The Specter of Comparison

The Philippines at the Venice Biennale 2017

After returning to Venice in 2015 after over 50 years of absence, the country has already secured a place in the arsenal this year. It is the first position in the long series of national appearances following the grand main exhibition. Joselina Cruz presents works by Lani Maestro and Manuel Ocampo under the title “The Spectre of Comparisons”.

The title giving “Specrte of comparison” is a term from the 1887 published novel “Noli me tangere” by the Philippine author José Rizal. In it, the protagonist Crisostomo Ibarra sees the botanical gardens of Manila. At the same time, European gardens appear before his inner eye. In his experience, he can no longer separate one from the other and at the same time sees things that are near and those that are far away.

In a figurative sense, this also applies to the exhibiting artists. Both of them lived and worked outside the Philippines, but they have always been actively involved in their home country. Her works are manifestations of political and social remarks from a distance – “as if they had perceived events in the Philippines and in their adopted homelands through an inverted telescope” (Cruz).

Born in 1957, Lani Maestro has been living in Canada since she was 25 years old. A country that is commonly considered a paradise for emigrants, but in which there are also massive social problems. For example, in Vancouver’s Downtown Eastside, poverty, homelessness, prostitution, drug abuse and racial turmoil are part of everyday life. When Lani Maestro walked through this area for the first time, she was shocked by the prevailing conditions there. She processed this experience in the red glowing neon work “No Pain Like This Body” (2010/2017). The title was borrowed by Maestro from the eponymous novel by the writer Harold Sonny Ladoo (1972), a classic of Caribbean literature. Further works by Lani Maestro include the blue neon work “These Hands” as well as a wooden bench installation specially developed for the room.

In contrast to her quiet works are the paintings of Manuel Ocampo (born 1965). Rabid, anarchic, exuberant, disrespectful, brutal and provocative – without regard to losses, the painter comments on and criticizes colonialism and imperialism. Influenced by punk and cartoons, Ocampo combines in his pictures religious elements of the baroque with secular and political narratives. In the “Tortas imperiales”, composed of four paintings, he mixes art history and comic, politics and pornography into desolate, composition-laden compositions. Brutal also his portrayal of the “invention of abstract art – immigrant version”: in a kitchen, black butchers and cooks graze the bodies of two white corpses. A fast-paced, disturbing picture in which art-historical genres such as nude, still life, landscape painting and interior combine to form a complex narrative.

Translated from the German review by Sabine Vogel


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