The path to the elusive and yet fulfilling loob, or that which deeply dwells, is paved in the manner of a procession, a devotion to a repeating ritual that ebbs and flows like a mass of liquid people, possessed to touch the image or flesh out its likeness in their fragile lives. It is not a quest that finally ends once for all; it is rather a dense affection and commitment to a process of renewal. The loob cannot be a mere object to be coveted or a state to be achieved; it is a spirit or an essence or a nucleus, unruly and likewise rooted, and therefore needs the patient mediation of an expectant moral agency.
The immediate translation of the loob might be the interior, a level of innerness, that is contrasted with the labas, or the outside, the extraneous as opposed to the immanent. Through a collaborative project that has proven to be a sustained rumination, Renato Habulan and Alfredo Esquillo explore the complexity of this condition beyond such an irresistible but ultimately facile duality. This exhibition pursues earlier reflections deftly staged at the National University of Singapore Museum in 2013 and diligently followed through at the Finale Art File in Manila in 2014.
In this latest venture at the Vargas Museum, the artists further mediate the vision of the loob by offering up particular instances and details of the concept and practice as an aesthetic medium. The loob becomes at many levels a vehicle, a modality of transmission between believer and the source of the belief. How does loob make itself felt in both the realm of everyday life and the liminal moment of what may well be a sacrament or a covenant with the self and the suffusing, surrounding spirit?
Renato Habulan, for instance, references the various vessels of the said communion, the many ways in which the gods are imitated or regarded as kin. The gargantuan and copiously ornamented cane or tungkod is the scepter of a savior or a redeemer; it could also be the storied walking stick of a disciple. He turns to the armature of colonial statuary that renders the icon like a mannequin, as well as to the ingenious takatak, the invention of vendors who dispense merchandise from a wooden box of compartments. He casts amulets in paraffin, trapping them in a morass of sumptuous wax. And he carries an altar laden with totems and figurines on an intricately decorated cart as if its goods were being peddled. Finally, there is the sagradong pwesto, a sacred site for the pilgrim that is tended like a grotto or a garden or a church in situ. In these endeavors, Habulan is adamantine about his reason for being: “I want my art to tell the stories of our people and the triumph of the human spirit in their daily struggle.” For him, the terms human, spirit, and daily struggle are not caught up in a contradiction; their relative alienations are transcended.
Alfredo Esquillo, on the other hand, keenly focuses on the potencia, the ray of light that is contrived as a copper crown of the Black Nazarene. For the artist, this is a trope of an emanating, radiating light that is the vein of potency. These are the shapes of his ground or surface that he overlays with pineapple fiber, which in itself is painstakingly embroidered. Seen from afar, the configuration, which is a palimpsest, looks like a symbol of Philippine revolutionary and millenarian movements, and at the same time an aura of light of the sacred. The nationalist, the spiritual, and the personal converge to form a trinity, so to speak. The artist, moreover, proceeds to enhance the trope of the gospel by way of an installation of wooden and winged megaphones that pervade the air with doctrine and temptation. According to Esquillo: “Without ‘loob’ or awareness of it, ‘labas’ (outside, body, flesh, materiality) becomes meaningless. And while ‘loob’ creates meaning for ‘labas’, the concept of ‘lalim’ (depth) also comes into play when meaning is considered.
This gathering of details of the essential loob condenses in a realization and revelation. In the Philippine language, the word that sharply intuits this experience is a kaganapan, the consummation of devotion and the crystallization of post-colonial faith. The loob is a kaganapan, the fruition of a spiritual seed that may transpose “being inward” into an “ inclination outward,” a trajectory into productive speculations of the sentiment or affect or saloobin and the necessary spectacle to disclose a semblance of such expression or palabas. After all, this is but an exhibition, a time and a place for appearance and exposure, the risk of being witnessed. Also, all this is a response to the vast Catholic intervention, transforming it into an ethical fullness, a claim to goodness, a more robust cognitive mapping of the project of salvation.