Melbourne may think of herself as a secular city but she remains very religious.
This Saturday the National Gallery of Victoria (NGV) is being turned into a spiritual centre, with hundreds of people paying to gather around a KAWS sculpture for meditation.
The NGV’s newest major exhibition consists of works by the Brooklyn based pop-artist, Brian Donnelly. The exhibition includes a series of really tall cartoon-like sculptures made of bronze. I can’t make up my mind if they’re re-imaging Elmo, Mickey Mouse, Krusty the Clown, or a synthesis of several different stuffed puppets. They are a fascinating combination of cute and sad, of adorable and melancholy. These sculptures are impressive and thoughtful.
Sitting around the largest of the sculptures, titled, Gone, will be 350 paying guests who are hoping to lose their minds and find themselves. The two forlorn figures represent the emotions that accompany loss. I am not quite sure what role Gone will perform during the meditation. Perhaps it is a symbol for the exercise, to lose ourselves or to excise the losses we experience in life.
The event is a collaboration with Manoj Dias of A-Space, a yoga and meditation teacher based here in Melbourne.
In an interview for Broadsheet, Dias shares his journey into meditation:
“Manoj Dias had a career in the advertising industry. He worked 70 hours a week. He drank four cups a day. And then Manoj Dias had a panic attack.
His doctor prescribed anxiety medication, but that didn’t sit right with him. So a friend recommended a yoga class with a Buddhist monk. Though Dias grew up in a Buddhist household in Sri Lanka, he’d lost touch with the traditions when his family immigrated to Australia. Despite his distance from meditation practice, he struck up an immediate connection with his new teacher. “I practised with him every day for five years and he’s still my guru today,” says Dias.
Dias and Lynch created A-Space with two intentions in mind: help people connect with their own thoughts, and therefore connect with others. It’s a space to slow down, be introspective and “genuinely feel connected to the person next to you”, says Dias.
“Meditation has given me a moment to genuinely feel something – that what I’m doing right now is really meaningful.”
The NGV is advertising the event with this befitting tagline by Friedrich Nietzsche,
‘Invisible threads are the strongest ties.’
It is apt because, like Nietzsche who was a nihilist, meditation is often an expression of nihilism. The aim is to disconnect yourself from the material and from life’s desires. You overcome by avoidance. You find yourself by disengaging. Peace is experienced by removing all the distractions and troubles and responsibilities that usually absorb our attention.
Buddhism and Nihilism share a common thread, and that is life is ultimately a sardonic joke, an illusion to either escape or will eventually consume us. This NGV event will no doubt be popular because it pulls on peoples’ desires for inner peace. True peace isn’t found by disengaging with the world or by introspection but looking to the one who was crucified and who raised to life. If Gone is the end of the story we are indeed lost and a few moments of quiet introspection won’t offer lasting consolation.
Ironically, according to the NGV’s description of Gone, the work is reminiscent of Michelangelo’s, Pietà. This sculpture by Michelangelo depicts the lifeless body of Jesus Christ, cradled by Mary.
If only we would grab hold of that reference point and meditate beyond ourselves and look to that crucified one, not via a sculptured image but in the words that reveal God to us. My contention is that the crucified Christ offers a more substantive and satisfying answer for those who are searching for peace and hope.
Glen Scrivener puts it this way,
“The answer to suffering is not detachment but attachment”
Instead of disconnecting from the pressures, sufferings of this life, Jesus came to us and experienced them for us. The God who exists didn’t ignore or wish away the depths of human despair and depravity, but he bore the sins of the world on that cross.
When the Apostle Paul entered the great city of Athens, he noted the culture’s obsession with spirituality. In order to cover all the bases, the Athenians had built a statue to ‘the unknown god’. Paul announced and reasoned with the city’s population, evidencing that God has made himself known and that He is greater and better than our imaginings.
“The God who made the world and everything in it is the Lord of heaven and earth and does not live in temples built by human hands. 25 And he is not served by human hands, as if he needed anything. Rather, he himself gives everyone life and breath and everything else. 26 From one man he made all the nations, that they should inhabit the whole earth; and he marked out their appointed times in history and the boundaries of their lands. 27 God did this so that they would seek him and perhaps reach out for him and find him, though he is not far from any one of us. 28 ‘For in him we live and move and have our being.’ As some of your own poets have said, ‘We are his offspring.’
29 “Therefore since we are God’s offspring, we should not think that the divine being is like gold or silver or stone—an image made by human design and skill. 30 In the past God overlooked such ignorance, but now he commands all people everywhere to repent. 31 For he has set a day when he will judge the world with justice by the man he has appointed. He has given proof of this to everyone by raising him from the dead.” (Acts 17:24-31)
This news may have fallen out of favour in parts of Melbourne today, but surely it is worth revisiting. Melbournians are searching.
Christianity doesn’t dismiss the idea of meditation altogether. The Bible speaks of a form of meditation that has value. This meditation does not look inward, but outward. It doesn’t involve emptying the mind but filling the mind with God who has made himself known. Christian meditation involves communing with God by remembering, reading and understanding his words, promises, and works, and through this, we truly find ourselves and the peace and hope that each of us longs for.
“I gave an account of my ways and you answered me;
teach me your decrees.
Cause me to understand the way of your precepts,
that I may meditate on your wonderful deeds.
My soul is weary with sorrow;
strengthen me according to your word.” (Psalm 119:26-28)
“Keep this Book of the Law always on your lips; meditate on it day and night, so that you may be careful to do everything written in it. Then you will be prosperous and successful.” (Joshua 1:8)
The KAWS exhibition in Melbourne is a timely reminder of humanity’s sense of lostness and of that craving to find peace, love, and hope. The answer is not in ourselves and to accept the black hole that is nihilism but to discover the God who made us with design and good purpose, and who entered this world and embraced suffering and death that we might come to know him.