Investigating Circulations: The Folly of [Art] Bottom-lines and Number-crunching

The relatively cent ruckus over how the latest Social Weather Station (SWS) figures indicate that Filipinos still feel far from jubilant – even as the Arroyo government trumpets the peso’s gaining on the dollar alongside the country’s rosy credit upgrade – merely underscores how numbers are as much abstractions of the truth as the next door non-figurative canvas. Expectedly, government spokespersons were making much of how debt servicing funds could be freed up for basic services and how investors could now imaginably perceive transactions in the Philippines as less risky because of Moody’s turnaround. It was noteworthy that these pronouncements came at the heels of news headlines and op-ed pieces on the results of poverty and hunger surveys done in March, and again in end-October 2006, revealing that 2.9 million Filipino families (roughly 14.5 million individuals) went hungry at least once in the preceding three months.

That it should be easy enough to make the case further is seen in other seminal stats: 7,107 islands, an 85 – 87 million populace, 10.8% of which live below the poverty line of US$2/day, US$9.11 billion in overseas Filipino workers’ remittances for 2006’s first three quarters, an 84% functional literacy rate, 8% unemployment, 23.5% underemployment, a crude birth rate of 24.09 per thousand Filipinos, and a crude death rate of 5.6 per thousand Filipinos. These alongside the factoid that as of year 2000, the national government spent 0.17% of GNP for culture and arts make for mantra-like gauges that get bandied about as drawing the contours of an otherwise complex country profile. It is then ironic that the mindset that champions the notion that numbers do indeed tell the story continues to gain ground even in as far left a field as art.

Take for instance how it was publicly heralded in 1999 that the Philippines had finally appeared on the international art map when Anita Magsaysay-Ho’s In the Marketplace outperformed its initial modest estimate of S$25,000 by selling for approximately S$670,000. Predictably, the event gained visibly broad coverage across virtually all Philippine media platforms bannering that this was the first time a Filipina had ascended unto such prominence. Supposedly signaling that Pinoy art had arrived on the world stage as evidenced by signs of an actual market, what these news bytes failed to say was that it was primarily still Filipinos buying Filipino art and that these collectors were apparently simply learning to work the bidding circuit and grappling with the prestige of buying at auction rather than through Philippine-based dealers. That this is no small matter begs one to point out that back in the early 70s through to the early 90s, the country seemed to have all but abandoned the project of officially staking a place on the European art map, still reeling from its humbling experience of exhibiting at Venice in the 60s and having to fend off charges of derivativeness. Suffice it to say that the Philippines certainly does not have a monopoly of this dilemma even today when ideas about postcoloniality are much more widely dispersed.

And so while Magsaysay-Ho’s arguably phenomenal showing at Christie’s in Singapore may indeed portend that Philippine art has gained a privileged place in the investment hierarchy, the seminal deal and consequent sales figures in succeeding auctions and regional art fairs continue to fail to reckon with how persistently central it has been to previous and even current bids at exhibiting Philippine work (biennales and triennials being only one type of such platforms) that small players or Johnny come-lately countries like ours couldn’t imaginably thrust anything original unto the limelight since we were simply too far behind in the tricky game of art historical catch-up. Fast forward to the 00s and we find discourse has shifted to hybridity and edgy politics painted in tones measuring up to the hipness barometer of the moment.

Logically, as far as agenda-setting goes, it would be the tight clique of curators, dealers, and collectors who would stand as the most likely suspects in the play-up to what kind of art gets a bid at international scrutiny in these platforms. It is in this light that speaking about how Philippine art virtually and/or physically gets to its supposed end-users outside the country’s geographic ambit, that we reel in notions of re-presentation, mediating frames that are simultaneously aesthetic and non-, visibly playing into how our art gets elsewhere. In the pointed case of biennales, triennials, and auctions, these frames often enough get transmitted as hard facts – numerical data and hammer prices which validate as well as assign values that further become subject to re-circulation over time and as par for the course. These number values in turn, reincarnate by all manner of public relations spins to weigh in on the project of pushing the Philippines as a viable brand of nation-territory that’s publicly projected as oozing creative talent merely waiting to be “discovered” in a reprise of Magellan’s conceit.

