Sunday, August 25, 2013
On the Murals at Bonampak
After traveling in Oaxaca, my interest in pre-Columbian art revived. Most of my life, I have been intermittently interested in the subject, but, after seeing Monte Alban and Mitla,, fascination urged me to buy some expensive books on the Zapotecs and Maya. One volume that I ordered was by Mary Miller and Claudia Brittenham, "The Spectacle of the Late Maya Court – Reflections on the Murals at Bonampak". I bought the book online, before it was published. Several times, messages appeared on my computer indicating that the publication of the volume had been delayed. Something was wrong with the project. Perhaps, some long-slumbering Mayan deity with many legs and the mandibles of an onyx-colored panther had been roused to seize the manuscript in its teeth and had shaken the brightly colored images out of the book so that they lay scattered on the ground like the feathers of a Quetzal bird.
At last, Amazon emailed me a message that the book was available and that I should certify whether I still wanted it. Although I remained interested in the book, my obsession had faded a bit and, with a certain reluctance, I signified willingness to take delivery – it was quite expensive. I’m glad that I elected to purchase the volume. Miller and Brittenham’s book is vast – I think it must be a yard across when opened. There are hundreds of pictures showing the mural, reconstructions of the paintings, infra-red schematics, and other images that correlate to subjects depicted in the fresco. The book is organized by conceptual topics and the text, voluminous and detailed, is densely, if lucidly written, a spiraling web of references to the pictures that requires the reader to backtrack or accelerate his or her reading ahead to examine the many figures and plates. The colossal book is like a vortex – it doesn’t really advance forward, but rather spirals slowly, and redundantly in vast circles around the same subjects. The organization of the text is occult: certain themes are glimpsed, then, developed at length, then, retroactively re- assessed, then, revised, then, bracketed by other themes that are subjected to the same slow, digestive rumination. Miller and Brittenham aim to document as thoroughly as possible the physical condition of the mural and its associated bas-relief carvings as well as the glyphs and cartouches labeling the images. The project is akin to certain work that I have seen documenting the condition of the paleolithic murals at Lascaux and Altamira. There is a certain undeniable urgency to Brittenham and Miller’s efforts – the fresco’s present condition is appalling and the images painted on the walls at Bonampak are mostly indecipherable. It has not always been thus – earlier, in the late forties and, even, just before the turn of this millenium, the painted wall’s figures were vaguely visible, plumage and spear-points and the profiles of Mayan nobility, their craniums pulled like taffy, looming through the mural’s greasy murk. In recent years, the pictures have deteriorated to the point that they are, to use an irrevocable term, “lost” – the white of an eye staring from the dark gloom of decomposing pigments.
Brittenham and Miller’s book, intended to recuperate the mural, by “digital stitching” and containing huge panoramic reconstructions of the paintings unfolded on poster-paper, is quixotic, like a project imagined by Borges. It is probably the last book of this kind that the world will ever produce. I suppose the debate upon publication was whether the text and images should be reproduced on paper bound into a cardboard spine or whether the entire project should be committed to a web-page in cyber-space, a password-protected zone where the pictures could be accessed for all time on a point-and-click basis. I have Luddite tendencies and so, of course, I am happy that the book exists and that the pictures are printed on glossy paper. But, I suppose, projects of this kind in the future will be prohibitively expensive and relegated to the domain of computer imagery – ultimately, everything becomes a version of the dark mazes of Doom or the lost island paradise of Myst, an excursion through a fog of glowing electrons.
