Tensions and Intersections: The Philippine pavilion at the Venice Biennale 2018

Fresh from the vernissage: BluPrint's first look at “The City Who Had Two Navels”

  • May 28, 2018

  • Written by Angel Yulo

  • Photographed by Lawrence Carlos

In the months leading to this day, you have seen snippets of the Philippine pavilion for the Venice Architecture Biennale 2018 being put together. What began as an open call for proposals in June 2017 is now on view at the world’s foremost stage for architecture.

The Philippine Pavilion is in the first chamber in the Arsenale dedicated to national pavilions after the main ‘Freespace’ exhibition.

Twelve curatorial proposals were deliberated by a jury composed of NCCA Chairman Virgilio S. Almario, Leandro Y. Locsin, Jr., Fernando Zobel de Ayala, Carol Yinghua Lu, Lani Maestro, and Senator Loren Legarda. And in September 2017, the Philippine Arts at Venice Biennale (PAVB) announced the selection of “The City Who Had Two Navels” by Edson Cabalfin as the country’s representative to the 16th International Architecture Exhibition of La Biennale di Venezia.

We enter the arched doorway of the Arsenale and see a concept we heard of months ago materialized. It is surreal, like walking through a city you’ve only encountered through descriptions. In this city, there are no pearly gates or gold walls. Instead, drenched in indigo light, there is a tension of human life thriving on streets wide and narrow, in commercial establishments packaged as the “greater good,” and in the shadows of intermittent spaces.

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The first ‘navel’, titled ‘(Post)Colonial Imaginations, asks the question: Can we truly escape the colonial? This side of the pavilion features works from (left to right) De La Salle – College of Saint Benilde, School of Design and Arts; TAO-Pilipinas, Inc.; Dr. Cabalfin’s investigation into the representation of the Philippines in international expositions from 1887 to 1998; and University of the Philippines – Mindanao, Department of Architecture.
De La Salle-College of Saint Benilde ask and propose what Manila would have looked like in 2050, if the Philippines had firstly, never been colonized (Lungsod 2050), and then, if each of the Philippines’s colonizers, Spain and Japan, had won the Spanish-American War and World War II respectively, and had been in power until today. The last proposal imagines a neoliberal, functionalist future, in which augmented reality (AR) and artificial intelligence (AI) have pervaded the Philippine built environment.
TAO-Pilipinas, the women-led, non-profit NGO, communicate their bottom-up, participatory advocacies by including interventions addressing security of tenure issues in Metro Manila and a post-disaster response in Guiuan, Eastern Samar. Both proposals were used to as tools for negotiating with LGUs and the national government for communities under threat of demolition in Metro Manila, and finalizing solutions for shelter and evacuation centers as part of the Post-Haiyan Reconstruction project respectively.

There is also history, which I feel is more of a web we have spun (and continue to spin) rather than a weight that reins us. However, we have made it an anchor and, in effect, most feel like “true Filipino architecture” is at the docks of our vernacular prototypes; the exhibit questions that. And in a chamber of the Arsenale, Venice’s former shipyard, Philippine architecture becomes unmoored bit by bit.

The Pavilion’s main feature is the impressive 14-meter-long wedge screen that slithers its way and cuts across the vast space, with its highest point at 4 meters tapering down to 1.8 meters.

Output from the different collaborators are displayed on the outside walls of the screen. One side entitled (Post)Colonial Imaginations contains the projects of De la Salle – College of Saint Benilde;  TAO-Pilipinas; and University of the Philippines – Mindanao. The other side called Neoliberal Urbanism showcases the works of University of San Carlos; University of the Philippines – Diliman; and photographers Marvin Maning and Jinggo Montenejo.

