VENICE—The Philippine Pavilion at this year’s Venice Biennale has appeared on several lists of not-to-miss spaces for its thought-provoking theme, “Tie a String around the World.”
Curator Patrick Flores, who came up with the theme, says it deals with world-making and the formation of empires.
If they give themselves enough time, visitors get to peel away layer upon layer of the current Philippine situation as presented by its featured artists: Manuel Conde, Carlos “Botong” Francisco, Manny Montelibano and José Tence Ruiz.
Flores agrees that the term “beautiful wreck” is an apt description.
“We cobble things together to make something new, something we can learn to live with,” he tells INQUIRER Lifestyle.
The performances of kinetic artist David Medalla added more layers and nuances to our national identity, especially how we are defined by others.
On Wednesday, in Vicenza, an hour from Venice by train, Medalla led a tribute to Antonio Pigafetta, who chronicled the Magellan expedition and placed the Philippines on the world map.
As the train pulled out of the station, Medalla and his longtime collaborator Adam Nankervis read from a Pigafetta fable before unspooling a length of colored string.
Medalla then asked the people in the shared car to tie something of their own to the string —a boarding pass, a cord protector, a friendship bracelet—to thank Pigafetta. The offering of a personal token can be traced to the practice of giving ex voto, a physical token of thanks offered to the saints for surviving everything from a storm at sea to a grave illness.
At Vicenza, we gathered around the Pigafetta monument and sang the Filipino folk song “Sitsiritsit, Alibangbang,” eliciting a lot of bemused stares from passersby. On the train back to Venice, Medalla distributed paper masks he and Nankervis had made out of torn magazine pages.
The following day at the Philippine Pavilion in Palazzo Mora, Flores moderated a dialogue between Medalla and Nankervis that flitted from topic to seemingly disparate topic.
“Why can’t the Philippines and China just share the contested portion of the sea?
“We are a mixed race with Malay and Chinese heritage. In a way, we’re like the dessert halo-halo. Parts of our history as a people have been negative, but we’ve learned a lot from them and become resilient, like the bamboo that bends with the wind.
“In the Philippine creation myth, Malakas and Maganda came from one bamboo, so as a people we possess both strength and beauty.
“We were colonized by the Spanish, occupied by the Japanese and liberated by the Americans, but the only thing I am thankful of from the Americans is our cleanliness. They were responsible for introducing toilets in the country.
“Despite the poverty in the Philippines, it’s ironic that you can’t go hungry there. Unlike in Venice where stores close early, in Manila there are so many ways to get food or drink. There are vendors selling food all over the city, all the time.”
The roller coaster of topics was followed by a video recap of our trip to Vicenza with the masks and the singing of “Sitsiritsit” once more, but this time with impromptu dance choreography.
Sen. Loren Legarda, who was instrumental in the Philippines’ return to the Venice Biennale but was unable to attend Medalla’s performance, says in a statement that she “wants people, especially Filipino artists, to be inspired by his boldness and spontaneity.
“Our return to the Venice Biennale after a 51-year hiatus is already spectacular and memorable in itself. Today is another milestone for Philippine contemporary art, for history and for our country.”