Sunday, February 9, 2014

The Aztecs: Conquest and Glory

Last week Jamas and I checked out the last week of Te Papa's exhibition of the above name; and you can read his thoughts here! Good stuff - we started by getting in on concessions (a quiet midweek day, school holidays all but over, working in our favour)and I had approximately an hour to dash round the exhibits before my own personal Cortez arrived in the form of the end of my lunch break.

Aztec culture interests me, albeit from the distance of too little learning - I haven't even seen the Doctor Who story in question. Most of its appeal to me is simply visual - I can't get my brain around some of the gods' names, let alone my tongue, and on the whole I find their culture equally fascinating and baffling. But their visual aesthetic is simply remarkable, from their codices and their literal version of sequential narrative (almost a comic strip with blank speech balloons) to their carved linear, geometric motifs combining animal and human forms to realise their beliefs in highly un-naturalised mirrors of nature.

Pop culture would have us believe that the Aztecs were a sophisticated society who almost revered death to the point of savagery, usually involving bloody sacrifice to one or more of their pantheon. The exhibition did little to dispel that notion, although to its credit places ritualised death in a reasonably natural context; that is to say, it stresses enough that beyond the spectacle (and boy was there spectacle in those sacrifices) the ritual was 'normalised' to meet a specific, regular calendar of harvest and god appeasement. Yes, having one's heart torn beating from out from under your ribcage is brutal, but this took place within an ordered society extremely close to nature, where wild animals, disease, famine and enemies could provide as awful an end, and without the questionable lead-in of a year's adoration by your butchers and heavy drugging on the day. Were the Romans any better in the days of the gladiatorial arena? We've come a long way in the west from such concerns, and such a degree of contextualising - death has become more abstract, more personalised, less a community reality; and sacrifice is something we reserve for the heroic, and those who might choose it for themselves, not those preordained by a deity. In short, it made me think a lot about death in ways I hadn't appreciated.

I wasn't expecting to see so much of an emphasis on death, though. Astonishing to see masks made from bone, a replica temple to Mictlantecuhtli, the actual sacrificial stones which topped their great pyramids. Having said that, though, my perusing companion was keen to point out Te Papa's own models of an Aztec community market and farm - and they were indeed lovely models, and served to balance things out pretty well.

Of course we know the end, or can piece it together among the fragments and the stories. Cortez, the fall of Moctezuma, and real slaughter, senseless sacrifice, and the erasing of a culture out of greed and conquest. I prefer an exhibition that flows chronologically, but there's no getting around the very final full stop that the appearance of Conquistador armour, with its crow helmet and interlocking metal plates, swift and merciless sword and, later, the transformation of offering bowl to cross-emblazoned baptismal font signifies. Death might have been at the heart of Aztec society which desensitised and normalised it, but the godless death those invading swords brought must have been beyond understanding to the mind of those people. Skirmishes between villages with equivalent weaponry - not to dismiss those ruthless looking obsidian blades, is one thing, but Cortez brought a war machine, with weapons and swift beasts (horses not being evident in Aztec culture) to mow down whole villages in a day.

In short, a really interesting, and thought-provoking exhibition. Glad I went.


  1. I need to get out more to these sorts of things. Cultural exposure is a good thing! (as long as you aren't simply going 'look how much better we are than them')

  2. Right then. Museum of Wellington City and Sea ("in the top 50 museums of the world!") next... or City Gallery?