EXHIBITION / Conference of strange deities: Andrew Graham-Dixon reviews 'The Art of Ancient Mexico' at the Hayward Gallery

The Hayward Gallery's 'The Art of Ancient Mexico' quickly establishes itself as one of the better hung exhibitions in London at the moment. Six fertility goddesses on tall plinths preside sternly over the opening gallery, which also includes a 3ft-long stone phallus from the Museo Nacional de Antropologia in Mexico City. This daunting object was discovered a century ago in the plaza of a small Mexican town called Yahualica, where it played its part in an archaic local custom said to have involved a lot of flowers and a complicated fertility dance.

The installation at the Hayward discourages ritual dancing as a response. Labelled exhibit 81, the spotlit phallus is perched on a high ledge beside a snarling Olmec Humanised Jaguar and other relics of ancient Mexican votive cults. It is an unlikely survivor of the Spanish conquest. The evangelists who set out to convert the Mexicans to Christianity did not look too kindly on penis-worship, so most of these stone phalluses were broken up and replaced by Catholic cult objects: statues of the Virgin and the like. Talk about going from one extreme to the other.

But preserving things can itself be a subtle way of destroying them, or at least of denaturing them. Confiscated from the people of Yahualica by 19th-century anthropologists, placed in a museum and now on loan to the Hayward Gallery, Phallic Sculpture exists, these days, to be admired as art. One form of reverence has turned into another. Quite what this transformation has done to the object remains arguable. It makes the Hayward show fertile ground for debate.

To see an exhibition of ancient Mexican sculptures in a modern art gallery is, it might be said, to see them doubly distorted. For one thing, it is to be tempted to see them as art in the modern sense, as objects of intellectual or aesthetic contemplation divorced from their older ritual contexts. And it is also to be tempted to see them not just as art but as modern art before the fact. Their most pronounced formal characteristics - their harsh, angular geometry or their distortions of the human anatomy - can easily make them seem prophetic of the innovations of early modernism. Phallic Sculpture is easily thought of as a prototype for Brancusi's similarly phallic-abstract Princess X; the diagrammatic face of the Western Mexican Mask from Mezcala as a pre-Modigliani Modigliani; and the intimidating figure of Chac Mool, a glaring vengeful Mexican god of sun and fire, as (with a little creative imagination) a Henry Moore reclining figure.

The visual similarities between ancient Mexican art and modern sculpture are not coincidental. To see a resemblance between a Huastec monument and a Brancusi is to find what Brancusi put there. Modern artists preoccupied with the 'primitive' spent a lot of time in the ethnographic departments of institutions like the British Museum and deliberately built references to Mexican art, among other things, into their own work. But the legacy of their appropriation of the devices of ancient art has been to alter, perhaps for ever, modern perceptions of it. We see it, not with innocent curiosity, but through the distorting lens of reinterpretation and reinvention.

The modernist approach to the art of ancient Mexico was tinged with sentimentality ('Primitive art is something made by people with a direct and immediate response to life,' said Moore) and coloured by all sorts of other anachronistic ideas of what its original creators might have been trying to express. One consequence of this, easily detected by eavesdropping on visitors to the Hayward show, is a tendency to admire such art primarily for qualities like immediacy, or formal daring: 'Look at how wonderfully stylised that figure is - just like an Epstein'; 'What a wonderful head - it's so abstract, just a few lines cut into a sphere'.

But this sort of remark represents a wonderful misattribution of 'civilised' modern aesthetic preoccupations - with form or mass, or the development of an abstract vocabulary - to people who were really not very civilised at all, at least by the standards of the average Hayward visitor. After all, a 10th-century Mayan's idea of cultural self-expression might well have involved the odd human sacrifice or two, and the sculpture of Chac Mool that inspired Henry Moore is rather harder to admire for its purely formal attributes when you know that the dish which the figure holds was once the repository for human hearts ripped from the chests of sacrificial victims. Likewise, it seems oddly beside the point to admire the proto-Cubist distortions of a Teotihuacan Ceremonial Sculpture in the Form of a Skull when you find out that its blanched, worn surface of bare stone might well have been originally designed with a liberal coat of human blood in mind.

None of which is meant to suggest that it is wrong, exactly, to refer to ancient Mexican art as art, but it is worth bearing in mind that the people who made these objects did not have that much in common with your average modern artist. There is a difference between 'I've got to get this sculpture finished for next week's RA Summer Show' and 'I've got to get this sculpture finished for next week's ritual murder of captives.'

