Thursday, 11 December 2008

Ray, when someone asks you if you're a god, you say "YES"!

You know there are just some things I can't get my head around. For example, post-modern Art confuses the hell out of me.

Take the case of Simon Pope. In 2006 he installed an exhibition in the Chapter Arts Centre in Cardiff. Having been paid an undisclosed sum of money for the work, some of which would have been derived from the £50,000 grant given to Chapter by the Arts Council of Wales, one would have thought that Mr. Pope would have pulled out all the stops in order to bowl over the good folks who came to see it. After all judging by the number of BBC types that frequent the place, Chapter is pretty much the artistic heart of Wales. One gets the impression that a strong showing at Chapter in front of the right person can really make a career.

So what did Pope do for this once in a life time opportunity? Well according to a spokeswoman for Chapter he produced "a seemingly impossible feat: summoning up remote spaces - through memory, body, speech and movement - reduplicating these spaces, so that (the visitors) exist at two locations simultaneously." (Gee Note: Whoever this woman is she should get together with Carlos Miguel Allende. Those two would get on like a house on fire. Or, knowing what a nut bar Allende was, actually set a house on fire. One of the two). Which sounds fabulous right? So what did the good people who dutifully turned up to the exhibition actually see?


Sorry I'm being facetious, because that's not strictly true. They saw some walls, a floor, a roof, and, er, that's it. No hanging paintings. No suggestive sculptures representing male or female genitalia. Just a bare room.

The idea was, apparently, that people who came to the exhibit would reminisce about previous exhibitions they had been to, and then imagine those works were in front of them as they wandered through the empty space. (Gee Note: Is it just me or couldn't you do that from the comfort of your own home? Seems an awful lot of effort to jump in the car, drive down to the local arts centre, park up, get out, lock the car door, walk three feet forward before turning around and walking back to make sure you've locked the car door..... just to spend an afternoon with one's memories. I mean couldn't you just put your feet up at home and crack open a photo album instead?)

As you can probably tell this didn't go down all to well with the local press. And it's not hard to see why. I mean I do understand that a lot of post-modern art is to do with the idea, the initial concept that nobody has thought of before but seems so simple afterwoulds (Gee Note: The term for which is known inexplicably as the “Egg of Columbus”. Which is news to me. I didn't even know he was a bird. Boom Boom. Ah, rest in peace Bob Monkhouse.) Which is fine, if the idea is genuinely a good one. But sadly one can't open an art show if your only attraction is a life sized sculpture of a great white shark wearing a pair of skis. Because, even though it's original, it doesn't say anything other than “I thought about a shark wearing skis”. And so while an art exhibition without art is also original, all it says is, well, you know the rest.

Unless of course someone makes it big in the art world with a sculpture of a shark wearing a pair of skis. In which case post-modern art really does confuse the hell out of me.

Speaking of post-modern art, arguably the world's most famous currently active artist outside of Jasper Johns is our very own Damien Hirst. Hirst rocketed to fame in the 90's with his work called “The Physical Impossibility of Death in the Mind of Someone Living” which, after you'd got past the ridiculously long and needless title, turns out to be a dead tiger shark floating in a tank full of formaldehyde. It was sold by Charles Saatchi, the man who commissioned the piece, for £8 million in 2004.

Hirst's latest notable work is “For the Love of God” which looks like something a Columbian drug lord would have mounted on his wall next to the lion's head.

Like almost everything Hirst does it's steeped in controversy. For a start it's apparently not entirely original, as the artist John LeKay claims it's based on his own crystal skull work called Spiritus Callidus # 2 made in 1993. Also Hirst claims that For the Love of God was sold for a reported £50 million, which would make it the highest paid price for a single work by a living artist. Problem is it was sold to an unnamed consortium, with the money being paid in cash (Gee Note: Which means their either giants or they needed a truck to carry it around). However a lot of folks dispute that the work was ever sold at all. In fact editor of Jackdaw magazine Dave Lee is on record as saying "Everyone in the art world knows Hirst hasn't sold the skull. It's clearly just an elaborate ruse to drum up publicity and rewrite the book value of all his other work.".

Mind, if that is true then it wouldn't be the first time a Crystal Skull had been “sold” under mysterious circumstances. In fact you'd only have to go back as far as 1944 and a chap named F. A. Mitchell-Hedges.

