Saturday, June 16, 2007
The Paradoxes of Quirigua
THE PARADOXES OF QUIRIGUÁ
by Jesse Lerner
Towards the beginning of Leandro Katz' experimental documentary video Paradox, there is a shot of a young Guatemalan boy at the archeological site of Quiriguá, just outside the banana plantations that are at the center of the video, holding up to the camera a small fragment of an ancient Maya carvings of the sort that is offered for sale to tourists who visit Mesoamerican sites. Katz places this image from Quiriguá in the midst of his deadpan, studied documentation of the cultivation and processing of bananas for export on the neocolonial plantation run by a multinational agricultural giant. Both this shot and a very similar one repeated near the end of the video both echo a pair of sequences in Sergei Eisenstein's unfinished masterpiece Que Viva México! From the available notes, scripts, and the existing (unauthorized) versions of the film, it appears that Eisenstein had intended to open his film with a series of static close-ups of the heads of Maya Indians posed against the profile of the archeological ruins of Chichen Itza. This montage was, according to the Russian filmmaker's plan, to lead into the "worker's burial" sequence, inspired by David Alfaro Siqueiros' fresco at San Ildefonso, a sequence shot in the midst of the henequen fields of Yucatan and the scene which introduces the theme of the oppression of Mexico's impoverished, dark-skinned majority.1 These diagonal deep-focus compositions were to be repeated in the unfinished film's final sequence, again of Indian heads, now set against the backdrop of smokestacks and industrial landscapes. Eisenstein, it seems, planned to conclude his film with an optimistic vision of a future, socialist Mexico, one true to its indigenous roots yet thoroughly industrial and modern, the product of the revolutionary struggles that shook that country in the second decade of the past century. This future Mexico--still under construction--represents the end of the oppressive tyranny depicted in the earlier sequence. There is a vast gulf separating the utopian dreams of a modern, developed Latin America embodied in the conclusion of Eisenstein's aborted film project and the mind-numbing, repetitive labor and exploitative drain of resources overseas that Katz documents. That gulf, the chasm that separates the utopian aspirations of Latin American revolutionary projects and the infinitely bleaker present-day realities, represents the failure of Latin American dreams of modernity, and points toward the paradox at the center of Katz' video.
Leandro Katz' Paradox is the latest of several decades of work with film, photography, invented alphabets, artists books, installations and video exploring ancient Maya archeological sites and intellectual life. The previous works are richly suggestive of a dense cluster of concerns relating to issues including Maya calendrics, competing visions of history and myth, and the archeological site as a place of touristic longing for a lost authenticity, questions which intersect with those raised by Paradox. Katz' Paradox presents the shot mentioned above woven together as part of the three elements that make up this half-hour video. Firstly, and the most predominant, is the extensive footage documenting the raising, harvesting, washing, processing, packaging and loading for export of bananas at a plantation just outside the archeological preserve that protects these ruins. This footage is largely shot from a stationary camera position, in an impassive, observational style, and as with the rest of the materials used in the video, devoid of dialogues, voiceover or interview material. The employees depicted do not acknowledge the camera, but are seemingly absorbed as they go about their monotonous labors. Interspersed throughout is a second element, portraits of local residents looking directly at the camera, often portrayed with an object or objects that suggests something about their occupation. The sellers of pre-Columbian objects are an example of this thread; other Guatemaltecos are shown with other wares for sale (iguanas, parrots, and of course, bananas). Finally, there are very long takes of the so-called "Dragon of Quiriguá," sometimes less poetically called Altar P--an VIIIth Century sculpture thought, at least by the current archeological establishment, as a representation of a supernatural creature. All of these three elements are presented with what appears to be ambient synchronous sound, and without additional audio elements.