The only way to peruse "The Spectacle of the Maya Court" is to lay the huge book out on a table in front of you and, then, carefully turn the large pages, flipping back and forth between the descriptive and interpretive essay and the pictures. This is not a book you could read on an airplane without crushing your seat mate’s elbows and lap and, certainly, the volume is not something with which you can snuggle up in bed. Nonetheless, it has been my habit to study the book before retiring, reading a dozen pages or so, at the kitchen table before going upstairs to sleep. The murals at Bonampak are enormously intricate and embody a entire strange world, a parallel universe that intersects only very slightly with our reality. (Encountering the images unscrolling before you in cyber-space would be an intensely disorienting experience.) As is usually the case with pre-Columbian art, the murals document relentless, savage and grotesque violence. The effect is often like looking at photographs by Joel-Peter Witkin or certain pictures of traffic accident scenes – you turn the image upside-down or rotate it, asking yourself “What in the world is that?” And, then, when a label explains the image, you are aghast; the picture can’t possibly be showing what the label purports to represent. Even aspects of the murals that seem to be benign haunt the imagination – nightmare processions of courtiers with plumage like peacocks, strange promenades under the jaws of ghastly insect gods serenaded by orchestras of deformed dwarfs. It is difficult to assimilate the pictures to your imagination and, after looking at them intensely, just before bedtime, the structure with its weird murals embeds itself in your dreams. Curious, obsessive thoughts occur and re-occur, not so much dreams as ideas that you can’t quite shake, pre-dawn reveries that twist and contort like serpents when you try to seize hold of them. Where do I appear in this mural? How am I represented? These are crucial questions in Bonampak’s interpretation since Miller and Brittenham argue that the images are radically de-centered, that is is impossible to determine the mural’s protagonist: who is it about? The void at the heart of the mural summons the spectator into the imagery. The pictures swallow their viewer. Perhaps, the paintings are about me. And since the mural oozes from the walls of dark chambers that seem, once inside, to be deep underground, there is something of the sense that the images are buried in a dark mine, miles beneath the earth’s surface, hidden except to fellow miners who are marching through the gloom in search of treasures that can’t exactly be named.
But none of this is exactly helpful and so I should revert to mere facts. At the end of the common era’s eighth century, Bonampak was a principality in central Chiapas. The murals occupy the entire interior of a nondescript building called “Structure 1" at the architectural site. Structure 1 is a long, narrow edifice with a vaulted roof rising up to a stone vertex. The building’s roof-line seems to simulate, in stylized form, the thatched roof of a Mayan palace or, indeed, a commoner’s hut. Structure 1 is made of stone, has alcoves in its facade once occupied by stucco figures, and has three entries, each really just an opening into a niche entirely decorated with fresco. Rooms 1 and 3 show the royal court and show processions of nobility and courtiers as well as preparations for ritual dancing in a place like Bonampak. The central room (2) is decorated from floor to ceiling with an astounding battle-scene, a writhing tapestry of warriors slashing and stabbing at one another and, above the entry, there is a scene of captives being tortured on the steps of a pyramid – again, a structure similar, it seems, to the step-pyramid at Bonampak where the building occupies a ramp in the foothills of that monument. The three chambers do not interconnect and each must be entered separately from the building’s exterior. There is very little natural light in the bunker-like structure and no evidence that torches were ever used to illumine the murals, so the pictures were probably very difficult to see even when the paint was new and fresh and bright. Bore-holes in the wall were used to suspend curtains that apparently veiled the murals when they were not in use. This last phrase “not in use” is particularly problematic – no one knows how the structure was used or what it was for. Within the Mayan world, there seem to be no other extant examples of a pictorial program inside of a fortress-like building of this sort. The three niches are equipped with what the authors call “benches” – in fact, the benches occupy most of the interior alcoves and are, perhaps, better visualized as raised floors. The sides of the benches are decorated with bas-reliefs of bound captives and the lintels to the entries show noblemen seizing prisoners. Miller and Brittenham surmise that, at least, the central room with the battle and torture scenes was used for the “sexual abuse” of prisoners. Central American art in the last thirty years seems primarily interpreted through the lens of Robert Mapplethorpe – and this seems appropriate.