In fact, the Hayward exhibition deals extremely skilfully with the difficult problem of how to present the art of a largely mysterious, geographically and temporally distant network of societies. It is a show with a conscience. It is prepared to question the very assumptions which, as an exhibition of ancient art staged in a modern art gallery, it could have been merely content to confirm.

Paul Williams's fine installation design is largely responsible for this, because it predicates the whole show on the notion of distance, which becomes a metaphor for the immense cultural void that separates these objects from those inspecting them. Votive statues are placed on high, high plinths; sculptures are placed behind glass; or, where they are closer and more accessible, the lighting works to enhance a sense of their forbidding separateness, placing them in spotlit isolation. You are never allowed to forget the sheer alienness of what is being contemplated.

Stonily silent, aloof, Chicomecoatl, Huastec goddess of maize, closes her eyes and tacitly reproves anyone with the temerity to see her as just a work of art. She remains withdrawn: physically present in our world for a while, perhaps, but spiritually absent. The exhibition contradicts its own nature as an art exhibition by metamorphosing into something else: a gathering of strange deities, a conference of forgotten, once-potent gods.

It is easy but also lazy and perhaps even vaguely immoral to see these objects through the lens of modernism - because such an approach demands no adjustment of our habitual ways of seeing, no work, no attempt to imagine the nature of the cultures which produced them. But it would probably be nave to suppose that we can ever truly grasp what the curious, distorted forms of these sculptures signified to those who created and worshipped them, or decipher the impassive, enigmatic expressions of these gods and goddesses, these hybrids of man and animal. Too little is known about the complex beliefs of the Huastecs, Toltecs and other ancient Mexicans. But it seems certain enough (for example) that the schematised, abstracted likenesses of woman produced by the Huastecs, where the emphasis falls so heavily on the belly and breasts, have more to do with notions of fertility than with some proto-modern conception of expressive distortion.

'The Art of Ancient Mexico' challenges just about every modern preconception about the art of much older, alien societies. Ancient Mexican art was not modern art waiting to happen. Ancient Mexican art was not any more immediate, any less governed by convention, than the art of the modern Western tradition. Henry Moore was wrong to think it was 'made by people with a direct and immediate response to life', since it is evident that the art of the ancient Mexicans does not present life in some innocently direct manner but, rather, mediated through a highly sophisticated system of conventions: its forms amount to highly stylised reinventions of the appearance of things, a complex set of visual codes for people or animals evolved over centuries in response to the pressure of religious beliefs and superstitions.

The Hayward's exhibition also dents the currently fashionable, politically correct conception of the primitive artist. It reminds us that, in our terms, these people were not 'alternatively culturally oriented'. They were barbarians who offered up human sacrifices to savage gods of stone. Sophisticated, skilled, complex barbarians, perhaps - but barbarians never the less. This exhibition seeks to restore, to primitive art, its most important attribute: primitiveness.

(Photograph omitted)

Arts and Entertainment
Terminator Genisys: Arnie remains doggedly true to his word as the man who said 'I'll be back', returning once more to protect Sarah Connor in a new instalment

 

film review
Arts and Entertainment
Relocation, relocation: Zawe Ashton travels the pathway to Northampton

TV review
Arts and Entertainment
BBC Three was launched a little over five years ago with the slogan: “Three, is a magic number, yes it is.”

BBC Trust agrees to axe channel from TV in favour of digital move

TV
Arts and Entertainment
British actor Idris Elba is also a DJ and rapper who played Ibiza last summer

film
Arts and Entertainment

books
Arts and Entertainment

Final Top Gear review

TV
Arts and Entertainment

music
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Arts and Entertainment

ebooksNow available in paperback
Arts and Entertainment

ebooks
Arts and Entertainment
Pete Doherty and Carl Barat perform at Glastonbury 2015

music
Arts and Entertainment
Lionel Richie performs live on the Pyramid stage during the third day of Glastonbury Festival

music
Arts and Entertainment
Buying a stairway to Hubbard: the Scientology centre in Los Angeles
film review Chilling inside views on a secretive church
Arts and Entertainment
Jason Williamson, left, and Andrew Fearn of Sleaford Mods
musicYou are nobody in public life until you have been soundly insulted by Sleaford Mods
Arts and Entertainment
Natalie Dew (Jess) in Bend It Like Beckham The Musical
theatreReview: Bend It Like Beckham hits back of the net on opening night
Arts and Entertainment
The young sea-faring Charles Darwin – seen here in an 1809 portrait – is to be portrayed as an Indiana Jones-style adventurer
film
Arts and Entertainment
The audience aimed thousands of Apple’s product units at Taylor Swift throughout the show
musicReview: On stage her manner is natural, her command of space masterful
Arts and Entertainment
Channel 4 is reviving its Chris Evans-hosted Nineties hit TFI Friday

