Mayas: revelation of an endless time

Mayan Exhibition Liverpool - pottery figure

Mayan Exhibition Liverpool – pottery figure

I don’t know how they did it but the curators of the World Museum Liverpool have pulled off something of a coup by getting the exhibition: Mayas: revelation of an endless time. Such an impressive and extensive display from Pre-Colombian America normally gets grabbed by London, where you have to pay a fortune; book months in advance; and then the experience is as much pleasure as fighting your way on the Tube during a hot summer’s Friday afternoon.

There’s no point going into any great detail of the Mayan civilisation here, that’s a task too great to do it justice. It’s earliest beginnings can be traced back to about 2000 years BC and they eventually ceased to exist as a dominant force with the arrival of the Spanish in the early fifteen hundreds and by the end of that century the Mayan Civilisation, that had produced such magnificent and impressive cities and artefacts, was effectively destroyed.

The aristocracy, priesthood and warrior classes were no more but the Mayan people, those upon whose backs the those three had always ridden, still existed and continue to exist to this day. They are marginalised and suffer repression and exploitation in the same way they have since the arrival of the Spanish – together with the added racism from those who trace their ancestry to the invader and the more ‘white’ city dwellers. In the southern part of what used to be the Mayan Empire, in present day Guatemala, they were the principal victims of the US backed death squads that would do anything and everything to prevent the country moving to the left (even a social democratic left) which might have threatened vested interests in the country and those of the United States – both political and economic.

One of the ways the exhibition brings the ancient Mayan culture to life is by showing how some of the traditions established hundreds of years ago still exist in the countryside and are a common aspect of local and national celebrations.

What we see in such exhibitions is often only a fraction of what had originally existed. The Europeans who arrived after the ‘discovery’ of the Americas were almost without exception murderers, rapists and thieves. The hunger and thirst for gold and silver was what drove them to face such hardships and in their search for the valuable metals many things of merely artistic or cultural value were either purposely destroyed (especially if they had any religious significance – which virtually everything did – and which was seen as pagan and a threat to the Catholic Church) or just allowed to decay – as happened to the cities which were soon reclaimed by the jungles.

Also we only are allowed a glimpse into the lifestyles of the rich and powerful. In their art, and for the Mayans this was mainly in pottery and stone carvings, they represent themselves and their world view. Of the peasants and the workers who provided the labour to sustain such a civilisation and who actually built it we get little – unless it’s a sketch on a brick, for example.

Mayan Exhibition, Liverpool - etched brick

Mayan Exhibition Liverpool – etched brick

We can get an idea of how they lived, in what sorts of houses, wearing what sort of clothing, and even in what they believed. We know what the food they ate from its representation in the pottery, both in the shapes and in the designs painted on the finished article. We know what the rich surrounded themselves with as they had an idea of the afterlife and their tombs contain versions of what would have also been everyday objects in their palaces. But of the poor (if we discount the prisoners of war, many of whom would only have been ‘poor’ in the sense of being unfortunate enough to have been captured) we can get to know little.

Perhaps the only real representation that we see of the workers in this exhibition is in the three or four little pottery sculptures that show an aristocratic person being physically carried on the backs of the porters. As in all parts of the world the rich have always, through the millennia, considered it demeaning to actually have to touch the earth upon which they live. So from all corners of the world we can see examples of depictions of the rich being carried and transported around by those who were either paid or enslaved to do so. I don’t think that the information exists to say what of those two conditions existed at the time when the Mayan were at the height of their power and influence.

Mayan Exhibition Liverpool - rich on the back of the poor

Mayan Exhibition Liverpool – rich on the back of the poor

What the exhibition also looks at in some detail, and tries to explain in innovative ways, is the Mayan system of the hieroglyphics (their writing) and the complexity of their calendar (which also played a role in their view of their place in the universe and their religion).

Mayan Exhibition Liverpool - hieroglyphics

Mayan Exhibition Liverpool – hieroglyphics

The intricate and stylised carvings, often representing their religious believes, are distinctive and very different from what can be found in the ‘Old World’, but it is possible to see the influences that travelled further down into Latin America and are replicated in the carvings of some of the Pre-Inca, Peruvian civilisations.

Mayan Exhibition Liverpool - stone carving

Mayan Exhibition Liverpool – stone carving

Towards the far end of the room in which the exhibition is held are two sets of display cabinets containing various masks, made of semi-precious stones, some of which are remarkably modern in their look and in an amazing good condition.