The murals were painted in bright, organic pigments. We know the work of the famous Greek painter, supposedly the greatest artist of the ancient world, Apelles, from a single accidentally surviving work – the mosaic copy of an Apelles’ fresco of Alexander the Great in battle against the Persians found near Naples. The situation is similar with respect to the Bonampak mural. It is the sole exemplar of this kind of art remaining and has survived by pure accident. Clearly, Mayan mural painting at the horizon of the late Classical was a highly developed and sophisticated art but climactic factors – these things were installed in humid jungles – and the region’s incessant warfare have eradicated all other examples of this art. Furthermore, the Bonampuk mural represents the final flowering of a civilization that was to inexplicably, and suddenly, simply melt away into the green web of the forests within a few decades. At Bonampak, the ceiling of Structure 1 leaked and the water drizzling down over the mural was impregnated with calcite in the plaster comprising the building’s roof. Water flowing over the surface of the mural deposited calcite on top of the fragile pigments and, thereby, preserved them under a translucent layer of crystal, a sort of natural vitrine that embalmed the image so that it could still be seen, at least, seventy years ago.
To a naive viewer, the Bonampak mural’s most remarkable aspect is the artists’ perseverance in depicting figures in profile. Clearly, a powerful prohibition exists, either stylistic or ideological, against showing human beings frontally. This is most striking in the Room 2 battle scenes, a tangle of figures reminiscent of Uccello, but ingeniously contorted so that the visages and upper torsos of the warriors are shown calligraphically, as elegantly stylized profiles. Curiously, this stylistic convention creates more tension in the battle imagery than might exist if the figures were rotated through a variety of perspectives – that is, if the painters were liberated to show the warriors frontally or, even, from behind. The necessity that each figure, no matter how interlocked with its neighbors, be twisted, or wrenched into a contrapposto stance, this serpentine sense of torsion, makes the violence of the combat seem even more intense that would be the case if the warriors were depicted more naturalistically. In some sense, the combat on the walls of Room 2 represents an agon or struggle between two competing methods of representation – the writhing figures are twisted between profile and frontal postures; the combat is a stylistic wrestling match between the vivid, and realistically observed, gestures made by the bodies of the men and their hieratic, emblematic profiles.
Something uncanny, a peculiar confrontational aura, accompanies full-frontal representation of human beings. It is as if the encounter with a person depicted as facing us directly is too violent, too disarming, too potentially devastating to the spectator. Ancient artists in the Middle East seem to have reserved full-frontal representation for deities – an example is the so-called Queen of the Night tablet in the British Museum, a naked woman glaring out at us flanked by totemic animals, as blithe, indifferent and threatening as Manet’s Olympia. “Mistress of the Animals” ceramics bas-relief from second and third century Asia Minor are similarly aggressive and full-frontal in their representations. But these figures represent goddesses of some sort and are intended to be fearsome and assertively alien. The curious fact is that full-frontal representation, somehow, seems unnatural. A characteristic tendency to avoid showing men and women fronting the viewer is evident in Egyptian art and Assyrian reliefs. Even god-kings like Sargon and Ashurbanipal are shown in profile, surrounded by their gorgeously costumed retainers – the programs of royal Assyrian bas-relief, static processions of ambassadors, soldiers, charioteers, in fact, seem startlingly similar to the mural imagery at Bonampak. Indeed, in the famous lion-hunting reliefs from the temple of Ashurbanipal, an effect similar to the furious twisting and serpentine contrapposto of the Mayan mural’s battle scene occurs. Some of the lions, as they die, actually rotate into a full frontal perspective, although, as in the Mexican mural, the images retain a very powerful tendency toward profile representation. As at Bonampak, the Assyrian lion-hunting reliefs seem to exist so that a torsion toward the full frontal can be achieved – among other features, this wrenching away from profile toward frontal representation seems to be the stylistic raison d’etre of the imagery.
