PAST AND PRESENT converge and converse at the Philippine pavilion at the 16th International Architecture Exhibition of the Venice Biennale in Italy, which is on view until Nov. 25.
Inspired by National Artist for Literature Nick Joaquin’s novel The Woman Who Had Two Navels, the Philippine pavilion confronts both the challenges of contemporary times and the tensions of the country’s past.
The exhibit plays on the idea of “two navels” in constant dialogue: How does past colonialism impact our environment? And, how does the process of neoliberalization in today’s milieu alter our sense of urban landscape?
“The Philippine Pavilion places a spotlight on the discussion of how our cities have transformed an important global conversation seeing how more than 50% of the world’s population live in urban settlements,” said National Artist for Literature Virgilio S. Almario, commissioner of the Philippine Pavilion and chairman of the National Commission for Culture and the Arts (NCCA), during the pavilion’s local launch on April 27 at the NCCA headquarters at Intramuros, Manila.
“[Our exhibition] is relevant because if we can make sense of our cities and how it is shaped by our past as well as by neoliberal agendas, then learning about the presence of these invisible forces empower us to make us better choices for the future of the cities and the people that occupy them.”
The first “navel,” called “(Post)Colonial Imaginations,” revolves around the major expositions and world’s fairs that showcased the Philippines including the Exposicion General de las Islas Filipinas in Madrid in 1887, the St. Louis Fair in the United States of America in 1904, and the Expo Pilipino in Pampanga in 1998.
The first “navel” highlights images and artefacts that look at how those expositions reproduced the colonial narratives of what is exotic and what is primitive.
For example, the controversial 1887 Exposicion General de las Isla Filipinas in Madrid. A part of this exhibition was dedicated to Philippine fine arts, where Filipino masters like Juan Luna and Felix Resurreccion Hidalgo were highly praised — on the other hand, a group of indigenous peoples — Igorots — were presented before the Queen Regent Maria Christina and were put on live display, which misrepresented and did not define who we were as a nation and as Filipinos.
The first “navel” asks: Can we escape our colonial past?
In conversation with the first question is the second “navel” — “Neoliberal Urbanism.” Here, the idea of neoliberalization, or the process of favoring free-market capitalism, is highlighted. Under the neoliberal ideology, Philippine cities are placed in a hierarchy based on their capacity to compete for capital. In this “navel,” issues on mixed-use developments, the growing number of business process outsourcing offices, and informal settlements amid urban growth are at play. The second “navel” asks: Is neoliberalization a new form of colonialism?
Acting as a mediator between the two “navels” is a video installation that explores the intersection of the two. An immersive experience, the video installation also asks visitors to contemplate on their own and answer the questions of the two “navels.”
“You cannot stay neutral, that is why I am asking the questions [of] the people. Where do they want to position themselves? Are they somewhere [in] between?” exhibition curator Edson G. Cabalfin, an associate professor at the School of Architecture and Interior Design at the University of Cincinnati, told BusinessWorld.
“You — we — have to decided, because we cannot stay neutral. For me, [presented with] the question, ‘Can we escape colonialism?’ my answer is ‘no.’ The other question, ‘Is neoliberalism the new form of colonialism?’ I would say, ‘yes.’ If you ask me, I’d answer that,” said Mr. Cabalfin during the pavilion’s launch at the NCCA.
While he added that the “role of the curator is also never neutral,” the participation of the exhibitors has presented different points of view which the audience must answer on their own.
The Philippine pavilion is the work of a consortium of students and teachers from schools around the country, including De La Salle-College of St. Benilde; the University of San Carlos School of Architecture, Fine Arts, and Design; the University of the Philippines College of Architecture; the University of the Philippines Mindanao, Department of Architecture; along with artist and filmmaker Yason Banal, and TAO (Technical Assistance Organization) Pilipinas, Inc., which is a nonstock, nonprofit, nongovernmental organization.
The participants conducted research on Metro Manila, Metro Cebu, and Metro Davao and proposed their ideas for the presentation.
“You can see in the projects of the schools that they are presenting a range between sustainability. There is an argument that there is not an either/or, but there must be a negotiation between the two. I could have chosen other themes, but I chose how other voices respond to the questions,” said Mr. Cabalfin.
The country’s participation in the International Architecture Exhibition of the Venice Biennale is due to the efforts of the NCCA, the Department of Foreign Affairs, the office of Senator Loren Legarda, and is supported by the Department of Tourism.
“I see architecture as a crucial element of building equitable, sustainable, and inclusive societies. Through our participation this year, we relate our truths as we also learn from the realities of other nations. It serves as a reminder of how architecture is not only about building structures, but also about inspiring life, shaping society, and building a nation,” said Ms. Legarda in a statement.
The Philippine pavilion at the 16th International Architecture Exhibition of the Venice Biennale is at the Artiglierie, Arsenale until Nov. 25. — Nickky Faustine P. de Guzman