Co-curator of Andi taku e sana, Amung taku di sana / All of us present, This is our gathering, featured exhibition of the Philippine Pavilion in the 59th International Art Exhibition of la Biennale di Venezia
Arvin has an MFA graduate degree from The School of the Arts, Columbia University, New York NY, and a BFA from the College of Creative Studies, University of California at Santa Barbara. He is also co- Director of Artery Art Space, an artist-run gallery in Manila since 2014. A practicing artist, he has done independent curatorial work, and writes as an extension of his creative and critical practice.
Can you tell us about how you got started working in art?
We can trace it back during childhood making playful scribbles and doodles or just plainly drawing, and basically studying fine art in college. I started as an artist and I never really thought about being anything else. I never even thought about writing or to be a curator or even having a gallery and such. It’s basically just studio work, but as you go along you experience that you can also control your production—but you have to be disciplined and that you have to articulate ideas surrounding your work; most importantly, in how to show it to the world. Once you bring it out to the world, you’re responsible for it. From the gallery side, you have to think about its context and what it would mean for other people. There is a level of interconnectedness in how to present a certain type of work. To have a space one can now dictate a type of conversation or dialogue about exhibitions. If you have a group of artists, what kind of meaning are they trying to project particularly in a contemporary sense? You are also thinking about the viewer because you cannot only think as an artist and just say something like “this is art for art’s sake.” So you really have to think about all these considerations. This is how I began to organize shows or to curate, which for me arrived by chance. However my true foundation is really as an artist.
You mentioned that as a curator, you have to put the ideas of different artists together and that there’s a process of creating meaning and cohesion. What’s that like?
That is really a chaotic moment, but it’s also exhilarating, crazy but beautiful. I think during the group interview [with co-curator Yael Buencamino Borromeo, artists Sammy N. Buhle, Felicidad A. Prudente and Gerry Tan] we are talking about this magical chaos or created chaos. I don’t recommend it because we are always frantic, and it can be stressful but out of that we’re able to create something new and something interesting. Like people say, when you look at a painting or when you start a painting, you have these pressures ahead of you. It’s the challenge of history basically, of the road paved by those before you. So you put yourself through a wringer, ask a lot of questions, put yourself in instances where you can contradict yourself. Perhaps even fail, but as they say that if you don’t you’re never even trying at all. In some way it becomes a conversation as well, not just by yourself but with other people, other artists—and you begin to look differently at other works. Sometimes, there are certain works you may really dislike in the beginning but then it grows on you afterwards—you begin to see new meanings out of it and in the end you create connections. So, in some ways, just to strictly answer your question—you start with something chaotic and then you will arrive at something. Well you will compromise, but you will also arrive with something beautiful along the way.
Are there any art pieces in particular that made a lasting impression on you? By which artist?
I would say Gerry Tan. Gerry impressed me as one of the artists who really approaches his work conceptually, particularly in the medium of painting and its notion of representation and process. So the first show I wrote about him was with Mag:Net Gallery a long time ago, where he was trying to picture dust, that is, time accumulated and by marking time through painting. He had all these interesting strategies on the accumulation of dust and reproducing its trace. You know like when you have dust on an object that accumulated in time, which would then prompt behavioral patterns around it like whether to dust it or not. So he has these questions on how to picture something that is seemingly invisible. Ever since his approach to art has always been on a conceptual level that has assumed many other forms.
You wear that hat of an artist, gallerist and curator. How do you strike a balance and what are the points of intersection among them?
It’s about compartmentalizing and managing your time. So you have time for your studio work and you have time for your life and spending time with your loved ones. Just in case, you know, one happens not to continue [in life] anymore, although I’m trying to avoid dramatizing here the idea of death. But if we all don’t live the following day, we won’t have regrets. It is like when doing art and you know you’ve given your best, same thing with other activities. It is fine as long as you gave it all but do not forget to simply live. Spend more time with those you love. Read a book. Create time for yourself because of what we have experienced recently. I guess this is answering more on a personal level. What I mean is that you have to allot time for your production time and quality time then things will just fall in place. So you really must have a life balance in general. Going back to your question, the number one rule in life is life preservation. You have to preserve your life and then everything good just happens.
With regard to the featured exhibition of the Philippine Pavilion in the 59th Venice Art Biennale, Andi taku e sana, Amung taku di sana / All of us present, This is our gathering, what concerns did the team encounter while preparing for it?
In terms of our Venice project, we were aware of this question: “How can you project something that is local, our culture, on a very grand global international stage? Will they understand it?” Because what we are talking about is not merely reproducing something that could have the semblance of an ethnographic project, which would belong to somewhere else and not in a contemporary art exhibition. Ours is an artistic project, although we don’t want to follow other artistic trends because we do have something that is essentially fascinating and we do have this opportunity now to show this to the whole world. This for me fits perfectly with regards to the project, which is all about translation, that is, you have something culturally authentic and then it transforms into something else so other people can have a fresh dialogue and interact with it. I mean, even here when people look at the textiles or in the musical notation, if you make direct comparisons then it wouldn’t be the same. It’s not traditionally the same but it is something diverse, something different that you can extract new meanings from it. Look at the original then look at the offspring, and then you would see connections within and from there you can create a new language. This is what we are trying to do in the Biennale.
