ART, HISTORY AND ARCHEOLOGY
ESSAY BY MANUELA MENA
In this story, the narrator is able to find a perfect moment in time and space where all the places of the world can bee seen at the same instance, without confusion, from every angle, and nevertheless, in perfect simultaneous existence.
Jorge Luis Borges, El Aleph
The myth of the labyrinth is located in the most profound depths of human nature. In the beginning of time, having already lost the instinctive capacity to track the paths of nature and confront its perils, mankind created the archetype of the labyrinth, which resurfaces in mythological legends and religious rituals of numerous ancient or primitive cultures throughout the lengths and depths of the world. It reflects the ancestral fear and disorientation experienced by humans in the face of a hostile nature and, as rational beings, the fundamental fear of life itself.
In every culture the labyrinth is comprised of a perfectly defined space of calculated geometry, yet deceitful both in its myriad possibilities and the semblance of each constituent. The labyrinth recreates the infinite variety of forests in their monotonous correspondence, the web of mountain paths, the meandering of the unknown, the stars of the firmament, which can be at once the navigator’s guide and diversion, in which mankind found, nonetheless, its absolute order entangled in the constellations’ labyrinth.
The labyrinth is also, and perhaps more than any other thing, the perfect likeness to life itself, with its possibilities, its risks, and its subtle yet intimate order, with its intrinsic randomness, for whose conveyance humans count with scarce and numbered threads of Ariadne.
The labyrinth, as opposed to nature, or to life, closes upon itself, is surmountable, is made by mankind as a world theater, and unveils its solution in its center: the system’s scheme for uncovering the treasure and the passage to freedom. In Cretan culture the idea of the labyrinth was further accompanied by the idea of the fantastic animal, the minotaur, half man, half bull, who devoured those that could not find the way and were lost in the rugged paths. However, this savage monster inhabited a space of harmonious architecture in which the colossal stone blocks, worked and carved with mathematical precision, responded to a calculated geometry.
Tall murals, made of perfectly assembled stones, followed the changing rhythm and order established by the creator architect. Nearly unaltered, this order reached the medieval world, including the French cathedrical labyrinths and the mosaic pavements of the Chartres, Rheims, and Auxerre Cathedrals. In the latter, by the early sixteenth century, on the day of Christ’s Ascension, the priests still performed a ritual dance, where they dressed in white and crossed the labyrinth from section to section; and the pilgrims, whose passage to the Sacred Land was closed in the twelfth century, used these labyrinths to carry out their pilgrimage, glazing their hands over the rough paths in a type of simulated journey. Small labyrinths likewise shaped the codex miniatures, those made of stone, mosaic, or miniature painting, each developed according to a sophisticated geometry of concentric circles, squares, crosses, as well as oscillating between long and short segments, alternating with empty spaces; and yet their internal reality consisted of a continuous space, appreciated as such only by those erudite in their internal order, recognizing them as a unique reality, like a continuous, uninterrupted line — a perfect reflection of the universe. Ritual order, in unison with religious conviction, constitutes the essence of art and architecture in the western world.
Moreover, what else can cities be other than labyrinths of extraordinary complexity? Some cities, such as those of the Renaissance, that were determined and conceived from their founding, like labyrinths followed an internal order established by their creators, inscribed in geometric forms of absolute perfection. Many others were built by a random accumulation of elements, fusing years and centuries, and weaving their streets and plazas behind the protective walls that enclosed their secrets. This is how cities have come to our times. Tall blocks of stone and crystal that reflect the sun and city lights, as well as each other — oh what a deceitful labyrinth! Intersecting avenues through which the men of our time ponder, some as modern Theseus, who like Jupiter are carted by an eagle through the rapid flight of helicopters, finding new paths because they do not know which mysterious passages or which new technological threads of Ariadne to follow.