The Mayan stylistic law avoiding full-frontal depictions of people, although rigorously and, even, perversely, applied in the Bonampak mural, is not unnatural in itself. Indeed, many relatively recent works of art, representations that we would characterize as modern, apply the same prohibition. In classical narrative cinema, characters are typically deployed in three-quarter view, turned toward other figures in the frame. Most close-ups rely upon an angle that retains an element of the profile. We can sense the force of this stylistic convention most powerfully when it is violated. I have already mentioned Manet in this context – another example, is the powerfully confrontational completely frontal image of the bar-maid in The Bar at the Folies Bergere, a painting that seems vaguely minatory and uncanny to most viewers. Similarly, in the films of Yasujiro Ozu, characters are frequently shown facing directly into the camera lens and, seemingly, talking straight to the audience – although these images are usually motivated by dialogue with off-screen interlocutors. Staging of dialogue with full-frontal images of the participants in the colloquy creates an unsettling effect, a sense of almost unbearable candor that is absent from sequences more conventionally framed in angles tending toward the profile. Bonampak’s murals remind us that the full-frontal presence of a human being is an uncanny thing – the figures that visit us with their wings outstretched and both eyes glaring like headlights are either gods or monsters. Miller and Brittenham acknowledge these principles in discussion of an image of sacrifice in the third room. The surface of the mural is eroded so that the corpse of a captive sacrificed atop a pyramid is mostly indecipherable – we can see hands and feet being handled by dancers but the body, represented in schematic images of the mural as an arch-like white lacuna, is too abraded to be visible. The authors note: “(The figure’s placement) insists that we look. Would the viewer have faced his dead frontal stare, like that of the dead captive on a pot in the Dallas Museum of Art...It is hard to turn away from the frontal face of a captive: such a face would have owned the wall, perhaps explaining why it did not survive.”
The Bonampak figures of courtiers, warriors, royal consorts, and captives are painted three-quarters life-size. The images are outlined, like personages in a George Rouault canvas, by solid black lines, drawn with fluent ductus of a master draftsman. Before succumbing to time’s assault, the figures must have possessed an uncanny, and powerful, presence. Indeed, Miller and Brittenham argue that the mural is not merely a depiction of important events, but, in fact, an enactment of the bloodshed and rituals that it portrays. A spectator entering the battle niche crosses the threshold over glyphs and images of captured enemies, thus, performing anew the defeat and abject humiliation of those adversaries. Small bound captives appear in bas relief on the front of the bench in the second room of Structure 1. Hence, a person sitting on that bench is, in effect, placing himself on top the defeated victims dragged from the battlefield to Bonampak for sacrifice. The processions and ritual auto-sacrifice (blood-letting), the torture and the human sacrifices shown in the murals are all proposed as performative in the eyes of the viewer. To the Maya, Miller and Brittenham argue, to see these images is to participate in the enactment of the events portrayed – there is no looking without somehow also acting. The murals energizing space in the gloomy niches exist in a perpetual present-tense – they are an encounter with a present reality that compresses space inside Structure 1 into a densely wrought system of meanings that were relevant to contemporary Mayan viewers.
Two dominant aspects of the murals, their performative power and sinuous, choreographed contrapostto, combine in the figure of a dead prisoner sprawled across the pyramid steps painted inside the second room in the building. Heroically muscular, and twisted like one of Michelangelo’s slaves, the corpse seems to writhe transfixed by a great lord’s spear. This figure exuding eerie terribilita, hovers over the entry into the artificial grotto where the battle scene and its grisly aftermath are portrayed. The blocky square opening into the room, in fact, functions as a sort of altar-shaped void on which the dead man is racked. This figure, unavoidably poignant to modern eyes, and the ranks of cringing mutilated captives awaiting torture and death, signify to Miller and Brittenham the mural’s “hidden transcript.” The mural, they argue, subverts the authority of the Mayan lords presiding over the massacre on the temple steps. The authors go so far as to argue that the artisans who created this image may well have been defeated captives themselves, coerced to record the humiliating deaths of their compatriots under threat of torture – probably disarticulation or amputation of their fingers. The images in Room 2, accordingly, seem tragic to us. This aspect of the mural represents a counter-program undercutting the triumphalist imagery distributed throughout the entirety of Structure 1. Although Brittenham and Miller don’t use the word “tragedy,” clearly they feel that there is something almost Shakespearian about this depiction of death and mutilation – the image stirs in us powerful emotions of “terror and pity,” the Aristotelian diagnostic for tragedy.
