Interrogating Curatorial Language with Patrick Flores

Patrick Flores is Professor of Art Studies at the Department of Art Studies at the University of the Philippines and Curator of the Vargas Museum in Manila. He is the Director of the Philippine Contemporary Art Network. He was one of the curators of Under Construction: New Dimensions in Asian Art in 2000 and the Gwangju Biennale (Position Papers) in 2008. He was a Visiting Fellow at the National Gallery of Art in Washington, D.C. in 1999 and an Asian Public Intellectuals Fellow in 2004. Among his publications are Painting History: Revisions in Philippine Colonial Art (1999); Remarkable Collection: Art, History, and the National Museum (2006); and Past Peripheral: Curation in Southeast Asia (2008). He was a Guest Scholar of the Getty Research Institute in Los Angeles in 2014. He curated the Philippine Pavilion at the Venice Biennale in 2015. He was the Artistic Director of Singapore Biennale 2019 and is the Curator of the Taiwan Pavilion for Venice Biennale in 2022.

In an interview with Design Anthology, you described the model of the art biennale to be crucial in its capricious potentialities, against the streamlined and often restrictive curatorial framework of institutions. With the pandemic having irreversibly altered the ecologies of the art world, how would you position the importance of the art biennale today?

I am struck by the word “importance” in relation to the biennale, because it tends to disperse the much-maligned yet also much-coveted force of the biennale across the more granular details of “capricious potentialities.” I am not sure about the word “capricious,” though I yield to its productive indeterminacy to the degree that it foils the grimness either of ideology or bureaucracy. To gauge “importance” is to imply significance; and also to “bring in” consequence. And the biennale, being a project that reaches out, or “inclines outward,” from a privileged vantage point of consolidation and critical awareness, constantly exposes itself to the risks of what it decides to engage or exclude: to mark as of import or to import into its fold. This exposure is its importance. And the pandemic, as an index of an exceptional exposure, advances yet another element the biennale must respond to or mediate in ways that reveal a need for a supplement, a lack and an extension, if we heed the words of Gayatri Spivak. What bears watching is the evolving immune system of the biennale, which is idiosyncratic every time it turns: how it comes to terms with, or positions itself to be transformed by, the dense and oftentimes importuning social material that precedes, exceeds, overlooks, refuses, and survives it. 

The Singapore Biennale 2019, which I imagined as a festival and a seminar, tried to allude to these supplements via the circus-school Phare the Cambodian Circus; the Coordinates Project, which was attentive to the sustained work of initiatives and institutions in Singapore and Eurasia; the decisive introspections through the workshop/performance and installation of Amanda Heng and Lani Maestro; the practice in public and digital spaces of Haifa Subay and Lawrence Lek; the alacritous modernisms of Ali Akbar Sadeghi and Alfonso Ossorio; the archives of Carlos Villa and Raymundo Albano through the spatial vehicle provided by Celine Condorelli; among others. 

You spoke before about the significant influence your Filipino heritage has had in shaping your curatorial practice, notably in terms of the Philippines’ complex colonial histories and its consequent ‘mixedness’ of social and national genealogies. How would you characterise the notion of ‘borders’ in conceiving of the Southeast Asian region? Is there a balance to be struck between fluidity and specificity?

For me, the “Philippine,” not the country but the figurine, is not just a location or an identity, but a poetics and a problematic. This is how I redeem the nation from the instrumentalization of the state alongside some species of nationalism. I am not so fond of the word “balance” because it conjures the fantasy of homeostasis; and the interface between “fluidity” and “specificity” may well be a false choice. I’d rather like to think of the latter terms as forming a double bind, but not in binary opposition. Which means that mixture, porosity, and mutation need to be articulated in a livelier idiom of intervolvement. In my mind, the “Philippine” as a highly inflected register embodies both geography and elaboration, rooted and intricate.

Singapore has, over the decades, strived to distinguish itself as a thought-leader within the region, an ambition perceivable in the cultural ambit of its art institutions as well. Aside from manifesting the ‘Southeast Asian’ in representation within the National Collection and regional efforts such as the Singapore Biennale, how else do you think Singapore may be able to effectively situate ‘Southeast Asia’ as a coherent and yet productively ‘mercurial’ cartography?

Mercurial! That’s an interesting adjective. I would maybe settle for equatorial to describe Singapore. Singapore can revisit its history and from there, trace certain trajectories that either anticipate or surmount a region called Southeast Asia. Singapore can also let other subjectivities annotate its place and the representation of that place in the region and, from there, dilate or ramify Singapore in ways that emerge from critical mediation and not from continuous expansion and assimilation, on the one hand, and from the overinvestment in the co-production of modernities, on the other. Singapore has to be more confident, truly tropical, if not altogether intemperate. It has nothing to lose if it doesn’t look westward or northward. It should learn not to care anymore about normative coordinates and start looking after the “sudden vicinity of things” in its latitude. Thought leading is one thing. Leading thought is another.

You have described the “relationality and activation” of the curatorial as especially equipped to release Southeast Asia and, more broadly, the Global South from the ‘psychogeographies’ of colonial histories. Relatedly, how would you describe the importance (or necessity) of the role of the curator in advancing this postcolonial prospect within the region today?

The role of the curator has greatly enhanced over time and to some extent has thickened the capital and the charisma of the personage in spite of, and perhaps because of, the relentless critique of its hegemony. I like the way the question choreographs post-coloniality along the axis of “relationality and activation.” That’s a vital proposition: that to be post-colonial is to relate and to activate. The curator in Southeast Asia, if she were diligent and intuitive enough, should acknowledge that these constitute the foundations of the practice, not the mimicry of the methods, glossaries, instincts, and thematizations honed in self-styled centers of contemporary art; or the overcirculation of certain forward-looking careers; or the idealizations of alternatives to replace an exhausted avant-garde. To relate and to activate requires a post-colonial theory and strategy as well as the patience through which to sort out the uneasy ties with a partly sympathetic, partly resistive public. Without these, the curatorial gesture will just be a repetition of an extractive art history and the subcontraction of artistic production from the so-called south. It will ultimately just be a franchise.

Your idea of a “third moment”, characterised by a quality of “co-implication” that transcends the traditional centre-periphery binary is especially interesting. Would you say that the cultural geography of Southeast Asia is particularly poised to structure this almost nomadic, almost explosive framework for understanding contemporary identities?

To a certain extent yes, because the waters surrounding it as well as the migration of its peoples are storied. It’s a hotbed of eccentricity and queerness, of everyday insurgencies. Such an environment nurtures agencies that can re-master grand narratives and aspire to a metabolism that breaks down the saturated fat of nativism and globalization. The word “explosive” might be too excited. But come to think of it, it may well be the exemplary condition of the “third moment,” as heralded by the great Philippine artist David Medalla (passed last December), who conceived of an “exploding galaxy” as a performative opportunity to restore the worldliness of a diminishing, ever-possible ecology.