Recalling the state-rooted history of these events and taking data posed by the Asia Art Archive (AAA) as an illustrative case, let us note the following table which lists international art biennales and triennials in the order of their chronological establishment:


Philippine Representation in International Biennales and Triennials

Event Year Participating Filipino Artists
Venice Biennale 1964, 1993, 1995, 2001, 2003, 2005 Jose Joya, Napoleon Abueva, Manuel Ocampo, Alwin Reamillo, Paul Pfeiffer, Juan Alfredo and Isabel Aquilizan, Kidlat Tahimik
Biennial Exhibition of Contemporary American Painting, Corcoran Gallery of Art 1993 Manuel Ocampo
Whitney Biennale 2000 Paul Pfeiffer
Sao Paulo Biennale 1965, 1967, 1969, 1971, 1973, 1994, 1996 Romeo Tabuena, Hernando Ocampo, J. Elizalde Navarro, Napoleon Abueva, Cesar Legaspi, Arturo Luz, Gabriel Barredo, Salvador Convocar, Charlie Co
Tokyo Biennale 1968 Benedicto Cabrera
Biennales Hispanico-Americanas de Arte La Havana, Cuba 1953 Jose Joya
Biennales Hispanico-Americana de Arte, Barcelona, Spain 1954-1963 (exact year/snot indicated) Jose Joya
Documenta 1972,1993 David Medalla, Manuel Ocampo
Paris Biennale 1961, 1963, 1965, 1967, 1969, 1971 Oscar Zalameda, Nena Saguil, Florencio Concepcion, Tomas Concepcion, Angelito David, Leonardo Hidalgo, Luis-Eduardo Aute, Angelito David, Leonardo Hidalgo, Leon Pacunayen, Tomas Concepcion, Federico Alcuaz, Benedicto Cabrera, Virgilio Aviado, Lamberto Hechanova, Romeo Vitug, Ray Albano, Eduardo Castrillo, Marciano Galang, Rodolfo Gan, Abdulmari Imao, Ben-hur Villanueva, Efren Zaragoza
India Triennale 1968, 1971, 1978, 1982, 1997 Artists unidentified for earlier years but those that were identified include: Angelito Antonio, Ros Arcilla, Rodolfo Biscocho, Allan Cosio, Edgar Doctor, Lino Severino, Lao Lianben, Junyee, Henri Cainglet
Bienale Internationale de Arte, Valparaiso 1987, 1989 Ramon Orlina, Benedicto Cabrera, Brenda Fajardo, Roberto Robles, Marcel Antonio, Sid Gomez Hildawa, Virginia


