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Reaching for the heavens

THE ANCIENT Mesopotamian peoples built ziggurats — mounds and hills which were precursor to future towers — as shrines and temples. In building high, there was a purpose to get closer to heaven, and thus, the gods.

An exhibition by Norberto “Peewee” Roldan called “Scaling Ziggurats,” featuring works made during the pandemic and after a fire, is on view at Silverlens Galleries. The show runs until Nov. 21, displayed alongside the exhibit “Masks and Spirits” by Pacita Abad and “Apothecary: Prelude” by Yvonne Quisumbing.

Mr. Roldan co-founded the Green Papaya Art Projects in 2000, the longest-running independent and multi-disciplinary platform in the country. It housed 20 years worth archives, and we use the past tense, for Green Papaya — and many pieces in its archive — were casualties in a fire at the corner of Kamuning and T. Gener Streets in Quezon City last June. “The works here [in the exhibit] are composed of parts that have burnt, or [were] partially burnt from the fire,” said Mr. Roldan during a Zoom webinar last week.

A bulk of the pieces were from a 2015 exhibition called100 Altars for Roberto Chabet.” According to Mr. Roldan, there had been 14 in the archive, but the fire left him about 10. New components were built on some of these altars, with fluorescent lights spelling the words “Heat,” “Fume,” and “Volt.” The works are a tribute to Mr. Roldan’s friend, National Artist Roberto Chabet, referencing that artist’s china collages and a previous series also modelled on ziggurats.

Found objects are at the forefront of the installations, made to resemble altars and shrines, built ever-higher to channel the power of the ancient ziggurats. The found objects tell stories of frozen and forgotten lives, but one of these interestingly include a slot machine, which Mr. Roldan said was a present he had not given his brother and his sister-in-law, who died from COVID-19. “I thought of using the slot machine as a tribute or remembrance to my brother and sister-in-law who passed away. That particular work has become very important to me. The exhibit in particular has become more significant and important, and memorable for me.”

A second component of the exhibition comes from an installation called Fugitives from the Land of the Rising Sun — also made with survivors from the fire, with materials sourced from Japanese surplus stores in Kamuning.

The work, taken as a whole, is also a commentary on urban development — or decay. Kamuning, one of Quezon City’s oldest districts, began to see change in the 1980s and 1990s, when the mid-century houses that stood there began to be replaced. “In their place, we now find really very unpleasant buildings. I started to question what it means to develop,” said the artist. “If what we see around is a representation of development and progress, then I think we’re going the wrong way.”

Some pieces from the archive that survived the June fire — some of which were supposed to be digitized in cooperation with the Asian Art Archive — received first aid and shelter from the Lopez Museum Conservation Laboratory. Some of the art has been healing, while some have already taken their rightful place to be displayed again, especially in the context of ziggurats as a symbol for reaching for the heavens. It has become a common theme in this time of strife, and achieves special significance in an exhibition that came from a place of pain.

“I wanted to come up with a work that would signify something like a triumph over defeat; of being able to survive from the tragedy,” he said. Speaking about ziggurats, he said, “It’s got this vertical form that has a solid base. It represents a firm belief in something — maybe a God, or the universe, or a particular philosophy. Other than form, I think it’s the philosophy behind the ziggurat that has attracted me to it.”

While Silverlens’ physical space is open, gallery visits are strictly by appointment only. Schedule a visit here, For more information,  contact or 0917-587-4011. The exhibit is on view until Nov. 21. — Joseph L. Garcia

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