An In Depth Look At Mark Justiniani’s ‘Arkipelago’
Jose Tence Ruiz, one of the four artists featured when the Philippines participated again in the Venice Art Biennale after a hiatus of 51 years, stares down through the glass-surfaced installation by Mark Justiniani, the Philippine Pavilion’s lone participating artist in the 2019 rendition of this major international exhibition. “This is strong, very strong,” he murmurs repeatedly.
Justiniani, Bacolod-born artist-activist and magical-realist who works with light and mirrors, created his installation Arkipelago to give a visual context to Tessa Maria Guazon’s winning curatorial thesis, Island Weather. The biennale’s overall curator is the American Ralph Rugoff who chose the theme (which he would rather call “approach”) “May you live in interesting times,” translated whether accurately or not from a Chinese curse that was invoked by a British statesman in a speech delivered decades ago. With this phrase, Rugoff said he wanted the artists to “challenge existing habits of thought” and to provoke questions and discussions. Arkipelago will never disappoint Rugoff. As many as the countless pieces Justiniani has painstakingly placed under the glass of this huge-scale, three-piece installation are the questions each item raises. Electric metres, condiment bottles, a cage and a caged chair— how do they represent the Philippine way of life? In fact, the conversations started even before Venice, in Justiniani’s Parañaque City workshop, among the 100 workers who helped put together this massive immersive piece.
“At the end of a long day, the welders, carpenters, painters, and artisans would huddle together on one side and tell stories about what they saw in the work they are helping to build. I heard them laugh about the familiarity of the colourful vinyl tablecloth ubiquitous in simple households. I heard them talk about the medal that I added and reminisced about the time they were honour students in school with bright futures ahead. Yet, they can still laugh at their fates today. It was so humbling to work with them,” Justiniani says. Such conversations resonated on a global level as soon as Arkipelago was 99 per cent finished two days before the vernissage. “What finishes the work is when people look at it and react,” Justiniani reveals.
Even before the Pavilion opened to the public, those with tickets to the vernissage heard the buzz generated by various media that immediately placed the Philippines in the top five must-see pavilions. Repeat viewers were not uncommon, many of them with friends in tow.
So, on the first weekend of the public opening, the average number of visitors to the Philippine Pavilion was from a low of 3,000 to a high of 4,000, keeping the invigilators—young volunteers, many of them art students from the Filipino community in Italy—quite busy. “Awesome, amazing, incredible, spectacular” were just some of the superlatives written on the guest book. When Guazon was mulling over a proposal for the 2019 Venice Art Biennale, she already had Justiniani in mind as her lone participating artist. “The proposal was meant for him,” she says, “because for the scale of this Biennale, a curator must have an intimate knowledge of the artist.” This knowledge she has, as she has already been writing about Justiniani’s works, particularly the highly successful Infinity series from which Arkipelago was derived since 2012. If Arkipelago’s provenance is distinct, Island Weather takes from several diverse concepts that find a homology in Guazon’s thesis. “Island Weather represents the islands of our Philippine archipelago, but we use the weather here as both atmospheric and metaphoric, relative to the state of the world and all the predicaments we currently face,” she elaborates during the vernissage of the Pavilion. “It also explores the idea of the world as an island, the concept of Sandaigdigan of Dante Ambrosio [historian and Father of Philippine ethnoastronomy] that states that we are all interwoven.” Guazon was influenced by her current studies on the Observatory of Manila, established by the Jesuits in 1865, juxtaposing how weather predictions were donescientifically with that of local knowledge of the stars and the skies. “The art project...is like an observatory but instead of looking up, we are looking down,” Guazon says. “It explores a visuality, a means of experiencing the world. You’re all meant to be disoriented but also to enjoy it as a source of wonder.
Adults sometimes forget to wonder anymore. You walk on glass. You feel as though your body disappears in space. But your eyes remain. You know it is shallow, but still you are afraid of falling through. It is all an optical illusion.” From endless conversations between Guazon and Justiniani, a mental picture began to emerge. Of three amorphous structures representing the three biggest islands of the Philippines, made of metal and covered in glass, containing hundreds of objects, both found and formed, like words that form three statements: one about the weather; another, industrialisation; and third, seats of power.
These objects are set in platforms and compartments, with the clever use of glass, mirrors, and light to give an illusion of a deep excavation. “The idea of an excavation is linked to excavating memories, looking at the past, unearthing things buried in our history,” opines Justiniani. “We want to present the kind of vision that borrows into appearances. We are used to scanning the world, but it is dizzying to look down,” adds Guazon. According to Justiniani, he started with a general idea, an overview. “And once we came up with the shape, we filled it up with stories.” The story of an agricultural society industrialising, or an observatory that gives the experience of being in the eye of the storm.
“Sometimes we had pieces that were good but did not fit,” the artist adds. “Around a third was discarded, to be saved for a different work perhaps. It is not easy to write stories with images.” The scale of work was massive, and in Justiniani’s word, “intimidating.” As Guazon predicted, the work took a life of its own. When this happened Justiniani employed a rule that works: Follow the work, do not think so much as to become a slave to it, and trust your instincts. “Even in the last few weeks I said I wanted to do another compartment about typhoon,” he says. Guazon gave free rein to Justiniani’s creativity that, she says, “A lot of times I did not know how the project would turn out. By end of April I began to ask: Are we going to finish on time?” Ironically, the weather in Venice was the biggest challenge for Justiniani and the team who helped put the installations together. “It was raining. It was too cold for us. After all the hard work in Manila [of creating the pieces that will be brought to Italy], the weather was a challenge,” says Justiniani, who also mentions the dust as another problem.
“Mark and his team had to suffer the weather in putting together Island Weather,” Guazon echoes. But she likens how they hurdled this challenge to the resilience of the Filipinos, a word she would rather substitute with “transformation.” She explains: “We are a transformed people: transformed by the weather, not only the atmospheric weather but the metaphoric. We are experiencing extreme weather today. We are at the mercy of the whims of both the national and personal situations. But what does this make of us? We are transformed.” For the best effect, the Pavilion was dimly lit; you must first find your optical bearing. And then you go to a module, take off your shoes, wait until you form a group of eight as this is the number of people who can go up at a time, and climb three small steps to enter a world of magical realism, a tunnel of infinity. “When you look through the seats-of-power module for instance, you will see the innards, the intestines, the inner workings, the relationships of power and power structures. You will come to know the life of simple people in the country, of simple living amidst power, about us trying to build a future which stands on our troubled past,” describes Justiniani.
Most everyone starts their Arkipelago journeys tentatively. Even if the invigilators assure them that the modules are only two metres high, they still carry that fear of falling. But once they have become comfortable on the glass surface, they linger looking down, mesmerised by all the objects and of course the illusion of depth.
“Arkipelago is, indeed, the latest and most difficult iteration of Mark’s Infinity series,” acknowledges Guazon. What is revealed is the spectacular, the magical, the fantastic. The question that is raised is: “How are these linked to everyday life?” Guazon says she does not have the answer but invites everyone to find it and to many other questions in Arkipelago.