Henry's Bookshelf.

Author:Berry, Henry
Position:'The Maya of Modernism: Art, Architecture, and Film', 'Roadcut: The Architecture of Antoine Predock', 'After the Czars and Commissars: Journalism in Authoritarian Post-Soviet Central Asia' and 'Joined at the Hip: A History of Jazz in the Twin Cities' - Book review

The Maya of Modernism: Art, Architecture, and Film

Jesse Lerner

U. of New Mexico Press

Albuquerque, NM

9780826349811, $45.00, unmpress.com

Right from the start, imagery of Mayan civilization and sources for it have been compromised and fragmentary. A 1961 documentary "Expedition: Treasure of the Sacred Well" exemplifies this. Although sponsored by the Smithsonian Institution, National Geographic Society, and Mexico's leading anthropological and historical museum (INAH), the unearthing of Mayan relics could not have been more careless and amateurish. The relics were brought to the surface in a forceful, geyser-like stream of water and mud created by a long metal pipe inserted into the layers of earth at the bottom of the well. Skeletal remains, pottery, and other artifacts were predictably broken up--yet as remarked by the narrator, the explanation for the pottery fragments could be that the Mayan had deliberately broken the pottery "in order to symbolically kill them." The obvious connection between the means for unearthing the relics and their fragmented condition went unrealized even at this date.

An earlier example of such arbitrariness and presumptuousness in encounters with Mayans is when the first Spanish explorers to reach Central America called out to the natives they encountered what land they had come upon, the Mayans called back something out of which the Spaniards detected "yucatan"; and so the Central American peninsula inhabited by the Mayans was named Yucatan. Lerner recounts such comedies of errors which have marked encounters and studies of the Mayan over centuries. Later misunderstandings and opportunistic use of Mayan culture and imagery include futuristic buildings resembling Mayan pyramids in the movie "Blade Runner" and claims of roots in Mayan cosmology and religious beliefs by New Age types of mysticism and nature worship.

A filmmaker, curator, and professor at Claremont College, Lerner adopts a "broadly conceived methodology indebted to cultural studies and to studies of visual culture" for this wide-ranging, variously descriptive, comparative, and analytical study of the Mayans and their culture mostly as more or less a New World mythology and a storehouse of widely-recognized notions and imagery suggestive of pre-Columbian and New World exoticism, mystery, and color having little relationship to any facts. Such notions and imagery became subjects, themes, and elements of dance, film, popular nonfiction, novels...

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