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A monumental sculpture made with over two hundred recycled speaker boxes sourced from the Seattle area, William Cordova’s machu picchu after dark (pa’ victoria santa cruz macario sakay y aaron dixon) (2003–14) was shown at the Seattle Art Museum alongside the massive and largely historical exhibition Peru: Kingdoms of the Sun and Moon. Organized by the Montreal Museum of Fine Arts, this exhibition claimed to survey 3000 years of art and culture from a civilization turned nation.
A golden “octopus,” or eight-armed forehead ornament, from the Mochica culture, which had been stolen during the 1980s and repatriated to Peru in 2006, was the highlight of the exhibition. This object, with dramatically curved tentacles ending in catfish heads and a mask-like face, embodied the grandeur and glory of Pre-Columbian civilization. Shining brightly like the sun, it reinforced themes of loot, treasure, conquest, and discovery that extended across the rooms devoted to Pre-Columbian art and material culture, the colonial period, twentieth-century indigenismo and modernismo, and Euro-American engagements with Peru in and through archeological and photographic practice. For this North American exhibition, the octopus journeyed outside of Peru for the first time since its restitution, an event that the Seattle Art Museum used to proclaim its commitment to ethical collecting and display. In Seattle, the octopus occupied its own gallery—separate from other Pre-Columbian objects and adjacent to rooms of nineteenth- and twentieth-century work—with video and wall text explicating the archeological context in which it was found. This narrow space was thronged by visitors, attesting to the visual appeal of the octopus and its successful framing by the museum.
“Go on an adventure in search of the treasures of Peru” was just one touristic injunction on the website of the Montreal Museum of Fine Arts. The Seattle Art Museum followed the Canadian conceptualization of Peruvian art, an anachronistic category for much of the work shown in the exhibition that predated the modern nation-state established with a declaration of independence from Spain in 1821. In both North American venues, this art was presented chronologically to take the viewer to one of “the six cradles of civilization,” as the official text of the exhibition described it. Over one hundred thousand visitors saw the show in Montreal, where its “integrated” narrative of hundreds of objects was received as a vivid and unusual display of Latin American art (Benjamin Genocchio, “Massive Montreal Exhibition Tracks 3,000 Years of Cultural History,” BLOUINARTINFO, February 26, 2013). The items on display were united by the idea of a national-cultural identity that could be traced back in a continuous chain across millennia.
machu picchu after dark was unique to the Seattle venue of Peru: Kingdoms of the Sun and Moon and envisioned by the museum as a complement to the special exhibition. Born in Lima in 1971, Cordova immigrated to the United States at the age of six, and his art engages the history and culture of the Americas. The Seattle Art Museum commissioned the fifth iteration of his machu picchu after dark. Curated by Sandra Jackson-Dumont, and installed in a room adjacent to the Simonyi special exhibition galleries on the fourth floor, machu picchu after dark was strangely closed off from Peru: Kingdoms of the Sun and Moon, even if officially connected to it as a contemporary perspective on Peruvian heritage. Yet its visual language and impact was at odds with the gold on display in Peru.
The subject of machu picchu after dark is junk. It consists of disused, locally sourced speaker boxes that were recast as a Pre-Columbian monolith. The recycling of these boxes, manufactured from the 1960s through the 1980s, was inspired by Cordova’s childhood memory of seeing cast-off speaker boxes on the streets of Miami and mistakenly believing them to be the cajón, or Afro-Peruvian drum. Cajones were originally fashioned by slaves from Spanish shipping crates in the late eighteenth century in coastal Peru and became a popular percussion instrument across the Americas in the nineteenth century. Stacked one on top of each other, the Seattle speaker boxes form a giant box with mouths, eyes, and ears conjured by the vents. The work is animate and powerful. Cordova scatters refuse around the appropriated speakers to evoke an urban street: LPs (including Soul Burst by Cal Tjader), books (such as bell hooks’s Art on My Mind: Visual Politics), rolled brown paper, a collection of gray stones, brightly-colored M&Ms in a Ziploc bag, used tissue, bits of cloth, a bottle cap, a piece of plywood, and a block of foam. These things, like the materials of Cordova’s other work, were likely collected during everyday explorations of the cities in which he lives and makes his art. The humble and intimate view of humanity they offer contradicts the scale of machu picchu after dark, which towers over the viewer as a silent soundscape.
machu picchu after dark presents a subtle critique of the tourism industry, nationalist history, and official diplomacy evident in the patronage and production of Peru: Kingdoms of the Sun and Moon. The Trade Commission of Peru in Los Angeles was a promotional sponsor of the show; the U.S. ambassador to Peru, Harold Forsyth, and the Peruvian Vice Minister of Cultural Patrimony and Cultural Industries, Luis Jaime Castillo Butters, spoke at its opening in Seattle. The Seattle Art Museum advertised the show, in a mailer sent to its members, as a glimpse into “the mysteries of Machu Picchu, treasures from royal tombs and archeological wonders from the cradles of civilization.” However, in machu picchu after dark, museumgoers were invited to imagine a quiet celebration in homes and on stoops, where families and friends sing, dance, and play music, encompassing the beat of drums and vibration of guitars, the rhythms of milonga and tango, huayno and cumbia, salsa and hip-hop, and mediated by human voices, musical instruments, gramophones, pocket radios, and boom boxes. In the stillness and solitude of machu picchu after dark, there are echoes of Seattle sites and streets, once alive with music from the now defunct speaker boxes, mixed in with remembered or imagined sounds from elsewhere.
