Books & Art

Manila Biennale Opens Today, And Here's a First Look

The month-long Manila Biennale transforms Intramuros into an open city of art.
IMAGE Audrey Carpio
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Intramuros really is an amazing place to hold an art festival, and you realize this when you peer into a dark dungeon transformed into an installation site, or walk around a refurbished Jesuit mission house turned into four floors of contemporary art, or ride a horse-pulled tram as you hop from exhibit to exhibit.

Intramuros is more than just an unusual backdrop, however, of the first Manila Biennale, it is its raison d’être. All the art shown directly or indirectly engages with its location and its history, with a thematic focus on the Battle of Manila, which devastated the city in 1945 and altered the course of Philippine culture for decades to come.

The works created for the Biennale reflect on memory, trauma, and the horrors of war. Experience the five-second blinding flash of the Nagasaki and Hiroshima atomic bombs in Gerardo Tan’s reconstructed tunnel, or walk through Oca Villamiel’s unsettling Children of War, made from scavenged dolls and birdcages collected from dumpsites. Not all of the works are depressing or heavy, but still make you think about the often-ignored realities of the city, like Wawi Navarroza and Nicolas Combarro’s Visible, a bricolage installation made with repurposed wood from informal architecture and plants that grow wildly in the walls of Intramuros. Other projects go beyond the site-specific by physically crossing borders, such as Alwin Reamillo’s Bayanihan Hopping Spirit House, a social sculpture that originated in Australia, celebrating community collaboration through the act of being carried from place to place by participants.

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There’s a lot of ground to cover, stairs to climb, and ramparts to scale, but that’s why the Manila Biennale lasts for an entire month. You don’t need to try and pack everything in one visit—the ongoing nature of the event means that the art will evolve as well, and the gravitas—and beauty—of the location will make you want to linger for a bit longer. The walled city isn’t just a historical relic, but a living, breathing space that people can engage with on present-day terms, and this is what Carlos Celdran, Manila Biennale’s producer, wants visitors to experience. “The Biennale is also a reaction to the times,” he says. “It’s really dark out there. There’s a way to go forward, and I think art is the best way to do it. It’s better to inspire than to intimidate.”

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Alwin Reamillo’s Bayanihan Hopping Spirit House

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Mideo Cruz's Golgotha series

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Oca Villamiel's Children of War

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Agnes Arellano, Angel of Death and Bullets

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Gerardo Tan, Sear to Open

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Roberto Chabet, Onethingafteranother

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About The Author
Audrey N. Carpio
Features Editor, Esquire Philippines
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