Monday, June 20, 2005

Our Stay in GTO, part III

number forty-one

This is an installment in a nine-part series detailing our first big Mexican Vacation. This is also the third in a series of numbered posts about what we did in the city of Guanajuato for eight days. Make sure to read the two previous posts, too. 1,857 words.

…and other animals.

[NL; composed from notes taken in GTO 6/14-6/17/05]-Guanajuato is the home to a world famous annual festival every October commemorating Miguel de Cervantes called the Cervantino. Originally a party for local students to stage excerpts from Cervantes’ work on the steps of the church in the Plaza San Roque, this festival has gained momentum to become a full-tilt arts festival. Once a year, this festival takes over the whole city for a number of weeks and many of the hotel vacancies in the state evaporate. People flock here from all over the world to not only see Don Quixote and other plays performed in whole, or in part, on dozens of stages around town; but also to see a global culture of live bands, artists, writers and circus performers who have also flocked here from all over the world. This is one of the reasons Guanajuato has a number of large and beautiful theaters, as well as why it is crammed with Don Quixote stuff.

Right down from the Casa Méxicana is the Plaza de Cervantes, a ellipse of stairs around a cobble stoned half circle featuring large Quixote and Sancho statues. Down the road a little from this plaza is the Teatro Cervantes, a large stone building featuring local and touring performers. On down the road there is the Museo Iconográfico del Quijote, an art gallery dedicated completely to renderings of the notorious man of La Mancha. Surprisingly interesting, this small gallery with about seven rooms crammed full of paintings, lithographs, art prints and sculptures of Quixote and Sancho Panza has amassed quite a number of world renowned pieces. These include original sketches for Picasso’s and Dali’s famous line drawings, an original-run production print from Posada’s Calavera of Don Quixote, and a who’s who of important Latin American artists. There were dozens of canvasses depicting Quixote and crew. There were many statues ranging from postage stamp sized to several stories tall, the latter propped in the open inner courtyard of the building. Everything was fascinating, each new idea and representation of the classic characters commanding attention for its uniqueness within these parameters if not its thematic individuality. It was a whole eyeful of subtle and not-so-subtle variation which was inspiring and challenging.

On the other side of the Jardín de la Union, up from the post office (which we visited almost every day of the week), past another damn sixteenth century church, along the road past the immense, crenulated university building, was the Museo y Casa de Diego Rivera. This is the house that the famous muralist was born in, and even though the Riveras had been driven from town when Diego was six, even though he so hated the memory of Guanajuato that he never returned (indeed, only admitting his ties to this birthplace very late in his life), there is a simple memorial museum there. It is fantastic. Certainly, it is also modest. The bottom floor of the ancient hacienda is a re-creation of what it probably looked like when Diego was living there, with restored rooms and reclaimed Rivera family furniture. There is also a gift shop with many great books on Rivera and Frida Kahlo, plus all sorts of key chains and postcards. The upper two floors house the art gallery, filled with very enlightening lesser works and production charcoals. These serve to illustrate an autodidactic career which bounced through many established schools of modern art (derivative canvasses include impressionist work, fruity bowls of still life, and, believe it or not, some surrealist stuff) before he found a footing in the styles of narrative illustration that made him world famous. Many of the little charcoal and ink sketches for his illustrations or murals show obvious ties to modern works and indicate the depth of the inspiration he’s provided to many artists working today. As I walked along the timeline of Diego Rivera provided by this collection of work, it was possible for me to see the development of a style of artwork still very much alive in Latin culture today.

There were some upper-floor galleries in this beautiful house that were devoted to temporary installations of work by other artists. Possibly chosen because of their contrast with Rivera’s collection, these were mostly surreal or abstract figures, or totally non-representational fabric dyes and collages, and I wasn’t overly impressed with them.

Besides the temporary shows, the only thing disappointing about the Diego Rivera house and museum was the stifling mugginess inside. It is a little silly to have a fortune in artwork hanging on thick concrete walls that retain moisture. Plus, if there was any air conditioning in there I didn’t feel it at all. Outside the breeze on the street was refreshing; and even though it was sunny, it was still cooler than inside Diego’s house. So we strolled down the other side of the hill, toward the bus stops, to the famous Guanajuato Alhóndiga de Granaditas.

The Alhóndiga, the grain warehouse used as a makeshift fort by rich criollos at the outbreak of revolution in 1810, is a huge, two story stone square with an open courtyard. The name Alhóndiga was derived from a Moorish word, making the North African style architecture seem appropriate. When rich Spanish colonial silver barons were constructing this place, they were expecting to wow the world at a town so rich that even its grain silo was more like a mansion than a warehouse. Because of this, it is finished with decorative arches and marble tiles on the inside. It is easy to see why the frightened overlords turned here when Miguel Hidalgo’s troops marched on the city that historical September day: the Alhóndiga was so overbuilt that it is damn near impregnable. Of course, since it was not actually built to be a stronghold, it was built onto the side of a mountain more accessible than defensible, and the outside doors were made of wood allowing Pípila to burn an entrance for the rebels to take advantage of.

Today, the building looks very much the same as it did then, only instead of floor to ceiling grain, corn, cotton, and livestock feed, the giant stone rooms are filled with museum exhibits. After listening to a forty-five minute history of the Alhóndiga delivered by a very charismatic guide (who only spoke Spanish), we were let loose in the place. The building contains exhibits on diverse subjects including the municipal history of Guanajuato, seal beads from ancient Mesoamerican civilizations, and modern photography. In one room hung the cage that once held Miguel Hidalgo’s head on a corner of the building. It is a simple, rather spare museum housed in an awe-inspiring relic of the revolution, and I learned a lot of what I know about the history of that revolution, and Guanajuato, inside its slightly post-revolutionary wooden doors.

