Stephanie Comilang

Search for Life

A Meeting of Human and Natural Histories of Migration.
Can the migration of butterflies help us understand the postcolonial experience?

Search for Life, by Filipino-Canadian artist Stephanie Comilang (Toronto, 1980), is a new exhibition presented by TBA21 Thyssen-Bornemisza Art Contemporary as part of its program at the Thyssen-Bornemisza National Museum. Curated by Chus Martínez, this is the artist’s first major solo exhibition in Spain and it is organized in collaboration with Sharjah Art Foundation.

This large-scale film and textile installation, opening on March 5, focuses on the experience of migration, the interconnection between colonial and post-colonial forces, and human and more-than-human movements, including animal and plant species.

Comilang’s work juxtaposes temporality, geography, and technology into multigenerational narratives in which the future and past become aligned, addressing survival, violence, diaspora, and desire. Comilang’s films, which she calls “science fiction documentaries,” are a combination of chronicle and illusion, with stories that inhabit multiple voices and perspectives that aim to describe how culture and society are related to the cornerstones that shape our globalized world, namely mobility, capital, and labor.

In the exhibition, the film is displayed on a large digital screen and a projection that face one another, tracing shipping routes used by Spanish conquistadors after the colonization of the Philippines. The two projections constitute one film that brings to the screen the extraordinary scope of today’s global maritime cargo shipping industry, as well as the vital role Filipino seafarers play in it. The film is made up of stories told by various figures, including the historian Guadalupe Pinzón Ríos; Filipino butterfly specialist Jade Aster T. Badon; a florist, Michael John Díaz, and painter Joar Songcuya, both Filipino seafarers; a boy named Simón from Michoacán, Mexico; and, of course, the voice of the monarch butterfly.

The artist defines Search for Life as her most extensive and ambitious work to date:

“This project encompasses a multitude of overlapping histories, timeframes, and characters, both human and nonhuman, who will narrate different stories of migratory experiences, and the connections inherent in them.”

In the animal world, migration is a common practice and a strategy to ensure survival. For years, scientists studying monarch butterflies believed that these animals died in the winter until it was eventually discovered that the lepidopterans travel more than 4,000 kilometers from the United States and Canada to the fir trees of Mexico, undertaking one of the longest migrations in the animal domain. However, the butterflies that embark on the journey are not the same ones that arrive at their destination. They reproduce and perish during the migration, passing on the meaning of their flight from one generation to the next until they reach their final goal.

Martínez, the exhibition’s curator, offers these words: “In her work, Stephanie Comilang connects the migration of monarch butterflies with the movement of people. While none of us questions whether the movement of animals and species is legitimate, as they would otherwise not survive, human movement is systematically prohibited […] Different generations of human beings in the ‘search for life’ share an experience similar to that of the butterflies, which is a journey that will allow them to have a dignified life.

The exhibition explores Spain’s presence in the Philippines, the mercantile voyages of the Manila galleon, and the establishment of trade routes centuries ago that are still being used today. Alongside the film, the exhibition will show a number of textile works made of pineapple fiber, traditionally used for fabric production after this fruit was introduced to the archipelago by the Spanish. The embroideries on the textiles allude to the Manila shawl and, with them, the Spanish colonial past. They fill the room with images of the natural world, such as flowers from potato and coffee plants, vanilla, and other species imported by the Spanish, re-interpreted through the eyes of the butterflies.

This new production by Stephanie Comilang also delves into the life and labor of Filipino sailors, who are essential for international trade. Often undertaking months-long journeys away from their homes and families, they create communities with makeshift basketball courts, food, and karaoke, which become features of a new kind of ritual. The history of navigation encompasses a multitude of stories of occupation, usurpation, colonization, and trade, along with extensive exchange of culture, materials, and myths. In the artist’s words: “At the beginning of the pandemic, I repeatedly saw news stories of Filipino seafarers unable to return home, as port authorities restricted access, fearing the virus would spread. The video captures this particular story of nearly 200,000 sailors who were stranded off the Philippine coast.

Search for Life is a visual adventure and a profound reflection on history, identity, and interconnection among different forms of life on our planet. In her work, Comilang rehearses a re-reading of nature in the context of colonial exploitation, but also in rituals, which envision the potential for a new beginning beyond criticism, based on techno-futuristic scenarios capable of fostering new processes and behaviors that will positively affect the planet and the species that dwell in it.

The artist’s complex relationship with the Ocean and the organisms that inhabit the seas is one of her central themes. Considered as a space of colonial domination, the Ocean is also understood as a source of hope for an open and diverse world, as well as a setting for migratory stories about Filipino mariners and the exchange of commerce and culture. This public program is produced with the support of the Embassy of the Federal Republic of Germany in Madrid, the Embassy of Canada in Madrid, and Casa Asia.

The exhibition will also include a downloadable digital publication encompassing a curatorial essay along with contributions by two leading figures of the Philippine cultural scene: Feifei Zhou, an architect, artist, and researcher committed to investigating alternative ways of understanding the role and position of nature on our planet; and Mara Coson, one of the most iconic voices of contemporary literature in the Philippines. The contributors will come to Madrid for a talk with the curator Chus Martínez as part of the exhibition’s public program, which will also include additional talks, screenings, and workshops featuring international guests as well as local artists and communities of Filipino descent.

Thyssen-Bornemisza National Museum, Madrid
Curated by Chus Martínez
March 5–May 26,2024