Frederick Albert Mitchell-Hedges was an English adventurer with a penchant for tall tales and showmanship. Through out his career Mitchell-Hedges was rumoured to be working for the British government as a spy, a mercenary for hire, or a rich Jack the lad, all personalities that he cultivated vigorously. Despite his lack of bona fide credentials as an explorer, he was a darling on the British socialite scene, regaling them with stories of lost civilisations and dangerous beasts.

He even managed to write a couple of books. Ones with such glorious titles as, “Land of Wonder and Fear”, and “Battles with Giant Fish”. (Gee Note: The last one is my favourite. I can just imagine Mitchell-Hedges writing something along the lines of “Bunty and I were diving in Eastern Indian Ocean, when out of the shadows came this terrifying monstrosity brought forth from the pits of hell itself. Still, a quick wax of the whiskers and a stiff jab later, and we were home in time for crumpets and tea”). Alas, they at best can be charitably described as “fictional” pieces rather than anything else. Still it's tough to look down upon a man who obviously had an infectious joie de vivre, however much nonsense he spouted.

Another book penned by the amazing Mr. Mitchell-Hedges was the old boy's autobiography, entitled “Danger My Ally” (Gee Note: Apparently the second choice for the title was “I Drop Ice Cubes Down the Vest of Fear”). In the first printed edition he recounted a tale of a trip to British Honduras in 1924. It was there they found the ancient ruins of a Mayan temple. Upon investigating the area Anna Le Guillon Mitchell-Hedges, Frederick's adopted daughter, discovered something very strange indeed. Because, much to her astonishment, glistening in the rubble was a Crystal Skull. Anna removed the object and quickly enquired of the few remaining Maya as to what this artefact was, and was told that it was used by a Mayan High Priest to "will death". Thus it was was given the catchy title of “The Skull of Doom”.

Soon all sorts of strange claims were made about the The Skull of Doom. It kept itself at a constant temperature of 70 degrees Fahrenheit they said, and could perform any number of miracles such as curing someone of disease or administering a curse upon them. In later years Anna would claim that she saw a premonition of the assassination of John F. Kennedy when handling the skull, and that visions like these were not uncommon.

Sadly however, these claims forced sceptics to look harder at the history of The Skull of Doom. And what they found didn't quite match up. For a start no mention of the skull was made by Mitchell-Hedges or anyone else in the documentation of the original excavation. No photographs of the artefact, and no recorded mention of it by Mitchell-Hedges in any way shape or form prior to 1944, 20 years after it was apparently discovered.

And when it was found in British Museum records that Frederick had purchased a Crystal Skull from a man named Sydney Burney, an art dealer who had himself owned the skull since 1933, in an auction at Sothebys, the sceptics crowed that the The Skull of Doom was nothing more than a hoax. It certainly didn't help matters much when the official on-line website for the Mitchell-Hedges' claimed that:

In 1943, Mitchell-Hedges got embroiled in another controversy that still rages in some quarters to this day. In times before burglar alarms, it was not unusual to leave valuable items with friends if one was going away for long periods of time.

Mitchell-Hedges did this with a school friend, Sidney Burney, who had always shown an interest in the Crystal Skull. However, in 1943, Burney inexplicably put the Crystal Skull up for auction at Sotheby’s in London.

Mitchell-Hedges learnt of this the day before and was so furious that for a while he was unable to speak. Unable to contact Burney, he arose the next day at 5am and travelled to London to retrieve his property.

Sotheby’s informed him that the vendor was Sidney Burney’s son. When they refused to withdraw it from the sale, Mitchell-Hedges realized the easiest way of regaining his property was to purchase it back. This he did for £400.

Did I ever tell you about my coffee table? I discovered it in the crater of recently crashed meteorite in New Mexico. Judging by it's style and size I immediately realised it had been carved by an ancient race of Martians. Unfortunately I had to leave soon for a business trip to Africa, and having no lockable doors in the wood hut that I was living in at the time, gave it to my good friend Jimmy Ikea to look after. Upon my return I was amazed to discover that Ikea was trying to sell my coffee table in his local brick-a-brack store. Rather than cause a fuss I bought the table there and then and told Mr. Ikea that if it wasn't for his useful and good value for money range of storage devices for DVD's I'd be really cross with him right now.

