Tuesday, August 19, 2014

Gudea, King of Lagash, and Stillness

Gudea with a plan
Museums are often accused of stilling works of art: of stripping them of their environment and noise, ritual and performance. But in the case of the statues of Gudea (which were built for the quiet rooms of a temple around 2100 B.C.E., and were later buried for safekeeping or after an attack), the Louvre may actually be a louder place than he had ever bargained for. Visitors are frequent here and, even if they intend to walk through to the Law Code of Hammurabi, they are themselves stilled and stopped by this gallery full of Gudea statues, standing or sitting in poised silence. There is an inexplicably great Wikipedia page on the Gudea statues, and if you scroll down it, you'll see that all of his statues are largely held at the Louvre, with the British Museum and various museums in the United States dividing up the rest. The desire for statues of the Neo-Sumerian ruler whose robes flow with columns of cuneiform writing was ravenous and the West, as ever, helped itself.  I've been thinking a good deal all day about Karl Steel's excellent piece at In the Middle on, among other things, origins shared and origins jealously guarded. In that cuneiform is one of the oldest forms of writing, in that Mesopotamia is heralded as one of the oldest civilizations with writing and urban planning and complex administrative structures, it was taken up as an origin of the Western world by early Orientalists (Edward Said's Orientalism remains a great source for these twists and turns, and I hope to find more during this sabbatical's research). Appropriated origins; selective origins (for go up the stairs and around the corner to Khorsabad and its grand lamassus and then it's all about difference from Western "democratic" sensibilities - the kind of shift and Orientalism brilliantly critiqued by Zainab Bahrani, especially in "Assault and Abduction: the Fate of the Royal Image in the Ancient Near East" (Art History 1995). It's complicated, and we talked to the kids about this idea of writing as a particular kind of human origin. And then we talked mostly about rulers and images and how the body politic of the ruler can project certitude and re-assurance to his subjects. I'm still thinking about this, and I know that it will sound like a stretch in a few weeks, but for now, how a governing body presents and represents itself is very much on my mind (my heart) concerning Ferguson, MO. It's in the news all the time here, and the images just keep coming and the governing body in tanks, firing tear gas, aiming weapons, strong-arming citizens... there is no certitude or re-assurance there.

We started our Louvre visits in this gallery, with some of the earliest art the museum contains; an attempt (maybe precisely because of the mess of democracy that is happening right now in the States) to start some narrative of human invention for ourselves and the kids (also: good material for my politics of the museum course). Having gone to the Center of Adhesion (sorry, I love doing this - le Centre d'Adhésion =  Membership Services), we now have our family pass. We are ready. The family membership comes with a book that really stresses the "genies and demons" aspect of Mesopotamian art - not a word about cool, calm Gudea. We would have spent the majority of our time here, anyway, not necessarily out of protest. But we lodged a protest with the kids anyway. They heartily liked Gudea, were impressed by his diorite, loved the materials I pulled from Irene Winter's "Idols of the Kings" article (Journal of Ritual Studies 1992), and wanted to be close to him.

One thing I was surprised to learn from watching the kids was how, despite his smooth lines and easy curves, difficult Gudea is to draw. We'd simply asked them to find one Gudea statue that they thought was very effective in projecting the presence (could be political, ritual, urban or agricultural) of Gudea. Each kid chose a different one. Oliver took a long time, and realized the kind of genius move of the feet emerging from the framework of the robe - all carved in diorite with fluid lines and easy proportions. I don't even pause to think about the presence or absence of heads on statuary anymore, but of course the kids do. Iris chose the statue she did because it was complete, and had no writing at all. Oliver was fascinated by how the absence of a head did nothing to diminish the dignity and power of the statue.

Eleanor (and Mac it turns out!) worked on a statue of Ningir-su, Gudea's son. Smaller, of a different stone, and with the slightest variations in the face (a somewhat longer nose) but not a one in the gesture or stance. She couldn't believe how hard he was to draw, but she really liked doing it. I don't know if drawing is a kind of possession as well (like research and writing). Mac uses it to push observation: you notice more when you're trying to get it down. And the formal joys of Gudea are many: biceps, deltoids, smooth waist, elegant feet, settled face. The contrast between Gudea in his gallery and the 17th-19th century highly gestural sculptures in the courtyard below are perfect. Economy of form and resoluteness of stance can really help you do away with the histrionics of the dramatic diagonal. And so Gudea is still: a silent witness to himself and to his enduring presence. He is, after all, still here.

P.S. Something else spoke for Gudea to me this time. These enormous scroll columns, which are filled with cuneiform. They tell the tale of the building of the temple. Gudea had the idea, and the god Enlil gave him the means and creativity of execution. The best part: these two textual proclamations were part of the building foundation of the temple. I have other images of ceremonial nails in ceramic as well - also with cuneiform, also making writing the seal to architecture. Another kind of certitude, another kind of calm. I'm not going to romance ritual over militarism (Gudea's time is long gone), but I can mourn the loss of re-assurance when I see it persist here. Today, what Gudea is re-assuring his public about remains open.

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