The pairing of contemporary production and export of an agricultural product, in this case bananas, with the glorious archeological ruins of some of the most stunning sculptural achievements left by the ancient Maya, urge us to contemplate, over the half-hour duration of the video, the relationship between the monumental past and the degraded present, but more generally, the paradoxes of Guatemala and of Latin America. Further, there is an implicit contrast with the miniature ancient objects being sold and the enormous, complex monoliths, two objects separated by their scales, functions, meanings, and levels of complexity. In his image of the souvenir vendor, Leandro Katz "de-monumentalizes" the pre-Cortesian, to employ a neologism, reducing cultural patrimony to the status of a miniaturized commodity. The "de-monumentalization" of the Pre-Columbian is, as Tarek El-Haik has noted previously, a characteristic recurrent within contemporary, post-NAFTA Latin American art, as exemplified by Silvia Gruner's "Middle of the Road," installation, Ruben Ortiz Torres' "Breaking the Mayan Code," among others. If, in an earlier age, the original carvings had been removed and commodified, often by smugglers, looters, and black marketeers, it was in part the monumentality of the objects that made them so desirable as objects to be exported and sold. As with so much of the Western engagement with the ancient Maya, this process might be traced back to the antiquarian adventurer John Lloyd Stephens, author of Incidents of Travel in Central America, Chiapas and Yucatan (1841) and Incidents of Travel in Yucatan (1843) and his traveling companion, the illustrator Frederick Catherwood, who visited and described the site of Quiriguá more than a century and half ago. Catherwood's engravings and Stephens' narrative underscore the monumentality of the ruins. The former at times includes a human figure alongside a stele or carving as an indicator of scale. The monumental scale of the carvings emphasized in both Eisenstein's footage from his never-completed film and Catherwood's engravings is implicitly contrasted in Katz' video with the miniaturized object for sale.
Catherwood's engravings appear in the end credit sequence of Leandro Katz's Paradox, accompanied by the tune of "Yes, We have no Bananas," and Katz has previously addressed Catherwood's work systematically, most notably in the photographic series entitled "The Catherwood Project." Stephens and Catherwood are justly celebrated for bringing the abandoned Maya sites to the attention of the outside world. Catherwood's illustrations of the architecture and carvings of the Maya are renown for their fidelity, in contrast to the fanciful--even laughable--renditions of these objects made by the Count Waldeck, Guillermo Dupaix, and other less than precise illustrations created by their contemporaries and predecessors. Katz has praised Catherwood for his ability to see beyond the conventions of the European tradition in which he was trained, and to recognize in the ruins something "entirely new and unintelligible" (Katz 232). Where previous Westerners who had attempted this found only vestiges of imagined Balinese, Norse, Hindu or Japanese influence, "he [Catherwood] saw them as something new," and rendered this with "a clinical, profound accuracy" (Katz 232). But Stephens and Catherwood are also associated with a darker legacy: one of plunder. In Stephens' account of their visit to Quirigua, he describes the bargaining with Guatemalan owner of the land on which the site is located:
…I called on Señor Payes, the only one of the brothers then in Guatimala [sic], and opened a negotiation for the purchase of these ruins. Besides their entire newness and immense interest as an unexplored field of antiquarian research, the monuments were but about a mile from the river, the ground was level to the bank, and the river from that place was navigable; the city might be transported bodily and set up in New-York. I expressly stated (and my reason for doing so will be obvious) that I was acting in this matter on my own account, that it was entirely a personal affair; but Señor Payes would consider me as acting for my government, and said, what am sure he meant, that if his family was as it had been once, they would be proud to present the whole to the United States; in that country they were not appreciated, and he would be happy to contribute to the cause of science in ours; but they were impoverished by the convulsions of the country; and, at all events, he could give me no answer till his brothers returned, who were expected in two or three days. Unfortunately, as I believe for both of us, Señor Payes consulted with the French consul general, who put an exaggerated value on the ruins, referring him the expenditure of several hundred thousand dollars by the French government in transporting one of the obelisks of Luxor from Thebes to Paris. Probably, before the speculating scheme referred to, the owners would have been glad to sell the whole tract, consisting of more than fifty thousand acres, with everything on it, known and unknown, for a few thousand dollars (123-124).
In the volume's afterward, Stephens describes the ultimate failure of this effort:
Having mentioned in the preceding pages efforts to introduce into this country some of the antiquities therein described, the author considers it proper to say that, immediately on his return home, a few friends, whose names he would have great pleasure in making known if he were at liberty to do so, undertook to provide the sum of $20,000 for the purpose of carrying that object into effect. Under their direction, the author wrote to his agent at Guatimala [sic], to purchase the ruins of Quirigua, or such monuments as it might be considered advisable to remove, at a price beyond what would have been accepted for them when he left Guatimala; but, unfortunately, in the mean time, a notice taken from Mr. Catherwood's memoranda, and inserted by the proprietors in a Guatimala paper, had reached this country, been translated and copied into some of our own journals, and one eulogistic paragraph, probably forgotten as soon as written, was sent back to Guatimala, which gave the proprietor such an exaggerated notion of their value that he refused the offer (469).
