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A primer on the Venice Biennale

THIS merry month of May inaugurates a number of convergences. For one, the planet Saturn will be at opposition. Brighter than any other time of the year and visible all night long on the 23rd, the ringed planet will be at its closest approach to Earth and its face will be fully illuminated by the Sun. This is the best time to contemplate Saturn and its moons. May is also a very historical moment for Philippine art as the nation-state rejoins the larger body of heavenly movements converging at the Venice Biennale 2015.

Richard Serra’s Pasolini at the 55th International Art Exhibition
Richard Serra’s Pasolini at the 55th International Art Exhibition

Opening on May 9 and running until November 22, the International Art Exhibition of la Biennale di Venezia will unfold once again at the Giardini, the historical grounds of the first iteration in 1895.

And after 50 years of absence from one of the most prestigous cultural institutions in the world, the Philippines once again rejoins the National Participations to the Venice Biennale, a major contemporary art exhibition that takes place once every two years in the former Venetian Empire.

The first and the last time this happened in 1964, art watchers saw the birth of Jose Joya and Napoleon Abueva in the global scene. In the intervening years, a few Filipinos were also represented but without the official distinction of state support.

However, the National Commission for Culture and the Arts and the Department of Foreign Affairs, in partnership with the Office of Senator Loren Legarda, have made a step to improve upon neglect. They have announced the selection of Dr. Patrick Flores’s curatorial proposal, titled “Tie a String Around the World” as the official sanction to the forthcoming edition. Featured artists Jose Tence Ruiz and Mariano Montelibano III will be curated by Flores at the venue of the Palazzo Mora, Strada Nova in Cannaregio.

Flores is a professor of art history, theory and criticism, and Philippine art at the University of the Philippines, where he also serves as curator of the Vargas Museum. Also an adjunct curator at the National Art Gallery of Singapore, he has authored and edited several books on Philippine art.

Foregrounding his homeland, “Tie a String Around the World” is a poetopolitical reflection on history, geography and politics, and the notions of nation, territory, archipelago. The title is based on the newly restored film Genghis Khan, which will also be shown at the Philippine Pavilion amid an installation of contemporary art projects of intermedia artist Ruiz and filmmaker Montelibano. The winning proposal seeks to interrogate a history of the seas and its relationship with geopolitics, patrimony and the struggles of nation-states over depleting resources. Locating these islands through its identification with culture, its fledgling art movements, and the critical responses to present predicaments, the pavilion seeks to bridge artists across the ages, to unfold a story which we shall see in the coming weeks.

In Genghis Khan, Manuel Conde’s 1950 film, cowritten and designed by Carlos Francisco, and screened at the Venice Film Festival in 1952, the young protagonist Khan reflects with an almost Ozymandian gaze over his demesne, while promising his consort to “tie a string around the world.” Indeed, love can make the world go round, but is love the basis of empire?

Meanwhile, Venice Biennale 2015 also informs of the current state of art practice in the global scene. For its central event known as the International Art Exhibition, now in its 56th iteration, curator and critic Okwui Enwezor brings to focus 136 artists culled from around the globe. The eclectic list includes giants like Bruce Nauman, Adrian Piper and George Baselitz; young stars like Oscar Murillo; and deceased masters like Marcel Broodthaers, Walker Evans and Robert Smithson.

Titled All the World’s Futures, this central exhibition devotes a fresh appraisal of the relationship of art and artists to the current state of things.

In a preface, a message of Okwui Enwezor, Nigerian curator, art critic, writer, poet, art historian and power dynamo ranked 24th in ArtReview’s 2014 Power 100, a hierarchy of the contemporary artworld’s most powerful figures: “All the World’s Futures will play host to a Parliament of Forms whose orchestration and episodic unfolding will be broadly global in scope. At the core of the project is the notion of the exhibition as stage where historical and counterhistorical projects will be explored. Within this framework, aspects of the 56th Exhibition will solicit and privilege new proposals and works.” Aside from the aforementioned, Venice Biennale offers the rest of the 89 National Participations, with quiet interest in countries exhibiting for the very first time, like Grenada, Mauritius, Mongolia, Mozambique and the Seychelles; and countries who are participating this year after years of absence, namely, Ecuador, Guatemala and,  as mentioned, the Philippines.

Other spectacles on the Venice Biennale must-see list are the Holy See’s participation, the Italian Pavilion, and 44 Collateral Events.

The Venice Art Biennale is presided by Paolo Baratta, with help from a board composed of  Vittorio Zappalorto, Luca Zaia, Cesare Castelli and Adriano Rasi Caldogno. n

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