The Philippine Contemporary: A Conceptual and Cultural Critique
Oscar Campomanes bio

This essay first appeared in AAA's previous publication Field Notes, Issue 03. To read the "Note from the Editors" for full context, please click here.


I want to finish drawing this navigational map, this inventory—fluctuating and mobile. . . . Once this work is done it will be clearly seen that all the rapports I traced out either followed or invented a possible road across the ensemble of movements from place to place. Note that this maritime chart, an ocean of possible routes, fluctuates and does not remain static like a map. Each route invents itself.
—Michel Serres

The island is a mountain under water, and a mountain, an island that is still dry.
—Gilles Deleuze1

In a Museum Educators Forum in 2009, National Museum of the Philippines Curator Elenita Alba recounted an exhibition strategy conceived by then-director of the Museum Corazon Alvina and University of the Philippines art studies professor Patrick Flores, which saw the deliberate juxtaposition of the display of the museum's ethnographic artifacts with the exhibition of contemporary art pieces. In a practice that departs from "traditional presentations," Alvina and Flores were reportedly able to elicit a "positive response" from museum-goers otherwise "extremely tired of what they usually see . . . from the old collections."2 Citing the example of Roberto Feleo's installation on the Bagobo (an indigenous community in Mindanao), Alba observes that having it set among ethnographic artifacts earned it the public's interest and that the museum's "old collections" themselves, as a consequence, could have evinced renewed interest among spectators.

Something of this "wholistic approach" is ostensibly behind The Philippine Contemporary: To Scale the Past and the Possible, the permanent exhibition of modern and contemporary Philippine art launched early this year at the Metropolitan Museum of Manila. In an interview with the newly-appointed director, Tina Colayco, and the exhibition's curator Patrick Flores, journalist John Magsaysay notes that with The Philippine Contemporary, the museum marks a major shift in its own history and practices as a Filipino cultural institution. "Once the fortress of pre-colonial fineries and colonial fine art," the museum now seems to display "such penchant for the art of the new and upcoming . . . [and it] is indeed an exciting movement in our awakening local art scene."

The impetus for this initiative stems, Flores affirms, in the philosophy of "art for all" conceived—although, for the longest time, more preached than practiced—in the aftermath of the 1986 People Power Revolution, "when there was a shift from international art to art for all" in the aspirations of local art practitioners and galleries or museums. He suggests that a reorientation in the Philippines toward local audience development has taken place, from the long-running obsession, since the time of early modernists, with Philippine art and artists making significant breakthroughs into international art circuits.3

Featuring 220 artworks, The Philippine Contemporary is described by Flores as "a historical survey from 1915, the Amorsolo period up to the present . . . almost a century's worth of Philippine art in one exhibition."4 Occupying the upper level galleries of the MET, it takes the viewer from a statement of curatorial concepts (rendered in English, with Filipino translations) at the entrance through three wings spanning the eastern and northern sides of the exhibition space and representing its major sections titled "Horizon/Abot-Tanaw (1915–1964)," "Trajectory/Tinatahak (1965–1983)," and "Latitude/Lawak (1984–present)." It is an itinerary that loops back to the western and southern ends where changing exhibits are earmarked for the sections "Sphere/Palibot" and "Direction/Tunguhin," spaces dedicated "to a deeper study of particular themes, artists, art worlds, styles, and movements," with "Direction/Tunguhin," in particular, "as the laboratory or workshop [it] is envisioned to become, a becoming that will move to the rhythm of the art it invites."

