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Raised from the dead 

Ancient civilization comes to life at Denver Art Museum Tiwanaku exhibit

click to enlarge An Early Tiwanaku style tunic, A.D. 200-400, on display at the Denver Art Museum Oct. 16 through Jan. 23.
  • An Early Tiwanaku style tunic, A.D. 200-400, on display at the Denver Art Museum Oct. 16 through Jan. 23.

Let us imagine that there once existed a mighty empire stretching from the shores of the Pacific through the deserts of Chile and Peru, along the high plateaus of Bolivia, across the Andean Cordillera, and all the way to the sources of the Amazon. And imagine that this empire, which may have endured for 1,000 years, had wholly disappeared into the realm of myth and legend 500 years before Columbus set sail. And imagine that, although the imposing ruins of the empire's capital still stand on the southern shore of Bolivia's Lake Titicaca, you've never heard of it.

For more than a hundred years, historians and archeologists have been fascinated by the extensive ruins at Tiwanaku, the name given to the site and, by extension, to the empire. The Tiwanaku people had no written language, left no oral tradition, and had no successors (although the Inca, eager to link their own empire to the legends of Tiwanaku, claimed kinship). All that remains is the largely unexcavated site, 12 miles south of Lake Titicaca, at an altitude of 12,500 feet, covering an area of 2.25 square miles.

All that we know of the Tiwanaku is what we can learn from their art and artifacts. And this week, the first comprehensive art exhibition ever to focus on the Tiwanaku civilization will open at the Denver Art Museum.

The importance, beauty and sheer impact of this show can scarcely be overstated. A civilization as strange, complex and enduring as that of ancient Egypt rose over 2,000 years ago in South America, and here it is for our eyes to see for the first time. Nearly 100 objects are on display, drawn from public and private collections worldwide, many of which have never been published or publicly shown. Thanks to the patient scholarship of scores of men and women over many decades, culminating in D.A.M. curator Margaret Young-Sanchez's magisterial exhibition catalog, we can begin to appreciate and understand what we're seeing.

The Tiwanaku were extraordinary artisans, at home in every medium. There are carved pieces in wood and stone, finely wrought objects in cast and hammered gold, and, most spectacularly, textiles that were woven before Rome was sacked by the barbarians. They're literally as fresh and bright as the day they were created, preserved for 2,000 years in desert graves where rain may fall only once in a century.

The iconography, the visual language of the Tiwanaku, is strange and difficult to decipher. At first you see only complex, swirling imagery, abstract and stylized. But look at the catalog, read the exhibition labels and look some more. Suddenly you understand what you're seeing. Here are creatures with bird wings and jaguar faces, with human hands grasping severed heads. And here is a stone sculpture, disembodied and cubist ... no, it's not. It's a ritually dismembered body. And here's a photograph of a stone sculpture at Pucara, north of Lake Titicaca, called the Pucara Decapitator. "A massive, compact seated figure, it grasps an ax with its right hand and holds a severed human head with its right." A spectacular golden cup with raised and incised decoration catches your eye ... what is it? "An erect, frontal human figure ... with his left hand he grasps the hair of a prone captive, with his right hand he holds both an ax and a bound prisoner."

But if there's a Rosetta stone of the Tiwanaku culture, it has to be a tapestry tunic, woven around A.D. 200, which Sanchez calls the most complex and sophisticated surviving artwork from ancient Tiwanaku and one of the most important works of art from ancient South America." The tunic appears to depict the world of the Tiwanaku -- the principal deity, his shrine, his acolytes, the attendant nobles and the spirit world. Its strangeness and beauty are impossible to convey -- you have a sense of a culture where the boundaries between life and death, between animal and human, between the seen and unseen, are fluid and indefinite. The tunic's design is ordered, logical and symmetrical, but not as we understand those words. This is, to our eyes, far more alien and other than, for example, the cave paintings at Lascaux or the ruins of Anuradapura in Sri Lanka. It's remote and impenetrable, a mute survivor from deep time.

This is an extraordinary exhibition. Like its predecessor, The Art of Colonial Mexico, it was funded, created and mounted by the Denver Art Museum. It puts Denver in a class of its own -- not simply in the first rank of American art museums, but arguably at the very top. Consider this: The current show at the Metropolitan Museum of Art, the undisputed Big Dog in the Tall Grass of art museums, is a pleasing little confection of yummy Chinese art titled China: Dawn of a Golden Age. It'll be a crowd-pleaser, but it's not one-one-hundredth as important, as bold, as difficult, and as risky as Tiwanaku. Go, spend time, and marvel at this spectacle: It's as if a spaceship came back from Mars with artifacts from a vanished Martian civilization.

-- John Hazlehurst

capsule

Tiwanaku: Ancestors of the Inca

Denver Art Museum, 100 W. 14th Ave. Parkway, Denver

720/865-5000

www.denverartmuseum.org

Oct. 16 through Jan. 23

  • Ancient civilization comes to life at Denver Art Museum Tiwanaku exhibit

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