In the exhibition, there are two works involved: Speaking in Tongue and Renderings. What is the interconnectivity between the two?
Well they are really two different projects. The main idea behind that is, one, language, and two, experience. Language can be about the body and experience can be also all about the body. But then this leads perhaps to a third point regarding the spirit. When Gerry was thinking about the layout for the Venice Biennale, he thought about a tunnel where viewers can come inside the tunnel to experience and watch Speaking in Tongue. Viewers will then emerge from the tunnel and they will see the main exhibition space where they can see all the hanging textiles. We had this conversation about wanting to present a kind of creative growth like coming out of the womb and then you experience something new, in that way it becomes a different experience – there is origin, growth, and evolution. We also have all these sounds and things in the main exhibition. This is like following the experience of Gerry and Fe in their fieldwork. He heard the sounds first, so it’s more sensory, but he couldn’t see them, and he was curious about where the sounds were coming from. Gerry wanted to recreate this kind of experience and so he applied it in the concept of the tunnel. So you go inside the tunnel where you really do not know what’s going on, and then you come out of it experiencing everything like a revelation, an amazing immersive experience. This installation, Speaking in Tongue, actually originates from the chant. The chant was transcribed by Fe and then Gerry painted the notations that were transmuted into a different type of experience. Following the translation of sound to transcriptions and design, the process went a different direction further to become textile. So when Gerry heard the sound of the looms he thought that they could create artistic designs from the musical notation to be translated as textile pattern. I think they were so inspired by it that they pushed the idea forward and asked Sammy for his input into the project. In fact there’s another iteration with this collaborative project: there is one cluster, we called it “Rendering 12” where there are musicians looking at the Metro Manila textile and they were playing in front of it. Thus it became another layer of interpretation, like a feedback loop with all the interpretations and mutations, which creates a different type of language. For me it’s more of like the experience and development of language and hopefully this will communicate to other people as well.
In the exhibition, there are elements of “traditional” Philippine art but presented in “contemporary” form. How do you think this exhibition will impact the public’s understanding of the traditional and contemporary?
The thing is, when you present something existing it becomes ethnographic or static it will have this museum-look that you want to avoid. This is a contemporary art exhibition there is an engagement involve, it is not a museum, so that is one of the models that were thinking about before. We want the exhibition to be dynamic rather than static. One of the curatorial things we pondered is “should we hang on the Arsenale wall?” which is of course forbidden because it is an old structure. We decided to have it hanging from the raft so people can just go about it. Even Gerry was saying that the textile should be on the floor because in some ways it is an institutional critique that is why we do not put any platforms on it also because, first, it links to the experience of like when you are in the Philippine streets and you see a street vendor and they have “latag” and things laying on the floor then people can just go around it becomes this interactive thing. You have textiles displayed with traditional techniques but looks different because it’s on the floor it kind of creates creative confusion like a cathartic experience where people will ask “shouldn’t be like that, shouldn’t be hung on the wall.” It creates all these questions and we wanted that kind of effect on the people. Same thing with videos, we were thinking about the screens- should it be standing, large or small screens, also for monitors and type of editing. Should it look like a documentary editing with all the running and footages? It will look like work of Andy Warhol which Gerry really loves and we were saying there is a syncopated rhythm with the waving and we wanted to that breathing in the video. It has to be transformed—all the traditional techniques into something that we can experience like breathing into the exhibit. These are all the conditions we are thinking about and which we hope that would people see in the presentation.
The first iteration of the exhibition was Visualizing Sounds in the Vargas Museum. How did it evolve into its current form, Andi taku e sana, Amung taku di sana / All of us present, This is our gathering?
During the whole process – during the proposal and the mockups, we had so many strategies in presenting the textiles and the videos. The final layout that we arrived at was not easy actually. It might look straightforward because this will remind the viewers with the one from the Vargas Museum. There are two different things that stand out because of the space. First in terms of space, the exhibit at the Vargas Museum was more intimate whereas the Arsenale is expansive naturally. Since it was more spacious we had to think of how to activate the space. At Vargas, for example, the sound was coming from the monitors compared to the ones that are in the Biennale which were now coming from everywhere. It is now a more directional and quite an immersive experience. The sound is entangled with the space to give a certain shower of sound and produce an aura for the viewers. Another one would be when we were doing the layout, where there was always a dialogue on the weft and the warp and we were thinking about the longitudinal and lateral orientation of the weaving process itself. We wanted to project all of that and wanted to just get away from the usual vertical textile presentation so that they will not appear akin to a flag ceremony. We wanted the viewers to go around the installation to really maximize the space. So these are some of the curatorial concerns that we considered thoroughly. Moreover, we also wanted to present a lot of the process involved, including certain materials like Fe’s notations or drawings by Gerry during their experiments with translation, that were to be presented in a dynamic way and not fixed nor static.