Cordova is committed to excavating other Americas, which is to say, ruins other than the legendary Incan city of Machu Picchu or lost cities of gold sought by European explorers. machu picchu after dark commemorates neither grand monuments nor golden ornaments, but ordinary lives and their habitus and detritus. It privileges the sounds and sights of the street over the palace or tomb. It finds wonder in the shapes and colors of M&Ms and mystery in musical technologies ranging from the LP and cassette tape to the compact disc and iTunes. Cordova asks us to ponder the artifacts of our everyday lives—photographs, print culture, graffiti, broken glass, chewing gum, and used rags—with the same interest and curiosity that we bring to bear on royal treasure and imperial conquest. He does so formally by making over the ephemeral into the monumental as manifest in the throwaway speaker boxes repurposed into an imposing oracle in machu picchu after dark.
machu picchu after dark responds to an exhibition—and more broadly, a popular discourse—in which African influence and presence, especially the experience of slavery, is erased from Caribbean and Latin American history and memory. As several scholars and critics have observed, European colonialism in Latin America produced a caste society in which a complex racial hierarchy governed social and economic relations. Yet race—an effect of cultural, religious, linguistic, and political affiliations—was also highly mutable, and people shifted between racial categories, a historical fact that generated anxieties about mixing. Cordova’s work addresses what the artist has called a collective “fear and shame” about “blood ties to Andean and African peoples” (artist’s talk, Seattle Art Museum, March 26, 2014). It speaks to a widespread denial of miscegenated roots and mixed-up branches. Referencing both Octavio Paz and Gaspar Yanga, the leader of a slave rebellion in colonial Mexico, in the dedication of Cordova’s laberintos (pa’ octavio paz y gaspar yanga) (2003–9) was a means of revealing an African identity that was not in “Paz’s field of vision” (ibid.).
Against the logic of patrimony or repatriation, machu picchu after dark offers a vision of culture as remix, as mélange and métissage, or mestizaje or mulataje, to use the language of cultural movements in the Caribbean and Latin America. For some persons and things in the world, rightful return or safe passage home is impossible. The cajones turned speakers represent belonging without identitarianism. They are sound boxes become silent masks.
The mask is an alternative to determinable or fixed identity if we recall Paz’s articulation of Mexican belonging to the world in The Labyrinth of Solitude (1950). The Mexican, for Paz, was hidden beneath a mask, trained by virtue of his Indian heritage and Spanish colonialism to dissimulate desire and disguise the self. He was a “Nobody.” The displaced immigrant, for Cordova, relates to this non-identity by her or his embrace of nowhere and everywhere, by belonging to a maze without a center. The bits and pieces of urban rubble that constitute machu picchu after dark lend the work a labyrinthine quality. Despite its oracular appearance, it points in no particular direction.
Peru: Kingdoms of the Sun and Moon came and went, but Cordova’s installation remained at the Seattle Art Museum, taking a place alongside an exhibition of late paintings and sculpture by Joan Miró, The Experience of Seeing (February 13–May 26, 2014), on loan from the Reina Sofía in Madrid. In the context of this tribute to the Spanish-born master, Cordova’s work serves as an intriguing trace of Latin America and a link between the Americas and Africa. Sited in an interstitial space between the special exhibition galleries and the African art galleries, it resonates with a nearby sculpture, Takpekpe (Conference) (2006), by El Anatsui. While machu picchu after dark was always in this location, the change of exhibition and signage brought its connections to African art in focus. El Anatsui’s art, often made of inexpensive, discarded, and culturally significant materials, finds an intriguing parallel in Cordova’s work. The fine mesh of Takpekpe, fabricated from bottle caps of liquor and cans of evaporated milk, recalls ritual cloths and everyday consumption and waste in urban cafes and shops. Such improbable connections are apparent to the viewer of machu picchu after dark even if the Peru: Kingdoms of the Sun and Moon show that prompted its installation somewhat obscured them. Instead of marking the beginning or end of a national or civilizational entity called Peru, this work can serve as a bridge across oceans and landmasses, revealing the limits and possibilities of our cultural imaginations.
Assistant Professor, Division of Art History, School of Art, University of Washington