Mistaken for Gods
Editor’s Note: The opinions expressed in this blog post are solely those of the author.
“Articulating the past historically does not mean recognizing it ‘the way it really was.’ It means appropriating a memory as it flashes up in a moment of danger. Historical materialism wishes to hold fast that image of the past which unexpectedly appears to the historical subject in a moment of danger. The danger threatens both the content of the tradition and those who inherit it.”
— On the Concept of History, Walter Benjamin
One of the first times I understood a cultural encounter was in an Art History course with a professor talking about the influence of African masks on Pablo Picasso’s work. Shortly after I was able to visit the Menil Collection in Houston, Texas; as a student I was deeply moved by Cy Twombly and wanted to visit the Gallery dedicated to the artist there. I also saw, in the main building, the permanent installation Witness to a Surrealist Vision, a collaborative project with anthropologist Edmund Carpenter and former director of the Menil Paul Winkler. Where Picasso had, in my mind, appropriated the visual vocabulary of African masks, the idea for Witness was founded on ideas by Carpenter and museum founder Dominique de Menil as a way to illustrate “common intelligence” of the Surrealists and peoples of Africa, the Pacific Islands, and the Americas. While I’m setting these two instances up as opposite instances of cultural encounters, I actually think they are both complex and hard for me to fully understand.
One thing I can tell you from these experiences is that being an artist has made me hyper aware of instances of Othering; blatant cultural appropriation and micro-aggressions in interpersonal communication are frequent topics in my classes with university students. Encounters revealed, too, that El Greco’s landscape paintings of Toledo are, in their progressive aesthetics, a representation from one viewpoint in the I-thou relationship. In art history courses I learned the importance of paintings like The Disrobing of Christ, I only now understand the artist on a different level knowing that El Greco is a nickname given to him as an expat of Greece. I will never stop marveling at the layers and complexity of history. It is amazing to me, too, to see the amount of representations of cultural encounters, from the Nanban screens of Japan to the representations of Portuguese on the Benin Bronzes.
Encounters also profoundly revealed the major shift in civilization from the Age of Discovery to that of High Empire. I painted a series of paintings titled Te te apotre – taken from a brief scene of Chris Marker’s film La Jetee—in which Paris has been destroyed and, living underground, the “victors” have to conduct experiments with human subjects in time travel to save the planet. The scene, underground, is a storage rack with what appears to be large rocks and one is painted with the words that translate, loosely, into “head of the apostle.” I thought it was a poignant representation of war and the resulting cultural shifts associated with acts of power.
Perhaps even more related to these ideas of cultural encounters and shifting is a film that Marker directed with Alain Resnais and Ghislain Cloquet titled Statues Also Die. My paintings felt to be sort of a representation of the past destroyed – both in the sense that they were loosely based off of classical marble sculptures and also as a way of looking and moving forward beyond the idea of monument and ideal beauty contained in “high art.”
Benjamin Gardner is an artist living and working in Des Moines, Iowa. He has exhibited his work throughout the U.S. and abroad. He is an Associate Professor of Art and Design and the Center For Humanities Research Scholar at Drake University. Website: benjaminagardner.com | Instagram: @the_stone_tape