The Spectre of Comparison
El jardin botanico ahuyento sus risueños recuerdos: el demonio de las comparaciones le puso delante los jardines botanicos de Europa, en los paises donde se necesitan mucha voluntad y mucho oro para que brote una hoja y abra su caliz una flor, aun mas, hasta los de las colonias, ricos y bien cuidados y abiertos todo al publico. Ibarra aparto la vista, miro a su derechan y alli vio a la Antigua Manila, rodeada aun de sus murallas y fosos, como una joven anemica, envuelta en un vestido de los buenos tiempos de su abuela. (Jose Rizal, Noli Me Tangere, 1887)
The sight of the Botanical Garden drove away these agreeable recollections; the demon of comparisons brought before his mind the Botanical Gardens of Europe, in countries where great labor and much money are needed to make a single leaf grow or one flower to open its calyx; he recalled those of the colonies, where they are well supplied and tended, and all open to the public. Ibarra turned away his gaze toward the old Manila surrounded still by its walls and moats like a sickly girl wrapped in the garments of her grandmother’s better days. (Jose Rizal, Noli Me Tangere, 1887, Derbyshire trans. 1912)
Written in 1887 in Berlin, the novel Noli Me Tangere by Jose Rizal, is one of Rizal’s main contributions to the burgeoning Philippine revolution. He was executed in 1896.
Drawn from this novel is the enigmatic phrase el demonio de las comparaciones,* (*also translated to ‘the spectre of comparisons’) the impulse for this exhibition and the framework for the practices of Lani Maestro and Manuel Ocampo, artists in the Philippine Pavilion. The phrase encapsulates the experience of Rizal’s protagonist, Crisostomo Ibarra, when he gazes out at the botanical gardens of Manila and simultaneously sees the gardens of Europe. This point of realization suggests the loss of Ibarra’s (and Rizal’s) political innocence, this double-vision of experiencing events up close and from afar: no longer able to see the Philippines without seeing Europe nor gaze at Europe without seeing the Philippines. As Anderson points out in his essay The First Filipino (1997): “Here indeed is the origin of nationalism, which lives by making comparisons.” The indio from the colony experienced and understood the other, and this realization, drove away these agreeable recollections.
With this as spectral pivot, Lani Maestro’s and Manuel Ocampo’s practices, aesthetically worlds apart from each other and produced through a multiplicity of contexts, are brought together in Venice. The Venice Biennial itself is haunted by its own history of national representations, and more recently with the fragmented global of contemporary times. With directors, curators, artists and agendas of their respective governments and private funders addressing any number of points across this spectrum, the Biennale becomes the stage for the social and political of the moment.
Both artists have lived and practiced outside of the Philippine, but have maintained active engagement with the country throughout their careers. Manuel Ocampo moved back to Manila for several years in the early 2000s greatly influencing local artists during his stay, while Lani Maestro returns from time to time to Manila for exhibitions, while shuttling between Canada and France. Their practice and their subject matters are deeply involved with their experiences as immigrants or citizens of a new diaspora that also reflect the complexity of a contemporary Philippine identity. Perhaps more importantly their works’ force and resonance contribute to a new artistic language that reflect a globalized subjectivity that characterize our times. The exhibition looks at their practices as emblematic of the experience of Rizal’s spectre of comparisons, the juxtaposition of their works the manifestation of political and social commentary from afar, as they saw the events of the Philippines and their adopted countries as “through an inverted telescope.”
Maestro’s practice moves fluidly through various forms of artistic engagements and installation incorporating a variety of media such as sound, film, text and photographs. Prompted by concerns that simultaneously call attention to and displace her materials and subject matter, her practice produces a shifting ground that makes it difficult to place Maestro as simply politically inclined. Her works are no less powerful: a phrase repeated reverberates in a space evoking a gendered body politic; silent scratches on a charcoal panel recall prison walls with lines marking the days of their occupants’ incarceration; a book with pages upon pages of waves speak of the slow movement of loss and forgetting.
Ocampo’s practice on the other hand, developed and matured in the United States in the early 80s. A painter by trade, he has been decidedly critical of systems across contemporary culture. Most glaring are his figurative works which in no uncertain terms critique power structures that exist in the Philippines, and across other contemporary systems. His later canvasses further underlined the anxiety that marked this seminal works. Mingling on his canvasses are images full of scatological references and grotesque images of disembowelment, of penises, fecal matter and swastikas found amongst religious iconography; one finds texts and titles that pointedly undermine not only politics but the art system and its institutions of validation: Escuela de Minimalismo, aesthetic kunst, composition in red white and blue, etc.
Rizal’s experience and understanding of Europe and the connections he continually made as he flipped back and forth between the contexts of home and the foreign crystallized the double-consciousness of a colonial émigré of the 19th century. The Spectre of Comparison, the exhibition, accords this global gaze to Manuel Ocampo and Lani Maestro, not just as the simple in-between location or a knowledge of two (or several) worlds, but as a more complex imagining of the local and global as each artist re-define political resistance within their experience of shifting localities throughout their artistic careers. Woven within this twinning of practices is the space of the spectre of comparison that haunts the imagery and making of nationalisms fraught with colonial and imperialist pasts.