Sunday, July 22, 2007

Tut! Tut!

It's been a busy weekend so far.

Finally got around to visiting the King Tut exhibit on display at the Franklin Institute here in Philly (my thanks to DoZ for making this happen). It's a pleasant enough exhibit, though a bit less grand than I'd imagined it would be [1].

The exhibition brings together a collection of artifacts from the tombs of Tutankhamun and his immediate predecessors / purported ancestors [2]. A bewildering array of objects is on display here - statues of hewn stone, faience figurines in lapis and azure, great lucent vessels of calcite, wooden sculptures made brilliant with gold and gesso and inlaid with fine detail of obsidian and coloured glass, models of boats, finely painted chests and delicately carved shrines, heiroglyphs, cartouches.

The Ancient Egyptians, it seems, had what I can only describe as an Ikea approach to the afterlife. Their idea was that you put together a complete package of everything the deceased might need in the Beyond, add a bunch of carefully carved instructions, and then leave it to the dead Pharaoh to put it all together. So the body was mummified and put in a coffin, the internal organs were also preserved and included in separate jars (which look a bit like the containers we now use to store achaar - cue obligatory joke about grandmother's pickle). Only the brain, being apt to spoil (and presumably irrelevant to the process of becoming a god) was removed (using a hook through the nose) and thrown away - a sort of Ancient Egyptian version of Batteries Not Included. Because the bone lazy Pharaoh couldn't possibly be expected to do any actual work in the afterlife (perish the thought!) a whole bunch of little statuettes called Shabtis were introduced in the tomb to take the Pharaoh's place should he be called upon to say, help the rains in lower Thebes, or attend board meetings. The undertakers also added a range of household goods and everyday objects such as fruits and vegetables, pots and pans, containers for cosmetics and oils, etc, but partly to avoid contaminating the interior of the tomb with things that would spoil, and partly out of a desire to not waste valuable objects on those who, being dead, weren't really in a position to complain, many of the objects included were not originals but fake wooden replicas, painted to look like the real thing, with an attention to detail that would have warmed the heart of any Hollywood Executive Producer [3].

And then, of course, there's the gold. One of the reasons I've never been particularly enthusiastic about Ancient Egyptian art (give me the Greeks any day) is their obsession with gold, which makes much of their work opulent to the point of being garish. The gold motif is on full display in the exhibition, so that entering some of its galleries feels like walking into Tribhovandas Zaveri. There is an exquisite gold coffinette for the liver of Tutankhamun, great turqoise swathes of hawk wings inlaid around it; a coffin for the mummy of Tjuya the size of a small kayak; an elaborately carved shrine for a statue of Tutankhamun's wife, and many, many other such gilded wonders.

Two other sculptures stand out in my memory. The first is the head of Nefertiti, rendered in life-like brown, her cheekbones and mouth traced with great subtlety of craft until the simple beauty of the face shone through. The second is a curiously elongated, almost Modigliani like head of Akhenaten whose sharp, almost scornful features made me think of Shelley's Ozymandias ("whose frown / and wrinkled lip and sneer of cold command / tell that its sculptor well those passions read / which yet survive, stamped on these lifeless things / the hand that mocked them and the heart that fed"). Akhenaten and Nefertiti also feature in a carved relief showing them worshipping Aten, the sun disk, who rewards them by dropping Ankhs into their hands rather like an expansive executive pressing fivers into a vagrant's hand. Other highlights for me included a particularly dark sculpture of King Tut as Amun, a gorgeous pectoral with a central scarab of lapis lazuli, a walking stick with a handle carved in the shape of a tortured Nubian, the handle of a fan carved with images of the Pharaoh out ostrich hunting [4] and a bust of Tutankhamun that supposedly shows us "how regal the boy king looked, even in what was just a wooden statue" (huh?!) but made me think, for some strange reason, of the young Yul Brynner.


So much for civilization, ancient or otherwise. To balance out all this 'culture' I also attended a six hour long triple feature of John Carpenter movies put together by the folks over at Exhumed Films. I'm not really a big fan of either Carpenter or horror as a genre, but there's a certain retro comfort in watching trashy 80's horror / action flicks, not to mention the sheer adrenaline rush of six hours of grindhouse violence, gore and synthetic music. I'll confess to falling asleep in Prince of Darkness, but quite enjoyed the stark, back-to-basics simplicity of The Thing, not to mention the exhilarating and almost hilarious escapades of 'Snake' Plissken in Escape from New York, with its now deeply eerie scene of a terrorist group hijacking a plane (Airforce One) and deliberately crashing it into a New York City skyscraper, closely followed by Kurt Russel's landing a glider on the top of the World Trade Center.


And finally, speaking of planes crashing into New York, have finally decided to abandon Mohsin Hamid's The Reluctant Fundamentalist which I've been trying to make my way through for a week now, but which I've found almost entirely unreadable. The argument (or what I've read of it so far) is contrived, predictable and flimsy, the writing is wooden, the characters seem cliched and the whole thing strikes me as being desperately fake. And the fact that its structure is a cheap, derivative rip-off of Camus only makes things worse. On the whole, a book to avoid, despite all the hype.


[1] This always happens to me. Exhibitions for Egyptian artifacts, like second-grade comedies, have a tendency to pack all the best bits into the advertising, so that when you finally see the whole thing you always feel a little conned.

[2] One of the more irritating things about the exhibition is the way it harps on about the fact that we don't actually know whether Tutankhamun was Akhenaten's son or not. As a result, you get an exhibition peppered with 'probably's to a point where it gets ridiculous - "the Pharaoh Akhenaten, who was probably Tutankhamun's father", "the Pharaoh Viewfromthetop who was probably Tutankhamun's great-great granduncle twice removed" "this doorway, that is probably the exit", etc. I appreciate (and applaud) the effort to stick strictly to the facts, but why include something that's only speculative in the first place? And surely telling the visitors this once or twice would have sufficed.

[3] I remain convinced, btw, that the entire civilization of Ancient Egypt is a Hollywood conspiracy. The whole thing just seems to tailor-made for grand epics not to be.

[4] You'd think any self-respecting hunter would be embarrassed about hunting a flightless bird, that too on an open plain while mounted on a chariot, accompanied by dogs and beaters and with a bow and arrow in hand, but apparently the Pharaohs were very proud of it.


Tabula Rasa said...

having spent some time tramping through a few multi-thousand year old tombs in back of beyond china recently, i can assert that this mania for carrying things to the afterlife wasn't solely an egyptian obsession. the chinese carried all kinds of stuff with them -- the granddaddy of them all being shih huangdi, he of the terracotta warriors fame, who'd wanted to take along an entire standing army in addition to the pottery that he'd got made. luckily for some there was a war on when he died, so they decided they needed the soldiers above-ground for now.

Anonymous said...

"Their idea was that you put together a complete package of everything the deceased might need in the Beyond, add a bunch of carefully carved instructions, and then leave it to the dead Pharaoh to put it all together."
LOL! After one torturous weekend of putting together furniture with bad instructions, I can only hope the Pharaohs had it better.

Shirsha said...

One misses your fiction! Whr's it?