Tence Ruiz created Shoal for the Philippine Pavilion’s showcase at Venice’s Biennale Arte in 2015. It is, in his words, a spool of “knotted narratives” and “layered anxieties,” under Patrick Flores’ curatorship of the “Tie a String around the World” exhibit, which deals with nations and neighbors and the gamut of emotions drawn from history.
Shoal is now moored on its spot at the Vargas Museum of the University of the Philippines from December 2016 to February 2017. It will stay there until someone notices it is the best place for a Valentine date. (There are movie rooms in the next hall and a collection of old maps upstairs).
In real life, the Philippine Navy ship is called the Sierra Madre, which had ran aground in the 1990s right smack on the Second Tomas Shoal in the Spratly chain, in our part of what we now call the West Philippine Sea. It is our fragile stand for sovereignty against a superpower that is China, which is claiming almost the entire breadth of the South China Sea. Sierra Madre, ship number 57, is a rusty relic that guards the frontier like a ghost from nowhere.
Ruiz describes the ship as “the anomalous carcass.” “Passed on to our nation as a rust encrusted hand-me-down, it bristled, in full derelict glory, as marker of our fluid boundaries, our contested dominion, our sporadic bravado.” And yet we won, not in a battle at sea but in the international court deciding on the law of the sea, a victory that makes Shoal the artistic flagship of our love for our waters.
The velvet pieces of cloth are tied and wrapped around each other, mummifying as it were a distinct oeuvre that had undergone many stories told. Ruiz said it had taken about half a century (he is almost 60 now) to summon the audacity to make it to the big, bold contemporary art world of the Biennale in Venice.
The inspiration came in a “gurgling cantata” that spoke to him in the tangles of the past about what the ship meant, of entwined stories of a region’s colonial empires and what has been brought to an archipelago that stands alone between America and Asia. “It spoke of a nation reeking of amnion, blood and sputum as it extruded itself into neurotic modernity,” the artist writes in his essay about his masterpiece.
Ruiz said the braids and bandages were inspired by artists that influenced him: Salvatore Scarpitta, an American sculptor of Italian and Russian origins who had served in the Navy and is known for his studies of motion; and the Austrian performance artist Rudolf Schwarzkogler. Ruiz pays homage to the Korean soryeom or bundled corpse. And, of course, there are the homegrown shapes of gnarled rattan and bamboo arches, of knots in beads and rosaries.
The handful of Filipino Marines stationed on the dilapidating Sierra Madre would not be able to recognize Shoal if they saw it; but it is, I’d like to think, their patriotic duty to somehow connect their stand to the artist’s bold imagination. If the ship completely rots and falls apart in the coming years, Shoal will be there to remind the country of how haplessly we guarded our maritime wealth, the waters around us.
“Shoal was not only the absurdly audacious, corroded territorial battleship of my self-identification,” Ruiz said, “it had, through all of this, become its generous and nurturing vessel.”