Mayan Exhibition Liverpool - mask

Mayan Exhibition Liverpool – mask

There’s a limited amount of gold work on display, that’s possibly because gold didn’t play such a ceremonial role in Central America as it did further south, or it might be that the European looters were more successful in stealing vast quantities during their invasion of the area. Yes, it was the Spanish who carried out the looting on land but we, especially the British, should remember that it was the ‘Pirate’ Drake who stole from those thieves, thus paving the way for the development of capitalism, and eventually industrialisation, in England.

If nothing else, a visit to this exhibition provides the visitor with an idea of a sophisticated society which had a developed culture, a complex world view, a strictly hierarchical, religious (almost ‘fundamentalist’) society, which traded and learnt from peoples many hundreds of miles away and were not the ‘noble savages’ as they came to be depicted by the Europeans in their desire to justify their actions on the continent.

The exhibition: Mayas: revelation of an endless time is on display in the World Museum Liverpool, William Brown Street, in the centre of the city, just a few minutes walk from Lime Street railway station.

It will be in Liverpool until 18th October 2015.

Entrance is free and the museum is open every day from 10.00-17.00.

Events, talks and activities will be taking place during the course of the exhibition and details can be found at Mayas: revelation of an endless time – events.

The slide show below (and the pictures above) merely aim to give an idea of what’s on display but those pictures were not taken in the most ideal of conditions. If anyone is interested in better pictures there’s a well produced book to accompany the exhibition (it’s not cheap at £25.00) but well worth it for anyone with a real interest in this amazing and fascinating culture, available in the obligatory at-the-end-of-an-exhibition shop.

All Together Now – and the Christmas Truce 1914

All Together Now

All Together Now

The statue ‘All Together Now’ is quite unique in that it is a ‘peripatetic sculpture’ that has been travelling around different parts of Europe since it was first unveiled in St Luke’s Church, in the centre of Liverpool, on 15th December 2014. St Luke’s is known locally as ‘The Bombed Out Church’ as it was hit be incendiary bombs during the Blitz of the Second World War and the shell that remained has, since that time, been left as a monument to those who died in aerial bombing. However, the statue doesn’t have any direct connection to anything that happened in WWII but to a significant event at the beginning of the First World War (sometimes described, for some bizarre reason, as ‘ The Great War’) and that is the so-called ‘Christmas Truce’ of December 1914 where soldiers of the German and British armies put down their guns and kicked around footballs in ‘No-man’s Land’.

The work of a Stoke-on-Trent sculptor called Andy Edwards it depicts private soldiers from both sides tentatively about to shake hands, each with a wary look on their face as this was going where soldiers rarely went. As a reference to the kick-abouts that followed this first contact a football sits on the mud between them.

The present statue is made of fibreglass and is in three parts to make it easier to be transported from place to place but there are plans for up to four bronze copies to be made if the money can be found. The first would go to Messines in Belgium, close to where some of these events took place, and one of the others would be set up in a public space in Liverpool.

(It is interesting to bear in mind that this project might struggle to obtain what is a relatively small amount of money (£200,000) when we consider that whatever government Britain will be cursed with after the 7th May 2015 the people of the country will be shelling out £30 billion plus pounds for the renewal of the Trident nuclear submarine fleet.)

The two men are approaching each other but it’s obvious they are not totally trusting of the other. There would have been few occasions when they actually shared a language as the fraternisation was, in the main, between men of the working class on both sides, many of whom would have been barely literate.

In an earlier model they were actually clasping each others’ hand but the final sculpture has captured the final moment just before that happened, their fingers only an inch or so apart. Their wariness is also shown in the way that they don’t look directly at one another and also by their stance, which is bent forward as if creating distance whilst at the same time they are about to touch one another.

This is really the maquette from which the bronze statues will be based and the final statue will be situated out in the open and this model felt strange inside a building, albeit in a large hall. It might have been better if it had been placed in the middle of the hall, with lots of space around it, rather than close to the stage. Also if it had been placed parallel to the windows then the light would have been more even and would have allowed visitors to get an idea of the detail rather than being blinded by the light behind the British figure.

It’s important to remember that the vast majority of those involved in this quite unique event would have been long-term professional soldiers. Very few volunteers, even those who did so in the first days of the war, would have received sufficient training, or even had been kitted out with uniforms and boots, to have arrived at the front less than 5 months after the start of hostilities.

What also has to be remembered was the idea that existed in Britain during those months was that ‘the war would be over by Christmas’ and many of the volunteers didn’t really think they would end up at the front. When they did arrive they were full of patriotism and love of King and Country, for which not an insignificant number of them were to die within the next four years (and is the slogan carved into the stone at the Menin Gate in Ypres). If the line had been full of volunteers they would not have had the same approach to the ‘Hun’ as the professionals. Volunteers would have been on a mission, something which the jaded men who had started to experience the new form of trench warfare, with its long periods of just being there and doing nothing interspersed with short periods of sheer horror, were starting to question.