Though they were unable to purchase and export the archeological treasures of Quiriguá, Catherwood and Stephens did succeed in removing carved lintels and other pre-Columbian objects on their travels, objects which then did in fact manage to return home with, but which were subsequently lost, along with Catherwood's daguerreotypes, in a fire in New York City on July 31, 1842.
In the Guatemala that Katz represents, more than one hundred and fifty years later, the outbound flow of resources, still headed towards the North, has been accelerated, streamlined and industrialized. The exports however now are principally fruit rather than artifacts. Many have noted that the purchase, removal and attempted or proposed export of archeological artifacts functions as a symbolic claim-staking, a prelude for later imperial incursions in pursuit of natural resources and raw materials.2 Catherwood and Stephens worked at a time when the southern and western borders of the United States remained undefined, and Manifest Destiny and the Monroe Doctrine characterized North American foreign policy within this hemisphere. The adventurous antiquarian paves the way both for investors drawn by the natural resources and prospective riches they represent, and later for tourists, seeking to relive the initial encounter with the virginal jungle. Cuauhtémoc Medina writes of Katz' "Catherwood Project" that the photographs that the tourists depicted are "looking in every direction, especially on the ground, as if they had lost something. What is missing (what they are so bent on finding) is, perhaps, the aura of the mechanically reproduced prints"(35). The images reveal "how impossible it is to recover the sensation of the first contact"(35). The original encounter that these later visitors seek has been packaged and commodified like so many bananas sent off to a North American grocery.
Tourists, however, are absent from Katz' Paradox, or at least they are not visible. Where Catherwood's images showed indolent, faceless natives, lounging languidly, oblivious to the faded glory and potential riches which surround them, Katz depicts frenetically busy wage slaves, the bottom rungs of a transnational global economy that extracts riches from the "undeveloped" south and packages them for export. In the video, we see the bananas hanging on large hooks as they are transported from the orchards to the packaging plants by means of a rudimentary system of cables. Each large stalk, with dozens of bunches attached, is covered with a plastic bag; they look like nothing so much as cadavers returning from the battlefield in body bags. Here are the front-line casualties of neo-liberalism. The transport mechanism that hauls these corpses is propelled by a small gasoline engine, alongside which an operator is seated. Within the packing plant, the work is largely manual. A mechanized stapler aids in the assembly of the boxes, but the washing and packaging is done by hand. Nothing resembling contemporary technology is visible until the end of the process, when the enormous containers bearing corporate logos are loaded aboard oceangoing vessels. The infrastructure of the "developed" world enters the picture only in the contact zone that links the site of production in the south with the location of consumption in the north. The corporate trademarks that identify the containers' owners and a scene of the enormous cargo ships' departure are represented in naïve paintings on the dilapidated bodegas of the town.
This, then, is a contemporary documentary vision of an industrialized Latin America, one that adds a measure of bitter irony to the Eisenstein quotation near the video's beginning and close. Leandro Katz' vision is a pessimistic one, depicting the brutal realities of our globalized age. It could not contrast more dramatically with the utopian enthusiasm that animates the conclusion of Que Viva Mexico!
Eisenstein's dramatically balanced compositions of Maya heads and Maya ruins at the beginning of his film, motionless and noble, illustrate the prologue of his unfinished film, described in his script as follows:
Time in the prologue is eternity.
It might be today.
It might as well be 20 years ago.
Might be a thousand . . .
The people bear resemblance to the stone images, for those images represent the faces of their ancestors (Eisenstein 27-28).
This is one of the treasured myths of Western history and of Marxist theory: prior to the arrival of European colonials, the rest of the world stagnated in a timeless eternity. To use Levi-Strauss' term, this was a "cold society," left behind by the forward march of progress, until roused from its inertia by the Conquest. In contrast, the analogous compositions at the film's conclusion are described in Eisenstein's script in these terms:
Modern . . . Civilized . . . Industrial Mexico appears on the screen.
Highways, dams, railways . . .
The bustle of a big city.
Agricultural experts . . .