I find these arguments unpersuasive. The notion of a “hidden transcript” motivating certain parts of the mural seems implausible to me for this simple reason: we don’t know what the mural’s “overt transcript” means. In fact, the authors are at pains to observe that the frescos, taken as a whole, are decentered, discursive, and self-contradictory. It is hard to excavate an esoteric meaning from a text, or pictorial system, whose exoteric significance can not be established. The beginning of interpretation, in my view, is paraphrase. And Miller and Brittenham acknowledge that a paraphrase of the significance of the murals can not be established. Hence, secondary meanings subverting a naive or simplistic reading of the imagery are also inaccessible to us.
Indeed, many things dramatically depicted in the murals seem to me wholly incomprehensible. In the third room, ten dancers strike postures on the steps of a huge step-pyramid. The men are girdled with great lateral wings, something like the iridescent wings of a huge dragonfly. This sort of imagery is apparently very rare – a few ceramics correlating to these winged dancers seem to show that the great flapping appendages girded to the loins of the men may relate to genital bloodletting. On pots, the men with wings extending from their groins seem to have loin clothes conspicuously spotted with blood, a feature that leads to various malign surmises as to exactly how the winged apparatus is attached to the dancers. Across the vault, other dancers dressed as crocodiles and crustacean monsters flap huge pincers at one another. Even more remarkable, are micro-images interspersed among the half-life-size dancers – these are small cartoons sketched in black-line calligraphy showing more personages, some of them vividly specific, hovering between the elaborately dressed dancers. The faces are like incompletely developed photographic images, half-formed in the frenzy of blood and music portrayed in the mural. These micro-images relate in some way to the embroidered garments that the dancers wear and their towering headdresses – these textiles swarm with tiny images themselves seeming to depict the dance on the mural as if between opposing mirrors, a corridor of images referring to themselves diminishing in infinite regression. For instance, the conical headdress of one ocarina player is decorated with an image of a drummer and that headdress is crowned with effigy of a weird long-nosed beast, possibly an anteater, also playing the drums, “a sequence within a sequence – a painted gesture to infinity,” the authors tell us. The problem with imputing meaning to what we can’t see in this mural is that we don’t even know exactly what we are seeing.
Sometimes, I think, naked sadism must be acknowledged for what it is. The sheer ferocity of the imagery in the Bonampak structure is staggering. In the battle scene, people are clubbed and skewered by spears. One man seems to have his heart ripped-out and dangling between his knees in its pericardial sack. In Room 3, men and women prepare to transfix their tongues (and possibly genitals) with razor shards of obsidian or sting-ray spines. The captives huddled atop the pyramid steps in the room containing the battle murals appear to have had the tips of their fingers ripped off – blood spills from their mangled hands. The mural shows one warrior in the process of mutilating the hand of a victim; arterial blood sprays up from the ruined fingers drizzling down toward a severed head, lying like a soccer ball on a lower step. The head’s skull is shattered and brains are drooping through the cranium onto a salad of leaves. The head’s eyes have been sewn shut. A half-dozen or more captives raise their heads to howl at the huge glyphs hanging like over-ripe fruit above them. The captives have had their teeth extracted and, in some cases, their upper and lower jaws and their mouths are toothless slack sphincters. In the vault, ancestor figures hover like bodhissatva, cushioned on centipede cartouches. Between those apparitions, a hieroglyph proclaims “ – is thrown down”. The ancestors squatting in the jaws of sky-centipede seem aligned with certain cosmological symbols – they are, somehow, both furies and the morning and evening stars.
Homer imagined the Trojan war as a catastrophe for both victors and defeated. Aeschylus portrays the defeated Persians as noble and allows us to sympathize with them – although it was the ambition of the Asiatic invaders to raze Athens to the ground and sell its women into slavery. The echoes of Greek tragedy animate Roman theater and, ultimately, we can sense the DNA of Euripides and Sophocles in Shakespeare and Ibsen and Beckett. To stare at the Bonampak murals is to be astounded at their sheer “otherness’. These images arise from a world without Homer and Oedipus, a world that did not know Socrates or Plato or Kant, a world in which there was no tradition of Osiris and Isis, no Moses, no Isaiah, no Ishtar nor Aphrodite, no Jesus nor Muhammed. Ultimately, the category of tragedy, an invention of Greco-Roman, Judaeo-Christian culture, does not apply to these images – they are, in my view, relentlessly sadistic and pitiless.
