Car­los Cel­dran is the driv­ing force be­hind the first Manila Bi­en­nale

For Car­los Cel­dran, founder of Manila Bi­en­nale, the walled city of In­tra­muros is both his muse and medium


Car­los Cel­dran would get three types of re­ac­tions when­ever he’d make a pitch for the first ever Manila Bi­en­nale: anx­i­ety (“What are you get­ting your­self into?”), skep­ti­cism (“You’ll never be able to pull it off”), and clue­less­ness (“Uh, what’s a bi­en­nale?”).

But for­tu­nately for him, the most im­por­tant group of peo­ple he had to con­vince, the In­tra­muros Ad­min­is­tra­tion, was very open to the idea, as it was im­per­a­tive that the Bi­en­nale be held at In­tra­muros. “A bi­en­nale is when a city in­vites the world to come and ex­pe­ri­ence art on its own terms—not to buy, not to wan­der, but re­ally see how the city in­ter­acts with the art that we cre­ate,” Cel­dran ex­plains. “There’s a dif­fer­ence in see­ing a paint­ing in a white box and see­ing a paint­ing next to the Manila Cathe­dral.”

The not-for-profit Bi­en­nale is meant to com­ple­ment, and not com­pete, with the nu­mer­ous art fairs and fes­ti­vals tak­ing place in the first few months of 2018. The cru­cial dif­fer­ence with the Bi­en­nale is that the city it­self would be the show, and the art pre­sented within its walls is meant to act as a cat­a­lyst in re­dis­cov­er­ing what has been lost over the decades to the cul­ture of com­merce.

If you’re fa­mil­iar with Cel­dran’s work, whether in the form of his walk­ing tour, his one-man play, the Manila Tran­si­tio, or Da­maso, you’ll no­tice that the city has al­ways played a cen­tral part in his art/ac­tivism. The Manila Bi­en­nale, as en­vis­aged by Cel­dran, is the ex­pan­sion of this leit­mo­tif. For one whole month, In­tra­muros will come alive to thou­sands of vis­i­tors who will hope­fully see the place the way he does: as a source of in­spi­ra­tion, as a real, liv­ing place and not just a tourist spot for ba­lik­bayans, and as the heart and soul of a city that has since re­treated into its newer, more mod­ern walls.

“Had In­tra­muros not been bombed in 1945, we’d be a very dif­fer­ent city [pop­u­lated with] dif­fer­ent kinds of peo­ple; even our art would be dif­fer­ent,” Cel­dran says. The trauma that was the com­plete oblit­er­a­tion of a on­ce­beau­ti­ful, cul­tured, and pro­gres­sive city had led to a re­build­ing that was born out of fear and greed. Big­ger and big­ger walls came up, cre­at­ing the cul­ture of the com­pound, then the con­trolled en­vi­ron­ments of Forbes Park, then the air-con­di­tioned malls. “All of a sud­den, it be­came a po­lar­ized city. Ev­ery­thing else in be­tween be­came the ex­tra­muros.”

He muses that there’s more art on the walls of houses in Forbes Park and Das­mar­iñas Vil­lage than there are in­side lo­cal mu­se­ums.

So he wants to bring art and cul­ture back to the cen­ter, where it all be­gan. Ringo Bunoan is in charge of cu­rat­ing the artists, who will be given $200 each to cre­ate work around the theme “Open City,” re­fer­ring to a pe­riod dur­ing World War II when Manila was de­clared an open city. The theme is also about look­ing to the present and the fu­ture, where artists and vis­i­tors open up the city and trans­form it into a space that flows. The par­tic­i­pat­ing lo­cal and in­ter­na­tional artists, some of whom will be housed at Vic­to­ria Court, the of­fi­cial artists’ res­i­dence, are en­cour­aged to im­merse them­selves in In­tra­muros. “I hate the word ‘site-spe­cific,’ but aura, con­text, and en­vi­ron­ment are what’s re­ally most im­por­tant when you’re talk­ing about art,” Cel­dran says. “If not, you’re just look­ing at a ca­daver that’s hang­ing on the wall. The [cre­ative] process has stopped.”

The Bi­en­nale will also hold panel dis­cus­sions on top­ics rel­e­vant to the art scene to­day, such as sex­ual ha­rass­ment and the role of the gallery in the age of so­cial me­dia. Artists will be given a fo­rum to speak hon­estly about the is­sues that af­fect them with­out hav­ing to per­form “like a danc­ing mon­key” in front of col­lec­tors, as Cel­dran, de­spite hav­ing to wear many hats as a pro­ducer of the Bi­en­nale, is pri­mar­ily an artist and has only the artists’ interests in mind. That said, it also doesn’t hurt to teach artists how to fend for them­selves, such as get­ting their own TIN. By par­tic­i­pat­ing in the Bi­en­nale, the artists will get to show the world that they do what they do for them­selves.

Hav­ing grown up within the gated com­mu­nity of Das­mar­iñas Vil­lage him­self, Cel­dran made the meta­phys­i­cal and phys­i­cal jour­ney to be­come Old Manila’s loud­est ad­vo­cate. He was 14 years old when he started draw­ing po­lit­i­cal car­toons (ad­mit­tedly ripped off from Doones­bury), which leg­endary car­toon­ist Nonoy Marcelo took an in­ter­est in. Ev­ery week, in or­der to drop off his draw­ings at the Busi­ness World of­fices, Cel­dran had to take a bus and the LRT from his posh vil­lage to the Port Area, yet it was an in­cred­i­ble jour­ney he looked for­ward to ev­ery week, after re­al­iz­ing that the world out there was much more ex­cit­ing than what he had found in his clois­tered vil­lage life.

After tak­ing up fine arts at the Uni­ver­sity of the Philip­pines, do­ing an in­tern­ship un­der Santiago Bose and BenCab in Baguio, and fin­ish­ing art school at the Rhode Is­land School of De­sign, he re­turned to Manila and spent the next 15 years liv­ing and breath­ing In­tra­muros. It was both his muse and his medium, and it was also a place where he has slept in, wo­ken up in, vom­ited in, got­ten ar­rested in.

But Cel­dran in­sists the Bi­en­nale is not about him; he’s just pro­duc­ing it. And he also hap­pens to know where all the tav­erns are, where you can find a par­tic­u­lar mango tree next to a pile of rub­ble as well as ev­ery sin­gle bell, bell tower, wall, and tile. “If I get you cu­ri­ous enough to leave your com­fort zone, go down­town to see that sculp­ture, and hate it on site, I al­ready won.”

The Manila Bi­en­nale: Open City 2018 opens on Feb. 3 and will run un­til March 5.

By pro­duc­ing the Manila Bi­en­nale, Cel­dran hopes to draw peo­ple from malls and reac­quaint them with other pub­lic spa­ces in the city. The goal is to bring au­di­ences to In­tra­muros, not as tourists, but as lo­cals who are well in­formed about their own...

Cover photo by Joseph Pascual

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