While a rather depressing Frieze Art Fair happens, I left the crowds to join a completely different one, the British Museum’s. There I saw an amazing show called ‘Beyond El Dorado: Power and Gold in Ancient Colombia’. I think it is amazing because it might help us put back art in perspective or, in other words, to re-think art as a gateway to fear and change, two very human things.
At the time of the European conquest, there were twelve major societies practicing metallurgy, of which six are explored in this show -those we know as Tairona, Tolima, Zenú, Quimbaya, Muisca and Calima. The pieces are either ornamental or ritual but the star of the show are the pectorals that were made from an alloy known as tumbaga that combines gold and copper. These pectoral are often understood to represent a person making a journey of the mind. A Muisca priest would get high with herbs or coca and open their mind, let’s call them, different dimensions which allowed them to see their situation from a different point of view. In times of change and fear, that putting oneself out of oneself was the way to, almost literally, gain perspective.
These cultures valued the aesthetic of iridescence, reflection and lustre; they made objects that were highly burnished and polished. The reflections obtained through these objects would have transformed the everyday, enhancing the possibilities of engagement with the spiritual realm. But that is not a silly thing for the reflection was the reflection of the sun as the masculine factor of the divinity that brings life and warmth to the soil (the feminine) in order for life to go on. Art was not just decoration but a way of turning the visual into an expression of what life and its natural cycle stand for.
In 1554 Pedro de Cieza de Leon commented that ‘the Indian were buried with as much wealth as possible’. When Pedro de Heredia travelled to the Zenu region in 1534 he reported visiting a large town with big houses and a central temple. Around the temple were the burial mounds of leaders, each one topped by a tree whose branches were hung with golden bells. There was born the legend of El Dorado.
It would be tempting to see the Spaniards (as the catalogue written by Elisenda Vila Llonch suggest) as just after the wealth for the sake it. The truth is that that gold was taken by the Spaniards to finance the war against Protestantism in Europe (mainly the Dutch) and a considerable portion of it ending up in the apse of Seville Cathedral where the sun appears as Rosetta. This connection between gold (as the sun and life) and death (tombs and rituals) is key to understand the lesson that can be learned from that ‘baroque’ order that seemed to fail with the emergence of merchantilism. Gold not as a narcissism of sorts but as a gateway to a connection with other human beings in time and space. Oddly, drugs seem to have the same power but mixed with that terrible modern thing called narcissism they can take you (like gold) in the complete opposite direction. ‘Beyond El Dorado’ is so contemporary that what is the point of Frieze…
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