The Art of Stories, the Story of Art

It may seem strange to be recommending an exhibition to storytellers as a source of inspiration, but “Mayas – Revelation Of An Endless Time” at the World Museum in Liverpool (until 18th October) is just that – a storytelling source, and not just for the stories it enshrines. More than 300 objects mainly from the rich middle period of Mayan history collected from museums and historical sites across Mexico are wonderfully well showcased in this free exhibition, and, story-telling apart, I defy you not to be impressed by them. Jewellery, ceramics, large architectural carvings, representative figures, masks, burial offerings, all these make up the exhibition with pertinent videos illustrating ritual and scientific calculations (the Mayas virtually invented accurate time-keeping and astronomy), also a comparative time-line of Mayan history. It’s enough to reward several visits. I have been to the exhibition four times now and am still finding in it new things to wonder at.

If I recommend a storyteller to pay a visit to “Mayas” it’s not principally for the stories, but they are there. The Mayas may not have emphasised individuality in their civilization, and you won’t find micro-dramas represented in the treasures, as you might when looking at the Bayeux Tapesty, for example, or Renaissance paintings, but the Mayan mythology is very powerful and several episodes of the ur-text “Popul Vuh” are visible in various carvings, including the Creation Myth of the Hero Twins, which would certainly suit those who like their stories elemental and cosmic. There is also the long and complicated history of the growth and sudden decline in periods of Mayan civilization, wherein are to be found kings, heroes, abandoned cities, sacrifices, and all manner of myth-inflected epochal event. And there is the more historical narrative of the conquering of Mexico by Cortez, which is nothing if not tragedy on the cusp of absurdity (you can buy the classic account in book-form in the exhibition shop). Thankfully the Mayas are the ancient Central American civilization which wasn’t entirely wiped out and 6 million of them are to be found in Central America and Mexico today. All that is there for storytellers who want their material already in narrative form.

For me, however, the magic of “Mayas” is in its suggestiveness and in the aesthetic of that civilization’s artefacts. Many ancient civilizations have left us artefacts but the nature of Mayan carving and their representation of character is somehow poised between the real and the artificial in a way which seems to me a parallel to that of fairy and fantasy tales and in more recent times cartoon films which at their best do bridge the gap between the actual and the virtual in an entirely enhancing way. Mayan relief carving is just shallow enough to throw the images forward without implying complex depths – they can delight children and well as adult art-lovers. The people represented in these carvings and ceramic illustration are recognizably of human extraction but fictional too, villains morphing into ogres, kings into animals, animals into gods, gods into abstract patterns. The atmosphere of magic pervades the whole exhibition. Equally impressive are the hieroglyphic letterings, so meticulously decipherable that they can be used in calendars, history markers and head-dress decorations. Each is a small, dense and fascinatingly suggestive icon, a story-microbe or atom, as indeed are Chinese written characters, the difference being that the Mayan glyphs are most often in carved relief and feel like objects not signs. They are worth dwelling on and the exhibition gives you, and your children, plenty of help in appreciating their detailed allusions.

I mention these aspects of the exhibition because they are a source of inspiration for both original and interpretative story-telling. If you have a classic story on the stocks you will find its main characters somewhere in “Mayas” and by studying them you will feel closer to them in your telling. Everything from Beatrix Potter to Satan seemed to emerge from the display cases, to this visitor at least. The Mayas resemble us in their exaggeration – if that is not too paradoxical a statement. At the same time, if you are lookig for something to start you off on an entirely new and personal story almost anything in “Mayas” is beautifully suggestive. Why not start with the tiny golden frog which is almost the first object you see in the exhibition?

In another aspect, also of relevance to storytellers, the Mayas resemble us not at all, or, to be exact, their civilization does not, and this is its wonder and its inspiration. What are we to make of all this obsessive time-keeping, of pitz, the ball-game where the ball is struck by the waist, of blood-letting, of internecine struggle, of empty cities and mathematically perfect topographical alignment? Everything, you may say, – it sounds like our very imperfect and absurd present world. Maybe, but to visit “Mayas” is to seem to peer into an episode of science fiction where even gravity, death, history and genealogy seem to follow different rules. If we are honest about the Mayan civilization we would have to say that it is strangely “other” and almost impossible to fathom. And here we have its inspirational nature for story-tellers, for those who like to create parallel universes, other worlds. Contemporary fiction-sequences like “Game Of Thrones” or Terry Pratchett’s “Discworld” are just such an epic of otherness, elsewhere but powerfully reminiscent of something buried deep inside ourselves, that part of us where we may feel least at home. I would bet that many video-game-makers have also feasted their imaginations and visual stylings on Mayan artefacts. If you want to give unreality a material and human face pay a visit to “Mayas”.

All I can say is that I came away from the exhibition with a renewed sense of the power of imagination and full of ideas for story-telling, characters, style and narratives. I want my tellings to be as poetically.strange and familiar as anything in those displays. “Mayas” will soon be gone to other cities, but catch it if you can, and see if you don’t come away as fired up as me.

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I write a lot in many media on many subjects

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