In the absence of a published catalogue or a brochure to guide the viewer, a comprehensive timeline forms part of the wall texts, interposed and elaborated in various forms (e.g., the rare Philippine Art Gallery scrapbook from the 1950s; or video montage in monitors) along the exhibition's wings and hallways. This timeline lists and tags noteworthy moments in the development of Philippine contemporary art, from the historico-political (such as the "living exhibits" of Filipino natives at the 1904 St. Louis World's Fair, or the protest action of artist David C. Medalla against the Cultural Center of the Philippines in 1969), through the institutional (like the founding of the School of Fine Arts at the University of the Philippines in 1909, or the creation by the state of a National Commission for Culture and the Arts in 1992); and from the stylistic (for instance, the advent of the modernist mode dubbed as "Neo-Realism" by writer-painter E. Aguilar-Cruz in 1949, or the recognition of electronic art and digitality as signified by the launch of online journal Ctrl+P in 2006), through the industrial (say, the institution of national art competitions by sponsors like Shell in 1951, or the establishment of the Art Association of the Philippines in 1954).
Highlighted are the art movements or artists' collectives. One preeminent example concerns the challenges posed by Philippine modernists (beginning with Edades and his cohort in the interwar period and peaking with the formation of the Thirteen Moderns group in 1941) to the dominance of the so-called "conservatives" and academic painting; and how the Moderns' own subsequent sway over the country's art scene would be disputed, in turn, by a motley of other tendencies like those represented by the "social realists" of the 1970s and late Marcos-era, and post-dictatorship conscienticised or iconoclastic artists.    

An exhibition of this scale and scope is bound to raise questions about its breadth and depth, and what it recognises or marginalises. In his case Flores reveals that he had to work from a carefully negotiated mix of personal taste, "institutional validations of the art world," and what can be adjudged as "the importance of [a] practice in its particular field."5 While there is certainly little space for extended explanations about the choices made for any exhibition, a catalogue could have included a summarative account of the exhibition's own process of canon-making. With the exception of some enlightenment enabled by the curatorial statement (in the wall texts), and the timeline, viewers would not find the choices of artworks and practices, and their constellations together, self-explanatory or evident.


The Philippine Contemporary: A Conceptual and Cultural Critique

One is particularly struck by the spatial or cartographic metaphors organising the sections, and by the exhibition's audience-friendly orientation in Philippine terms, the intent and attempt to develop what may be called a "strategic insularity" that could appeal to local cultural sensibilities. Otherwise understood as a "politics of vernacularisation" in Philippine literary, cultural, and historical studies in recent years, which means both the localisation and transposition of the outside or exogenous within, this strategic insularity speaks to the endemic difficulties and limitless possibilities of imagining community (both its tradition and modernity) in a nation fractured and fragmented by its archipelagic geography and corresponding ethnocultural heterogeneity (complicated all the more by the accelerating diasporic dispersals of Filipinos across the globe within the past three or so decades).

From the standpoint of late-modern critical theory, reception aesthetics (in literature, "reader-response" models) seem to undergird the decision to render the curatorial statements and categories in bilingual terms, that is, in the postcolonial language of American English and in the national language of Tagalog-based Filipino.6 Simultaneously, Flores' recourse to a language that lexically alludes to and mixes the vocabularies of topology and nesology feeds into this reorientation inwards in "insular" ways, which is to say the hailing or interpellation of Filipino viewers and readers as the exhibition's primary or prioritised audience:

This exhibition tries to map the history of modern and contemporary art in the Philippines. It imagines itself as a project that scales the past and the possible. . . . The past and the possible are gathered as distinct articulations of time and place as well as common experiences of passage. . . . The past is history, culture, and tradition. The possible is the future, expectation, and hope. The past and the possible both partake of circumstance and context, and therefore of chance. Here is the opportunity to create conditions that animate the vital role of art and its effort to rethink the present progressively and retroactively and as the agent and portent of what is yet to come.7

Reckoning with modern and contemporary Philippine art according to the "passage" of historical time (past, possible/future, present), Flores clarifies that this "passage" is better interpreted in spatial rather than in temporal fashion, describing the exhibition concept as

an attempt to initiate a plot: a story, a piece of ground, a scheme, a perimeter, a map. Thus, the metaphors defining this task come from wayfarers, settlers, migrants, world makers: horizon, trajectory, latitude, sphere, direction. It invites the audience to be cartographers of the contemporary themselves, charting their own course along, against, through, and beyond this rendering of the routes of the modern and the contemporary.

