By Dom Galeon
At the upcoming 16th International Architecture Exhibition of La Biennale di Venezia, the Philippine Pavilion will tackle a socio-political and cultural conundrum with a literary inspiration. Dubbed as “The City Who Had Two Navels,” the exhibit will feature an exposition of free space at the Artiglierie, Arsenale in Venice, showcasing the country’s colorfully complex colonial past and the equally complicated task of building its modern, contemporary sense of identity.
Inspired by Nick Joaquin’s 1961 novel The Woman Who Had Two Navels, and designed to be a critical response to it, the Philippine Pavilion will highlight two navels to represent two aspects of Philippine architectural history, according to this year’s curator Edson Cabalfin, with the first navel entitled “(Post)Colonial Imaginations” and the second called “Neoliberal Urbanism.”
“I looked at the various ways by which the Philippines had been represented international expositions,” Cabalfin said, describing the first navel of the exhibit. It includes previous expos and world’s fairs where the Philippines had been showcased, including the Expocision General de las Islas Filipinas in Madrid back in 1887, to the more modern St. Louis Fair in 1904. “The way the Philippines is now participating in the Venice Architecture Biennale is not new. It’s not a new phenomenon, because we’ve had different variations and representations in different expositions and international events for more than a hundred years,” added Cabalfin, who is an associate professor at the University of Cincinnati School of Architecture and Interior Design.
The second navel explores the development of the country’s modern cities as a byproduct of neoliberalism, or “the economic and political policies that emerged in the late 1970s and the ’80s,” said Cabalfin, as exemplified by the Thatcher and Reagan eras in the UK and the US, respectively. It looks at the process by which mix-used developments and BPO office buildings, residential subdivisions, and informal settlements have all been built as part of hierarchy based on the principles of privatization, the free market, and the city’s ability to compete.
As a third navel of sorts, the centerpiece of the Philippine Pavilion will be a video installation, which serves as an intersection of the two navels. Indeed, the exhibit will not provide an answer per se to the question of modern identity set by the country’s colonial past and neoliberal present. It would, rather, try to engage its audience into a conversation about the kind of future these two navels lead two.
To realize this vision of what the Philippine Pavilion would be, Cabalfin put together a consortium of various schools of architecture and design and planning programs in the country. This includes TAO (Technical Assistance Organization) Pilipinas, Inc., a women-led, not-for-profit NGO that assists urban and rural poor communities; the De La Salle-College of Saint Benilde; the University of San Carlos School of Architecture, Fine Arts and Design; the University of the Philippines Diliman, College of Architecture; the University of the Philippines Mindanao, Department of Architecture; and contemporary artist and filmmaker Yason Banal.
“We started from a 51-year absence at the Venice Biennale, and now we have continuous presence in global contemporary art since our re-entry in 2015,” said Virgilo Almario, national artist and chairman of the National Commission for Culture and the Arts (NCCA), which has been collaborating with the Department of Foreign Affairs (DFA), and the Office of Senator Loren Legarda on the Philippine Pavilion at the Biennale.
“You can never subsume the arts in nation building or in economic development. It’s always part of the soul of a nation,” Sen. Legarda said in an exclusive interview. “It’s something that should not be in the back-burner. It’s a centerpiece of how we are as a people. It contributes to finding ourselves and even to livelihood.”