The Cosmic Gizmo
When you wander the exhibition halls of any museum, you will likely notice people sitting on the floor or standing discreetly in a corner, studying a particular work of art and making their own sketch of it. Even if you are not an artist, this is fantastic way to become intimately familiar with a work of art - as you draw it, your eyes and mind are drawn deeper into the work, and you notice many things you might have otherwise missed.
On a recent visit to the Metropolitan Museum in New York City, I wandered into the exhibit of art and artifacts from the Pacific Island cultures. The object I chose to examine was made entirely from wood and was about 14 inches long and 2 inches in diameter. It was almost perfectly cylindrical, except that it came to a point on one end. This pointed end (perhaps the business end of the item) was not flat, like the blade of a knife, but was also cylindrical. The other end was ornate, which initially gave me the sense that it functioned as the handle, and that the object was some kind of tool, less like a dagger or stake than a fat knitting needle. The elaborate design strongly suggests a seated figure, seen in profile and facing to the right (in the photo).
The eye (near the top) and what appears to be a tongue extending from the side of the mouth are the features that first captured my attention. The head seems decidedly bird-like, though the body is human. At first, my thoughts ran not to tribal religions, but to the Ancient Near East, and I pictured the falcon god Horus on a throne. I wondered if the figure might be a similar type of god and the seat some indication of honor.
Because the figure is placed on the handle of the object, it would not be seen by anyone while in use. But if it represents an ancestral figure or a god, then I can imagine that it empowers the hand of the person who wields the object. If it is some kind of knitting needle, for example, then the knitter would be receiving the divine guidance of generations.
The process of drawing the object helped me notice significant elements that I would have otherwise overlooked. My first major discovery was a small spiral shape on the figure’s knee. The spiral strikes me as a unique comprehension of time, where everything emanates outward, or perhaps even (simultaneously?) draws inward – a concept so dramatically different from the West, where we view time as an incrementing line. In discovering the spiral on the figure’s knee, I immediately recalled the Arandan “Myth of the Great Father,” where the first human emerges from the god Karora’s armpit. I remembered from class lectures that armpits and knees commonly appear in tribal myths as the masculine birth channel. It occurred to me that this figure might be a male fertility figure, the divine father of mankind, or even the creator of the entire world. He could also represent the sacralized living individual, as the recipient and conveyor of life.
Then I noticed an additional detail that was so obvious and yet I had been slow to see it: another, much larger spiral, appearing beneath the figure’s seat. At first, I wanted to think of this large spiral as the foundation for the man and all he represented. This conveys great meaning, as it points to a kind of macrocosmic representation of time and life that is matched by the microcosmic version seen on the figure’s knee. The large spiral could be appreciated as the eternal, absolute “pool” from which all life materializes, while the smaller spiral signifies one human being’s relative role in its perpetuation.
Then it suddenly dawned on me that this large spiral could also be understood as a link between the “nothingness” that appears on the tool below it, and the “somethingness” that appears on the handle above. With this idea in my mind, the object immediately took on cosmic connotations, with the pointed end, devoid of decoration, representing the void from which all existence emerges – an idea which throws into question just which end of this item is the “tool” and which is the “handle.” I cannot look at the object now without very clearly perceiving an entire cosmogony in it, and (perhaps like the original user of this gizmo) appreciating the divine power it communicates.