The London Biennale Manila Pollination: The Revolution Loses Steam

by Katrina Stuart Santiago

▶︎ The London Biennale as concept is premised on the spirit of intervention: the task of giving “marginal artists” a platform for their art, in an anti-biennale art biennale. That is, one would like to expect, without the hierarchy of artistry and artmaking, beyond the high and low art dichotomy, engaged in discussions instead of pomp and pageantry, battling with instead of conceding to the forces that dictate upon art and creativity – really, a revolution unto itself.

David Medalla, rebel and artist, has said that this project is about “challenging and transforming the notion of the art world ‘biennale’ as a large state or corporate-sponsored event … by throwing open borders and encouraging a more intimate and community-based dialogue between the artists and audiences” (Curatorial Note, Manila Metropolitan Theater).

The London Biennale in Manila would’ve been a great opportunity to discuss the market and cultural hierarchies as indicators of art in this country, and how the fringe and independent must be appropriated in order to become self-sustaining practices at all. Happening on the scale of *a* biennale, this would’ve been an opportunity to show how an exhibition so imbued with notions of marginalization and the dissolution of borders, could intervene in – and rebel against – this state of affairs.

But where the London Biennale seemed to envision a particularly rebellious, specifically conceptualized, distinctly imagined kind of art exhibition that is fueled by the possibility of revolt, Manila Pollination was nothing more than a repetition of existing local art practices, ones thoughtlessly done, unapologetically cliquish, undoubtedly self-serving.

The two central events were in Manila, at the First United Building (built 1928 by Andres Luna de San Pedro and Juan F. Nakpil) in Escolta and the Manila Metropolitan Theater (built 1931 by Juan Arellano). Both art deco structures, the aspect of heritage was critical to this Manila project, as it sought to “explore built, temporary, and imagined architecture for understanding shared histories, culture, and interconnectedness” (Curatorial Note, MMT).

Yet these two exhibits, which ran for all of two days, seemed to have been oblivious to its own premises. At Escolta (curated by the 98B Collaboratory), what overtook any discussion of art was the highly-commercialized space of a “hub” of creativity, now nothing more but a profit-oriented enterprise, catering to hipsters and millennials, using “the alternative” as mere marketing strategy. To some extent, the art that was there (installations, videos, building projections) seemed nothing but coincidental – if not a poor excuse to be in the London Biennale. Little effort was made towards documentation, even less towards creating an inclusive critical space for discourse.

The Manila Metropolitan Theater exhibition was far larger, but little might be said about it in terms of vision. Curated by Josephine Turalba – who also had a work installed at the first floor lobby, two collaborations on view, plus a performance – few of the works here actually dealt with a shared history even just between the artwork and the space. In fact, I counted one work: Toym Imao’s “White Lady” an installation that considers the theater’s intertwined history with the Marcos dictatorship; the rest were either badly documented or demanded a revisit, which was impossible given the limited run. (A postscript: some works were apparently performances, but with no catalogue available – they were reserving the pile at the front desk for VIP guests – there was no way of knowing what was to even happen that day.)

Both exhibits would also be hard put to assert that they had given space to local “marginal” artists: the Escolta exhibit had the usual set of people that work with 98B Collaboratory, the Manila Metropolitan Theater had works mostly by established artists. Save for the small market of Windang Aesthetics Labor Army (WALA), which is literally a free market of goods – take what you want, give what you will – nothing in either of these exhibits spoke of the marginal, fringe, independent as critical to the current landscape of artmaking.

Probably the biggest burden for these Manila exhibitions though, was Medalla’s vision of “community-based dialogue between artists and audiences.” Because while we might imagine the audience to be the academic community, the art market, the patrons, in truth the community that surrounds these spaces is impoverished Manila. And where Medalla imagines that this anti-biennale means opening up borders and having artists engaging with this public, in reality these exhibits – so done in heavily guarded heritage sites, and as envisioned by members of the art establishment – did nothing but strengthen that divide between art and public, artist and nation.

Where the corporate sponsors are merely replaced by elite investment in the small / vintage / independent, where the heritage spaces are used merely for the novelty of ruin and nostalgia, where little criticism is encouraged, the Manila Pollination of London Biennale is really only indication of one thing: the revolution has lost steam.

Or maybe we’re trusting the wrong artists to run it. ***

Katrina Stuart Santiago writes at This is the unedited version of the London Biennale: Manila Pollination review, a revised version of which appeared in Art Review Asia in Dec 2016.