Here it is important that Flores chooses to emphasise the term "plot" over "narrative." In literary fiction, we often make a distinction between plot and what French narratologists call histoire (story, also history), the former to refer to the sequence of events and moments as chosen and arranged to produce meaningful relationships between and among them, and the latter to refer to the relatively fuller order of events in their natural (usually chronological) duration. In emplotment, two events otherwise removed from each other in terms of sequential time might be brought together in a relationship of contiguity to suggest parallelism or repetition (and not causation), for example. Defining a concept at work in the exhibition's emplotment (or its "writing"), Flores spatialises sequentiality: "The word scale refers to how a relationship is seen in terms of distance, value, dimension and how it is grasped from a perspective, a milieu, an environment, a 'sudden vicinity of things.'"8

The conceptuality behind The Philippine Contemporary, in seeming accord with topological notions of time and nesological categories of space, is probably resounding more exciting ideas about Philippine (or islander) notions of contemporaneity and temporality, the "nature and culture" of the Philippines as katubigan-kapuluan (maritime/archipelagic), and culturally specific perspectives than it might have actually intended.9 In asking its Filipino audiences to function as "cartographers of the contemporary themselves," the exhibition is practically interpellating them to engage and affirm, in Epeli Hau'ofa's words, "the contemporary process of what may be called world enlargement that is carried out by tens of thousands of ordinary Pacific Islanders right across the ocean—from east to west and north to south . . . making nonsense of all national and economic boundaries, borders that have been defined only recently, crisscrossing an ocean that had been boundless for ages." For another, inhabiting the itinerant position of such passants, local audiences are then empowered to reconstellate what they view in so many possible ways in synchrony (rather than diachrony) with their own emplotments or "writing" of personal and communal histories. As a philosopher of science and of art, Michel Serres, in explaining his emphasis on chaos theory, percolation, and turbulence (which are themselves "nesological" realities) to theorise time and history topologically, over against the tendency to think about both as measured intervals or determinate periods, as progression, argues: "We must bring the word pass closer to passoirsieve. Time doesn't flow; it percolates. . . . In Latin the verb colare, the origin of the French verb couler, "to flow," means precisely "to filter." In a filter one flux passes through, while another does not."10
What might seem like the "anything goes" or "disordering" that conceivably ensues from such a "perspective, milieu, environment, a 'sudden vicinity of things,'" with respect to historical time or development, for example, isn't really so; it is to what the philosopher and art critic Jacques Rancière would "give the generic name of literarity [littérarité]." This "disordering" [dérèglement] which he finds germane to "writing" (here understood as the emplotments, mayhap the "scaling," of art history and historical contexts, in which curator and citizen/viewer are supposed to be commonly invested) "constitutes a graver challenge for thought, perhaps, than the disorders of poetic fiction" itself. Strikingly calling the units and methodological protocols of this writing/disordering "word-islands that silt across the channeled river of logos," Rancière beautifully discerns that "they re-carve [redécoupent] the space that is between bodies and that regulates their community. They outline, on the topography of the community, another topography. And this topography divides up the insular spaces of another community: the community governed by the letter and by its islands, that is to say democracy."11

The democracy, "the art for all" philosophy, by which Flores and the MET abide, and that is summoned forth by The Philippine Contemporary is, as Rancière would say according to his theory of "the distribution of the sensible," subject to "verification."12 If one considered the "word-islands" figured in the wall texts, and does so by way of rhetorical analysis of the democratic language, the language of the people (Tagalog-based Filipino) in which the curatorial statements are simultaneously cast, other kinds of emplotment/writing concerning Philippine art and its contemporarity become possible and conceivable. By looking at the conceptions of the exhibition linguistically, taking seriously its emplotment/writing of modern and contemporary art in the Philippines betwixt and between two linguistic registers, one might indeed be able to think vectorially,13 to consider such art as vehicle and make sense of it, divine its direction/s, the temporal trajectories it takes, its movements and transformations; and to do all these, in terms of "disordering" and a practicable idea of democracy (in letter, of letters, of emplotment/writing), a Rancièrean "literarity."