Life, activity, work of new, energetic people . . . but if you look closer, you will behold in the land and in the cities the same faces—
Faces that bear close resemblance to those who held funeral of antiquity in Yucatan, those who danced in Tehuantepec; those who sang the Alabado behind the tall walls, those who danced in queer costumes around the temple, those who fought and died in battles of revolution.
The same faces—
But different people.
A different country.
A new, civilized nation (Eisenstein 85-7).
The significance of this sequence is not simply that Mexico has become the industrial, but that it is the same brown people, with their “characteristic” “disproportionate” faces, that operate these industries. Not only are faces the same, but so too are the diagonal compositions in depth and the heroic, low angle shots of the noble profiles in deep focus.
In creating this visual rhyme, Eisenstein offers the viewer a hopeful, optimistic answers the fundamental question of Latin American modernity: What about the Indians? Nineteenth Century positivists found it impossible to imagine the Indian as a full participant in the modern, industrialized world. Their proposed solutions to this dilemma ranged from the genocidal to various strains of benevolent assimilationism. Inspired in the overwrought rhetoric of José Vasconcelos and the nationalist iconography of the Mexican muralist movement, Eisenstein proposes a documentary vision of a future reality that was imagined more often than it was lived. Like the drill press emerging from the terrifying, stony Coatlicue in Diego Rivera's mural for the Pan-American exposition in San Francisco, the ancient and the modern fuse seamlessly. The dilemma of old, how does the Indian find a place in the modern world, is rendered moot. If Latin American modernity steers clear of the alienation associated by so many with North American consumer society, then it supersedes rather than imitates.
The stark reality that Leandro Katz offers us could not be more different. His work concludes not with triumphant proletarians but with the carving of the dismembered warrior found on the altar in front on the Dragon. Like the riches of the nation, this ancient victim has been sacrificed and dispatched in the four cardinal directions. Katz's paradox is one of the central riddles of Latin America: the region's abundant natural resources have brought political instability, destitution, naked exploitation and tyranny more often than they have brought the region any semblance of prosperity and stability. The explanations for this are multiple, but Katz does not offer a didactic discourse on the variety of credible explanations or the range of diverse factors involved. Instead, we are given a rich metaphor, a microcosm of a single time and place that speaks volumes to a range of more general concerns.
The ancient Maya are renown for their precise calendrical calculations and for their nearly obsessive fixation on dates. It is thought that the Maya calendar involved two, simultaneous systems--one of endlessly repeated, interlocking cycles of weeks and months, the other an ever-rising long count of days transpired from a fixed starting point in the distant past. Eisenstein's film similarly relies on a series of temporal metaphors, the "timeless" stasis beyond the forward march of Western history evoked in the opening sequence at the ruins, the Marxist narrative in which capitalism does away with the feudal mode of production, socialism in turn does away with capitalism, and the eternal return of a nation's rediscovery of its indigenous roots through industrialization and socialist revolution. Katz' video, whose most striking or challenging feature, especially for audiences unaccustomed to the rhythms of experimental media art, must surely be its deliberate pace, proposes another temporal frame within which to understand the paradox of contemporary Latin America. Counterpoised with both the seeming stasis of the Dragon, and the false promise of progress represented by the regimen of foreign capital, Leandro Katz' Paradox suggests we understand the processes at work as nothing so much as a slow drain, like soil erosion or some other geological transformation whose duration is so protracted that it can only be observed by special means. Paradox dictates a calculated, reflective tempo that allows us to see and reflect upon these larger processes at work in Guatemala and around the world.
1 After the producer Upton Sinclair halted production, footage shot for this film was released in a variety of unauthorized forms: Thunder over Mexico, by Sol Lesser, Donn Hayes, Carl Himm and Harry Chandlee, 1933, Time in the Sun, by Marie Seton and Paul Roger Bunford, 1939, Eisenstein’s Mexican Film: Episodes for Study, Jay Leyda, 1957, and Que Viva Mexico!, by Grigory Alexandrov, 1979. Currently Lutz Becker is at work at what promises to be a definitive reconstruction of the film.
2 See, for example, the treatment that Stephens receives in Roy Tripp Evan's doctoral dissertation, Classical Frontiers: New World Antiquities in the American Imagination, 1820-1915: "his primary motive for undertaking this first journey was more financial than scientific" (65).