PH excels in ‘Olympics of the art world’

/ 04:02 AM October 21, 2019

I joined a group of friends on a trip to Europe last week to see the Venice Art Biennale. Touted as the “Olympics of the art world,” it is held every two years and features the choicest art offerings of 90 participating countries, in addition to 80 specially featured artists.

This year, the Philippines selected artist Mark Justiniani to represent our country, and he didn’t disappoint. His art installation, “Arkipelago,” has been drawing rave reviews, consistently landing among the top 5 and top 10 lists of “must-see pavilions” in the biennale as published in numerous international newspapers and magazines.


Justiniani created three islands with the combined use of mirrors, lights, metal and objects. As guests walk over the islands, which have thick transparent glass tops, they are provided a highly sensorial experience, because the effect is as if they are walking on an invisible floor. Spectators feel like they are suspended and walking on air as they look down on the illusion of infinite or bottomless spaces underneath.

Artsy magazine’s lead editor, in an article titled “The Venice Biennale’s 10 Best Pavilions,” described Justiniani’s work thus: “Walk into the Philippine pavilion, remove your shoes, and climb onto the artworks — sleek islands filled with mirrors that create an infinity effect. Stare down, and you’ll find an endless abyss, punctuated by objects that are specific to the archipelago nation, ranging from plants and spices to a stack of documents. Artist Mark Justiniani reflects on the thousands of islands that make up the Philippines, contemplating the land masses as they relate to the nation’s colonial history, the environment and social issues. One of the islands, with a ladder leading to a perch on top, is meant to reference the formation of a typhoon or a cyclone. It’s also a nod to the fact that the first observatory in the Far East was established in the Philippines.”


The guest book is filled with pages full of praises. A French wrote: “We travel a lot. All over the world. But your ‘Planet’ is one of the strongest we(‘ve) ever seen.” A Spaniard wrote: “Really inspiring art piece. By far the best one in the entire Biennale.” A Japanese wrote: “It’s my best of all the Biennale. It was worth to come from far away to here! Love the Philippines’ history & thoughts. I’m looking forward to see your art soon!”

From a German visitor: “Definitely the art piece which impressed me most of the who(le) Biennale.” From an Israeli: “I felt that I climbed up and stared into the abyss and have survived to tell the tale. An amazing installation. My
favorite piece in the whole biennale.” And from a Filipino: “(Y)ou make us all very proud Pinoy!! You are the toast of the Biennale.”

Justiniani’s “islands” are elevated 29 inches from the ground, and there were a few reckless guests who reportedly figured in self-inflicted accidents when they irresponsibly jumped from the platforms onto the ground instead of using the stairs. As a result, guests have temporarily been limited to viewing the artwork from its boundaries, instead of being allowed to walk through it as was originally designed.

I have assisted Justiniani in appealing to Philippine government authorities to reinforce crowd management protocols, like increasing the number of guides and posting sufficient written instructions and warnings, so that the walk-through feature can be restored, allowing guests to interact with the artwork as intended. Justiniani has obtained the support of various private art institutions and art philanthropists willing to shoulder the cost of employing additional guides.

I personally felt that the outstanding artwork has been stripped of its soul and essence when I viewed it from its peripheries instead of being allowed to walk through it, which is the unique feature that’s generating superlative accolades.

With only a month to go before the biennale ends, the Philippine government should do everything it can to restore the capacity of this outstanding artistic creation to generate goodwill for the country.

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