For instance, Flores observes for the viewer/reader, as if inviting them to weigh in, that "Surely, the notions of the modern and the contemporary as aspects of the new and the now continue to be discussed, subjected to spirited critiques." Translated thusly, the passage displays a certain paradox: "Tiyak na ang mga palagay hingil sa Modern at Contemporary ay bahagi ng bago at ngayon at patuloy na tinatalakay, hinaharap sa masiglang kritika." The rendition leaves the keywords Modern and Contemporary untranslated, or to use a term Flores apparently prefers over "translation," they become a matter of "transposition" (he brings up the latter term to describe the vernacularisation or localisation of the Spanish naturalesa, in the section on "Direction/Tunguhin").14 It might be that there is no rough equivalent in the vernacular for Modern, given that the closest morpheme available, Makabago, would seem to limit the complex and multiple senses of the term Modern to the fetishism for novelty and rhetoric of rupture inhering in, but not fully exhausting, its acceptations in (Western) philosophical discourses about modernity (and modernism). The case of Contemporary and the various ways in which it has been theorised of late, however, can be more than adequately captured by any of the words MagkapanahonMagkapanabay, or Magkaalinsabay (meaning, "simultaneous" or "astride/alongside each other," which is to say, made "to share in the same space of time," "to be at the same time," fundamental senses to topological and nesological understandings of Contemporary and contemporarity). On the one hand, to so transpose the English Modern and Contemporary into the domain of the vernacular is precisely to implement contemporarity between the master/postcolonial language and the language of the demos. On the other hand, it is paradoxically to suggest that as concepts or ideas, even as experiences or realities, the Modern and Contemporary constitute irruptions of and from the outside or the exogenous ("foreign" importations), with the problematic implication that the vernacular or the local is the exclusive and originary habitus of Tradition, even of archaisms and survivals (something obviously that was not the curator's intention).

The exhibition presents "'an attempt to initiate a plot: a story, a piece of ground, a scheme, a perimeter, a map.' / . . . pagtatangkang pasimulan ang isang banghay: katha, kinatatayuan, balangkas, hangganan, mapa." The choice of banghay for "plot" emphasises the sense of "structure, scaffolding" or the order underneath the disorder through which emplotment/writing grapples with chaotic, turbulent, percolating time in the exhibition's context and concepts. Katha ("creation") for "story" performs a similar semantic exorbitation as, more than the near-equivalent word available, salaysay (narrative, story), it foregrounds the sense of creativity involved in the act of story-making and storytelling encouraged in the ordinary citizen. For "a piece of ground," the selection of kinatatayuan, while approximate to the concept of "footing" or "foothold" being suggested, is not as specific as tuntungan, which could have better evoked both the precarity and rootedness of location (here of the islandic/islander) that the English phrasing clearly and simultaneously signifies. "Scheme" is better understandable to Filipinos not as balangkas (which means "map") but as balakin, even panukala ("plan," especially for a hermeneutic argument or communicative/expressive intent, what Mikhail Bakhtin would call "speech plan," and which, one supposes, is being meant by the deployment of "scheme" here in contradistinction to map/mapping, to describe the "plot" that the exhibition "initiates").15 Hangganan for "perimeter" presents a special problem because what it would mean in English for Filipinos would be "border" or "boundary," even "frontier." A more proximal word-choice, perhaps, is kaligiran (or "surrounding/s"; an elaborative phrasing in Filipino, to convey the sense of "the circumambient measure of one's surroundings" is ang paikot na sukat ng paligid). Balangkas, rather than the transliteral mapa, could have been better reserved for "map" as, in the vernacular, to map is understood as balangkasin (also synonymously, "to graph").

