Moving fast and breaking things sounds contemporary. But, could that be an ancient pattern — an eye-opener for understanding iconic objects as agents of cultural meaning and power in the present day?
We are a distracted generation, multi-tasking in our ever accelerating vehicles. Oiled and speeding hastily, we miss big billboard questions alongside: What roles do images play in religious, cultural and political conflicts? And how do images influence power?
Gathering together 40 statues and reliefs from the 25th Century BCE to the First Century CE, the Pulitzer Arts Foundation, in an exhibition titled “Striking Power: Iconoclasm in Ancient Egypt,” presents uncomfortable questions. Yet, these kinds of questions hold potential to freeze our comfortable home screen, thereby freeing us to truthfully examine aggressive behaviors that seek dominance over persons, groups and regimes.
Co-curated by Edward Bleiberg, Senior Curator of Egyptian, Classical, and Ancient Near Eastern Art at the Brooklyn Museum, and Stephanie Weissberg, Associate Curator at the Pulitzer Arts Foundation, this show spans 25 centuries. Our own century doesn’t seem far removed, but simply a familiar iteration, albeit a new and modern translation of ancient history.
Begin at the entrance gallery, with a noblewoman and good ruler Hatshepsut. Read her story from the museum guide, or hear her dramatic tale from the excellent audio tour, and you can piece together a Shakespeare-worthy narrative about her family, her ancestors, her descendants and her court.
Her mother, Queen Ahmose, is seen in a wall relief. Her descendant, Amunhotep II, and her Prime Minister, Senenmut, are each represented by statues displayed with her in this entrance gallery. The clues about how demagogues gain and use power to stay in control are all here.
Other galleries detail patterns of a well-worn playbook. Noses, representing the breath of life connecting the person to the sacred, are broken away. Left arms, raised to make offerings to the gods, have been knocked off. Hieroglyphs, identifying persons of power, are chiseled away. Solar discs representing deities are destroyed. Sarcophagi, containers for the spirit of the dead, are fragmented. Heads and bodies are separated.
The meaning behind the destruction of images and objects that represent power is an in-your-face assertion that whoever and whatever was represented as having power has none. More troublesome is the erasure, the destruction of memory and legacy. And systematic destruction — for purposes of power — is a motivation posing far more danger than tomb robbery.
Breaking things is a hacker mentality, using tools of prejudice and power to go for the jugular of all emotions — fear.
Could this be a time in the history of humanity’s life on spaceship earth to pause, to seek refuge? Perhaps it’s time to empty the full mailbox of constantly breaking news, violent games and social “likes,” time to hit the reset button.
The Pulitzer architecture of Tadao Ando provides one of the best settings in America to rest and take time to go deep. Before leaving the museum, sit on the granite boulder overlooking the pool and quietly reflect on the power of images in both the ancient and the contemporary world. What has been lost? What truths await us in asking big questions about our accelerating powers of destruction?
“Art still has truth. Take refuge there.” — Matthew Arnold
(inscribed on the south facade of the Saint Louis Art Museum, overlooking the Sculpture Garden)