Savage Beauty

The DAM's Tiwanaku is an impressive, groundbreaking exhibit.

One of the Denver Art Museum's greatest strengths is its New World department, which houses two distinct collections: Pre-Columbian and Spanish Colonial. For more than two decades, the department's founder, visionary curator Robert Stroessner, enthusiastically collected relevant material way ahead of supporting scholarship. He was buying things before anyone -- even he -- knew what they were, and thus paying pennies on the dollar for much of it. This was especially true of the Spanish Colonial stuff, because almost no one wanted it.

Sad to say, it all came to an end when Stroessner died of AIDS in 1991, two years before the refitted galleries he'd imagined were installed. In 1999, Stroessner's job was split between Margaret Young-S´nchez, who would head the Pre-Columbian collection, and Donna Pierce, who took over the Spanish Colonial portion. Both positions are underwritten by wealthy Denver duo Frederick and Jan Mayer, who were the key donors during Stroessner's long tenure.

The vast holdings in New World art make the DAM one of the most important repositories of these kinds of things anywhere. Alas, limited public interest in both fields means that exhibitions attract only a handful of visitors. In fact, when I was at the blockbuster Tiwanaku: Ancestors of the Inca last week, there were only a handful of fellow gallery-goers, which actually made it a very nice museum experience. The situation was the same for curator Pierce's Painting a New World, which was presented earlier this year: Only a few people availed themselves of the opportunity to see the largest selection ever assembled of Mexican paintings from the sixteenth to the nineteenth centuries.

"Miniature Ancestor Figure," carved stone in the 
Tiwanaku style.
"Miniature Ancestor Figure," carved stone in the Tiwanaku style.
"Masked Dignitary in a Litter," Wari-style ceramic.
"Masked Dignitary in a Litter," Wari-style ceramic.

Tiwanaku -- the word describes a city, the people who lived there and their civilization -- is little known to most, and despite being a fan of the Discovery Channel in its pre-home-repair incarnation, I'd never heard a thing about it. That means the whole experience, the wondrous objects and the riveting yarn about these long-gone people was completely new to me -- and probably will be to you, too.

Curator Young-S´nchez tacitly acknowledged the obscurity of Tiwanaku by referencing the more famous Inca in the show's title. Although the Tiwanaku were not direct predecessors of the Inca, the Inca believed that they were, and the Spanish thought the city was Incan when they first came upon it. But that obscurity also gave Young-S´nchez a chance to do something original. This exhibit is the first attempt anywhere to lay out the story of Tiwanaku completely. Plus, the catalogue represents the first definitive scholarly take on the city, the people and the civilization.

The catalogue, which I heartily recommend, is unusual by art-world standards in that it is written like a series of articles in a professional journal as opposed to being a frothy coffee-table tome. Young-S´nchez has a B.A. and an M.A. from Yale University, as well as a Ph.D. from Columbia University, and the catalogue bears out that distinguished academic resumé. Young-S´nchez attempts to take full account of everything that was ever written about Tiwanaku, with citations tied to every fact.

It might seem like this would make it a dry read -- until you begin to take in the story of a people whose religion involved taking hallucinogenic drugs, drinking lots of maize beer and then hacking people up and cutting off their heads. "The elites of Tiwanaku were obsessed with decapitation and the ritual display of severed heads," writes Alan L. Kolata, one of Young-S´nchez's co-authors. This is in the chapter "The Flow of Cosmic Power," which discusses at length social events that included feasting among the recently slaughtered corpses. Yuck. And those zany Tiwanaku kept it up for almost 1,000 years, beginning around 200 A.D. and lasting until 1100 A.D., at which time they rapidly and inexplicably abandoned the whole enterprise, city and all.

Considering how little the public knows about Tiwanaku, Young-S´nchez began the show, which is in the first-floor Stanton Galleries, with a photo enlargement of a semi-submerged temple at the site. It's an elegant and simple structure, with a stone gate at the center framing a standing figure. In the foreground is a low wall with a checkerboard pattern of carved stone heads in high relief. The style relies on rectilinear details that are almost modernist and broadly relate to the aesthetic of people who came along later, including the Inca and the other ancient cultures of what is now Latin America. Maybe this is why the city of Tiwanaku is regarded as one of the most significant sites in South America.

The gallery beyond the entry space is treated as an auditorium, with rows of seats facing a video screen that plays a continuous loop about Tiwanaku. The site is in Bolivia, near Lake Titicaca, on the high plateau of the northern Andes. The location, 12,500 feet above sea level, was difficult to farm because of frequent frosts. Like their forebears, the Tiwanaku used raised-bed farming, in which strips of land were surrounded by canals. The water absorbed solar energy during the day, then warmed the cultivated beds at night. Hydrology was important to Tiwanaku, and beneath the ruins of the city lies an elaborate system of cisterns, tunnels and drains.

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