I HAVE YET TO FIND a taxi driver who thinks wrong of president Rodrigo “Digong” Duterte since his election last May. His approval ratings regularly exceed 80 percent, despite the controversial hero’s burial he organized for former dictator Ferdinand Marcos last November, or the indiscriminate slaughtering of suspected drug dealers and users—including children. His war on drugs amounts to more than seven thousand shot dead so far (more than during the martial-law period, artists tell me), reinforcing the “doing what it takes” attitude gaining popularity worldwide. And yet the economy seems pleased, and the Philippines is now posting one of the fastest growth rates in the world, at 6 percent. This bodes well for the art market, too, I thought as I flew into Clark International Airport. I arrived a day prior to the opening of the successful fifth edition of Art Fair Philippines (now taking over four car-park floors) to first drive to Las Casas Filipinas de Acuzar in Bataan, by the South China sea, a peaceful prelude to my visit the next day to metro Manila.
“Sometimes we’ll have drinks and dinner in different houses,” Diana Campbell Betancourt nonchalantly shared, with a large smile and a sway of her hand, while showing us an eclectic collection of houses, peculiarly displayed as if in an entertainment park, including the nineteenth-century national hero José Rizal’s ancestral home, a reconstruction of the hotel Oriente, and tribal wooden homes on stilts, among many others—forty and growing. “Jose Acuzar doesn’t collect art, but he collects houses,” Campbell Betancourt explained of the Filipino real-estate developer. She works with Acuzar’s daughter Jam in developing a residency program, an exhibition space, and a contemporary art sculpture park up on the hill, as part of the Bellas Artes foundation, started in 2013. And so curator Aurélien Lemonier and I followed her at sunset in a four-wheel-drive car to the first structure of the park: a Not Vital chapel close to completion, from the stairs of which we enjoyed the view and wine in plastic cups while contemplating the region’s grim history (in 1942, approximately seventy-five thousand Filipinos and Americans marched to Japanese prison camps, known as the Bataan death march).
The next day, we were joined by curator Gridthiya Gaweewong and researcher “Waew” Kasamaponn Saengsuratham, and on we went for the slow drive to Manila. I arrived at the fair just in time for the vernissage. As usual, the crowds from the most Latino country in Asia showed much enthusiasm for art and fun. I ran into artists Angela Velasco Shaw and Ashley Bickerton. “We were so crazy that they had to peel us off the walls!” Bickerton exclaimed, reminiscing of their student life at CalArts. More artists joined us on the new top-floor terrace—Buboy Cañafranca, MMYu, Isabel R. Santos, Nona Garcia, and Kawayan de Guia.
On Thursday, Eva McGovern Basa was launching the No Chaos No Party book at the new private club Manila House—a hefty, colorful volume presenting the work of twenty-eight Manila-based artists. I swung by to see artist Wawi Navarroza, spotted socialite Tessa Prieto-Valdes, and talked to dealer Matthias Arndt, before going to the exhibition of Mexico-based artist Carlos Amorales, curated by Campbell Betancourt, followed by a seated dinner, organized by Jam Acuzar at the just-inaugurated Bellas Artes Outpost at Karrivin Plaza, above the Drawing Room gallery. Banana leaves were set on two long tables, on which rice, fish, meat, and other fare awaited guests. The list included artists James Nares and Maria Taniguchi, collector Marcel Crespo, curators Ute Meta Bauer, Tobias Berger, and Cosmin Costinas, and Ayala Museum director Mariles Gustilo. I had wanted to go to the Green Papaya Art Projects benefit for artist Ferdz Valencia, who suffered a stroke last December, but my traffic app projected a discouraging hour-long ride. Most of us moved on to the party at nearby club 20/20. “Are you a mermaid?” asked organizers Superstarlet_xxx and Anton Belardo as the basement space fell into a trance with a passionate drum session by Chiko Hernandez.
On Friday, collector Anton Ramos threw a discreet lunch for writer Sarah Thornton, who was in town for one of her captivating talks later that day at the fair—exquisite as always. “We are here as 100 percent tourists,” joked artist Leung Chi Wo Warren, enjoying his first time in Manila. “Your films have changed my life,” a member of the audience gasped during Apichatpong “Joe” Weerasethakul’s talk, minutes before his excellent solo-exhibition opening at the Museum of Contemporary Art and Design that afternoon. “I make films about simple things,” said Apichatpong. “My boyfriend, my dogs, my trees, the things I would be sad if they disappeared from my life.” I ran into Lani Maestro, who, with Manuel Ocampo, will represent the Philippines at the Venice Biennale, before driving with Poklong Anading and MMYu to 1335 Mabini for the opening of three shows: Carlos Celdran’s performative intervention regarding the Catholic Church’s opposition to the Reproductive Health Bill, for which he’s pending a year-long jail sentence for blasphemy; a group show by Junyee, Gus Albor, and Tengal Drilon on Filipino current affairs, specifically the new presidency and recent killings; and a solo exhibition by Kiri Dalena, featuring a shattered-glass installation and a video—also a reference to the growing number of people killed under the current administration.
“Let’s have a beer then,” said dealer Birgit Zimmermann after the opening, as we couldn’t find a taxi to take us back to Makati for drinks organized by Silverlens gallery. “Let’s go to the ugliest girly bar you’ve ever seen,” Zimmermann laughed. It wasn’t ugly, but it certainly was entertaining. “Please have a sense of humor,” advised Celdran, who, while awaiting his jail sentence, still runs his famous tours of the old Manila. Art-world visitors joined tourists in a witty and theatrical World War II historical walk on Saturday morning, taking in the damage and the resilience that the Philippines still exudes today. From crying to laughing and back—what else can we do?