin Shoal of the Spratly Islands since 1999. The islands lie in the internationally contested waters of the South China Sea—of which “China wants to claim almost 80 percent,” explains Flores. The Sierra Madre is now occupied by a rotating crew of Filipino marines, who stay on the ship to maintain the country’s presence in the disputed waters.

Drawing from these current events, Ruiz’s metal object for the Biennale evokes the form of a ship and will be wrapped in maroon-colored velvet. “We want the idea of the Sierra Madre to be there,” says Flores, “but not to overwhelm the experience to the extent that its meaning is reduced to a political statement against China. I want to broaden the allegory—the towers or transmitters of the ship can morph into spires of a church, which can also make reference to the Philippines Baroque.”

The filmmaker Montelibano will display A Dashed State (2015), a 25-minute-long, three-channel video installation centered around sounds from the sea and a nearby village community. Flores tells me that the original plan was to film in the open sea near the Sierra Madre. “We had a hard time convincing the government to let us shoot in the disputed area. It’s quite difficult to get there and quite dangerous, but close by is the island Palawan and on its southernmost tip is a town, Bataraza, that is a gateway to the West Philippine Sea, which is part of the South China Sea, and also to Borneo. [Montelibano] filmed there and was drawn to the Kudaman epic—an ancient poem—of the ethnic community in that area.” Overlaying images of the Palawan town, chants of the epic will intersect with radio frequencies from Chinese coast guards that patrol nearby—the “sound of China that encroaches,” as Flores puts it. Together, the three projects will represent an overarching art history of the Philippines—Francisco and Conde of the 1950s, Ruiz from the 1970s and Montelibano from the 1990s—showcasing the diverse range of art that was and is produced there. 

Given the Venice Biennale’s international audience, I ask Flores what he ultimately hopes to convey. Taking a moment to consider, he responds, “I’m trying to compel the global audience to regard the locality of the Philippines as something that is not outside of the global. I’m trying to get away from the local-global dichotomy, which doesn’t hold, and to insist on an extensive locality or even an equivalent locality. It’s not like ‘you guys are the global and we are just a local articulation of the global.’ No, we co-produce the global through our locality.”

JOSE TENCE RUIZ in collaboration with Danilo Ilag-Ilag and Jeremy Guiab et al., Shoal, 2015, metal and velvet, dimensions variable. Courtesy Philippines Pavilion.