In the eastern world the "I Ching" — a form of millenarian philosophy — also constitutes a type of mental labyrinth, one of rich variety and extraordinary freedom. The small segments, in this case of a graphic nature, also alternate with open spaces, each one searching for the infinite possibilities of geometry. This labyrinth of ideas is profoundly rooted in the eternal chance of life, in its infinite flux, in which all possibilities are fused, assembled, and disassembled. Freedom and discipline join in the "I Ching" to answer human questions and problems, but also serve as a meditation device or as a creative impulse for some, such as the music of the American composer John Cage. The random theory of life achieves its maximum expression in this form of oriental wisdom, in these small ideograms that coalesce according to chance, encapsulating ideas about life and eastern culture.
America is the axis between two opposed worlds: the eastern and western. This great continent is geologically located in a beautiful and curvilinear vertical axis, typical and unique to few natural forms, understood as a hinge between the large continental masses comprised of Europe to the north, Africa to the south, and Asia. However, America historically has also been, in the unraveling of mankind, an axis-hinge between eastern and western cultures. Eastern and western peoples developed there, for thousands of years, as autochthonous, in other words, isolated in their large continent they searched for life and liberty, taking with them primogenial ideas, creating cultures integrated with nature. These cultures formed a particular and unique wisdom of nature that neither the east nor the west developed in their entire history, and reached the poetic and logical sophistication of peoples such as the Chaldeans and the Egyptians. In their myths resurfaced a reencounter with those peoples with whom they had ruptured in the beginning of time.
Prepare, oh, my brothers, because the white twin has descended from the sky, and he will castrate the sun, bringing with him the night, sorrow and the burden of pain…"
(Chilam Balam of Chumayel, Maya Book)
It was in this initial clash of the sixteenth century, followed by waves of conquistadors and colonizers, at once traumatic and enlivening, that gave origin to the America of our times. America, in its vastness and cultural plurality, has become today an unquestionable historical axis and both the north and south of the continent fused with the immense and vital spring of varied and complex African cultures, now an essential part of modern America.
There could be nothing more fitting to represent American plurality, not only of its nations but also the profoundly poetic mode of its multiple cultures, the autochthonous ones as well as those incorporated through the centuries, than the granite blocks created by Denise Milan and Ary Rodrigo Perez. Like a Zen stone garden, the Americas’ Courtyard in Chicago serves as a place of meditation for the passerby who halts before it and reclines over these large and yet welcoming blocks of granite, basalt, and marble, each in its own different tonality, perfectly sized and polished, over which one’s hand can also pause, caress, and despite the stone’s intrinsic coolness, feel the warmth of what we understand as our own.
In one of its many possible arrangements, one of concentric circles, the structure guides the beholder of Americas’ Courtyard, through this ancient labyrinth-like form to its center. Looking down from the skies, a quotidian viewpoint for modern and future man, this great architectural structure now becomes a new Chicago landmark. It becomes a point of reference due to its structural clarity, the number and disposition of its elements, and the variety of its coloring. For the spectators who approach this structure from the skies or from the ground, these mysterious and ancestral shapes will no longer be an enigma, or a … labyrinth, but rather a true "I Ching": a point of meditation, an answer for the American enigma.
The creators of this sculpture, Denise Milan and Ary Rodrigo Perez define it as a "arena of stones," adding, through it emerges a new America, with sculptured landscapes in granite blocks that perfectly fit into concentric circles. They are like pieces of a game that can be joined, separated, secluded, mounted, or detached, fashioning a mobile structure whose arrangement is decided by the players. It is a game that gives the participants an opportunity to jump, meet, represent their reality, declaim, dream, in short, to transform the simple actions of everyday life into rituals. It is a metaphor of an America where countries can live in harmony, generated by the inherent wisdom of its matter and its intrinsic order. This harmony antecedes the introduction of erosive elements by civilization. This wisdom at once recognizes national borders and individual entities, unites them by organizing them according to virtues dictated by a global primordial order, rather than the economic values of stratification.
