Considering this critique, Patrick Flores, a Filipino curator who is this year’s Singapore Biennale artistic director, ensures that he is bringing the biennale to a larger public sphere. “We're working with a theater group, a cinematheque, and a tour agency so that's one way to expand the publicness of the biennale,” he says. “[This is to] actually honor what people have been doing independent of the biennale. They came before us and they will stay when we leave.”
Since the first biennale in 1895 in Venice, biennales have remained to be a crucial component of the global art scene as it enables to shift the audience’s attention to underrepresented regions, emerging artists, and other types of art practice. The Singapore Biennale, in particular, has been the pre-eminent festival that showcases Southeast Asian work to a massive audience.
To have a Filipino at the helm of a large-scale exhibition in Singapore that could shape and mold what the world perceives as Southeast Asian art is a position that shouldn’t be taken lightly. To also have Filipino artists in a space that could highlight not just their work but also the contexts they operate in is a feat that should be acknowledged.
“There are so many artists in the Philippines who deserve a space in the Singapore Biennale,” says Flores. “But I chose the artists who spoke most sharply to the concept.” The 2019 Singapore Biennale poses the proposition: “Every Step in the Right Direction” — a reaction to a current climate where morality has become flexible (as in killings deemed necessary to quell the 'drug epidemic,' for example).
But, to be right is often contentious. To discern what is right from wrong is to also contemplate on moral obligation. What does being ‘right’ even mean? Does anyone have the monopoly for being ‘right’? “It's more like an ethical concept,” explains Flores. “The world is in trouble and art is an opportunity to deal with it in a particular way. [We looked for] art that is conscious of its ethical obligation in society.”
One of these works is Filipino artist Gary-Ross Pastrana’s “Properties,” where he will explore the performative experience of artmaking. Pastrana, known for his conceptual works that won him the 2006 CCP Thirteen Artists Award, collaborated with the Langgam Performance Troupe, a small performance company based in Taguig. He became the stage designer for the production “Cleansed” by Sarah Klane and he then chose objects (make-up, grocery items, and Internet images, among others) from the production that he will display at the Biennale.
He says he was curious to see how these objects translate to other visitors when perceived in a gallery setting as art objects rather than as props for theater. “Those who seek to look deeper can make connections between things, recognize the interplay of materials and possibly deduce a larger theme,” he explains. “There’s also a chance for some to witness performers interacting with the objects in the space, momentarily activating the props before returning them again on their plinths.”
In terms of how he interpreted this year’s concept, Pastrana takes a more individualistic response. “In my art-making, I try to go by this approach: make the first mistake, early, quickly,” he says. “Perhaps I relate to [the theme] in a different sense, not always needing to be right all the way through, but in having the awareness to course correct and seeing mistakes as necessary steps and part of the process.”
Meanwhile, Miljohn Ruperto approached the concept in terms of one’s place in its surroundings through his exhibition called “Geomancies.” “Geomancy is basically superstitious architecture where knowledge of spatiality and directionality are key in configuring your environment to maximize good fortune or avoid bad luck,” he explains. “Before knowing the ‘right’ direction, it helps to be aware of what the directions are and what they mean.”
Ruperto is based in Los Angeles and his works have been featured in the Whitney Museum of American Art and Hammer Museum, to name a few. For the Biennale, “Geomancies” will center around an experimental documentary, called “Ordinal (SW/NE),” that he created with filmmaker Rini Yun Keagy. “[The film] revolves around a Filipina body that never appears. One character ‘X,’ who reads in the video as Filipina, never appears except through voice over. She eventually gets sick with Valley Fever, a fungal infection endemic to California’s Central Valley,” he explains. “The video’s conceptual architecture is built upon this hole of a Filipina body.”
While Ruperto realizes that the Biennale’s statement has a political underpinning, he explains that abstraction can still contribute to this proposition. “In abstracting the statement, it can coincide with the ground for ‘Geomancies,’ and I think this abstraction is helpful in adding other dimensions and ultimately new possibilities to the statement.”
Another Filipino artist taking part in the festival is Lani Maestro, who was one of the two representatives of the Philippines during the 2017 Venice Biennale. She will be presenting a conceptual sound installation, “sitsit sa kuliglig (whatever circles from the center),” that will mainly consist of capiz shells. “I was attracted to the quality of this material, particularly its capacity to make sound; in its interaction with other things in nature, wind, light, sun and rain,” she explains. “There is a kind of poetry in this ensemble as it makes a variation of musicality that retrieves sensuality in the landscape of everyday life.”
When asked how her installation fits into this year’s theme, she says: “For the simple reason that it can be anything you want, if you desire it so. And when this happens, another question ensues, ‘We who are free, are we free? Perhaps, the message or phrase could easily be misconstrued as ‘anything goes’ but every step is only right if there is a certain kind of consciousness to its action.”
With Flores at the helm of the 2019 Singapore Biennale, it may be easy to assume that by virtue of being Filipino, there will be unconscious biases as to how Filipino works will be shown, especially on a platform that includes 77 artists from across seas and borders. But Flores says the criterion had more to do with how artists respond to the concept as well as how these artists express their messages. “We were on the lookout for those who haven't really circulated but have something to say. Or even artists who are widely circulated but have new things to say,” he explains.
Maestro, Ruperto, and Pastrana themselves are also not too concerned about producing work in order to define or make complete any notions of Filipino identity. “I almost always advocate against doing this, especially in an overt kind of way,” says Pastrana. “I have colleagues who are good at this and I appreciate their work. But for me to do this successfully, it has to happen organically, almost subconsciously.”
Ruperto sees it similarly. “I’m sure there is a ‘Filipinoness’ that is intrinsic to my work. I have a Filipino body and a specific Filipino cultural trajectory. However, I’m not interested in defining ‘Filipinoness’ on a ‘universal’ platform. I’m more interested, politically, in expanding the possible expressions and permutations of it.”
Pastrana adds: “If you look closer, [the ‘Filipino-ness’] should be there; in the materials that I use, the people I work with, the processes that I employ. It may not be the main thrust of my practice but somehow it is inescapable.”
For more information, visit the Singapore Biennale website.