The metaphors cited to describe the task of emplotment, the statement declares, relate to "wayfarers, settlers, migrants, worldmakers: horizon, trajectory, latitude, sphere, direction (maglalayag, dayo, nangingibang bayan, manlilikha ng mundo: abot-tanaw, tinatatahak, lawak, palibot, tunguhin)." Abot-tanaw for "horizon" is poetic but where sea and sky meet (ang guhit-tagpuan ng karagatan at kalawakan), an everyday perceptual experience characteristic of islandic existence, is perhaps more appreciated by Filipinos as panginorin or panginoorin (which possesses the higher sense of divination, discernment). Landasin (passage) can substitute just as well for, if not better than, tinatahak for "trajectory," here in keeping with the Serresean concept of bringing the English "pass" (or passage) closer to the French passoir. Lawak ("breadth" or "expanse") to transpose "latitude" in Filipino suffices, but it could have been paired with laya ("freedom," even "space") which, as Epeli Hau'ofa would say, islanders (Pacific, here Philippine) tend to take, reflexively, as their privilege, inhabiting as they do vast oceanic spaces, "a sea of islands." Palibot ("surrounding/s") might literally translate as "sphere," but like lawak with laya, and notwithstanding the cost of sacrificing translational parallelism, it could have also been paired with katayuan (in the sense of "domain," e.g., "you belong to a higher social sphere," perhaps in acknowledgment of the social distinctions or hierarchies that precisely the "art for all" philosophy seeks to address or supervene). Finally, tunguhin for "direction" as goal or purpose is certainly apt but in the vernacular, direction can also mean pamamahala or panuto (leadership, instruction), additional semantic layers that concur with the exhibition's call for its audiences to exercise creative and cartographic agency, to map their own interpretive trajectories in ways that would allow them to establish "relations" between and among the moments or events of history and culture (across time/space) which they apprehend or with which they are confronted. "Relations," as Serres refreshingly perceives, "are, in fact, ways of moving from place to place, or of wandering," and most reassuringly, that the resulting "ensemble of movements from place to place. . . . this maritime chart, an ocean of possible routes, fluctuates and does not remain static like a map. Each route invents itself."16

It is ultimately the topological and nesological considerations of the Contemporary, which the curatorial conceptions allude to, and invite intercultural and interlingual reflection on, which might form part of the distinctive contributions to artistic and critical discourses about it that the exhibition—as presentation style and as "plot"—can make. In the aptitude and amplitude about thus contemporising the Contemporary itself that the curatorial statement expresses and enables:

This exhibition gestures towards the co-incidences of the past and the memory of the present. The feeling is that all is possible in the contemporary, conceived as a constantly extending and deepening constellation of art.

Bumabaling ang eksibisyong ito sa mga magkatiyap na pangyayari ng lumipas at sa gunita ng kasalukuyan. Ito ang pakiwari: na maaaring ang lahat sa contemporary, nahihihinuha bilang laging lumalawak at lumalawig na santalaan ng sining.17

Transposing the notion of "co-incidences"—between the past (lumipas) and the present (kasalukuyan), to limn or divine on the horizon (panginoorin) the glimmers of the "possible" (maaari)—as magkatiyap (which, in Tagalog-based Filipino can mean "conjunctural, articulated together"), this exhibition leads to a "feeling" (pakiwari can also be understood as "supposition") that "all is possible," with the Contemporary seen as a "sphere" (katayuan, as well as palibot or "environment/surrounding") that is, in the end, boundless in scope and unlimited in scale (which malawak, malawig also additionally signify). In spatialising the Contemporary, the exhibition puts forth a cultural and critical problematic of it made all the more complex by a demos (pamayanan, in the Filipino language, the English "polity") that is a nesos ("island" in English, or pulo as Filipinos would call the characteristic "piece of grounding" on which, as a maritime and archipelagic network of communities, they secure a foothold, to stay rooted, on the one hand, and from which to explore/map their local worlds and the world/s yonder, on the other).



1. Michel Serres, Michel Serres with Bruno Latour: Conversations on Science, Culture & Time [Eclaircissements], trans., Roxanne Lapidus, University of Michigan Press, Ann Arbor, 1995 [1990], 105; Gilles Deleuze, Desert Islands and other Texts, 1953–1974, ed., David Lapoujade, trans., Michael Taormina, Semiotext(e), Los Angeles and New York, 2002.

2. The transcription of "Pananaw's Museum Educators Forum: Highlights and Anecdotes" in Pananaw: Philippine Journal of Visual Arts 7, 2010, 35–36.

3. "The Met’s New Guards & The Future of Philippine Contemporary Art," Philippine Star, 2 February 2013.

4. Ibid.

5. Ibid.

6. The literary and cultural comparatist scholar Jason Pilapil Jacobo of Ateneo's Department of Filipino provided translation assistance to the curator. Many thanks to Professor Jacobo for facilitating my access to the translation typescript.

