Concise, critical reviews of books, exhibitions, and projects in all areas and periods of art history and visual studies
August 25, 2021
Andrew Finegold Vital Voids: Cavities and Holes in Mesoamerican Material Culture Austin: University of Texas Press, 2021. 184 pp.; 88 color ills.; 13 b/w ills. Cloth $60.00 (9781477322437)

In Vital Voids, Andrew Finegold opens, tongue in cheek, by saying that his book is “about nothing.” He then demonstrates—convincingly, and in engaging prose—that the sustained analysis of holes provides insight into the ways in which ancient Mesoamericans conceived of cavities as teeming with vital energies or pregnant with the possibility of emergence. Nothing truly was something for ancient Mesoamericans, but arriving at this conclusion requires skilled art historical analysis on the part of Finegold.

Finegold employs a range of methodologies that takes the reader from objects and history to myth, symbolism, and ideology. He begins by contemplating the nature of holes, which are inherently immaterial yet, almost paradoxically, physical particularities. They “require a material host within which to reside” but simultaneously inspire speculation: Are they merely a topographical quality or an entity in and of themselves worthy of analysis (4)? Finegold traces the existing, and mostly Western, philosophical literature on holes—or, in his words, their “ontological and epistemological complexity” (4), which sets the stage for the array of Mesoamerican evidence concerning these cavities that he then musters.

The well-known Late Classic Maya “Resurrection Plate,” whose imagery records the rebirth of the Maize God from a crack in a turtle carapace, figures prominently in Finegold’s analysis. This is due, in great part, to the fact that the plate’s calligraphic composition is interrupted at its center by a small drilled hole. Chapter 1 introduces us to this unprovenanced ceramic plate, now located in the Museum of Fine Arts, Boston. We learn of its dimensions and its stylistic and iconographic attributes; its hieroglyphic inscription tells us that the plate was, at some point in the late seventh or early eighth century CE, owned by Titomaj K’awiil, a patron of high-quality ceramics who carried a noble title.

Finegold focuses in chapter 2 on the recurrence of other drilled holes—long referred to as “kill holes”—on Classic Maya plates and other ceramic vessels. He grapples with the term kill hole, which suggests that such perforations released the animating spirits of the vessels upon termination of their use, long after their production and frequently in conjunction with deposition in a burial (evidence gleaned from objects with good archaeological context). Finegold does not dispute this but instead argues that the ultimate addition of holes may have been anticipated by the artists who painted these vessels and should be understood as a meaningful part of their use lives. A hole, then, did not mark the end of a vessel’s utility, whether symbolic or functional, but brought it full circle into a cycle of ritual and rebirth.

Finegold digs more deeply into the Resurrection Plate’s narrative of the rebirth of the Maize God in chapter 3, linking its messages to Mesoamerican origin stories that likewise begin with an act of emergence from a portal in the earth. He traces this iconography on other vessels, identifying patterns of thematic elaboration or substitution and noting the tendency for comparable plates to be perforated as well. The imagery on these vessels is not uniform, but it does revolve around a coherent set of themes, each of which Finegold teases out: lightning that cracks the surface of the earth, sprouting vegetation that signifies new life; interment of the dead, expressed with agricultural metaphors; quatrefoil-shaped portals that function as symbolic apertures; and caves from which ancestors and gods emerge.

Finegold then links the represented spaces on vessels to those in the built environment, arguing that architectural voids were ritually potent spaces that symbolized “nodes of connection between the vertical layers of the cosmos” (63). Laterally oriented apertures, such as windows or even ball-court rings, were a complementary part of the same system that “mediated between horizontal oppositions” (63). These systems visually and conceptually extended a series of cavities throughout the built environment, working in tandem with burials and dedicatory caches that also functioned as potent portals. But these holes did not maintain a single, stable meaning, Finegold argues. They were amenable to a host of associations anchored to their nature as voids.

