Cif Amotan II, the Sun Stone and time travel
In 2008, off the coast in East Africa, a team of archaeologists and divers discovered a vast wreckage site. The extensive collection of works under the surface of the Indian Ocean was identified as the property of the voracious collector and former slave Cif Amotan II who lived between the mid-first and early-second century CE in Antioch. According to the myth, he accumulated quite a fortune with his freedom, and to begin his new life, he built an overwhelming collection of treasures, copies and fakes from all over the ancient world, and brought it together on the colossal ship the Apistos bound for a place to build a temple where the works were to be exhibited. But the eccentric collector got caught in a bad storm and the treasures lay submerged under water for some two thousand years, until it was discovered not far from the ancient trading ports of Azania.
It’s all very exciting. But it’s also a lie. The truth is that artist Damien Hirst spend ten years and more than $65 million out of his own pocket to build the enormous collection, drop it in the ocean, raise it again while filming a documentary about it, and then exhibit the whole thing in Venice under the name Treasures from the Wreck of the Unbelievable. It is possibly the single most extravagant and expensive art show that a single artist has ever created. He filled not one but two museums with hundreds of objects in marble, bronze, silver, gold, crystal, jade and malachite, sculptures ranging from a waist high smiling Mickey Mouse to a gargantuan statue of a headless demon posing like William Blake’s scary The Ghost of a Flea. And here is where part of the conflict lies. There is an exaggerated irony to some of the sculptures. Mickey Mouse, a silver transformer, ancient pharaohs and goddesses looking a lot like certain contemporary pop-stars. The scale of the work is overwhelming in any way, no discussion, but Hirst splits the audience into those who love it and those who hate it. Those who think that his work is art in its clear form, and those who think it is a sad and vulgar rainbow of pop-culture and ancient history covered in coral.
Inside the Punta Della Dogana in Venice, the first of Hirst’s exhibited artefacts was a calendar stone, very similar to the Aztec calendar stone Piedra del Sol, or The Sun Stone, housed by the National Anthropology Museum in Mexico City. This disc was probably used by the Aztecs as a schedule for ceremonies, and to predict significant events, including that of an imminent apocalypse. The Piedra del Sol shows the creation of the five suns and each of their respective apocalypses. According to the calendar stone, we are now in the fifth and last era, and we will be terminated by earthquakes. Doesn't say when.
When writer William Burroughs wrote his 1961 cut-up novel, The Soft Machine, he was interested in the Piedra del Sol, and especially its role as a control mechanism. It is the story of a man travelling back in time to the Mayan era in his vessel - the body of a young Mexican man. He works his way back in time through practises he develops such as reading old newspapers and making picture collages, watching reversed film and mixing languages on a tape recorder. Ultimately he goes through an operation and some sort of time travel ritual in Mérida, Yucatán. Burroughs even employs the motif of space and time travel through the cut up and rearranged fragments of text, that suggests the constructed nature of reality. Exactly what Hirst points to through his work. How does Cif Amotan II collect a Mickey Mouse in bronze more than 2000 years before it is conceptualized? He reaches across time, he transcends physics, frames, rules.
It has been suggested, that Hirst’s work should be regarded as art for a post-truth world. A meditation on belief and truth. Beliefs of what art was, is and can be. It points toward the fact that all cultures generate cultures. And that art always builds on other art. Hirst’s work, The Soft Machine and Piedra del Sol all represent a complex cosmological worldview, where time is circular. A world where not the flow of time, but belief and dreams structure and shape truth.
Burroughs was a writer also very interested in dreams. He said he harvested much of the inspiration for his books from dreams. Most of it was nonsense, but that is secondary. Once he woke up and noted a sentence he got in his dream:
“Where naked troubadours shoot snotty baboons”.
And what does this mean? Nothing, but it suggests the existence of a world that works within the limits of our language, but on the other side of logic. Burroughs is actually suggesting, in a lecture he gave in Naropa University in 1980, that our dreams are biologically designed to prepare us, for many things outside of our beliefs. Dreams allow us to explore what our bodies prevent us from doing, he says. And one of Hirst's central points is that we believe what we want to believe. That we can predict and compose our own future, such as the creators of Piedra del Sol did, and believe that it is our reality. If we adopt the initiative, ambition and belief from dreams, we can reshape the rules and reality that define our lives, and construct a new narrative of creation and flow of inspiration. A narrative that is unlogical, unbelievable, dreamy, creative.