7. Patrick Flores, 1. Michel Serres succinctly defines topology as "the science of proximities and ongoing or interrupted transformations," Michel Serres with Bruno Latour: Conversations on Science, Culture & Time, 105. For a particularly useful introduction to nesology as the study of "island forms" and "the discursive production of insularity" (as well as their poetic, postcolonial, and geopolitical deployments), see Antonis Balasapoulous, "Nesologies: Island Form and Postcolonial Geopoetics." Postcolonial Studies, vol 11:1, 2008, 9–26; an alternative current of the field but just as heuristically provocative and theoretically cogent goes by the name nissology, simply defined by Christian Dapraetere as "the study of islands and islandness," in "The Challenge of Nissology: A Global Outlook on the World Archipelago [Part I: Scene Setting of the World Archipelago & Part II: The Global and ScientificVocation of Nissology]." Island Studies Journal vol 3:1, 2008, 3–16, 17–36. Developing their work independently in their fields of Pacific Islander studies, postmodern literary and cultural critique, and cultural anthropology, respectively, and with no apparent consciousness of the emergent notion of the nesological/nissological that their scholarly and critical work would enable, Epeli Hau'ofa, Antonio Benitez-Rojo and Marshall Sahlins may be said to have produced the "classics" of this new and now-thriving field; see Hau'ofa, "Our Sea of Islands," 1993 in We Are the Ocean: Selected Works, University of Hawaii Press, Honolulu, 2008, Benitez-Rojo, The Repeating Island: The Caribbean and the Postmodern Perspective, trans., James Maraniss, Duke University Press, Durham and London, 1995, and Sahlins, Islands of History, The University of Chicago Press, Chicago and London, 1985. Again, similarly and independently, the most exciting work to develop along nesological or nissological lines in the Philippines is in historiography and historical archeology, see Lars Raymund C Ubaldo, patnugot, ed., Paglaya-Paglawud: Paglalayag at Ugnayan ng mga Pamayanan sa Kasaysayang Filipino [Upstreaming and Downstreaming: Seafaring and Relations Among Local Communities in Philippine History], ADHIKA and National Commission for Culture and the Arts, Manila, 2012.

8. The notion of scale/scaling, which, in "seek[ing] passages connecting the local and the global" and being "an intrinsic part of topological thought," may enable, according to Paul Harris,"a unique ability to reveal the large. . . . by the small." Paul Harris, "The Itinerant Theorist: Nature and Knowledge/Ecology and Topology in Michel Serres," SubStance, vol 26.2, 83 [An Ecology of Knowledge: Michel Serres Special Issue], 1997, 50.

9. On the Philippines as "katubigan-kapuluan" (maritime/archipelagic unit) and what this means in terms of its history of heterogenous community and cultural formation/s see Ubaldo, patnugot, ed., Paglaya-Paglawud:Paglalayag at Ugnayan ng mga Pamayanan sa Kasaysayang Filipino [Upstreaming and Downstreaming: Seafaring and Relations Among Local Communities in Philippine History].

10. On islanders and "world enlargement," see Hau'ofa, "Our Sea of Islands," 30. On the English "pass" brought closer to the French "passoir" and the French "couler" returned to the Latin "colare," see Michel Serres with Bruno Latour, 57.

11. Jacques Rancière, The Flesh of Words: The Politics of Writing, transl. Charlotte Mandell, Stanford University Press, Stanford, CA,  2004, 103–104.

12. On Rancière's concept of le partage du sensible [sometimes translated as "the partition of the perceptible"], including the presumption of equality in intelligence among all upon which it is predicated and the "politics" (of verification) to which it is perpetually subjected (or by which, in his terms, it is "subjectivated"), see The Politics of Aesthetics, 2000, trans. & intro. Gabriel Rockhill, Continuum, New York and London, 2004.

13. ‘There is neither beginning nor end, there is a sort of vector… Vector: vehicle, sense, direction, the trajectory of time, the index of movement or of transformation.’ Michel Serres with Bruno Latour, 104.

14. Flores, 1, 6.

15. Mikhain Bakhtin, Speech Genres and Other Late Essays, eds. Caryl Emerson and Michael Holquist and transl. Vern W McGee, University of Texas Press,  Austin, 1986.

16. Michel Serres with Bruno Latour, 103, 105.

17. Flores, 2.

Oscar Campomanes teaches literary and cultural studies in the Department of English, Ateneo de Manila University.




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