One of the questions that has to be asked about the ‘Christmas Truce’ was why it was just that, over a few days at most and only a truce? If you don’t think it’s worthwhile killing other workers from another country on one day why go back to ‘business as usual’ the next? There had been some serious fighting in those first few months of the war but nothing like the carnage of the likes of the Somme or Verdun.

They could have just decided that perhaps those European political parties that had discussed the upcoming war in Stuttgart and Basle (in 1907 and 1912 respectively) were correct in calling upon workers to refuse to kill other workers for the sake of their respective ruling classes. They could have walked away from the front for good and left the officers to fight it out, at least it was for the interests of their class that the war was being waged. But lack of political leadership in both Germany and Britain meant that such mutineers would have felt isolated and would have been ostracised and pilloried back home. It’s no surprise that recent Labour Governments have taken the country to war (or supported wars when in supposed ‘Opposition’) when they can trace their roots back to the jingoists and warmongers of the early 20th century.

If we now move forward a couple of years we have to ask another question: Why was this not repeated? Why was there no real opposition to the war, either at home or on the front lines, when the situation was immeasurably worse than it was in the winter of 1914?

The enthusiastic volunteers at the start and, from 1916, conscripts joined what remained of the ‘professionals’ of the British Expeditionary Force but there was never anything comparable to the breakdown in discipline that was seen along such an extent of the Belgium trenches.

After experiencing the fear and the noise and the mud and the rats and the water and the gas and the shells and the hopeless charges and the death of friends and the incompetence of the leadership and the fatuous statements of the politicians and the hopelessness of their plight and the loss of hope of ever getting back to their families and loved ones and the despair of ever living a life again where pain and destruction was absent the British soldier never stood up again and said NO!

The only mutiny that took place amongst British forces wasn’t of the men who had ‘lived’ in the trenches but in a British training camp near the French town of Etaples. There the men who hadn’t even faced a gun fired in anger stood up and fought against the brutality of their own side, the sadistic Army trainers who considered their role in life to terrorise young men who had a one in three chance of not returning home at all or doing so seriously wounded, either physically or mentally.

I support the little that they did in September 1917 but why wasn’t there anything more significant carried out by those who had seen and suffered so much?

The only example where soldiers decided that they were merely being pawns in the hands of capitalism and imperialism and that they had had enough was the mutiny of the Russian peasants and workers who, in their hundreds of thousands, walked away from the front at the beginning of 1917. The difference here was that they had the leadership of the Bolshevik Party, the only signatory to the Stuttgart Resolution and Basle Manifesto who actually stuck to what had been decided long before the dogs of war were let loose. They then went on to make the October Revolution and start the long and arduous task of trying to construct socialism.

On the other extreme there were those who really enjoyed the blood lust that is war and when denied the opportunity to kill their fellow workers from other countries then turned against their own people. Germany produced the Freikorps who were involved in the murder of the revolutionaries Karl Liebknecht, Rosa Luxemburg and other Communists (in 1919) and who later morphed into the SA and SS of the German Fascists. Britain produced the Black and Tans who terrorised the Irish working class during the Irish War of Independence (1920-22).

So what’s the situation now, a hundred years after it was shown that war wasn’t really a part of human nature (if only for a short time)?

The supermarket chain Sainsbury’s purloins the story and makes an advert to attract shoppers through its stores at the busiest and most competitive time of the year – but it’s OK as any profits from the chocolate bar shown will be donated to the Royal British Legion.

The events of late December 1914 will eventually be swamped by the rest of the ‘celebrations’ about the war (I’ll never understand how we have got ourselves into a situation when we commemorate the beginning of a war), which will be going on for another three years yet, and will be forgotten when it comes to the anniversary of such fields of slaughter as the Battle of the Somme.

Scenes of the killing fields of Flanders and stories of what it was like to be in the trenches doesn’t seemed to have put off young people from joining the British armed forces, even though they can see what it is like for present day squaddies who have been fighting in Afghanistan and Iraq – and the warmongers are gearing up for other conflicts. Some of those who are wanting to enlist are of an age that they can never remember a time when this country hasn’t been at war in the Middle East yet they’ll volunteer to go to war and a not insignificant number of them will come back suffering from Post-traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD). Why don’t they see that they are fighting (and some dying) for control of oil or the geopolitical ambitions of the western capitalist powers?

At the same time as the country remembers ‘The War to End All Wars’ we are in the hypocritical situation of allowing the government of Britain to continue invading and causing havoc in country after country with no foreseeable end. (As an aside here I recently saw a map of the world and of the 196 countries that exist only 22 of them haven’t been invaded at some time in the past by the British!)