TV
Arts and Entertainment
Harrison Ford plays Indiana Jones in The Last Crusade (1989)

film
Arts and Entertainment

music
Arts and Entertainment
A Glastonbury reveller hides under an umbrella at the festival last year

Glastonbury
Arts and Entertainment

music
Arts and Entertainment
Miles Morales is to replace Peter Parker as the new Spider-Man

comics
Arts and Entertainment
The sequel to 1993's Jurassic Park, Jurassic World, has stormed into the global record books to score the highest worldwide opening weekend in history.

film
Arts and Entertainment
Odi (Will Tudor)
tvReview: Humans, episode 2
Arts and Entertainment
Can't cope with a Port-A-loo? We've got the solution for you

FestivalsFive ways to avoid the portable toilets

Arts and Entertainment
Some zookeepers have been braver than others in the #jurassiczoo trend

Jurassic WorldThe results are completely brilliant

Arts and Entertainment
An original Miffy illustration
art
Arts and Entertainment
Man of mystery: Ian McKellen as an ageing Sherlock Holmes
film review
Arts and Entertainment
Kitchen set: Yvette Fielding, Patricia Potter, Chesney Hawkes, Sarah Harding and Sheree Murphy
TV review
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?

ES Rentals

    Independent Dating
    and  

    By clicking 'Search' you
    are agreeing to our
    Terms of Use.

    Seifeddine Rezgui: What motivated a shy student to kill 38 holidaymakers in Tunisia?

    Making of a killer

    What motivated a shy student to kill 38 holidaymakers in Tunisia?
    UK Heatwave: Temperatures on the tube are going to exceed the legal limit for transporting cattle

    Just when you thought your commute couldn't get any worse...

    Heatwave will see temperatures on the Tube exceed legal limit for transporting cattle
    Exclusive - The Real Stories of Migrant Britain: Swapping Bucharest for London

    The Real Stories of Migrant Britain

    Meet the man who swapped Romania for the UK in a bid to provide for his family, only to discover that the home he left behind wasn't quite what it seemed
    Cheaper energy on the way, but it's not all sunshine and rainbows

    Cheaper energy on the way, but it's not all sunshine and rainbows

    Solar power will help bring down electricity prices over the next five years, according to a new report. But it’s cheap imports of ‘dirty power’ that will lower them the most
    Katy Perry prevented from buying California convent for $14.5m after nuns sell to local businesswoman instead

    No grace of God for Katy Perry as sisters act to stop her buying convent

    Archdiocese sues nuns who turned down star’s $14.5m because they don’t approve of her
    Ajmer: The ancient Indian metropolis chosen to be a 'smart city' where residents would just be happy to have power and running water

    Residents just want water and power in a city chosen to be a ‘smart’ metropolis

    The Indian Government has launched an ambitious plan to transform 100 of its crumbling cities
    Michael Fassbender in 'Macbeth': The Scottish play on film, from Welles to Cheggers

    Something wicked?

    Films of Macbeth don’t always end well - just ask Orson Welles... and Keith Chegwin
    10 best sun creams for body

    10 best sun creams for body

    Make sure you’re protected from head to toe in the heatwave
    Wimbledon 2015: Nick Bollettieri - Milos Raonic has ability to get to the top but he must learn to handle pressure in big games

    Nick Bollettieri's Wimbledon files

    Milos Raonic has ability to get to the top but he must learn to handle pressure in big games
    Women's World Cup 2015: How England's semi-final success could do wonders for both sexes

    There is more than a shiny trophy to be won by England’s World Cup women

    The success of the decidedly non-famous females wearing the Three Lions could do wonders for a ‘man’s game’ riddled with cynicism and greed
    How to stop an asteroid hitting Earth: Would people co-operate to face down a global peril?

    How to stop an asteroid hitting Earth

    Would people cooperate to face a global peril?
    Just one day to find €1.6bn: Greece edges nearer euro exit

    One day to find €1.6bn

    Greece is edging inexorably towards an exit from the euro
    New 'Iron Man' augmented reality technology could help surgeons and firefighters, say scientists

    'Iron Man' augmented reality technology could become reality

    Holographic projections would provide extra information on objects in a person's visual field in real time
    Sugary drinks 'are killing 184,000 adults around the world every year'

    Sugary drinks are killing 184,000 adults around the world every year

    The drinks that should be eliminated from people's diets
    Pride of Place: Historians map out untold LGBT histories of locations throughout UK

    Historians map out untold LGBT histories

    Public are being asked to help improve the map