So what happened when I went to see the New Guinea art at the deYoung is not easy to describe other than that from outside someone would have seen a bald medium sized man walking from piece to piece taking pictures by holding his breath and trying to stand very still for the tenth of a second and slower shutter speeds the very scanty light was giving him.
The pieces are encased in glass so you can’t get too familiar but still standing next to them and looking into the shell eyes of the one skull one could say a presence but that would be entirely the wrong word because it is also an absence insofar as these pieces are a raw confrontation with death and its relationship to life. It’s hard to explain but the energy with which the works were obviously produced seems to pulse right there on their surfaces and in their intricate forms and I don’t know if you have to be especially attentive but this was the first time that aboriginal art really got me in a way that outpaced thoughts about the political and moral conundrums behind their simply being there. They speak but they are silent and tell you things that on their surface are as legible as any heiroglyph and yet you cannot figure out what they are saying.
It’s as though the arbitrariness and beauty and intricacy of a certain animal culture (ours, that is) stands out in its arbitrariness and beauty and intricacy when one confronts artifacts of another arbitrary, beautiful, intricate but unknown and yet very human culture.
Use “I” statements, Erik.
I felt something similar at the Anasazi ruins in Canyon de Chelly in the Navajo Nation–as though I could almost imagine but not even begin to understand the life that went on there: a kind of deep mystery that was oddly and sometimes uncomfortably familiar precisely because in order to even contemplate it one has to take death into account. These people are gone, after all. They cannot talk to you. The New Guinea pieces especially speak and don’t speak that mute witness of death that ends at death and yet goes on as life in general.
The fact that these pieces were all drenched with spiritual significance and that that significance derives from the thin line between life and death that is the organism itself also made me reflect on our distanced, intellectual relationship to “art” in our own culture and how much we have lost by disintegrating it from daily life as though it were just another analyzable but largely irrelevant object. Life is lived artfully from the very moment one imagines a world, but in the US especially we have no acknowledgment of that and indeed art is disparaged at the popular level if it tries to do anything adventurous.
And yet culture itself is a sublime and ridiculous but daring work of art that knows death to the extent that it is knowable which is to say not at all and so one dreams spirits in its place. The fact that the most powerful nation on earth has completely forgotten this is one of the reasons why we keep fucking things up.