MANILA -- A veteran art writer once said the whole Intramuros is a big installation art, conceptualized by history and progress. No one believed him because history and progress—in Manila at least—are like siblings with a love-hate relationship. You simply can’t tear down an old, decrepit building and transform it into a high-rise if it has “art deco” or “neo classical” written all over its walls.
With the ongoing Manila Biennale: Open City, that wise man must be laughing his head off nowadays.
Because for the past four-and-a-half weeks, from February 2 until Monday, March 5, Manila's Walled City has been transformed into a major destination to appreciate works not only in installation but performance, music and films of major artists from here and abroad.
Leading the pack is the father of Philippine conceptual art, Roberto Chabet, whose 2011 work titled “Onethingafteranother” has been “re-installed” at the lobby of San Ignacio building or the newly constructed Mission House. It is an assemblage of G.I. sheets spread on the floor with eight halogen lights on both sides trained on them.
A few hundred meters at Plaza Armas in Fort Santiago, there’s Boni Juan’s “Kaming Mga Busabos: Ang Kundiman ni Mariano Dimalanta”. Juan is a long-time member of the 50-year-old Philippine Educational Theater Association, whose original home is the now-bare space Rajah Sulayman Theater.
Juan knows Fort Santiago like he knows his body so he chose the cage-like entrance leading to the dungeons at Plaza Armas, which is just a few steps from the open-air theater. Here, he has bottles filled with water spread on the stairs leading to the dungeons. Each water-filled bottle has a printed image of someone’s face, perhaps war veterans or random faces of strangers. It is easy to get the idea of drowning people.
Juan pays tribute to his grandfather, sarswelista Mariano Dimalanta, who was imprisoned in the dungeons of Fort Santiago during World War II. As history would tell us, the massacre of thousands of Filipinos and Americans happened in Manila in February 1945, the same month when Manila was liberated from the Japanese forces and declared an open city.
"Dimalanta recounts the dungeons being submerged in water when it rained hard. The faces are representations of the countless lives lost as effect of wars and how fleeting history has become, subjecting it to neglect and revisionism," said the accompanying information on the installation.
The night I was there, I recorded the moment with my smartphone while Samuel Barber's "Adagio for Strings" was playing as background music, the same piece used for war movies like in the final minutes in Oliver Stone's "Platoon."
Experiencing this installation art at night is both haunting and liberating, as it captures the historical significance of the place and what it has become for the present generation, a favorite weekend "pasyalan" with a very affordable P75 entrance fee for a day, whole year round.
The thrill in the Biennale is finding these pieces like in a treasure or Easter egg hunt. It’s good cardio exercise too.
Unless there have been changes made in the past weeks, the Mission House has 20, the Fort Santiago has another 20 and Baluarte San Diego has three installation art pieces.
There's still one day left to find and meditate on the the works of Agnes Arellano, Felix Bacolor, Vic Balanon, Renz Baluyot, Zeus Bascon, Latvian artist Aigars Bikse, Lena Cobangbang, Maria Cruz, Mideo Cruz, Patrick Cruz, Kiri Dalena, Kawayan De Guia, Jason Dy SJ, Elnora Ebillo, Tad Ermitano, Carina Evangelista, Hikaru Fuji, Pete Jimenez, Kitty Kaburo, Kolown, Jet Melencio, Arvin Nogueras, Gary Ross Pastrana, Teodulo Protomartir, Alvin Reamillo, Rick Rocamora, Mark Salvatus, Angel Velsaco Shaw, Luigi Singson, Henri Van Noordenburg from Netherlands, Gail Vicente, Marija Vicente, Tanya Villanueva, Oca Villamiel, Wawi Navarroza, Nicolas Combarro, Catherine Sarah Young and MM Yu.
The people behind the open city exhibition is chief curator Ringo Bunoan, co-curators Alice Sarmiento, Con Cabrera and Cocoy Lumbao.
The main man of the Biennale, Carlos Celdran, relayed to ABS-CBN News there are about 200 tourists on a regular week day who availed of the walking tour to see the 40-plus installation art pieces. The number is doubled on weekends.
As the name implies, the next Biennale happens in 2020.