Philippine International Print Biennial 1972 Data unavailable
Sydney Biennale 1973, 1992, 1998, 2000, 2004, 2006 Solomon Saprid, Imelda Cajipe- Endaya, Lani Maestro, Sanggawa, Maria Cruz, Juan Alfredo and Isabel Aquilizan
Tokyo International Print Biennale 1974 Arturo Luz
Western Pacific Print Biennial, Melbourne, Australia 1978 Jose Joya
Asian Art Biennale-Bangladesh 1983, 1986, 1991, 1993, 1995, 1999, 2001, 2004, 2006 Some artists remained unnamed in the catalogues/references but those identified include Judy Freya Sibayan, Susan Fetalvero- Roces, Sid Gomez Hildawa (with Daniel Coquilla, Claro Ramirez, Eric Zamuco, Jose John Santos III), Pablo Baens Santos, Ramon Billanes
International Biennial Print and Drawing Exhibition (Taipei) 1999, 2001 Ronald Ventura, Andres Barrioquinto
British International Print Biennale 1984 Arturo Luz
Havana Biennale 1986, 1989, 1994, 1997, 2001, 2003 Jose Joya, Lani Maestro, Roberto Feleo, Brenda Fajardo, Agnes Arellano, Alwin Reamillo, Juan Alfredo and Isabel Aquilizan, Imelda Pilapil, Jose Tence Ruiz, Aureus Solito, Sid Gomez Hildawa, Junyee, Alma Quinto
Istanbul Biennale 1997, 2003 Lani Maestro, Jose Legaspi
1st Triennale Mondial d’Estampes (Petit Format) Association Musee d’ Art Contemporain de Chamalieres,  France 1987, 1991 Benedicto Cabrera
ARTEC International Biennale, Nagoya 1989 Kidlat Tahimik
Cairo Biennale 2003, 2006 Paul Pfeiffer, Joaquin Palencia
Lyon Biennale of Contemporary Art 2000 Manuel Ocampo
Sharjah Biennale 2003 Jose dela Cruz
Canadian Biennale of Contemporary Art 1989 Lani Maestro
Osaka Triennale of Sculpture 1990, 1992, 1993, 1995, 1996, 2001 Sandra Torrijos, Ramon Orlina, Henri Cainglet, Antonio Catral Lea, Herminigildo Pineda, Joy Mallari
Asia Pacific Triennale 1993, 1996, 1999, 2002 Nunelucio Alvarado, Santiago Bose, Imelda Cajipe-Endaya, Brenda Fajardo, Edgar Talusan Fernandez, Junyee, Julie Lluch, Lazaro Soriano, Roberto Villanueva, Charlie Co, Francesca Enriquez, Mark Justiniani, Jose Tence Ruiz, Juan Alfredo and Isabel Aquilizan, Agnes Arellano, Roberto Feleo, Lani Maestro, John Frank Sabado, Jose Legaspi
Toyamura International Sculpture Biennale 1999 Ramon Orlina
Johannesburg Biennale 1995, 1998 Agnes Arellano, David Medalla
Gwangju Biennale 1997, 2000, 2002 Manuel Ocampo, Dennis Ascalon, Brenda Fajardo, Big Sky Mind/Mowelfund, Judy Freya Sibayan
Biennale di Colombo, Sri Lanka 2001 Junyee, Imelda Pilapil
Shanghai Biennale 2000 Lani Maestro
Fax Art Biennale, Reyjavik 1998 Claro Ramirez
Busan Biennale 2002, 2004 Paul Pfeiffer, Juan Alfredo and Isabel Aquilizan, Lani Maestro
Berlin Biennale 2001 Manuel Ocampo
International Biennale of Basketball in the Fine Arts 2000 Ramon Orlina, Manuel Garibay
Melbourne International Biennale 1999 Gerardo Tan
Liverpool Biennale Data unavailable David Medalla
Fukuoka Asian Art Triennale 1999, 2002, 2005 Juan Alfredo Aquilizan, Alfredo Esquillo, John Frank Sabado, Nona Garcia, Alwin Reamillo
Echigo-Tsumari Art Triennale 2000, 2006 Kidlat Tahimik, Juan Alfredo and Isabel Aquilizan
Yokohama Triennale 2001, 2005 Katya Guerrero, Alma Quinto
CP Open Biennale 2005 Alfredo Esquillo
Beijing International Art Biennale 2005 Cristina Taniguchi
International Biennale of Contemporary Art of Seville 2004 Manuel Ocampo
Beppu Asia Biennale of Contemporary Art 2005 Leslie de Chavez
Ogaki Biennale 2006 Tad Ermitaño
Singapore Art Biennale 2006 Jose Legaspi, Yason Banal, Brian Gothong Tan


The preceding data, which is by no means exhaustive, remains markedly spotty in places, but it does reveal that the Philippines did not get an arguable grip on the oldest European institutions until the 90s. Further, these numbers say close to nothing about the how’s and why’s of getting art unto these platforms, much less the online re-counting.

