Martha Atienza's prize-winning 'Our Islands' comes home

Mookie Katigbak-Lacuesta, ANC-X

Posted at Feb 28 2018 08:18 PM

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MANILA -- Martha Atienza’s video installation, “Our Islands,” which won her the Baloise Prize at Art Basel in 2017, can now be viewed as a single channel HD video at the fountain area of Tower One and Exchange Plaza. 

It is part of the 10 Days of Art initiative, which aims to bring art to audiences larger than the usual Art Fair headcount. It’s a fringe show, which is fitting since Atienza works with people on the margins—seafarers, and fisherfolk.

For this particular installation, Atienza works with divers from Bantayan Island in Cebu, her father’s native shores. She splits her time between the Philippines and the Netherlands—her father is Filipino and her mother is Dutch (though wildly different, both influences show themselves equally in her work).

In “Our Islands,” Atienza recreates an Ati-Atihan procession with all its pomp and gilded hems, iconic Christs and Roman centurions. Along with traditional icons, she puts Manny Pacquiao, drug lords, and Yolanda survivors in the mix, creating an atmosphere that’s both timely and timeless, traditional and contemporary. 

Though this concept alone would have made for a charged and thrilling exhibit, Atienza pushes the envelope and recreates the scene underwater—the players march in an intriguing subaquatic procession, tied to the compressor diver’s basic accoutrements—hosepipes and courage. 

Compressor diving, as we know, is perhaps one of the most dangerous methods of fishing—divers scale the watery deeps with flimsy hosepipes for their livelihood. 

“We’re all Pinoy,” Atienza says, “but nobody knows what compressor divers do. They’re breathing out of hoses so it’s very dangerous.” 

It would be safe to say that for the artist, the installation is both art project and social commentary. “I feel like we’re in an emergency state,” she says. “It sounds extreme but people are becoming so desperate that they’re already becoming scavengers of the sea. They’re risking their lives for their livelihood already—and I think that other Filipinos should know what’s happening in their own country.”

Atienza adds: “I’ve been collaborating with this community for this project since 2010. They know the things I’m interested in. They know I’m interested in our future. The ocean is so damaged—there’s no livelihood, and our culture is disappearing. I really hope that people can use this video to have a dialogue, and I really hope that by sharing it, people can go home and have conversations about it.”

Her work is exactly this: a wish for awareness and dialogue in a nation of islands. Our worlds seldom collide, separated as we are by our own borders and dreams. “We need to be united because I feel that even in our own island, fisherfolk themselves are not united,” she says. 

Atienza also aims to give voice to the otherwise silenced—a responsibility that’s both burden and grace. “I share my own experience,” she says, “but I’m also representing other people who have been told that they’re nobody, and that they have no voice. And I think that I want that to change. I want them to know that they shouldn’t feel this way, and that they are empowered.” 

This is where her Dutch heritage comes into play. “I grew up with my mother who’s Dutch. Even though we lived on Bantayan island, when we came home, we talked about everything and we always questioned things. But we didn’t just question them. We were also trying to find solutions. If something’s broken, you fix it,” she says. This is a far cry from the traditional “bahala na” attitude so emblematic of our society.

That Atienza’s medium is video installation bodes well for her goals as an artist. The medium does not lend itself kindly to a collector’s walls—it’s not exactly a marketable commodity, but therein lies its charm and importance. In these hyper-visual times, there is no other medium more democratic or accessible. It’s a hybrid form that’s both photograph and movie, a still and a moving story.

The full title of the exhibit is “Our Islands 11º16’58.4 N 123º45’07.0.” These coordinates are plotted by fisherfolk whose livelihood depends on perfect timing—
the kindness of currents, and their very real effect on one’s livelihood prospects.

These could also be our coordinates as an island people, not just literally but figuratively as well. These are shifting times, to be sure, but these are also times to dive into kind waters and see what turns up. In Atienza’s case, it’s a dialogue between cosmopolitanism and a marginalized reality. 

The Philippines is a collection of islands, but it needn’t be an archipelago. Atienza makes the case that we are the real islands, and that the boundaries are only there if we say so.