In their work, the artists wished to capture not only the geological character of the continent but the advent of humans upon it, the procurement of successive and diverse cultures, the disparity among ethnicities, and their multiple approaches to the religious experience. Both ethnicity and religion in America are the most diverse in whole the world:
In such a context, an atemporal instant can be incorporated into diverse ethnic, religious, and cultural manifestations. It is a moment in which man recognizes himself as an integral part of the earth and of nature. Through Americas’ Courtyard the soul of the earth speaks. Differences become manifest but not mangled -- they become an active part of a wider process, one in which the players also participate.
The granite caries in its internal structure the poetry of unity among disparity, like America itself, as the authors proceed,
The proposed trajectory consists of circles that lead us to a marble white nucleus, the mobile center of the continent. The quartz, a mineral present in all granites, constitutes a natural core due to its internal organization and its accumulative properties. Quartz synthesizes the wisdom that prevails in the matter. The white heart evokes an integration of all the different constituents. This trajectory can be delayed, because quartz, due to its own power, now by attraction, now by repulsion, allows for the most varied combinations of the granite’s components. Man is the catalyzing agent for this structure. He influences the development of events and the disposition of the separate pieces in this jigsaw puzzle.
However, this large architectural structure is not an inert assemblage, solidified in its structure, immobilized by the consolidation of its elements. Its organization allows for movement, for a dynamism in the work, for a pursuit of each circumstance’s appropriate form, which undoubtedly makes it very different from other ancient and modern monuments -- even its incidental movement does not resemble Calder’s idea for his "mobiles." Denise Milan and Ary Rodrigo Perez explain,
Analogous to the bipolar process of the quartz crystal, the initially proposed wheel for this America, which consisted of circles leading to a center, in their search for diverse harmonies, can be retracted, be it attracting or repelling the rest of its components, generating many combinations. Humans are the magnet of this structure and can influence the course of events and the movement of the parts in this jigsaw puzzle.
What are the circumstances that determine the motion and changes of these stone blocks? What makes them shift from a labyrinth to a "I Ching" theater? These questions will have to be answered not only by the citizens of Chicago themselves, but also those of other cities and towns of America, since the historical use of stone by mankind, especially granite, is traditionally static. It has been a continual search of our time to find the permanence of time in both the use of stones such as granite and marble, and their solid beauty that seem to hold eternal stamina, corresponding to the essence of our planet Earth.
Because of human’s fluid nature, its fragile somatic structure built of a few minerals, calcium and water, since ancient times mankind has searched in stones for the means to trace its memory and imprint its existence. Perhaps man mourns that the water in his body is not the eternal crystal of quartz. Erect menhirs of granite and of other stones also marked the beginning of human historical developments. They were magical elements formerly invested with divine powers that appear in all primitive cultures. Men danced around these structures, celebrating their rituals and making offerings, joining them in determined forms -- rings and circles -- whose meanings are still pursued in the motion of celestial bodies and lunar cycles, such as the powerful Druid monument of Stonehenge, the most perfect example of those whose very nature has made them survive to this day. However, those amorphous stones/gods of primitive cultures gave birth to the beautiful and perfect stone gods of the Greek world.
Moreover, the great blocks of granite stone consolidated another of the great ancient civilizations: Egypt – the first society to use granite in their constructions and sculptures, discovering a system of cutting, carving, and polishing still unrivaled by subsequent cultures. A sophisticated mathematical and geometric science allowed the Egyptians to subsist and be acknowledged by posterior societies. They also used great blocks of stone in their pyramids, employing, in this case, another of the most beautiful stones of this planet, limestone, perfectly worked to calculated dimensions. This stone allowed them to ascend the skies in a pyramidal form enclosing the secret of death and resurrection, which appeared to be the echo of the simultaneously beautiful and minute quartz crystals of triangular crystallization.