First off, since the core of the data comes out of AAA’s online tally of Asian representation to date, none of the Filipinos who presently site their art practice outside the region register in the AAA count. Also, non-biennale and/or triennial-type international events such as those organized by ASEAN, Japan Foundation, and so on, being either one-of or annual institutional ventures or corporate- or foundation-sponsored competitions also have not been absorbed into the tally effort. While AAA’s information, as presently packaged online, does make an effort to detail how curatorial structures vary across these events listed, elaborated discussion on just how exclusive or inclusive selection processes are (which in turn also possibly explains why some official participants didn’t get on the board at all) remains wanting. Perhaps understandably so, AAA has also stayed away from distinguishing which institutions have, over the years, earned degrees of stability (either through flexing political and/or critical muscle), how these reputations have been established, and which events are still largely regarded as neophytes or poseurs in these exhibition circles. Quite succinctly, the numbers, in and of themselves, fail to tell us that not all biennales nor triennials are created as equals. Other questions which go unanswered include: why male artists still outnumber females, why Manila-based artists make up a clear majority, and how certain generations of artists (apparently because of the two-decade lull in Europe) seem to have been bypassed.

Moreover, stats such as these, as presented, gloss over specific phenomena such as: artists having taken matters into their own hands, insinuating themselves into art circulation contexts when the canonical gates have failed to usher them in warmly; how the balance of power in the artworld appears to have tipped from critics to curators; how professional savvy and career management skills have allowed artists and/or dealers a foothold by appropriating the auction and even indirectly the biennale and/or triennial platforms as self-propagating modes in the validation process. This is to say nothing of how little data is available on how these artists’ works get received at these blockbuster events. Still other nagging parallel questions have to do with: just what kind of art gets circulated, by whom, and for whom? We have not even begun speaking here of overtly commercial and embassy and/or cultural-center initiated exhibits which very often enough get undertaken for extra-aesthetic or extra-curatorial goals. Future research also needs to account for Filipino artists working out of the country and ultimately appropriated as citizens of other territories – e.g. Maria Cruz, Lani Maestro, David Medalla, Manuel Ocampo, Paul Pfeiffer, Alwin Reamillo, and even individuals such as Brian Gothong Tan (born on Filipino soil but since classified as Singaporean).

As the AAA re-counting limited itself to “institutionalized” events, it also inexplicably missed out on D-I-Y (non-curated or open invitation) initiatives bucking the art extravaganza model, where ragtag organizing and aesthetics disproportionately rule the roost (note the London Biennale which appears in the table even as it has been excluded from AAA’s categorization).

Perhaps precisely because of the ever-shifting balance of power, and artists taking matters into their hands in events such as London, etc., Filipino artistic participation as culled from the data does not at all fit into a streamlined homogeneous suit. The cacophony of modernists, “identitarian nativists”, conceptual artists that make up the de facto country profile only underlines the fact that while the Philippine artworld is obviously segmented and though not utopically harmonious, it certainly can not be construed as unequivocally governed by violent polemics between those who cling to formulaically-construed modernism and those choosing to play within the cracks and heady mixes of pomo and post pomo. Despite the often-articulated charges that politically-inflected art hasn’t had it this good for the longest time, it can be imaginably argued, using the above data, that there is still no obvious nor undeniable skew in the art practice that’s cited and served up as contemporarily Filipino. What the figures apparently say is that participation has become much more dependent on which artworld network is being tapped into and what particular curatorial bent, however incoherent, has determined how these events under scrutiny take shape.

This far too tempting opportunity to de-mystify the art valuation process leads us to cite other artworld idiosyncrasies-artists gamely crossing over thought-to-be rigid art theoretical divides, curators doubling up as critics, artists doubling up as curators, artists/dealers/gallerists formulating price grids based on the peso per cubic inch or centimeter, number of figures/heads rendered, and so on. A point of confluence that should warrant attention is how circulation ties into validation. Off the bat and way too simplistically put, biennales/triennials represent critical validation while auctions indicate commercial validation. Yet realpolitik debunks this quite easily with specific art career tracks revealing that such domains can hardly be thought of as exclusive, this seen in the intersections between artist line-ups of once regarded indie/alternative outfits (now the feeding troughs of biennales and triennials) and those embedded in the selling gallery circuit, and also how some artists who eventually earn their stripes in both modes gain a modicum of both critical and commercial status within their lifetimes.