But it is also easy to be overly emphatic about how radically “other” the Bonampak murals appear to be. In fact, the frescos comprise a great and profound work of art. And art, in some ways, is a constant across all cultures. Moved to rhapsody by the mural, Miller and Brittenham say:
"...(T)ime is rendered as if within a single human breath, and it can only be understood that way as well. It is specifically not photographic in which the moment is frozen; rather, time unfolds and then closes, as if the artist can capture the experience of time and space within the blink of the human eye. Yet this blink is not brief but expanded, extended in ways that modern time has come to think of as cinematic. Time spirals inward in a clockwise direction, until it comes to the dead center and the dead stop."
This is not anthropology, not archaeology, not art criticism, but a species of mysticism, although, nonetheless, profound and important. I’m not sure what Miller and Brittenham mean by this ecstatic effusion. In a later paragraph, they note that the mural is completed by the “very act of sitting and looking” and the observer is rendered “complicit.” One interpretation of the authors’ rapturous looking is that time can not be frozen, although it is “stopped” by the observer’s obsessive contemplation of the mural. This theme is poignant and essential to the book: the concept repeatedly expressed that the viewer activates the mural.
By hypothesis, Mayan images, particularly those of the king embodied on stelae, were magically imbued with the royal presence. Students of Mayan art believe that these stelae were not only visual representations of the ruler but invested with his or her actual authority – presumably one bowed before such images, according them the same respect granted their original (although, in this context, the distinction between original and copy becomes blurred). Under this interpretation, the Bonampak murals don’t merely show sacrifice, blood-letting, and battle – they somehow are these things. Thus, contemplation of the paintings retrieves the events represented and extrudes them into the present tense. The political meaning of the murals, significance that Miller and Brittenham struggle to excavate – unsuccessfully in my view – in the penultimate chapter of their book, is theatrically enacted as an exercise of power on the person looking at the images. The murals display, and enforce, their powerful presence in part by the contorted posture that the spectator must adopt to see certain of the more remote and gloomy parts of the painted walls and vaults. (Although Miller and Brittenham don’t follow some of their ideas to their logical conclusion, it would seem to me that difficulties imposed on the viewer with respect to perceiving and construing certain parts of the image – particularly those in dark overhanging recesses of the vault – figuratively restrict access to aspects of the picture that are intimate to royal power and not, perhaps, for profane eyes. This feature in the murals would be cognate with pre-Columbian architectural practice in many cultures systematically dividing the high-born from the laboring classes of peasants and artisans – intricate hierarchies of space enforced by increasingly enclosed and labyrinthine plazas and courtyards. It is not an accident that you can’t clearly see the royal women preparing to pierce themselves in auto-sacrifice, an image half-concealed on a slanting overhang surface near the dark vertex of Building One – you aren’t supposed to be able to clearly see that picture.) In their analysis of the murals as a power transaction, the authors follow closely on the academically fashionable doctrines of Derrida and Foucault – and, in this respect, I think their implicit reliance on those ideas is warranted.
A second aspect of the murals political meaning argued by Miller and Brittenham is that they contains clues as to the imminent collapse of Mayan urban civilization. These arguments are not persuasive to me for several reasons. First, Miller and Brittenham seem to have fallen prey to the “last works” fallacy. It is claimed, for instance, that some of Schubert’s final song cycles, for instance, his Schwanengesang, contain premonitions of his death. Shelley and Keats are thought to have embodied portents of their untimely deaths in the last poems that they wrote. There is a small painting by Paul Klee said to be a memento mori because finished just before the artist died and some claim Mozart’s final compositions to be eerily prescient of the doom hanging over his head. But, of course, these interpretations of final works are all constructed post hoc, that is, retroactively, by viewers and critics with knowledge that the painting or text or musical composition was the last thing that the artist created before his death. Although history interprets events retroactively, all of us, Maya included, are compelled to lead our lives prospectively, without reliable knowledge of the future. Miller and Brittenham think the sheer opulence of wealth, feathers, and precious textiles displayed in the murals is decadent, the sign of an unsustainable economic system – but, of course, that same evidence might be equally argued to support the proposition that the Bonampak Mayans were confident, prosperous, and self-sustaining enough to use their resources in such a profligate manner. It is tricky to forecast the future. Many processes occur in exponential increments – this means, that factors showing collapse are not manifest until it is too late. Even if the people who made the murals suspected that something was amiss in their world, no doubt, many of them were optimistic that these problems could be corrected, that disaster would be averted, and that all would be well in the future. Accordingly, I think it is questionable to interpet the Bonampak paintings as diagnostic of the looming collapse of the late classical Mayan polity.
