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.
The island is a mountain under water, and a mountain, an island that is still dry.
--Gilles Deleuze 1
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 of the 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 conscienticized or iconoclastic artists.
An exhibition of this scale and scope is bound to raise questions about its breadth and depth, and what it recognizes or marginalizes. 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.