Quite pointedly, the phenomenon of valuation through auctions appeared to have come to a head in 2002 when Juan Luna’s Parisian Life came under the hammer at Christie’s for P46 million. The issue of this being a minor piece that single-handedly skewed prices for other Lunas in the artist’s body of work was very much a point of discussion in the months following the work’s purchase and subsequent provincial touring in Government Service Insurance System (GSIS) offices. It has since been accorded an auspicious hanging at GSIS’s Museo ng Sining where curious and/or bored pension or loan claimants are made to mull over whether the monies were well spent on a work now offered for veneration in its own private room, appropriately cordoned off, and staged to reminisce the wall from which it used to hang in Quiapo’s Bahay Nakpil. Only two years earlier, Christie’s auction of Southeast Asian works in Singapore also became the stage for Fabian de la Rosa’s Women Working in a Ricefield to sell for US$409,026 (double its initial estimate of US$200,000) which sold alongside Benedicto Cabrera’s Waiting for the Monsoon at S$41,125 (double its initial estimate of S$18,000). Inasmuch as this was Cabrera’s initiation into the mainstream auction scene, it would be a no-brainer as to how this upped his status in the eyes of future collectors who would only be too pleased to see him declared National Artist in 2006, this apart from how rumors of possibly fake De la Rosas began being passed on from one collector’s ear to the next.

Having being reared in the fringes of the artworld of the 80s, one easily remembers how much more modestly auctions were undertaken back then as opposed to these grandiose affairs they have since become. Then undertaken by the gallery alliance, Art Manila along with other small foundation-type initiatives, these intermittent auctions and art raffles were called upon as clichéd strategies for raising funds for one recurring social cause or other. This strain of auctions was far removed from the massive infrastructure that props up the giant auction houses – the Sotheby’s and Christie’s of today. Traditionally, going on auction in these giant outfits was a form of revalidation for the work of artists, but now given that the market and sourcing of pieces for old masters, impressionist, and modernist art auctions have been thinning, auction houses have increasingly turned to contemporary art as a promising, if not already delivering lucrative niche.

Market observers still tangle with how this shift has effectively fastracked if not short-circuited career development routes by allowing artists to leapfrog from studio to dealer to the global arena where a single show anywhere outside the country is supposedly enough to warrant international artist-status and where press often becomes self-fulfilling if not outrightly self-serving prophecy. In the case of the Philippines’s still fledgling market, the masters and contemporary works still comfortably sit by side in the glossy catalogues. Consequent with these changes is the understandably adamant defense against charges of trending or orchestrating market movement evident in the following disclaimer:

Mok Kim Chuan keeps a constant eye out for Philippine masters that may come onto the market. He admits that last year’s sale of Luna’s Parisian Life to GSIS for 46 million pesos may have heightened the interest of international and local dealers and collectors in Philippine art, but in no way did the sale influence this Sotheby’s consignment of the two paintings. He said, ‘We were working on this before the Christie’s sale and all this time, Lunas and Hidalgos were what we set out to look for.’

Of course, globally, it is still very much the boom economies of China, India, and West Asia which really figure prominently in the eyes of global art operators. Thus it has not been too far-fetched to assume that the sales of Philippine works have primarily been about being adjacent to the ripples or residue of the money traffic.

Nonetheless, what cannot be denied is that these new indicators of status (how far removed hammer prices were from opening bids, number of biennales and triennials tucked within the CV or artist’s biography) bode obvious degrees of caution given potential problems as: flukes becoming benchmarks, flaky buying habits, fuzzy curatorial frameworks, as well as a general inability to detect shifts in the art power structure, and so on. It is in light of these that the artworld observer hoping to exercise some prudence, takes on a hefty burden of reckoning with a broader set of cultural players and the shifting relationships between them, with the changing complexion of alternative spaces, a gallery landscape palpably dominated by commercial art as visibly demonstrated in the metamorphosed Megamall Artwalk – such are the changes that seem to inevitably shake the faith of those who still believe that it is the market, as homogenously imagined, that remains the only dependable agenda setter in the artworld. This is particularly critical in the Philippines, where artists who ascend to the highest nominal validation locus – the National Artist Award, ultimately confront the market as a creatively dulling and corrupting presence, thus the now worn anecdote of already paid for blank canvases literally and physically wearing down artists faced with daunting commissions rosters.

