Allegorical Harpoon : A Proposal for the 2017 Pavilion in Venice

Pio Abad and Maria Taniguchi


Malacañan staff taking out the Buccelatti necklace and comparing it to the Bureau of Customs list. 1986 — Diana J. Limjoco

From the 8th of May to the 22nd of November 2015, the Philippines will return with a national pavilion at the Venice Biennale after a 50-year hiatus. The pavilion, entitled ‘Tie a String Around the World,’ will be curated by Patrick Flores and will show Manuel Conde’s 1950 film Genghis Khan, alongside works by sculptor Jose Tence Ruiz and filmmaker Mariano Montelibano III . It will be “a poetic and political reflection on the history of world making, the links between geography and politics, and the notions of nation,territory and archipelago". This proposed exhibition for a succeeding Philippine Pavilion begins with the hopeful assurance that we won’t have to wait until 2065 for our third Venetian outing.

Every time she said East she turned her head one way and every time she said West she turned the other, East, West, East, West, and we turned ours with hers, until we were dizzy, and stifling yawns. The Philippines, she said, was ideally positioned to play the go-between for the East and the West, because it was neither one nor the other, but both. She often used “I” when she meant the Philippines, and “the Philippines” when she meant I.

Bob Colacello, Holy Terror: Andy Warhol Close Up

(New York: HarperCollins Publishers), 1990, p.273

The proposed pavilion will revolve around the auction of a diamond necklace made by the Italian designer Buccellati. The 93-carat diamond necklace, with a 15-carat stone at its center, is the piece de resistance of the Roumeliotes Collection. Valued at $11.6 million in the late 1980’s, the collection is named after a Greek-American from California, one Demetrius Roumeliotes, who was apprehended at Manila International Airport shortly after the fall of the Marcos regime for trying to extract the aforementioned hoard of jewelry from the country. Though Roumeliotes claimed that the pieces were on consignment from Foo Hang Jewellery of Hong Kong, the collection was traced to the then exiled Imelda Marcos. The necklace, along with the rest of the collection, has since been stored in the vaults of the Bangko Sentral ng Pilipinas, awaiting its fate.

We propose that Christie’s, the largest auction house in the world, be invited to auction off the necklace. Christie’s has appraised parts of Imelda’s jewelry collection twice in the past: once, as the pieces were being logged into the vaults of the Bangko Sentral in 1988, and then again in 1995 when plans were being drawn to exhibit and sell a portion of it—a sale which was blocked after Mrs. Marcos filed a petition undermining government ownership. An exhibition of the jewels was planned again in 2012 when a representative of the Presidential Commission on Good Government (PCGG) was quoted as wanting to present them “to convey historical lessons.” The National Museum was to be the venue, with ticket proceeds to benefit the Comprehensive Agrarian Reform Program. However, once again, the exhibition itself remained elusive.

On the 13th of January 2014, the Sandiganbayan Court forfeited the final set of Marcos jewelry in favor of the Philippine government, paving the way for the entire jewelry collection stored at the Bangko Sentral to be exhibited and auctioned off by the PCGG. With these circumstances in place, this proposed pavilion can serve as a partial fulfilment of all past planned endeavors.

To house the auction, we can either rent a typical palazzo, or something more modest. The choice will ultimately determine the way this narrative is approached:

(1) the Buccellati as stand-in for Imelda’s aesthetic regime secured in a sculptural case set within a highly mediated environment, itself encased within a Venetian Gothic interior, to bombastic effect.

(2) the Buccellati as stand-in for Imelda’s aesthetic regime set in a minimal arrangement of necklace, auctioneer’s stage and, podium, all quietly set inside a less inflected castello.

(3) the Buccellati as stand-in for Imelda’s aesthetic regime approached as a highly fetishized object enshrined in its own room, with another room for the podium and a third for a film documenting the event.

We aim:

(1) To present the possibility of a collective gesture and release pressure from the idea of a monographic presentation.

As an alternative to a single artist presenting a canonical body of work, the pavilion will be a collaborative effort between different individuals and agencies: the chosen curator or curators, the PCGG, the artists, craftsmen—who will be employed to construct the auction setting—and the jeweler, who will be commissioned to create a replica of the necklace, which will remain on display throughout the biennial duration. A working committee will be formed to oversee the project.

(2) To consider the event beyond notions of national prestige.

“Allegorical Harpoon” is borrowed from the title of Napoleon Abueva’s 1964 sculpture, one of the pieces shown at the 32nd Venice Biennale: an 8-foot molave shaft balanced on a near-conical base, a notched concavity on one end holding, much like a cupped palm, a smaller replica of itself. Seen from a particular point of view, we might perceive the smaller harpoon as a receding object, standing further off within the planar field. As with the sculpture, the national pavilion is a game of perspectives. We might use it to valorize a set of cultural definitions, to account for the peripheral, to resist isolation, or to execute a reversal.

(3) To facilitate a productive dialogue between the overlapping boundaries of art scene, auction house, and biennale.

By inviting representatives from each category to mobilize their networks in the interest of an unprecedented transaction, the proposed pavilion also aims to untangle the strands of complicity that enable the creation of an art scene, an art world. In creating a discourse for a national pavilion, it seems increasingly important to transcend the usual concerns of identity and nationhood that can threaten to essentialize representations. The proposed pavilion aims to recognize and interact with the larger structures that contribute to the national art discourse as a way of locating it within a more complex and less insular ecology and subverting Occidental expectations from “peripheral” pavilions.

(4) To plug into and to play with how the Philippines exists in the world narrative.

Fortunately or unfortunately, depending on one’s political inclination, Imelda has long served as a metonym for Philippine contemporary culture. Whether by exposure, historical comprehension, or as an object of confabulation, she has arguably emerged as a singular representation of the Philippines in the collective imaginary. The Biennale, with its pursuit of an internationalist agenda, is the ideal venue for harnessing this problematic representation to constructive effect; we aim to use it to enact and affirm our own presence within the discourse of internationalism and to reframe what’s generally apprehended as comic grotesquerie within a more substantial socio-political context.

(5) To employ the Biennale platform and its relationship with the media to problematize issues of translation and relevance.

Venice is increasingly, and some would say detrimentally, an art circus. Huge collectors’ palazzo-sized yachts moored near the Giardini temporarily alter the view of the Grand Canal and opening parties threaten to overshadow the pavilions themselves. The proposed pavilion seeks to use this state of affairs to its advantage. By staging the Christie’s auction of the necklace on the opening day of the Biennale and playing on notions of spectacle and exclusivity that define the opening week, considerable attention would be focused on the Philippine pavilion.

(6) To propose a situation that rephrases the notion of a “vanity project” as both a culturally constructive and financially sound effort, and to talk about the pragmatic aspects of joining a biennale, such as the issue of government spending on the arts, particularly the perceived frivolity of commissioning public art.

Prior to the announcement of the 2015 pavilion, there was a certain amount of protestation from individuals and organizations averse to the idea of a country in perpetual deficit allocating national money on an endeavor such as the Biennale. While there is certainly a strong argument to counter these claims of frivolity, the proposed pavilion would endeavor to take these claims into account and orchestrate a situation where the project’s ancillary consequence is to generate more capital than what was spent.

The proposed pavilion is expected to draw in those who are usually indifferent, without access to, or beyond the reach of artistic agendas.

Auctioning Imelda’s necklace in Venice is an event that necessarily extends beyond the meager boundaries of the art world. The event may initially attract attention because it is about treasure as much as it is about the intrinsic complexities of the necklace itself. However, the project nevertheless presents the opportunity for unassociated and often conflicting sectors to finally engage in conversation.