The art of war.


Intramuros, the famed Walled City, was the seat of power in colonial Philippines, which spent three centuries under Spanish rule. Buried underneath its stone bulwarks is the history of an important polity for the Tagalogs of Luzon, as the land which surrounded the Pasig river was the entry point for goods from China, Japan, Borneo, Siam, and the Malay peninsula since the 10th century.

Manila retained its prosperity through the 1500s, under the government of Raja Lakandula, who ruled the northern banks of the river (what is now Tondo), Raja Matanda and Raja Sulayman, whose place of residence was what is now Fort Santiago. The three ruled Manila until 1570, when Miguel Lopez de Legazpi and Martin de Goiti conquered the city. The former ruled as its first governor-general from the walls of Intramuros after he ordered its construction in 1571.

Another four hundred years passed and Intramuros and much of Manila was flattened after Japanese forces and the combined forces of the Philippines and the US clashed during The Battle of Manila, destroying buildings and claiming the lives of more than 100,000 Filipino civilians, 1,000 American and Filipino soldiers, and almost 17,000 Japanese soldiers.

National Artist for Literature Nick Joaquin—through one of his characters—described the beauty and fall of Intramuros in Portrait of the Artist as Filipino thus:

Intramuros! The old Manila. The original Manila. The Noble and Ever Loyal City… To the early conquistadores she was a new Tyre and Sidon; to the early missionaries she was a new Rome. Within these walls was gathered the wealth of the Orient—silk from China; spices from Java; gold and ivory and precious stones from India. And within these walls the Champions of Christ assembled to conquer the Orient for the cross. Through these old streets once crowded a marvelous multitude—viceroys and archbishops; mystics ad merchants; pagan sorcerers and Christian martyrs; nuns and harlots and elegant marquesas; English pirates, Chinese mandarins, Portuguese traitors, Dutch spies, Moro sultans, and Yankee clipper captains. For three centuries this medieval town was a Babylon in its commerce and a New Jerusalem in its faith…

Now look: this is all that’s left of it now. Weeds and rubble and scrap iron. A piece of wall, a fragment of stairway—and over there, the smashed gothic facade of old Sto. Domingo.

Seventy-three years since the Battle of Manila, Intramuros hasn’t quite recovered from the razing: the former barracks in Fort Santiago and Baluarte de San Diego are in ruins, as are other structures. Rehabilitation efforts are underway to salvage what was left, but crumbling walls still serve as reminders of one of the fiercest battles in the Pacific theater of the war.


Manila Biennale
Kawayan De Guia’s Lady Liberty (2014), fiberglass, wood, various scrap materials.

Intramuros is symbolic of what the Philippines lost but for Carlos Celdran, cultural activist and all-around gadfly, the Walled City is also symbolic of what Manila can still be. Mr. Celdran has added another hat to his millinery collection: executive director of the Manila Biennale, an art festival that aims to revitalize both Intramuros and the art scene by transforming the Walled City into a vibrant arts-and-cultural center. The Manila Biennale takes its cues from the Venice Biennale, the large-scale visual art exhibition held every odd-numbered year since 1895.

“World War II happened and it changed Manila. It’s the part where we kind of lost our way,” said Mr. Celdran in an interview with High Life in January. “Four hundred years’ worth of architecture, four hundred years’ worth of literature, of historical records, photographs, paintings, decorative motifs, gone. Imagine what a people we could have been in Manila if we had those churches and libraries for us to refer to of our past,” he mused.

Manila Biennale
Roberto Chabet’s Onethingafteranother (2011), G.I. sheets, halogen lamps, variable dimensions.

While Manila is still the country’s capital, much of its industries and businesses have moved elsewhere—Makati, Taguig, Pasay, and Quezon City—taking along with them arts and culture. Mr. Celdran and his cohorts want to bring back the latter to Manila via the Biennale.

“The rash commercialization of everything in this country also affects the art scene.We want to start something from the ground up—where the money came from people working hard, from people giving their own time, from people giving each other chances,” he said. “Intramuros is really the best place to do it because it is a public space, it’s ‘of the people’ and it’s really where our history began, as the city of Manila.”

“Hopefully,” he continued, “the Biennale can restart, revive, reestablish Intramuros as the place where we can develop our culture and identity.”

This ambitious project started as a thought in Mr. Celdran’s head sometime between February and March of 2017, while he was “in some kind of retreat or residency in Baguio.” The germ of an idea led him to think about the needs of the current art scene. In a span of 11 months, he and his colleagues put everything together.

Manila Biennale
Zeus Bascon’s Dead Masks (2014-2018), acrylic and various materials on tarpaulin.