Miller and Brittenham’s claims for the “performative” aspect of the murals express the fundamental objective of their book. For most practical purposes, the murals are now illegible, faint shadows invisible to the naked eye. Contemporary pictures show a welter of decomposing colors like fading bruises on the Bonampak walls. From the outset, the jungle and its people have abused the murals. High humidity and torrential rains have scoured the pictures and someone has taken a pick-axe to the mural, cratering the surface to peck away faces and eyes. For many years, tour-guides brightened the decaying images by dowsing them in kerosene. As a result, the Bonampak murals don’t really exist any longer except in the imagination of the scholars who have devoted their lives to studying the faint traces now remaining. The authors acknowledge that, by 1997, the murals were declared “lost.” In a very real sense, the most powerfully “performative” act evidenced by The Spectacle of the Late Mayan Court is the book’s recuperative function: in the future, the Bonampak murals will exist in its most definitive and visible form within this magisterial book. The book “performs” the task of saving the murals. Carefully documenting the appearance of the murals both now and at various times in the past, Miller and Brittenham’s volume reconstitutes the pictures – it makes them whole again, conjectures their original color scheme and design, and, then, establishes as it were the canon with respect to these paintings. At the back of the book, there are images of every part of the mural and each glyph is painstakingly recorded. Further, the volume contains a series of pocket-parts depicting the complete mural in the form of folded posters, images painstakingly reconstructed at a scale about one-fourth the size of the original. In the future, scholars wishing to study the mural will necessarily consult Miller and Brittenham’s book – it is this book that will “perform” the mural for future viewers. Most books about art history concern a work that the reader can, at least, theoretically consult in the original. Here, the original is damaged beyond recognition – thus, in a very real sense, the Miller and Brittenham’s reconstruction is the mural. The book, and its pictures, is all that reliably remains.
Great art seems to exist outside of time. We say that masterpieces are timeless. This means both that such works seem evergreen, always fresh and new whatever the human season in which encounter them, but, also, that a masterpiece acts to preserve a moment of time. Great paintings act like gravitational fields warping and distorting time into meanings consistent with the artist’s intentions. As observed by Brittenham and Miller, the artists that made the Bonampak murals somehow manage to both dilate time, distributing events across space the way that immensely distant stars transmit their light from different eons, while, at the same time, compressing duration, flattening the tick-tock of existence into simultaneity. Brittenham and Miller make great claims for their mural and succeed in persuading the reader that the Bonampak paintings have an immense world-historical meaning. But there is nothing particularly unique about how the paintings work to achieve their effects. All great works of art, I think, induce a similar effect on their viewers.
As evidence, I conclude by citing someone as remote as possible from the Bonampak murals, the underground filmmaker, Kenneth Anger. In a preface to a recent book about his movies, Anger writes rhapsodically about how his films outwit time. His thoughts apply equally to the Bonampak murals and the way that these images reach across an abyss of time and culture to us.
"The present is “the ultimate freeze frame...in our Cosmic Cutting Room we must cut it up into instants and must keep on cutting it up until we get an instant so small that it has no fractional part of a Past or Future remaining in it...A true atom of Time must have no duration whatever. It must have no Past or Future in it or it will not be a pure NOW...A true atom of Time – one cell of the body of God Chronos – must have no Time-dimension at all...neither the Past, the Present, nor the Future exist NOW...TIME MUST HAVE A STOP."
(Introduction by Kenneth Anger to Alice L. Hutchison’s Kenneth Anger, 2011)