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.

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.

The Craft of Art

The Craft of Art

The Craft of Art

The Craft of Art is the collective name for a couple of statues by Adrian Jeans which, for the duration of the Liverpool Biennial 2014, will sit in the incongruous setting of the Met Quarter in the centre of the city – a shopping mall full of expensive shops, with products produced by slave labour, to be bought by people who don’t really need them and with money they don’t have.

The two statues are called An Allegory of Death and Destruction and An Allegory of Life and Creation and are supposed to represent, through the Chinese/English model and the debris of the Victorian houses on which she stands, the international nature of the city and how it has changed over time.

Apart for the colour, one is white the other dark grey, the statues are the same apart from the fact that in her hands the figure holds an AK47 in one and a bunch of weeds in the other.

It seems that Jeans is one of those who thinks that the building of shopping centres and the proliferation of cafes, restaurants and bars in what used to be warehouses and banks indicates that the city has stepped out of the decay that it was in during the final decades of the 20th century.

But his representation is reactionary in contrasting the two images.

If there was one point where national government took in interest in post industrial Liverpool it was after the riots in Liverpool 8 in 1981. Up to that time the Thatcher government (as well as the so-called Labour opposition) had basically written off the city. Why? Because it was prepared to fight.

To Thatcher’s chagrin she was forced to allow in injection of money to the city in the form of the Garden Festival of 1984. After two, seven-year periods of EU Objective One money (given only to the poorest parts of Europe and Liverpool was the only one (ever) to have received two bites of that particular cherry) things were still bleak. By the end of the century the fight had gone out of Liverpool as it had in all other parts of the country and now low paid jobs in retail, catering and tourism are considered adequate compensation for the loss of the traditions which the city held for hundreds of years.

These are the weeds that the white statue holds in her hands. For the flowers that we look for in a decent future are not gained without struggle and sacrifice, ‘without taking up the AK47’ which Jeans considers only represents death and destruction.

However, this sort of debate about contemporary art can only take place when we consider the two statues together. The interpretation of a single piece would lead to an entirely different perception.

The statue with the gun, especially as the model is Chinese and wearing a military style cap, would seem to indicate a guerrilla fighter. The one without the gun is just a Chinese woman holding a bunch of weeds.

Another point which this installation poses surrounds the ‘Do not touch’ signs. It’s not only here but also in the main centre of this year’s Biennial at the ex-unemployed centre on Hardman Street. One of the things I thought modern, people-centred artists (who are supposed to be those exhibiting at such Biennials) wanted to create a closer connection with the viewer. How is that possible if they literally put their creations on a pedestal and don’t allow any tactile involvement. NB. This installation is part of the Independents Biennial!

Some of these artists pretend to be ‘of the people’ but they are merely younger versions of those precious, self-obsessed artists from history.

The management of the Met Quarter probably see themselves as patrons of the arts and being magnanimous by allowing the statures space on the ground floor of the mall. However, they couldn’t be any further back and are so ‘out’ of the shopping space that the shops spaces closest to them are empty, whatever businesses might have been there in the past unable to make a go of it – even in the present phantom up-turn in the economy.

Nonetheless they are worth going in to have a look. If you do make sure that you look out for the alcove on the left hand side as you go to see The Craft of Art. Here, next to the lifts, is the War Memorial to fallen postal workers that used to sit in the main hall of the Post Office when the building was Liverpool’s main sorting office. This beautiful statue, a young woman with bowed head mourning the dead, is by the Liverpool sculptor George Herbert Tyson Smith. One of his other works is the unique Cenotaph on the St George’s Plateau (where another of the Independents Biennial projects, The Middle Way (the red hand), will be on display).

The installation will be in place until 31st August 2014.

As a companion to the statues in the Met Quarter Jeans also has a display of six heads in a shop window in Nelson Street, the centre of Liverpool’s Chinatown.

*ic* Heads

*ic* Heads

Once a vibrant street (not too many years ago) any visit here now is a sad affair. Although Jeans argues that Liverpool has been ‘revived’ the corpse looks definitely dead in Chinatown. There are more plants growing out of the buildings than are on the street, the largest Chinese arch in the world outside China looks incongruous next to the Blackie and the once fascinating pub, the Nook, has been closed down for years.

The Nook, Nelson Street

The Nook, Nelson Street

“In the world today all culture, all literature and art belong to definite classes and are geared to definite political lines. There is in fact no such think as art for art’s sake, art that stands above classes, art that is detached from or independent of politics.”

Mao Tse-tung, Talks at the Yenan Forum on Literature and Art, May 1942