Cildo Meireles - Mission/Missions (How to Build Cathedrals) 1987
6 April 2021
Dave Kellaway remembers an installation by Brazilian artist Cildo Meireles.
I first saw this in the 2008 Tate retrospective of this Brazilian artist’s work and it was the installation that impressed me the most and stuck in my mind. The horror of the Portuguese colonialization of Brazil is viscerally and simply expressed. A technologically and militarily more advanced society used religion in the pursuit of wealth and power. The scale, lighting, chosen materials and elemental colours of the installation draws you magnetically in and hits you in the solar plexus with its message. The lighting is particularly clever as it illuminates the bones in the sky but also makes the coins shine brightly. Bodies, food and greed for metal money are all basic instincts. It all comes down to this and the religion of the colonisers provided an ideology that ties it all together. Cathedrals have always embodied the material and spiritual power of the Church.
In Mission / Missions (How to Build Cathedrals), 600,000 coins scattered across the floor connect, through a column of 800 stacked communion wafers, to the 2000 bones hanging from the ceiling. It creates an “anti-cathedral” that denounces the violence of colonial exploitation and its thirst for financial accumulation. Numbers matter here, this was not a few dead Indians but a form of genocide.
“Indigenous extermination, this truculent history, this is a question that persists over time. When I did this work in 1987, thinking of the Seven Mission Peoples of the 17th century, I was speaking generically about this process of annihilation. But it ends up falling like a glove to the current situation”, says the artist, without losing, however, the hope that there may still be justice. “But sooner or later the responsibility for these crimes will fall on the perpetrators”.
Meireles is not interested in doing a piece that records an event frozen in the past, this extermination is continuing today as the indigenous people of the Amazon basin are being attacked daily by the state and the private armies of industrial agriculture, loggers and the mineral corporations.
Meireles's father worked for the Indian Protection Service, responsible for the rights of indigenous tribespeople, and is said to have instigated the first legal trials against racially motivated murders.
This is the most visually spectacular of all his installations, and the most explicitly religious. It was made for an exhibition exploring the Jesuit missions to South America between 1610 and 1767, when the Jesuits were themselves suppressed by the papacy.
Meireles explains: "I wanted to construct something that would be a kind of mathematical equation, very simple and direct, connecting three elements: material power, spiritual power, and a kind of unavoidable, historically repeated consequence of this conjunction, which was tragedy. I wanted a sky of bones, a floor of money, and a column of communion wafers to unite these two elements." Here, as so often in Meireles's work, mathematics is moralised and given a troublingly tangible architecture.
Installations as good as this are both a beautiful sensory experience and an intelligent way of making us think about the mechanisms of colonialism. He wants you to interact with the space, the light and the objects. In some of his other works you can touch and interact physically with them. Great art like this works on different levels. It is an art accessible to everyone yet tells a number of other stories. Take a minute or two to view the video bookmarked above, it gives a better sense of the installation than the flat reproduction does above. Meireles is still working and is 73 years old.
Dave Kellaway is a supporter of Anti*Capitalist Resistance, Socialist Resistance, and Hackney and Stoke Newington Labour Party, a contributor to International Viewpoint and Europe Solidaire Sans Frontieres.