It is interesting to show the notations of Fe and Gerry’s sketches because not all artists show the behind-the-scenes of their work. Why did you decide to do this?
It is like showing the guts of the work. But not arranged in a neat way – we wanted it to be messy. So, in the vitrine they are arranged as if they were tossed around, like ideas shared, but controlled in some way like results within an experiment. We wanted the viewers to see the whole process without force feeding it to them. It is like going to the studio and the studio becomes this laboratory of ideas filled with contradictions and negotiations. So when you catch a glimpse of the drawings and looking at the textiles afterwards, one would see that it is not a clear cut translation, and not simply matching apples to apples. In this instance, one would see all the creative leaps made from one artwork to another. Especially in the case of the textiles, for example, you will see that Fe’s notation only looks like a simple spiral on paper, but Sammy would extrapolate from that and would generate different techniques to weave a spiral. So in some way their creative relay turns into an experimental lab.
How is your relationship with the artists – Sammy, Fe, and Gerry? How involved were they on how the exhibition was put altogether?
They were definitely involved. Well, more of Gerry and Fe because they were both here in Manila. With Sammy, it was difficult because of the lockdowns. It was very difficult for us to come to him and go as we wanted. He was able to come down during the mock-up in Intramuros so we were fortunate to have him. Then a week after the mock-up, everything closed again. In terms of having this collaborative relationship with them, it has been quite involved ever since. They [Gerry and Fe] particularly, as you have mentioned before during the exhibit at Vargas Museum, so they had an a priori working relationship. Then Yael and I came a little bit after in the project articulating certain parts of the collaboration. Like in terms of developing the exhibition layout and having all these discussions and alterations regarding the permutations of sound, image, and materials around, even changing the layout at the final instance, improving it, then arriving at a certain look and design. Things like that. It was really give and take.
The exhibition title is Andi taku e sana, Amung taku di sana translated as All of us present, This is our gathering. Is it about coming together, investing your time, energy, resources—being present for a community, for a group of people, maybe for the Filipino nation or even the world to come together and try to address certain things, there is climate change, the pandemic. Then now there is upcoming elections in the country, there is a war in Europe. Is this correct? Is this is what we are trying to pin down?
Yes I would agree with your assessment. When we first came out with the title it was indeed during the pandemic. We imagined that in the event we could participate in the Venice Biennale that would mean so many things. So in a way it is like announcing our presence to the world: that this is our gathering as we celebrate to be alive during these times, to be present, and to represent our country to the whole world. We are culturally thriving and that we are presenting our culture above the world’s stage. We wanted to address all that and it’s the underlying theme of the exhibit, which is communication. In some cases, there are some things that we do not understand sometimes not agreeable to all, but we do need to communicate because it is only through communication that we can continue surviving. In addition, the title comes from a sogna, it is a chant that announces a gathering. So it’s also means calling to other people to hear us, to join us, and have a conversation with us. Then maybe something beautiful comes out of this afterwards.
Being an artist, gallerists, and curator, you have all these hats. You are very immersed in the Philippine contemporary art. What is the trajectory in the next decade and what we are looking forward to?
We have to watch out for contemporary Filipino art. Manuel Ocampo would always say that we are the “Berlin of Asia,” since we are edgy and progressive while being the best-kept secret in Asia. And yet there is this running issue with Filipino art upon encounter, when viewers would tend to ask “where is the Filipino in this art?” or “what is its identity?” There is truth in this because we still do have identity issues even up to this day. At the same time, the art that we do is quite postmodern. We create a hodgepodge of ideas, mixing different identities, and influences. We are malleable and flexible to different things and different types of art. So if you look over the landscape of contemporary art locally, you will recognize that there are a lot of paintings around, which present many different styles that are all quite interesting. All tend to be contradictory too, but that’s also what makes the work quite engaging. We do have conceptual works as well as digital media, which include sound works and interactive installations. Our art is so young and it is still growing. The beauty of all this means we can create works that are apparently contradictory, but essentially compelling and challenging, ultimately opening so many possibilities. And so the international art audience would see contemporary Filipino art as something undefinable even indeterminate, constantly reinventing itself, always in flux. Hence, you cannot just put Filipino art under one category, because once you do that then it becomes something else. So that’s a good indication that we are developing and thinking critically. We are not derivative as some may claim. We are developing something unique and engaging. In that sense, it follows the same vein as our project for the Venice Biennale, as we wanted to produce something that looks familiar yet strangely new.