Still another corollary is how for all intents and purposes, the market or audience for art may be elsewhere if only artificially so. For embarrassingly obvious reasons, Manila-based gallerists have been bewailing the phenomenon of Pinoy collectors opting to buy works on auction abroad rather than deciding on their purchases when the works are still circulating locally-here, one could surmise the refined rituals of wealth display have obviously been privileged over the securing of prudent deals.

In this trumpeted information age, online services such as artprice or artnet allow users, for a fee, to monitor how investments are translating in terms of which artist has fared positively across the auction platform. Such sites boast of data representing transactions done in 500 auction houses and eventually, dealerships over the last decade or so. Such handy investment tools not only challenge the idea of collecting as a function of networking savvy but they also propagate the notion that art is keenly about accessing information rather than physically encountering objects. Thus, taken at face value, these mask the dynamics (artworld wheeling and dealing, underhanded branding maneuvers to skew market focus on art that is supposedly about more than paybacks and defying risks) of how information gets encoded in the first place. What these sales stats do reveal is that the moneyed have allowed aesthetics (and recombinant ideologies) a foothold on their purchasing decisions, whether of course this be via aesthetics grounded in art history and critical faculty is a different matter all together. In the end, all this talk about pesos and dollars arguably leaves a bad taste on the tongue masked by an ineffectual mint.

And so in the hope of not losing the sense of irony of a Pananaw volume participating in a Documenta in which no Filipino artists are actually going to be around for, this essay brings us full circle to the core issue of visibility or staking a claim on space and territory that continues to prove inaccessible. As in the case of this Documenta where no Filipino artists are participating but where Pananaw was able to literally get a word in edge-wise through the Documenta Magazines Project, how will we ultimately fare, or does a critical mass of Pinoys actually still bother about the matter?

As to where current art validation regimes move in the long run when set against the contentious, seemingly unpredictable shifts in the privileging that gets undertaken through art history, criticism, pedagogy, et. al., brings up another question about how this critical impetus determines where art gets circulated – that is, whether only among the usual suspects – regurgitated, ruminated, and spewed to be mulched again, or whether art done inconspicuously, and for much much higher stakes ought to weigh in on discourse that purports to be emancipating and empowering even though not as delectably there for the taking.

Eileen Legaspi-Ramirez is a faculty member of the University of the Philippines Department of Art Studies. Her essays have appeared in Pananaw, Transit: A Quarterly of Art Discussion, Fine Art Forum, Forum on Contemporary Art and Society, n.paradoxa: international feminist art journal, RealTime+Onscreen, ARTiT: Art in Japan and Asia-Pacific, Visual Arts Magazine, Indonesia, and the Sunday Inquirer Magazine. She presently serves as a curatorial consultant at the Lopez Museum.


  1. With reference to SWS’s first and third quarter 2006 Self-Rated Poverty and Hunger Surveys.
  2. President Gloria Macapagal Arroyo had just returned from official travel to China in early November 2006 when she announced through Department of Finance officials that Moody’s Investors Service had changed its credit outlook for the Philippines from “negative” to “stable”.
  3. The core of the data reproduced in this table has been sourced from AAA’s online project “All You Want to Know About International Art Biennials” ( accessed in November 2006). Information on biennales and triennials on which AAA has yet to assemble data on or which do not fall under its research categories (such as single-medium events like print or sculpture biennales) have been appended to provide a broader picture of how Filipino artists (including those based in Europe, North America, and Australia) have participated (number-wise) in these events.
  4. Kitty Go, “Sotheby’s to Auction Hidalgo’s La Parisienne, Philippine Daily Inquirer, fea/2003/mar/20-01.htm accessed November 2006.
  5. “Young, Edgy & Global,” Collecting in Asia: Reports, Analysis and Comment from The Financial Times, Asia Insight, October 2006 (Sponsored by Christie’s), originally published June 24, 2006.

First Published: 18.07.2007 on Kakiseni

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