The Royal Academy's new exhibition is a fascinating combination of the familiar and the foreign

Josie Appleton

Topics Culture

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‘But is it art?’, was the question being asked throughout the UK Royal Academy of Arts’ Aztecs exhibition, showing in London from 16 November 2002 to 11 April 2003 (1). Because although these statues, masks and ornaments were exhibited in an art gallery, the Aztecs created these objects for religious and spiritual purposes.

This is more obvious where the subject is one of the Aztecs’ many gods. These strange figures, with eagle beaks, abstract features and ghoulish assemblages of hearts and hands strung around their necks, are objects of power and ritual.

But the Aztecs depicted an incredible variety of creatures – a one-foot-long flea; a howling dog; snakes with finely patterned coils. The Aztecs also represented themselves – there are adolescent male and female nudes, and idealised masks of Aztec individuals.

All of these artefacts, too, performed a religious function. The snake was considered to have the ability to move between worlds (the Aztec universe was divided into the human world, the upper world and the underworld). The Aztecs saw how the snake could move easily between water and land – and invented a feathered serpent creature, which could also move in the air.

The Aztecs observed creatures of the natural world and imbued them with different forms of spiritual power; they created artefacts of creatures as part of an attempt to channel these forces. The centipede, which comes out at night, was associated with the Earth and with the powers of darkness (Aztecs greatly feared the night, the time when the Sun was traversing the underworld, as they thought that it may not rise again).

The adolescent nudes, meanwhile, were used in coming-of-age ceremonies. And the idealised masks of Aztec individuals were actually funerary masks; the holes in their ears were not for decoration, but for tying mortuary bundles to.

The Royal Academy explains all of this in a vast running commentary, in billboards on the walls and labels next to exhibits. The important thing about these objects, it is saying, is not their appearance but their religious significance.

Yet the Academy exhibits these Aztec artefacts as if they were art. The statues are lit and arranged in ways that emphasise their aesthetic qualities. And it is certainly possible to appreciate many of these objects in purely aesthetic terms, even though these terms are foreign to the origin of the artefact. Take the bust of an ‘Eagle warrior’, a fine image of the quiet, honourable knight; or the monkey dancing with a rattlesnake (intended to represent a whirlwind), whose twisted pose is dynamic and powerful.

The representations of Xipe Totec, god of spring, skilfully show someone wearing a flayed skin over their face. Aztec carvings capture the stretched and tight appearance, the distortion of the eyes and mouth, the flattening of the nose. (They may have worked this out through observation of priests who, as at ritual points in the year, would wear the flayed skins of sacrificial victims for days.)

The tension between symbolic and aesthetic views of the exhibits is really a tension between the Aztecs’ time and ours: between the context in which these objects were produced, and today’s standards for judging art.

The feeling of foreignness and commonality that these artefacts evoke springs from the same tension between past and present. Much has been made of the barbarity of the Aztecs: their penchant for ripping out the still-pulsating hearts of victims; their wearing of flayed skins; their constant warfare. Many of the objects on display strike us as repulsive – the container covered in bubbles that represent the globules of fat under the skin; the gruesome figures strung with hearts.

This barbarity was itself a product of the extraordinary nature of Aztec society, so very different from our own. In essence, the Aztecs raised a very primitive base to a very high level. They had accomplished artisans, a highly ordered administrative system, and one of the biggest cities in the world at that time – all achieved without changing the way they produced food.

Like the rest of the civilisations in the Americas, Aztecs used only stone tools. But the Incas were way ahead of them in other respects: while the Incas had developed a sophisticated irrigation system and used draft animals, the Aztecs carried everything themselves and depended upon the vicissitudes of Sun and rain (2).

Hence the Aztecs sensed the vulnerability of their way of life, perched on the harsh central Mexican plateau. They felt themselves to be constantly on the verge of destruction. Every night, they thought, the Sun god Huitzilopochtli had to fight the stars and the moon to bring on a new day (3). They focused all their energies on strengthening and pleasing the right gods at the right time. This explains why, rather than drawing tribute from the tens of thousands of young, healthy men captured in battles, the Aztecs would tear their hearts out.

But in spite of the foreignness of these exhibits, some of the nightmares that haunted the Aztec imagination have resonance today. Many of the exhibits at the Royal Academy exhibition give a strong sense of the macabre. One is of Mictlantecuhtli, the lord of death. His torso is half-flayed and his liver is hanging out, yet his hands are raised as if dancing and he wears a huge fixed grin.

This is something we see in our own horror films – a coincidence of evil and humour, the inappropriateness of which makes the evil all the more sinister. The Aztecs even painted cartoon eyes and teeth on their sacrificial knives. And one knife has a handle that ends in the shape of a head with an open mouth, so it would look like it was laughing as it was driven into the victim.

Perhaps it is this combination of the familiar and the foreign that explains the huge success of the Royal Academy’s show. Thousands of twenty-first century Londoners, drawn to see the lord of death dance.

Read on:

spiked-issue: Museums and galleries

(1) See the Royal Academy’s Aztecs website

(2) See The Ancient Sun Kingdoms of the Americas, Victor Wolfgang von Hagen, Paladin, 1973

(3) See The Ancient Sun Kingdoms of the Americas, Victor Wolfgang von Hagen, Paladin, 1973, p100

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