Dude, c'mon now. That explanation is as full as holes as the Albert Hall. I mean if you want to come up with a story at least try and make it sound somewhat plausible. Otherwise the people this tale was designed to sway, the folks who think that the your full of nonsense to begin with, will simply laugh at you. Which, as it happens, is pretty much how it went. And, despite the fact that prior to 1933 there is no record of just where the hell this skull came from, the credibility of the Skull of Doom has been debated ever since. Well, actually no, that's not quite right. For a debate one would need at least two contrasting points of view. The general consensus in this case is that because of all the hoo-ha surrounding it's discovery, the Mitchell-Hedges skull is nothing but a fraud.

Which is a massive shame. Because it really does deserve more analysis than that. I mean it's not even supposed to be physically possible to make for a start. Or so say the good people at Hewlett-Packard.

Having already been grilled by all and sundry Anna became fiercely protective of the skull all the way to her death in 2007, refusing to let it be tested or carbon dated by anyone. Probably due to the fear of yet more public humiliation. However somehow the skull did find it's way to a Hewlett-Packard laboratory in 1970. One of the most highly regarding crystal testing facilities in the world at the time, the the skull was extensively put through it's paces in Santa Clara, California, overseen by Art restorer Frank Dorland.

And the results were, well, astonishing.

According to the data from the HP final report, it is five inches wide, just over five inches high, and seven inches long. Unlike other crystal skulls that have been discovered and traced back to a 19th Century European art movement, this skull is almost an exact anatomically correct replica of a female human skull, right down the detachable jawbone. The second noteworthy point the report brings up is that the skull was carved from a single piece of crystal clear quartz “against the grain”.

Now, as any fool will know, carving something against the grain is by and large impossible. It means the tools will be working against the crystals natural molecular symmetry. This would force the crystal to shatter, even using modern carving tools such as lasers. So unless the sculpture was initially supposed to be something else, but splintered to form a visually perfect human skull then it really shouldn't exist in it's unblemished form. (Gee Note: Having said that it's not that difficult to believe having used the Graffiti application on Facebook. I tried drawing a balloon on Mana's wall once. In the end things got so far out of hand I had to settle for a stick figure of M.C. Hammer instead. Complete with baggy trousers. Of course I claimed that was my intention all along. Stop.... Hammer Time).

And this leads on the next curious thing. During the tests at HP they found no evidence of microscopic marks that would indicate the use of metallic tools. Which begs the question how the deuces was it carved in the first place? Well Dorland put forth the theory that it was roughly cut with diamonds initially and then gently nudged in to shape with sand, or silicon, or both. Which some bright spark then deduced would take roughly 300 years worth of man hours.

So the real interest in this crystal skull is not in it's supposed mystical powers or it's disputed origin, but in it's properties instead. And for me the one mystery of how it was made and by whom is enough, without adding the “discovered in an ancient temple of witchcraft” or “can kill a person by making their nostril hairs do the tango” stipulations. Because sometimes the simple questions are the best ones.

The skull is currently held by Bill Homman, Anna Mitchell-Hedges partner at the time of her death. I would think that in accordance with her wishes he'll keep it under wraps for the time being. Meaning that it may be a while before an even more thorough test is done on the skull. There may be a time rather soon however that the all mighty dollar convinces the owner otherwise. After all, there are an awful lot of eccentric billionaires out there, and crystal skulls are big business. They were recently used as a main focal point in the latest instalment of the Indiana Jones (Gee Note: Sadly not even the skulls magic powers could help out the quality of a movie that suggests that all one would need to do to avoid a nuclear war would be to hide in a fridge). And they've even been used in conjunction with Dan Aykroyd to promote a novelty vodka.

And I think it's only right that we leave the final word on Crystal Skulls to everyone's second favourite Ghostbuster.

Goodnight out there, whatever you are.


Naveed said...

The crystal skull thing is one of those oddities out there, that no matter how fake it's claimed to be, always holds an interest with people.

I for one think it's most likely fake, however since HP supposedly got their hands on it to test it, who knows. The results are interesting if the test was real. Maybe it was aliens or a long lost civilization...who knows.

Oh, did I ever tell you of the toaster I found in a cave down the road from here? It toasts bread and doubles as a nuclear generator. I like to call it "Radioactive Toaster of Glowing Toast".

Raptor Lewis said...

What IS "normal" anyway? I mean, nature is so complex that we may think we understand it when we really don't. So, the "paranormal" or "supernatural" may be natural. Think about it and get back to me.