Man believed that it was upon these stones that the gods rested their feet when they descended to earth. Throughout and beyond the Mediterranean world, on determined sacred rocks one can find "Vestigia Deorum," footprints believed to belong to the gods, that resonate with the eternal human desire of encountering divinity. It was upon a rock, Petrus, where Jesus Christ founded his church and it was from a stone that Mohammed ascended to the heavens.
Throughout the world the sacred material of stone has been used in temples, plazas, murals and fortresses, tombs, altars and labyrinths, thrones and obelisks, sculptures and cobble stone roads, as something intrinsic to human nature. Stones were employed for prayers and rituals, for the representation of gods and warriors, to commemorate and honor the dead, or to link the known world of antiquity -- such as Stonehedge, the pyramids, the Great Wall of China, the Acropolis in Athens, as well as the ancient Greek theaters, the Roman walkways and the Roman Coliseum, the Temples of Petra in Jordan and the Temple of Salomon, of which only the Wailing Wall survives, or the innumerable large and small cemeteries of all times.
Stone has been the material of worship throughout millennia, a nucleus of attraction for pilgrims, such as the simple black stone at Mecca, a tardy echo of the "lapis niger" or black stones originating beyond this earth. The head of the classical Roman Empire retained one of these stones; a particularly miraculous one dedicated to the cult of the goddess Cibeles. Pliny the Elder, in his Natural History (Book II, chapter 59, 149), explains naively how they fell from the center of the sun and that one of these stone was worshiped in Abydos and another in Cassandria. These stones were actually meteorites of extraterrestrial origin that man considered sacred in ancient times since, whom else but the divine could have sent them from the depths of the heavens or from the sun itself? Pausanias in the Description of Greece, (Book X, chapter 24, 6) narrates how a small stone was kept in Delphi alike the stone that the goddess Rhea gave Cronus wrapped in diapers, when he asked her to bring him the infant Zeus, intending to devour her newborn son. Upon this stone, according to Pausanias, the people of Delphi "pour olive oil daily, and in each festivity, virgin wool. There is the belief that the stone was given to Cronus in place of the child and in turn was vomited." Where men did not use stone their culture has hardly left an imprint.
The same is true for America. The great ancient civilizations of the Incas, Aztecs, Zapotecs, Mayas, Toltecs, and others, can be counted among the creators of the most impressive examples of stone usage by humankind. Impressive because of their harmonious beauty in cutting and carving, indicating a flawless understanding of the material, as well as their monumentality and magnitude, without having completely explored all buildings and sculptures. The palaces, temples and pyramidal constructions, such as those in Tenochtitlán, Teotihuacán, Tikal, Mitla, and Pisac, Tula and Chichén Itza, the Nazca labyrinth and the Cyclopean murals of Saesayhuaman, Cuzco, all resonate in those who listen to them as examples of sublime magnificence, comparable to the great works of classical antiquity:
"The city of Chichén Itzá is entirely like… a book of stone. A broken book, with its pages on the floor, buried in the entanglements of foliage, stained with soil, destroyed"
(José Martí, 1889).
Then there are the colossal heads of Easter Island. However, new cultures founded upon ancient ones have continued to use stones today through the lengths and depths of the American continent. The great Spanish cathedrals emerged with splendorous force soon after the arrival of the Spaniards in the New World. In our century, the monumental heads of American presidents were sculpted on the bedrock of Mount Rushmore, in the state of South Dakota; the beautiful buildings of Philadelphia, New York, and Chicago were seated over powerful granite foundations, and the labyrinth of names were carved on the black marble of the Vietnam War Memorial in Washington D.C., made by the American architect of Chinese origin, Maya Lin.