Back up the hill (and down the other side, and up another hill) toward the post office, is the Universidad de Guanajuato we had walked past of the way to the Diego’s house. Here, in the main building, is where they keep Guanajuato’s Natural History Museum. Natural history museums interest me because I like dead animals. I think animals are pretty cool when they are alive, too, but I have always held an artistic interest in bones and taxidermy. Wonder cabinets of labeled trays filled with exotic beetles and spiders in a dusty side room are sort of like a treasure chest; glass display cases filled with lacquered dioramas of local fauna are like a creepy children’s book illustration come to life. Looked at in this way, the Natural History Museum in Guanajuato was very satisfying.

After paying the seventy-five cents each to get in, we walked around the corner where there was a little annex with some educational texts on biology and taxonomy. The books were mostly dusty and old, and looked as if they were part of the display. This was an excellent sign of things to come. Walking through the next door, we found ourselves in a wooden room with those glass display cases. It was arranged much like a dissection classroom from the nineteenth century might look in a movie. In a glass cabinet in the front of the room there was a human skeleton, and lining the walls were darkened displays of stuffed raptors and felines; rodents, bugs, and etc. Many of the birds were exceptionally well made and arranged. The cats were not so well done: morose, lumpy taxidermies that squatted awkwardly in cramped cages filled with other objects suffering afterlives more or less lifelike. Every now and then we would come across one of those et ceteras: animals of such poor craftsmanship that they managed to be indeterminate. Between the beaver and the happy-looking groundhog, for example, rose an asymmetrical foot of salt and pepper fur with glass eyes above its black snout. Hulking over the armadillo was a long, four legged spotted brown thing, deerlike except for the carnivorous muzzle. Some of my confusion over these vague specimens was the probably byproduct of a lack of familiarity with the length and breadth of variety within the animal kingdom. Some, I believe, can be attributed to the same lack of familiarity from these animal’s artists. A third possibility, of course, is that the hollowed out veneers of a wide variety of critters had been stretched like a canvas over whatever frame was handy. It might explain why some of the large cats seemed to be pointing out game, the small cats were tipped up like prairie dogs, and the unknown things just seemed at odds with whatever coat hangers or hat trees were puppeteering at the time.

All in all, it is fitting that our week of visiting museums would end here, after starting with the impressive show of mummies at the top of that sunny hill west of town. We had, in a way, come around a thematic circle of preservation. But what the ground in Guanajuato spits up naturally preserved, the natural history scientists in a third room of the museum labor to make, working in tight alleys between cluttered shelves of wired-together parts and handy jars. Here, under fluorescent lights, with tools and textbooks, naturalism is perverted to greater and lesser degrees by the hands of people with varying talent for the job. Maybe, at long last, this is the answer to many of the questions I posed about the mummies, too. Maybe the cemetery ground in Guanajuato just gets some specimens catastrophically wrong. Maybe there is a darkened fourth-room closet in the natural history museum filled with items deemed less than display-quality, locked away for further tinkering; or for cremation. Or maybe all of this is wrong, and the university students have just been burying their pets in the Guanajuato soil, and the joke is on us.

Many thumbnails from the Museo Iconografico del Quijote

A close-up of José Guadalupe Posada’s Calavera of Don Quixote

A panorama of the Museo Iconografico I happened to find online

The official site of Museo Alfredo Dugés, the natural history museum

Next up: the end of the long road.

More pictures form Guanajuato © Cavin

Quiet Reading Room

This is a quiet reading room. Often, I find it is uncomfortable to digest long tubes of columned text directly off a computer screen. This journal is dedicated to the collection, percolation, and ultimate integration of my personal experiences. Subjects that I want to examine and then talk about--sometimes talk a lot about--€”are presented here. This central content can tend to thousands of words, maybe millions. I was afraid that readers were leaving the presentation boggled, spinning, googly-eyed. Or perhaps when confronted with twenty-four inches, or yards, of monitor sprawl they were just giving up. I am not even certain that I have necessarily solved this inevitable content problem of modern information enjoyment, but here is what I have done.

After long and highly scientific routines manipulating double-blind control- and test-subjects, peer reviewed journal publications, and hours and hours of hands-on experimentation, I have crafted this quiet reading room. There is no scientific way to control the length of the articles I write, but careful handling can somewhat soothe the contextual presentation. In other words: I have dropped the traditional speculation about lexicon, and attacked the question of the matrix itself instead. Brilliant. After years of diligence what I eventually crafted is this reading room.

The walls are contoured to relax instead of constrain; the paper is made to soften instead of reflect. The light is dimmed--just so--€”to prevent strain, angled to prevent umbra, and color-coded to soften harsh red lights and deepen wimpy light reds. There is nothing I can do to control aural environment, but my recommendation is that it should be kept quiet. About ambient sound: these entries are probably best read as far as possible from emergency vehicles, preferably from beneath the muffler of a vintage fire fighter pilot's scarf, puffy old duvet, or snow that is still falling.

My theory is that the wide web world is filled with potent and material opportunities that are just too difficult to digest for many people to take part. Enjoyment of this stuff is regulated to the routines of crawlers and robots at the peril of humankind's peaceful future survival. In an attempt to delay this likely outcome: welcome to this quiet reading room. It is for people like you to relax, kick back, and hate my content for better reasons than the dizzying vertiginous specter of its lousy dpi presentation.

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