My Manila Biennale experience

I was part of Manila Biennale in 2018. When Carlos Celdran, the festival’s Producer and Executive Director, called and asked if I could document the event, there was no answer but ‘yes.’

One of the Manila Biennale meetings. Photo by Rache Go.

The art festival ran from February 2 until March 8. It’s objective was to “bring back the soul of the city.”

A biennale is a large-scale art event that happens every two years (hence, it’s name). It usually involves a whole area and it’s big draw is the interaction between contemporary art and space.

The Manila Biennale was held in Intramuros, the walled city that was built during the Spanish period, one of the few parts of Manila where it is easy to travel back into the past.

Me (middle) with Manila Biennale’s Head Curator Ringo Bunoan (left) and curator Alice Sarmineto (right). The other curators (not in photo) were Con Cabrera and Cocoy Lumbao. Photo by Rache Go.

Here are a few things I’ve recorded from the event.

Fort Santiago’s Puerta Soledad

The full moon a day before Manila Biennale opens, as seen from Fort Santiago’s Puerta Soledad, which faces the Pasig River.


Puerta Soledad in Fort Santiago, which faces the Pasig River, is named after Our Lady of Solitude. It is near where Rizal was last imprisoned, and the dungeons where over 600 civilians were imprisoned, drowned, and buried.

I asked the guard stationed at the gate if he’d ever experienced anything supernatural. He said no, and figured that he wouldn’t mind if he did. A few minutes later, a mango dropped from a nearby tree. “Don’t do that!” the guard said, pretending to be startled. We all laughed.

Despite its tragic history, Fort Santiago is a lovely place, especially on a night like this.

Art all over Intramuros

Different artists had different artwork scattered all over the walled city.

These include:

Kawayan de Guia’s “Lady Liberty” in Fort Santiago.
Roberto Chabet’s “Onethingafteranother” on the ground floor of Mission House. This space is built on the site in the style of the Jesuit mission house that was destroyed during World War II.
Tad Ermitaño’s “Bell” at the rooftop of Mission House.

One of the pieces that highlighted the possible dynamism between art and its environment was Latvian artist Aigars Bikse’s “Red Slide,” which was installed at the Plaza Roma in front of Manila Cathedral.

Carlos Celdran and Aigars Bikse posing beside “Red Slide.” The Latvian artist’s piece is a bright pink children’s slide in the form of a fallen soldier.

The slide was a hit with the kids in the area. There were plans to raise money to buy the slide and install it permanently, but I don’t think it pushed through.

Bagsik, who sells rosaries and St. Christoper medals (buy from Bagsik, guys!), strikes a pose on “Red Slide.”
Bought a bunch of St. Benedict medallions (protection against demons and evil spirits) from Bagsik, the fabulous gay kid on “Red Slide” in the previous photo. He gave me a couple of roasries, one to put in my wallet so it never runs out of money, one to wear on my wrist for safe travel.

Another piece (or pieces) that elicited a lot of audience interaction was Cebu-based collective KoloWn’s “Parallel,” a series of signs with fake facts about real places in Intramuros, which either enraged or confused lot of tourists and tour guides who didn’t understand that it was part of an exhibit.

The festival also included Carlos’ popular Intramuros tours which, as always, drew a lot of people.

Carlos Celdran showing a tour group an picture of the ravaged bell tower of the first Manila Catherdal (the one standing behind him is number eight).

The Manila Biennale ended with a street party and an interactive improv presentation by SPIT Manila. A few days after was Manila Transitio 2018, the festival Carlos organizes annually to commemorate the Battle of Manila. In 2018, Transitio was held on the day the last bomb fell on the city. A fitting end since the Manila Biennale opened on the eve of when the first bomb was dropped on Manila.

But the festival isn’t just about the past; it’s figuring out where we are in all this, how art and humanity interact and how what is reflected in the works play out in the funny, messy, complicated thing that is real life.

Carlos Celdran passed away in 2019. Though he is no longer with us, what he’s done for the City of Manila, not to mention the walking tour industry, is undeniable. A lot of people owe their appreciation of the City and dare say, even this country to his efforts.

I’m trying to write this post as a third party, but Carlos was a dear friend.

It would have been wonderful to have a regular Biennale, and the second one would have happened this year. But even if we only have the one, it was a bright spot that allowed people to engage, not just with art, but with the walled city of Intramuros itself.

As romantic as this sounds, for a brief moment, people got to see Manila the way Carlos saw it: not just as a random city, but a dynamic place filled with life, potential, and art.

I’m honored to have been a small part of that event. One day, I’ll talk about the friends I made and all the supernatural shenanigans that I encountered when I was working there. Maybe in another two years.

yvetteuytan

Yvette Tan is a multi-awarded author of horror fiction and a lifestyle writer for major local and international titles.