Adverts for the armed forces, which virtually disappeared when the British army was kicking in doors in Northern Ireland are now everywhere and with direct reference to fighting in desert regions of the world. And every year there is now Armed Forces Day at the end of June. This latter introduced by a Labour Government this all creates an atmosphere where war is a part of everyday life, a natural consequence of the world in which we live. Parents of soldiers who have died in combat are quoted as saying their children dies ‘doing what they loved’. What an infantry soldier is trained to do is to kill so why do we accept psychopathic behaviour as honourable if in uniform but punishable (in some parts of the world by death) in other circumstances?

Until we can come up with a solution to all those issue then ‘All Together Now’ will only represent what could be, even should be, but not what is.

Dazzle Ship

Dazzle Ship Liverpool Biennial 2014

Dazzle Ship Liverpool Biennial 2014

On each occasion it’s been held (this is the eighth) the Liverpool Biennial of Contemporary Art always tries to have at least one large outdoors installation. In 2014 this is the so-called ‘Dazzle Ship’, a repainted pilot ship based at the Canning Graving Dock, next to the famous Pierhead on the shores of the River Mersey.

The project is the work of the Venezuelan artist Carlos Cruz-Diez and takes its inspiration from the dazzle painting of ships which became common towards the end of the First World War.

There are a few reasons why Cruz-Diez developed this idea for the Liverpool Biennial 2014.

Not surprisingly the original concept for this after the outbreak of war came from contemporary artists at the time. There’s some debate about who actually came up with the original idea, a zoologist, John Graham Kerr, even putting in a bid but the names of Norman Wilkinson and Edward Wadsworth are normally credited with the concept.

The Biennial falls in the same year as the hundredth anniversary of the start of the First World War (I’ll never understand the concept of celebrating the beginning of a war that caused such death and destruction) so funding was available from 14-18 Now – WWI Centenary Art Commissions.

Finally, Liverpool was one of the ports where much of this dazzle painting of ships took place, even down to the fact that the dry dock in which the Edmund Gardner (the pilot ship that has been revamped) now sits was used during the second half of the war.

You tend to hear a lot about such projects long before you see them and I must admit I was a little underwhelmed when I got down to the waterfront to see for myself. First it’s in bright colours – but that’s all right as this is not a reproduction of the scheme used for military purposes but an artistic twist. The problem is the regularity of the use of those colours. It was the irregularity, the uniqueness of the design for each ship, that made the project (which, although never fully proven to be successful in the misnamed ‘Great War’, was used again in Great War Part II) such an innovative one a hundred years ago.

Cruz-Diez has chosen a design which has vertical lines of 4 colours (red, green, black and orange – always in that order) on the hull and vertical lines of red, green, yellow and black on the ships superstructure.

Apart from being commissioned for the Biennial it is also part of a larger project, Monuments from the Future, which ‘invites artists and architects to bring large-scale imaginary monuments from the future into the present. In order to fulfill this paradoxical task, artists will collaborate with professional futurologists (social scientists who predict possible future scenarios) to determine possible future circumstances and set of events for which a new monument can be imagined and produced. This project will slowly turn Liverpool into a sci-fi sculpture park making use of Liverpool’s industrial archaeology to celebrate its possible new futures.’ So that’s something to look out for on the streets of Liverpool in the coming months.

Across the road, in the approach to the Liverpool One shopping complex, the pavement has been painted with similar colours and in a ‘dazzle’ pattern. This is on Thomas Steers Way and is supposed to link the shopping complex with the ship on the other side of the Dock Road. I doubt if one in a hundred of the people who walk along this 100 metres or so of painted walkway have any idea what it’s all about.

I was slightly disappointed by Cruz-Diez’s creation as I would have preferred the lines to have been less predictable, more haphazard, more (dare I say it) dazzling. Investigating the background to the whole dazzle ship project at the beginning of the 20th century I saw a photo of Wadsworth’s 1919 painting of men working on a ship in a dry dock in Liverpool. I thought that quite impressive.

Dazzle-ships in drydock at Liverpool

Dazzle-ships in drydock at Liverpool

Anyway, I was glad I went down to the Albert Dock complex to see the work as I then had the opportunity to visit the inside of the pilot ship itself. Being virtually as it was when launched in 1953 it was instructive as an indication of the class structure that existed within the pilot service at the time of its construction but also well into the 1970s. It was eventually taken out of service in April 1981.

Although the Biennial ends in October this year the Dazzle Ship will stay as it is until the end of 2015, so there’s no mad rush to have a look. The tours of the ship are run by the Merseyside Maritime Museum. These are free and will take place every Thursday till the end of August at 11.00, 12.30 and 14.30. To avoid disappointment it’s best to book on 0151 478 4499.