Monday, April 4, 2011

Fascinating Inka Object (circa 1240-1470 A.D.) From L.A. County Museum

Lime Spoon in the form of a Hummingbird with Cast Picaflor, 1250-1470 AD
Utilitarian object, Gold, malachite, 3 5/8 x 1 1/2 in. (9.21 x 3.81 cm)

        The charming and beautiful object above, which Caroline noticed and pointed out to me at the Los Angeles County Museum of Art last Friday morning, is really something.  Absent professional training in or familiarity with ancient  Peruvian art, artifacts and culture, I don't think one would easily guess that this was a coca spoon  in the form of a gold and malachite hummingbird that was fabricated and used by the Inkas between 1250 and 1470 AD.  

        The museum's label description of the spoon follows just below.  However, seeing and thinking about this "utilitarian object" takes the mind in all sorts of imaginative directions (L.A. and non-L.A.-related) in contemporary and ancient time and space:

    "The practice of chewing coca leaves became widespread during the reign of Topa Inka, the second Inka emperor, and various ceremonies developed around it.  This spoon, with its long handle, served to scoop lime while chewing the leaves.  Lime, a calcium carbonate, broke down the alkaloids in the coca leaves, thus hastening their stimulating effect.  Both substances were carried in small woven bags like the one seen here.  The precious material and elaborate decoration of surviving Inka spoons indicates coca chewing was strictly an elite privilege. (2008)."   

        I didn't have a chance to check out the museum store, but I'm fairly sure that despite its clearly enormous commercial potential, it does not offer high-quality replicas of the hummingbird spoon.  (Like New York City's Metropolitan Museum of Art, I suspect that LACMA sticks mainly to more traditional items like medieval crucifixes and Art Deco reproductions from the museum's collections, but I will confirm this and amend as necessary if I find that I'm mistaken.)  That being said, the museum does seem to be quite strong in representing the South American psychopharmacology paraphernalia category, as also evidenced by the two other objects illustrated below.  The first is an example of the aforementioned woven coca bag.  This item was created several hundred years before the hummingbird spoon, possibly as early as 800 AD.  The second is an attractive and impressive (strong modeling, delicate carving and fine polishing) wood and silver coquera, or coca storage container, from the late part of the eighteenth century.


Bag for Coca Leaves, AD 600-800
Costume/clothing accessory/carried;  Archeological artifact, Camelid fiber and cotton; dovetailed tapestry with loop stitch embroidery and branded fringe, 16 1/4 x 6 1/2 in. (41.28 x 16.51 cm)
Peru, South Coast, Nasca, Wari-related

Coca Box (Coquera), circa 1770
Vessel, Wood, Cast and chased wood and silver, 7 1/2 x 11 x 9 in. (19.05 x 27.94 x 22.86 cm)
Bolivia, possibly Moxos or Chaquitos

         We saw all sorts of terrific and exciting artworks at the museum, including a small, well-chosen exhibition of early Vija Celmins paintings, which traced and illuminated her development from creating highly accomplished, but somewhat derivative, works as a young artist to master status and the consistent expression of a powerful, unique vision; Chris Burden's Urban Light focus-shifting, uplifting sculpture/installation; and an extraordinarily beautiful, pale green medieval  Korean stoneware melon-shaped ewer, a piece which is simultaneously "there and not there".   (Please see illustrations of all three works below.)

        We did not have a chance to visit the new luxurious Stark Bar, donated by LACMA trustee Wendy Stark (daughter of famous producer Ray Stark), but that's ok:  I don't find hot, sunny days and alcohol consumption conducive to productive art viewing anyway.  (By the way, who does?  I assume the place is simply another concession to the museum-as-extension-of shopping mall trend, which seems unfortunate, inevitable, but at least more in keeping with Los Angeles' flat commercial continuum than this phenomenon does in other big-city museums, where the intrusions of fancy restaurant and ancillary commercial spaces seem to detract from and degrade the museum's core purpose.)  However, the Stark Bar looks lovely and LACMA was a great, great pleasure in all respects, including the consistent courtesy, cheerfulness and professionalism of the guards and other staff.

Vija Celmins,  Gun with Hand #1, 1964 ("I've always been interested in very impossible images....things blowing up....things disappearing in a breath.  Things like the sky, which doesn't even exist.").

Chris Burden, Urban Light, 2008, 2 views  ("I've been driving by these buildings for 40 years, and it's always bugged me how this institution turned its back on the city....... a statement about what constitutes a civilized and sophisticated society: safe after dark and beautiful to behold.")

Melon-Form Ewer with Lotus Design, Korea, Goryeo Period, 918-1392 (12th century), Stoneware with incised decoration under green glaze  

        This Monday morning finds us back in Berwyn after a long, exhausting and health-diminishing weekend journey home. (I seem to have picked up some form of plague between California and Pennsylvania, which isn't entirely surprising; the Continental terminal at LAX was fetid and, one suspected at the time, spore-ridden.)  Turning on the television while making the coffee, I find we're still in a state of suspended animation.

         And in the same old Echo Chamber.        

         Marginal times produce marginal people.

         But ars longa, vita brevis.

Hummingbird Spoon displayed in vitrine with its neighbor, a Peruvian (Moche) Condor figure in ceramic, circa 200 and 500 AD. (Photo credit, Jane Roberts, Strange Phase Studios.) 

Reader Note:  All images enlarge when "clicked".

1 comment:

  1. Thank you very much! I have been going crazy trying to find information about the lime spoon. Not even the L.A. Art Museum's webpage has the information that you so generously shared here. I need this to translate the description of the object into Spanish, and I couldn't find anything googleing the words cal, cuchara and inca. Thank you. Blogs like yours make this kind of writing worth the usage of modern technology.