Fresh from the opening: Philippine pavilion at Venice Biennale 2018
The title of the second ‘navel’ is ‘Neoliberal Urbanism’, which asks: Is neoliberalism a new form of colonialism? It features proposals from University of San Carlos – School of Architecture, Fine Arts and Design; University of the Philippines – Diliman, College of Architecture; and two independent photographers, Marvin Maning and Jinggo Montenejo.
‘Sulog: Currents of Unity’ by University of San Carlos-School of Architecture, Fine Arts and Design, focuses on Colon Street, Cebu, the oldest street in the Philippines, and uses it as a model for future development while also preserving its history with utmost sensitivity.
Entitled ‘HyGrids’ (a portmaneau of ‘hyperrealist projections and ‘conceptual grids’), UP Diliman-College of Architecture proposes a case study in which the historic UP buildings are combined with green areas to create a city campus through optimized context-driven design.
Commuter bus and jeepney destination signage is displayed to convey the importance of historic place names and names arising as a result of neoliberal practice to the everyday citizen.

If seen from above, the screens form the perimeter of a Venn diagram intersection with one circle representing each key idea of the exhibit. The structure is meant to symbolize the navel, which is a significant symbol and concept in architecture.

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In his treatises, Vitruvius, the Roman architect from the First Century BCE, specifically attributed the centrality of the navel in the human body and its subsequent manifestation of divine perfection. For the Tausug of Sulu in Mindanao, their stilt-raised house bay sinug (literally meaning “house of the sea”) is composed of nine posts, each corresponding to various parts of the human body. The center post is considered the navel of the house.

The central section, inside these two walls, features Philippine contemporary artist Yason Banal’s multi-channel video installation Untitled Formation, Concrete Supernatural, Pixel Unbound. The work investigates the tenuous overlap between colonialism and neoliberalism, particularly through their contemporary links and manifestations. With the installation placed in the middle, acting as the intersection of the two “navels”, Banal reads architecture not only as a built and visual environment but also as a conceptual design and coded translation of power, identity, market and affect.

The central immersive video installation, by filmmaker Yason Banal, is titled ‘Untitled Formation, Concrete Supernatural, Pixel Unbound’. It addresses the all-encompassing overlap between the issues explored in the two navels with a comprehensive montage of postcolonial and neoliberal experiences of the Philippine built environment.
The video installation encourages bodily movement to create an active participation within the dizzying juxtaposition of imagery, which is overlaid onto individual stories of urban living in the Philippines.

Shot using 4K, Full HD and drones, low-resolution through 360-degree, CCTV and phone cameras, as well as phantom docu-fictions, a cyborg-like voiceover and a dreamy soundtrack, the video installation explores power structures and subjectivities in critical and poetic ways, evoking history and transformative potentials of the social as architecture.

The May 24th vernissage opened with a tour of the Philippine pavilion led by curator Edson Cabalfin, which was succeeded with a Q&A with the curator and collaborators. Welcoming speeches were given by NCCA Chairman Almario, Philippine ambassador to Italy Domingo Nolasco, and Senator Loren Legarda, after which the pavilion was declared officially open.

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Edson Cabalfin leads an in-depth guided tour of the two navels to invited guests (including NCCA Chairman Virgilio S. Almario), members of the Philippine architectural and creative community, international Venice Biennale visitors, and members of local and international press.
Left to right: Fernando Zobel de Ayala, Philippine Pavilion juror; NCCA Chairman Virgilio S. Almario; Senator Loren Legarda; Philippine Pavilion curator, Edson Cabalfin; Philippine Ambassador to the Italy, Domingo Nolasco.
Collaborators this year (left to right): TAO-Pilipinas; University of the Philipines – Mindanao, Department of Architecture; photographer Jinggo Montenejo; University of San Carlos – School of Architecture, Fine Arts and Design; Senator Loren Legarda; educators and students from the University of the Philippines – Diliman, College of Architecture; and curator Edson Cabalfin.

This is the fourth consecutive participation of the country in the important contemporary art exposition beginning in 2015. The Philippine Pavilion at the Venice Biennale is under the auspices of the National Commission for Culture and the Arts, the Department of Foreign Affairs and the Office of Senator Loren Legarda, with the support of the Department of Tourism.