From a European perspective, America appears to be perfectly defined by a simple and essential geometric shape. The north and south are two perfect triangles that echo each other and are united by the semicircle of the Antilles. It is a continent of smooth feminine shapes: with a slender torso recalling the harmonious sway of Venus de Milo with one arm raised and lost in the freeze of the North Pole; with a narrow and warm waist of indolent curves, with wide Amazonian hips and joined feet, who dances over the ice of Antarctica like the light pirouette of a ballerina. However, America has a mighty spinal cord, the Rocky Mountains and the Andes, like that of a wayfarer and warrior, or a hunter, miner or laborer.
The stones, rocks and minerals are a defining element in the eyes of Europeans, but also, indeed, in the eyes of American men and women. The continent is alive through its tragic circle of fire that equally threatens both the north and the south. Earthquakes, fault lines, fissures, and volcanoes connect the surface of the earth with definitive clarity, with its center/nucleus, still ignited by great masses of hovering quartz, speak to us of primal times when man still did not dwell on the planet. Faults in the land and spectacular structures exist in America with extraordinary regularity. The Grand Canyon of Colorado, the Niagara and Iguazú Falls, the immense rivers and their estuaries, Tierra del Fuego, and its deserts, all attest to a powerful nature, friend and foe of man, strong and definitive for Earth -- a nature that maintains the essential equilibrium of life and provides the vital oxygen from the vastness of the Amazonian jungle.
For men of other continents America provided them with an adventure, life, freedom, work and wealth, but above all, with hope, at times slavery, and the independence wars in the north and south that broke into pieces the concentric rings of their chains. The Dorado is synonymous with hope, nevertheless, in America man found gold, silver, minerals, precious stones, emeralds, rubies, and diamonds.
It is from America that man was capable of reaching the stones of the Moon and beyond.
Denise Milan is an American woman. A Brazilian, in her blood she is a mixture of Portuguese, Spanish and Lebanese. A fertile mix, like all mixes, and symbolic of her ability to find the essential language of her native continent and her country of birth. The messenger of the south in the north, Denise brings with her the spirit of the Amazons to the Great Lakes, the message of nature to urban life, since, in the city, nature is conceived to be exclusively green when it is also densely rocky and mineral, with the soft and varied colors of granite. Americas’ Courtyard becomes a symbol of nature in this dense urban environment of Chicago, since stones, quartz or basalt, are the most profound and original of Denise Milán’s artistic expression. It is also the most mysterious and intimate expression. Her gaze as an artist, as a wizard, penetrates inside the stones, finding their internal structure, loving them with poetic and ritual strength. Her small hands, dark and strong, seem capable of carving these great granite blocks on their own, driven by her vibrant energy, convincing the large and rigid stones to become malleable, to turn on an axis, to join and separate each other in an ancient dance that evokes the ritual dances of North American or South American Indians or of African tribes or the delicate dances of China or Japan. Circular dances where ballerinas open and close with infinite steps in a ring, for war and peace, for love and work. It is a dance of the stones that serves to unite people with their ideas, with their ethnicities, religions, and native or adoptive countries.
The granite is the material, the quartz is the unifying element, the color is the diversity that captures the gaze of man, the shape is mutable within its circular segments that open and close, stretch or turn into an infinite spiral of human aspirations.
Ary Rodrigo Perez is the co-author of this great sculpture/architecture, and as a Brazilian, an integrator of cultural experiences. His rigorous spirit, based on geometry, has enabled this great stone block structure, Americas’ Courtyard, to be moved and modified by men without loosing its character. The design of the stones, their exact dimensions, the curvature of each one of the pieces is the result of a precise geometrical game. Ary explains that his decisive contribution to this work was to transform these large blocks into alphabetical letters so in their mobility they can configure a language that needs no translation and continues being, like all languages, a vehicle of unity:
Throughout the integrating, dynamic, and pluralistic (multiethnic), concept, Americas’ Courtyard, can be defined according to a structural basis determined by Denise Milan’s previous work. Out of the pluralistic shapes necessary to respond to diverse urban demands, emerged a modulated alphabet, capable of structuring diverse discourses, as well as substantiate many more. The geometric precision of each alphabetical letter, made of large stone blocks, was possible thanks to the CAD program, which guaranteed the possibility of alternation among general forms, some geometrically chaotic and others well defined. The interchangeability of the stones and the possibility of movement derive from industrialized construction and modular architecture.
