One sports a curly wig and a fringed skirt made of golden foil. Others dress as political and religious figures. Some carry cardboard signs emblazoned with slogans like “Yolanda Survivor” — a reference to the deadly typhoon that rocked the Philippines in 2013.
Dutch-Filipino artist Martha Atienza’s video installation, “Our Islands, 11°16`58.4″ 123°45`07.0″E,” is a striking artistic spectacle. Its characters’ balletic movements help the viewer feel their struggle for air and the weight of the water above them. But a closer inspection hints at the bigger issues at play.
Filmed in the sea around Bantayan Island in the Philippines, Atienza’s work addresses serious environmental questions: How the island’s marine ecosystems are in peril and how its inhabitants are abandoning their heritage to look for opportunities elsewhere — as seafarers on international ships or even as domestic helpers abroad.
“My grandfather used to tell my father, ‘Why leave the island? There are plenty of fish,'” says Atienza. “Imagine, before it would take a few hours to catch 40 kilos. Now it takes a whole night to catch a few kilos. And the fish caught are actually too small — they haven’t spawned yet.”
Raising awareness through art
“They are looking for the most unique, authentic, strong work. Just in Statements, 400 galleries applied from all over the world and only 18 were chosen. So we knew Martha could do it. Her work is authentic and you can’t stop watching it.”
Previous winners, such as Haegue Yang, Ryan Gander and Tino Sehgal, have gone on to become big names in the art world.
Atienza’s art — from sound installations of clanging ships to slow motion footage of tempestuous seas — often directly involves the inhabitants of Bantayan Island.
The local community informs the artist’s decision-making, as she uses her work to address matters affecting her hometown.
Changes to island community
As well as confronting environmental issues, “Our Islands” marks the culmination of a stretch of Atienza’s work inspired by the Ati-Atihan Festival, a traditional feast celebrating Santo Niño (the infant Jesus).
Her exploration of the annual event began with 2010’s “Anito” — a work that documented the gradual changes in the island community.
In previous years, Atienza might have presented the festival as a colorful affair. But the struggles facing the island’s inhabitants are becoming more apparent in her work.
“People are simply hungrier than before, and it shows,” says Atienza.
“No more crazy, elaborate costumes; no more painted rice sacks. Some people don’t even join [in the festival] because they choose to go fishing instead — their families have to eat. Or the others are all abroad. The parade has been shrinking and less colorful, for sure.”
A difficult shoot
“Our Islands” required meticulous preparations to film. As well as checking tides, wind conditions and currents, Atienza had to find underwater locations that captured how lifeless the sea had become.
The unpredictability of the weather — perhaps worsened by climate change — made it difficult for the artist and her crew to find the right shooting conditions.
Then, one sunny Sunday in April, it finally happened. “The actual shoot was super short, compared to the months of preparation,” Atienza recalls.
“We practiced a lot, not just with the divers but also preparing technically. I was on a bamboo stand three meters high [but] I could see what was happening on cellphone screens, and I could coordinate from there. I was almost like a real film director.”
Putting Bantayan Island’s men and women in her art — where they can, quite literally, see their roles in combating climate change — is an important element of Atienza’s work.
She has also mentored a group of the island’s youths, helping them to create their own documentation of changes in their hometown.
“I never looked at coming [to Art Basel] — I was always running from white spaces,” Atienza says.
“But there are people all over the world who are taking the time to watch the work, and they only want to talk after watching. So I am sharing [our project]. And that’s what its all about: connecting with others and creating dialogue.