“We started by buying the name first so artists will own Manila Biennale, more than a government, more than a corporation, or more than a private institution. It was completely started by an artist and it will be finished by an artist,” Mr. Celdran said, adding that the event must remain artist-run and site-specific. “It has to professionalize artists and it should only be about artists’ issues and dialogues and processes and things like that.”

“The art scene needs more,” he said, “I’ve always found art to be the most powerful way to change society, change the status quo. I think it’s always better to inspire than to intimidate. Because there are only two ways of making Filipinos change: you force them to change or you inspire them to change. And the best thing to use is art.”

Mr. Celdran knows of what he speaks. In 2010, he protested against the clergy’s efforts to thwart the implementation of the Reproductive Health Care bill (now Responsible Parenthood and Reproductive Health Act of 2012) by dressing as Jose Rizal holding a placard with the word “Damaso!”—a character from Rizal’s Noli Me Tangere and a symbol of the abuses and crimes of the friars during  Spanish colonial rule. He may have landed in jail for offending religious feelings but his performance put front and center the issues of the separation of Church and state and freedom of speech. Meanwhile, Livin’ la Vida Imelda, Mr. Celdran’s one-man show, takes a look at the complex life of First Lady Imelda Marcos and “the shoes, the hair, the architecture, and the fascism that was so in fashion at the time.” While gossipy and laced with humor, the performance does spur conversations about the Philippines’ “postcolonial cultural identity.”


In the same vein, the Manila Biennale is meant to push Intramuros toward its future while looking back at where it all went wrong. The theme for the inaugural edition is “Open City,” harking to the time Manila was declared as such in December 1941. All defensive efforts were abandoned in the hopes that Japanese troops would simply march through Manila without violating it. It was all for naught as the war eventually claimed more than 100,000 civilian lives.

“[The art] is really going to be dark. It is about war,” said Ringo Bunoan, who, alongside Alice Sarmiento, Cocoy Lumbao, and Con Cabrera, curated the art exhibition.

More than 30 artists—local and foreign—signed up for the Biennale and their installations and works of art are scattered in several sites within the Walled City, including Fort Santiago, the rebuilt San Ignacio Church, its attached Jesuit Mission House, Plaza Roma, Casa Manila, and Puerta Real.

Manila Biennale
Death Bronze Bullets by Agnes Arellano.

Sculptor Agnes Arellano, known for her surreal and often dramatic art, presented Angel of Death and Bronze Bullets an installation in Fort Santiago of six rifle, bullets with a stone tablet representing angel wings with an arrow bisecting it at the center.

Oca Villamiel created a haunting depiction of children during wartime. Children of War, an installation located inside the poorly lit Guadalupe tunnel in the same fort, features bird cages and dolls scavenged from the Payatas dumpsite.

Manila Biennale
Oca Villamael’s Children of War (2018), scavenged dolls and birdcages Variable dimensions.

Other artists whose art are on view include Mideo Cruz whose work, Golgotha (the biblical site outside Jerusalem where Jesus was crucified), located in Baluarte de San Diego, features hands sticking out of the ground as if seeking salvation or redemption.

Manila Biennale
Golgotha by Mideo Cruz .

But beyond being simple reminders of the dark history of Manila, Mr. Celdran also pointed out that the artworks also serve as a reflection of current society as seen in Felix Bacolor’s Thirty Thousand Liters located atop the tunnel where Mr. Villamiel’s work is installed.

Bacolor’s work features blue drums that supposedly could hold 30,000 liters of liquid and serve as the artist’s commentary on the amount of blood that has been shed in the “current wars of the Philippines,” according to the piece’s description.

Pete Jimenez’s Walang Boots serves as a “wry commentary on the modernization of the Philippine military” and a tribute to Jose Rizal as 150 pairs of wooden shoe lasts, toy guns, and bullet shells are placed along the route Dr. Rizal took as he was being brought to Luneta for his execution.

Because this is the first installment and because of its scale, the Biennale team was aware of the risks they were taking. “It’s really an experimental project for us and we’re very open about it. We’re not promising it’s going to be most magnificent Biennale or that it’s going to run perfectly. Of course not. There’s going to be a lot of growing pains but we need to do this to set the stage,” Mr. Celdran said, adding that he’s “90% sure” they’re going to lose money.

Manila Biennale
Bayanihan Hopping Spirit House by Alwin Reamillo.

“It’s like a rehearsal for the next one,” Ms. Bunoan remarked.

Mr. Celdran said the Manila Biennale had to happen in order to prove that an event of this scale could indeed be done. Early on, he was of the mind that if they couldn’t get the music rights to songs, then, by God, they would sing the songs themselves. As for the art? Well, the art would be made by the curators themselves—if need be. In the end, Mr. Celdran and his colleagues made the Manila Biennale happen, in all its messy glory.  “To save our soul, this is us telling our fellow artists to let’s get our shit together.”