In addition to this purely constructive discourse, one which demonstrates the vision of this work as an integrating language, the artist adds that the essence of this stony structure, of its size and disposition.
The material that amalgamated this concept could well be the granite, available in every country, and the best material adaptation for our proposal, both for its durability and the integrity of its pieces, guaranteeing their transport and mobility. The mathematical base of the project contrasts the artistic conception of the parts, using a millenarian technology for its production. In a way, the archaic and the contemporary have joined in the histrionic pleasure of the possible assemblies within the urban context: bending arches, concentric multi-arches that can unite the mutable anxieties of urban civilization.
Granite, the igneous rock for quartz, mica, feldspar, and calcium, is the most widespread stone on the earth’s surface. Produced billions of years ago, it has come to our times in rocky masses, whose powerful beauty has always been striking. Precisely in America one finds the most varied forms of granite in the world, since in the entire United States and Brazil one can find the most beautiful examples by virtue of their color gradations. Since antiquity, the austerity of granite has made it impossible for facile use as a decorative material, since it makes the workmanship difficult for meticulous decoration or perfect details. However, granite finds its perfect idiom in Denise and Ary’s great blocks of "landscape-like" wrinkled patterns of Americas’ Courtyard.
Americas’ Courtyard utilizes granite in perfect cuts of Egyptian, Inca, or Aztec precision. It naturally emerges out of the cyclopean forms of ancient western and eastern cultures. Its concentric circles echo the primordial labyrinth, a labyrinth that aids man in finding his way to the liberation from evil spirits:
Several affiliated notions will contribute to making the labyrinth one of the most fecund and significant mythic symbols: the notion of a sacred precinct existing in its center, a talisman or any other object capable of returning health and freedom to the people; the presence of a hero or saint who, after penitence or ritual redemption involving a period of isolation, penetrates the labyrinth or enchanted castle -- in order to, at times, found, save or redeem a city. (Octavio Paz, 1984)
The concentric circles in Americas’ Courtyard are the unconscious memory of the funerary monument, such as Stonehedge, whose stone and arches aligned with the movements of the stars and lunar cycles, linked with the dead, for whom the rituals served. It further approximates the harmonic distribution of the observatory at the Maya city of Chichén Itzá whose disposition was conceived for the observation of the sun and the summer solstice. Man will always aspire to understand the Universe that shelters him and Americas’ Courtyard exposes this human dimension, whose small progress in our day is fundamentally American. It also commemorates the Roman Arena, the Coliseum, where men joined to sit in concentric circles of its tiers and witness the games of life and death. It is also an echo of Greek and Roman theaters, the highest form of culture and civilization. Americas’ Courtyard thinks of a union among American individuals and their nations. Entangled with the functional structure of unequivocal beauty and energy, of the most ancient mines known, such as the one in Spain, reminds us of the courtyard’s voluntary reference to the telluric, essential to the Earth and to the American continent. It is public like the Agora, but also intimate like the Arab courtyard, in whose liquid heart observes the harmony of the water in the Arab fountain within the palace or convent interior such as Granada or Seville. It is a shape that resonates within the interior of human consciousness, one which unites mankind with its past, sooths, and gathers its fellow men in game, diversion, and dialogue, like a modern Agora, form and matter that puts mankind into contact with mother and protectress Earth. It is the form that Plato conceived for the world in his Timaeus.
Manuela Mena, Senior Curator of 18th Century Painting and Goya at Museo Nacional del Prado. Mena writes about Spanish and Italian Art of the 17th and 18th centuries, and since 1996 is dedicated especially to Goya, publications and exhibitions about him. She is currently working as part of the team that will develop the catalogue raisonné of Goya drawings.