Chapter 4 pursues the relationship between holes and the drilling of fire, a practical necessity as well as a central component of Mesoamerican ritual life. As Finegold notes, the conceptual link between the two is, at first glance, not an obvious one, but the Resurrection Plate makes that relationship explicit. At the center of the composition, a torch rises from a skull, replete with curling flames and tendrils of smoke that frame both the crack in the turtle shell from which the Maize God emerges and the small hole that perforates the vessel. Finegold addresses the symbolic significance of heat, smoke, and fire in Mesoamerica, where they were associated with the generation and revitalization of calendrical time. The drilled hole at the center of the Resurrection Plate, then, resonates on multiple levels: it signifies a place of emergence and drilling, a place of mythic and calendrical renewal.

Finegold shifts from earthly cavities to bodily perforations in chapter 5, fleshing out his treatment of these voids. He considers autosacrificial bloodletting as well as acts of bodily piercing for the purpose of ornamentation. The location of the hole on the Resurrection Plate, he argues, coincides with the Maize God’s groin and alludes to the piercing of the phallus. But, more than this, the plate evokes a “metonymical association” between acts of bloodletting and similar plates or shallow dishes, which served as receptacles for the drawn blood of bodily perforation (90).

Finegold also urges scholars to pay more heed to the conceptual overlap between bodily perforations made in order to draw penitential blood and those that accommodate the wearing of jewelry (such as ear, lip, and nose piercings). In support of his arguments Finegold moves through centuries of evidence, from Late Classic Maya vessels, to Late Postclassic Mixteca-Puebla birth almanacs, and even to the eyewitness account of pierced Totonac bodies recorded by Peter Martyr d’Anghiera in the Spanish court of King Charles V between 1519 and 1520. His analysis builds on the many recent studies of Mesoamerican costuming and its role in the formulation of social identity, but also goes beyond them with its focus on the bodily cavities required to accommodate certain adornments. For Finegold, bodily piercings, like other cavities in the built environment, in the natural world, and in Mesoamerican mythologies, created conduits for the flows of vital energy symbolized by shimmering jade and gold ornaments.

Finegold is definitely on firmer ground with Classic Maya material than with Preclassic material, as demonstrated by his use in the first chapter of Naranjo Monument 1 to anticipate much of his discussion of voids. Monument 1’s gaping hole captured the attention of Eadweard Muybridge in 1875, but Finegold cites neither E. Bradford Burns’s Eadweard Muybridge in Guatemala, 1875 (University of California Press, 1986) nor Bárbara Arroyo’s comprehensive volume Entre cerros, cafetales y urbanismo en el Valle de Guatemala: Proyecto de Rescate Naranjo (Academia de Geografía e Historia de Guatemala, 2010). This is to the book’s detriment, since Arroyo’s work provides a wealth of information concerning the larger sociopolitical and environmental contexts of the Naranjo monuments, as well as her observation that Monument 1’s cavity was likely natural in origin, formed as a result of water flowing around and eventually through the andesite slab while it was lodged in a river or stream. Finegold’s assertion that the hole on Monument 1 was “intentionally cut” (7) runs counter to that made by Arroyo, who excavated the site and is well aware of other Preclassic monuments and so-called fountain stones, whose cavities are the result of centuries of hydraulic erosion. The potential relationships between the void and water seem important ones, and at least as enriching as the Lacanian theories of the gaze that Finegold employs instead. Although he claims to be concerned with “the structured relations in which [the monument’s hole] participates” (12), Finegold overlooks the potential structured relations between voids, water, and mountains that a careful reading of Arroyo’s archaeological report inspires. Lagoons and freshwater springs surrounded the site, which was built at the base of Cerro El Naranjo, a peak that serves as a geographical marker in the center of the Valley of Guatemala. One wishes that Finegold had pursued this avenue of analysis in the same way he did for caves, “water mountains,” and certain architectural structures, all of which functioned as—or were designed to invoke—fecund apertures and portals of watery, vegetal abundance.

Those criticisms aside, there is a satisfying rhythm and structure to this book, which moves through an impressive array of ideas but keeps returning, almost poetically, to the place it started: a beautifully painted Late Classic Maya plate rife with meaning and replete with a small drilled hole. Finegold charts a new and productive path for thinking about voids as procreative spaces that were integral to Mesoamerican creation narratives, ritual behavior, individual identities, and expressions of social order. For this reason, this book should be of interest to readers beyond the confines of Mesoamerica who, like Finegold, see potential in a void.

Julia Guernsey
University of Texas at Austin