They say that these are not the best of times but they’re the only times I’ve ever known. And I believe there is a time for meditations in cathedrals of our own.”
– Billy Joel (“Summer Highland Falls”)
Veronica Peralejo’s installation of concrete cement cubes titled “Empty Rituals” at Finale Art Gallery in Makati City last July was a work inspired by a cathedral of her own making during the Covid-19 pandemic.
A square-shaped formation of 38-inch concrete cubes, the installation was a sequel to her recent exhibit at MO_Space, titled “All You Holy Monks and Hermits.” In her exhibit notes, Peralejo, a painter-turned-sculptor, stated that the event aimed to explore isolation in the current pandemic and the spirituality spawned by it.
The uniformly sized cubes with variations, such as cavities with grooves, perforations, and chipped or jagged corners, were, according to her, “originally intended as incense holders,” The piece represented her concept of “the abstract nature of rituals when cleaning spaces and clearing of minds using smoke.”
Incense has been used for thousands of years by various cultures and religions for clearing space and for dispelling evil and negative energies. Catholics, Buddhists, Taoists, Shintoists, Hindus, Wiccans, neopagans and shamans we call “arbularyo”, “magtatawas”, “manggagamot” or “babaylan” in our Filipino culture all incorporate incense in their rituals.
In “Empty Rituals,” the cubes of incense holders had a universal quality, with concrete cement and the cubic figure being found in many cultures due to the globalization of construction and architecture.
The form of cement popularly used today was invented by the Romans who used it to build their monolithic coliseums and temples that still stand to this day. Though its use died with the fall of the Roman Empire, cement has now become the standard material for all buildings and skyscrapers—the digital age capitalist’s paean to Mammon.
In the craftsman’s hands of Peralejo, the humble and practical concrete cement found in every hardware store takes on an ephemeral and ethereal quality. Her cubes become a modern ascetic’s altar.
The artistic use of concrete cement was demonstrated by Henry Moore in his cubist sculptures simply because he thought the material was “cheap”. Following suit, fellow British Barbara Hepworth utilized cement in her abstract sculptures.
In modern architectural design, the use of cement was introduced by Bauhaus founder Walter Gropius and innovated by Swiss architect Le Corbusier. The raw, unpainted material was part of a new aesthetic of Brutalist architecture which emerged in the postwar United Kingdom in the 1950s.
Contemporary sculptors like Carl Maria Kemper, Carlos Granger and Jano Myburgh have also appropriated the use of cement combined with the raw, modern aesthetics of Brutalist architecture. I saw this artistic style in Peralejo’s conceptual installation.
“Empty Rituals” was also a homage to the Zen rock gardens found in the ancient Buddhist temples in Kyoto, Japan, such as the more popular one at Rioanji Temple. The installation of concrete cubes was reminiscent of the checkerboard-patterned rock garden of Tofukuji Temple.
In these rock gardens, a visitor or a monk is meant to stay and sit to meditate, to contemplate, to ruminate, or to simply breathe and be. Peralejo’s exhibit was arranged in such a way that it invited the viewer to meditate on the Zen-like ascetic altar of concrete cubes. There was a primitive-style wooden bench to sit and contemplate. The space around the square formation was sufficient for a walking meditation.
In our fast-paced culture, people are constantly rushing and multitasking to be more time-efficient and hyperproductive. The rat race culture combined with consumerism and the current “economics of attention” found in digital and social media is a toxic concoction which has resulted in 21st-century maladies, such as stress, insecurity, depression, anxiety, chronic fatigue and emptiness. One feels alienated and lonely in spite of all the many likes, friends and followers in Facebook and Instagram.
Peralejo’s pandemic experience which forced her to explore her spirituality and to use this as a coping mechanism became quite a common phenomenon. I was drawn to her installation because I resonated with her experience. I have been quite a disciplined meditator since 2000. I relished my daily doses of solitude, yet I was still a very social and gregarious creature who thrived in art and cultural events and who sought the company of my friends and colleagues.
The pandemic forced me to remain isolated indoors. In fear of death or hospitalization from Covid, I joined online meditation groups in various traditions—Catholic contemplative, Zen Buddhist mindful practices and Indian yogic pranayama. I faced The Grim Reaper while I watched friends, parents of friends and acquaintances die from the coronavirus. I have never before attended more online Masses and novenas for the departed.
Almost like a nun or monk, I lived in what John Main OSB called a “monastery without walls”. Religion which Karl Marx said was the opium of the people in the 1800s has been eclipsed by social media as the nouvelle designer opiate.
But how do the marginalized navigate imprisonment with an entire family in a space perhaps smaller than the size of the exhibit space for Peralejo’s installation? How can one meditate or contemplate one’s spirituality when there is threat of dying from EJK (extrajudicial killing) or from Covid with no healthcare, no income from a daily wage, no food on the table for one’s family, and no Wi-Fi for entertainment and distraction because of this pandemic?
Meditating in monasteries and cathedrals of our own is a privilege and a luxury of the few. My ruminations on art, spirituality and Peralejo’s installation as I sip my mint tea is a whimsical, bourgeois privilege.
In my utopian Philippines, the “Empty Rituals” installation would be transported or cloned in public spaces where the marginalized or anyone needing serenity and introspection could enjoy the edifying pleasure of meditating in cathedrals of their own.
Christine Carlos, a graduate of humanities and art studies with a masteral degree in film and media studies at the University of the Philippines, writes about culture and the arts. She is an independent filmmaker, singer and actor. —Meditations in cathedrals of our own—Ed.