By AA Patawaran
Mark Justiniani’s “Arkipelago,” a three-island installation of steel, glass, wood, concrete, and objects, at the Philippine Pavilion at the Venice Art Biennale, ‘the world’s art Olympics’ ongoing until Nov. 24, isn’t anything like a typical show.
While most art shows would invite you to look around or up, his is an invitation to look down. No, don’t just cast your eyes down, you ought to look deep, under your feet, beneath the surface. That’s where the (he)art is.
But first you have to climb onto each of the three island-like modules of his massive installation, a bit representational of our three main islands Luzon, Visayas, and Mindanao, but not really. It takes a little effort to experience Justiniani’s art. You have to remove your shoes, for instance, and delicately, if fearfully, you literally have to walk on glass. The glass surface on each island is thick enough to hold more than eight people at a time, but it reveals a depth—all an optical illusion, a mirror trick—that most people find disconcerting, disorienting, unsettling, or downright scary. Acrophobes, keep out, but it is from this height and in these depths that the statement unfolds.
Still, in Justiniani’s work, you have the option to stay in the shallows, an option some of the children, including a bemused Russian toddler, enjoyed immensely on opening day of our pavilion in early May, whose experience of it, I would imagine, was akin to walking on iced water, beneath which they would be wowed not only by the illusionary drop, but also by the many objects in it, some strange, mostly familiar, that appeared as if they were floating in liquid light.
Justiniani’s “Arkipelago,” the boldest yet of his acclaimed “Infinity” series, is his interpretation of Tessa Maria Guazon’s curatorial proposition Island Weather for the fifth participation of the Philippines (art and architecture included) since its historic return in 2015 to the biennale after a 51-year hiatus.
Under the overall theme of this year’s art biennale, “May You Live in Interesting Times,” as propositioned by 2019 Venice Biennale curator and American director of the London Hayward Gallery Ralph Rugoff, the Philippine Pavilion does spice up our reflections of our time by digging up buried memories, excavating layers upon layers of a history long taken for granted, if not ignored, denied, defied, or rewritten.
Each island installation represents one thing or many things, depending on the curiosity of the viewer.
One island, for instance, in which what appears to be an observatory juts out of the center of the glass, there is a depth of insights into the earth below our archipelagic lands, say, a wealth of minerals or some meteorological instrument reminiscent of the times the Manila Observatory, thanks to its unique position in the midst of the China Sea and the Pacific Ocean, was in every sense of the word the watchtower for typhoons from the Western Pacific.
The other island does represent the Visayas, but Siquijor in particular, with its display of witching hour rituals or implements involving the harvest of sugar or the cracked earth that would conjure up the terrors of a drought.
Island Weather is an exploration of our identity shaped by our islands and their vernacular cultures. Each viewer will look at the depths of (Justiniani’s) magical installations and will have different interpretations and varied experiences of them. —Virgilio S. Almario
Still another island, my favorite, is just everyday banalities to which all of us Filipinos can relate, a pile of paper listing payables, a plastic tablecloth in prints that hark back to the carinderia, a table set in the tradition of upperclass families with hispanic ties or aspirations, or a collection of gradeschool medals alternating with an arsenal of hand guns as a metaphor for a promising past that would sadly lead to a violent future.
At the conference prior to the opening cocktails at the 320-square-meter Philippine Pavilion at the Artiglierie, one of the main exhibition halls in the Arsenale, I asked both the curator and the participating artist which of our buried memories they each personally thought needed to be addressed most urgently at present.
“For me, it’s how we tend to repeat the mistakes of our past, our revised history, and how we make lies of the truths,” said Guazon. “It’s how dictatorships are glorified, that is a big concern. It’s not an isolated circumstance. It’s happening all over the world. The question for me is what is the role of art in making sense of the past so that the past can work for us to properly imagine the future.”
Justiniani hesitated a bit and then proceeded to say, “If you ask me what our biggest problem is as Filipinos, I think it is our inherited idea of what God is… our source, not just physically, but also spiritually.”
The future is afoot, indeed, and in that moment I walked on Justiniani’s glass surfaces, clambering up the observatory-like metal structure in the middle of one of the three island modules to see more clearly, I saw not only traces of my distant and immediate past, but also the clear and present danger of a directly confronting history.
Worried that I might fall, that the glass beneath my bare feet would crack, dizzy from my imagined height, and drowning in the shadowy depths, I had a sense that, after all, the past could be a ghost from which we could flee to the future, only to realize that the past and the future were the same nightmare, from which we never woke.
Island Weather, featuring “Arkipelago,” is a collaborative undertaking of the National Commission on Culture and the Arts in partnership with the Department of Foreign Affairs and the Office of Senator Loren Legarda.
The Venice Biennale is open until Nov. 24.