Saturday, 11 January 2014

In which I review Aztecs: Conquest and Glory

Aztecs: Conquest and Glory is Te Papa's current big exhibition, and this is my review.  I realise I'm quite late to this party as the exhibition finishes on the 9th of February, but I didn't get a chance to see it before now.

I do recomend going if you haven't already.  It's an opportunity to see artifacts that you couldn't otherwise see in New Zealand and man, there are some cool artifacts in this exhibition.  Aztec artifacts are particularly good to see in the flesh, because they are so solid and monumental.

I also strongly recommend buying the exhibition catalogue.  It contains more extensive information than the exhibition labels, and has excellent pictures.  It's 104 pages, full colour throughout, and they were marked down to $2 apiece when I visited.  

Here's my favourite piece from the exhibition.  It shows a whole lifetime condensed into one image - first a young face, then an old face, and finally a corpse with closed eyes.



Photo from the Guggenheim website.



Another thing I liked about the exhibition was how it made no attempt to gloss over the less palatable aspects of Aztec life; because there's no delicate way to put it - the Aztecs were a right bunch of bastards.  Here is a bassalt statue of the god Xipe Totec wearing the skin of a sacrificial victim.  It is not an example of artistic license.  Aztec sacrificial rituals involved killing the victim by cutting out his heart, after which the priest would skin him and wear the skin.  Notice how you can see the figure's real eyes and mouth underneath the skin, and the wide slit in the chest of the skin - this is the incision used to remove the victim's heart.


Photo taken from the exhibition catalogue.


Equally fascinating are a pair of exhibits showing a Spanish conquistador's armour compared with the armour and weapons of an Aztec warrior.  I was aware the Spanish had enjoyed a massive technological advantage, but seeing the items side by side really brought home the inevitability of the Spanish conquest.


Spanish Conquest, 1519
No contest, really.  Picture from this article, which I found quite interesting.


There are some problems with the exhibition, and these largely relate to the exhibit labels.  They're just not very informative.  They tell you the age of the object and that's about it.  In many cases there's no information on how the object was made or what its significance was, and this is a missed opportunity.  It would have been wonderful if there had been some discussion of how the Aztecs made large stone statues using technology that was basically stone age, for example.  

Additionally, the items don't seem to be grouped together in any chronological order, which makes it hard to get a sense of how the Aztecs' culture developed.

And then there's this little gem.






No, Te Papa.  No, no, no.  You cannot call something an "Atlantean figure" and expect to retain credibility.  In this case "Atlantean" is a bit of technical jargon used to describe a statue that supports something on its head.  It comes from the Greek myth of Atlas, who held the world on his shoulders.  If the label explained this, I wouldn't have a problem with it, but it doesn't.  Normally when people say "Atlantean" they mean something from Atlantis and my first thought on seeing this was that Te Papa was trying to tell me the Toltecs were Atlanteans.  There's already more than enough Atlantis-related bullshit out there without Te Papa encouraging it.

My inner cynic wonders if Te Papa has deliberately used the term "Atlantean" in a sensationalist and misleading way.  Have they also played up the human sacrifice angle to sell tickets?

So, conclusion time:  Aztecs works well as an art exhibition, but it works less well as a museum exhibit and the label copy is terrible.  I enjoyed it and I'm glad I went, but I'd suggest you should go in with the right set of expectations.  You can expect to see some awesome stuff, but don't expect to learn a whole lot about the Aztecs just by walking around the exhibition.  Fortunately, the catalogue fills in a lot of this information and is excellent value for money.