Mark Orozco Justiniani’s Islands of Vertigo

Across five installations at Ateneo Art Gallery in Manila, the artist inflects national history with personal history

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BY Carlos Quijon, Jr. in Exhibition Reviews | 14 MAR 24

Void of Spectacles: Reflections on Passages through Time and History, at Ateneo Art Gallery in Manila, brings together three works from Mark Orozco Justinianis Infinity’ series (2017–21). Each dim room features a single structure as its main spectacle: a glass platform encasing paraphernalia and memorabilia that simultaneously evoke the artist’s personal memories and the history of the Philippines. These works, which Justiniani first developed for different international biennials, appear as portals to other dimensions – challenging the institutional white cube – where, from a singular vantage point, all of humanity can be surveyed.

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Mark Orozco Justiniani, Firewalk (detail), 2017–19. Courtesy: Ateneo Art Gallery; photograph: Clefvan Pornela

Using two-way mirrors, each piece creates a mise-en-abyme in which images and materials proliferate: stacks of paper, cement-block towers, miniature model furniture. From the glaring lights that illuminate these structures internally to the illusion they create of boundless space, Justiniani’s works capture the audience in unfathomable depths and then release them, in a disorientated state, on to the next seemingly infinite contraption.

Each structure thrives in this vertigo. Firewalk (2017–19), for instance, is a 16-metres-long illuminated walkway lined with drawers and shelves filled with toys and musical instruments. Along the platform are stacks of books on which viewers are invited to stand, creating a sense of precarious balance – an effect repeated in the circular portal of Well (2018). Both works, designed for children’s biennials, deploy disorientation as a form of immersive play to teach their young audience the dynamics of risk and trust, while revealing the power of art to evoke the urgency involved in these considerations.

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Mark Orozco Justiniani, Arkipelago: Capital, 2018–2019. Courtesy: Ateneo Art Gallery; photograph: the artist

These parameters change in Arkipelago (2018–19), which comprises three components, each of which focuses on a particular aspect of Philippine history as refracted through Justinianis own life experience. ‘Province’ alludes to the artist’s childhood on Negros, an island south of Manila. A classroom chalkboard, an apple (a fruit not endemic in the Philippine tropics but often used to illustrate the sound of the English ‘A’) and a simple meal served on a banana leaf are among the many references to how Westernized educational institutions displaced indigenous, animistic sources of knowledge. Other vignettes, such as one featuring sugar cane, reference the island’s agricultural economy. ‘Capital’ showcases a collection of urban artefacts – metal grilles with art-deco ornamentation, concrete blocks and other construction materials – while a scaffold supporting an illuminated birdcage extends upward. In ‘Cyclone’, weeds and crystal formations appear alongside stems of reed that grow out of the abyss.

Vertigo becomes an apt trope for this condition: we are trapped in a sensation of the world turning while we stand still. Arkipelago positions us as mere spectators to a whirl of unrelenting, crippling repetition. Paralyzed by recognition and nostalgia, we are unable to compare one island to the next: the archipelago – horizontal, connected, communal – is separated by the depths of unending and unchanging historical conditions.

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Mark Orozco Justiniani, Well (detail), 2018. Courtesy: Ateneo Art Gallery 

Across the gallery are several smaller structures from Firewalk’s original installation: diminutive, hollowed-out pedestals with crystal-lined walls and niches that resemble altars. A cast of a human hand floats in one; a paper plane hovers in another. The smaller works use the same mirroring technique as the larger platforms but offer a compelling counterpoint: while Arkipelago constrains us to separate islands, these smaller pieces gesture toward the full potency of an archipelagic imagination, of a culture sharing affinities despite its dispersal. Justiniani’s islands may swallow us whole but his niches allow us to step in and out of fabricated depths, finding ourselves among other forms that share the same horizon.

Mark Orozco Justiniani's Void of Spectacles: Reflections on Passages through Time and History’ is on view at Ateneo Art Gallery, Manila, until 6 July

Main image: Mark Orozco Justiniani, Well (detail), 2018. Courtesy: Ateneo Art Gallery

Carlos Quijon, Jr. is a curator and critic based in Manila, Philippines. Most recently he co-curated the exhibition ‘In Our Best Interests: Afro-Southeast Asia Affinities during a Cold War’ (2021) at NTU ADM Gallery, Singapore.

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