Ancient Mexican sculpture arrives in Pilsen after historic journey
You think you've had some tough travels -- consider the recent journey of Olmec Head No. 9.
OH9 (as we'll call it) is one of Mexico's biggest rock stars -- a 4-ton, 3,000-year-old hunk of carved basalt from the earliest known Mesoamerican culture. In a coup akin to luring the Rolling Stones to perform at a neighborhood nightclub, the Mexican Fine Arts Center Museum in Pilsen lined up OH9 to headline its "Treasures of Ancient Veracruz" exhibit, which opens Friday.
"We're the only Latino cultural art institution in the United States to get a loan of this stature," enthused Cesareo Moreno, the museum's visual arts director who negotiated for the presentation. "It is without a doubt the most important ancient artifact we have ever displayed."
But it's one thing to get a "yes" RSVP from a massive artifact, quite another to get the thing from Mexico onto a steel platform in a Chicago gallery without the tiniest nick. When that trip includes a truck ramming into your cargo plane, an all-day drive on a flatbed 18-wheeler and a finale in which the big boulder is unwrapped, rewrapped, hoisted, rotated and set down in excruciating slow motion, well, you know that some palms are going to get sweaty.
Why so much effort for a chunk of stone?
Well, consider this: Only 17 such heads have been dug up since the first explorations of an Olmec site in the Mexican state of Tabasco in 1942. (Tabasco sits just east of Veracruz at the southern curve of the gulf coast, and most of the Olmec artifacts have been found in these two states.)
The Olmec excavations revealed the existence of an advanced civilization from 1200 to 500 B.C., thus predating the Mayans, Aztecs and other Latin American peoples. "Olmeca" means "those who live in the land of rubber" in Nahuatl, and findings indicate that these people -- whether unified by culture or religion or just geography and time -- were indigenous gulf coasters who farmed corn, made ornate jewelry and played rubber ball games.
"A lot of people don't realize that they were the mother culture," Moreno said. "For Mesoamerican civilization the Olmec are the Mesopotamians."
What's known about the Olmec heads is that they were sculpted to resemble leaders -- be they priests, rulers or other figures of stature -- and most include a helmet with markings likely indicating something distinctive about the person. They're also honkin' big and heavy -- No. 1 is almost 9 1/2 feet tall; No. 9 is a relative pipsqueak at not quite 5 1/2 feet -- hence their common appellation "colossal heads." (Los Lobos, by the way, has a fine album called "Colossal Head.")
OH9 was excavated in the 1960s, and one of its distinguishing features particularly filled the bill for the Veracruz exhibition, which is subtitled: "Magia de la risa y el juego" ("magic of laughter and games"). "This was the only one with a smile on it," museum president Carlos Tortolero said.
When the Fine Arts Center Museum was expanded in 2001, the floor was reinforced, and extra-wide doors to the outside were installed specifically to accommodate an Olmec head -- just in case. "Everybody laughed, but deep down we were hoping," Moreno said.
The break came in summer 2003, when the office of Veracruz's outgoing governor Miguel Aleman called Chicago's Department of Cultural Affairs wanting to promote his state's artifacts. The city referred the governor to the Mexican Fine Arts Center Museum, which had raised its profile with a Frida Kahlo exhibition and other ambitious programming.
"We said, `OK, we'll take the exhibit if there's an Olmec head,'" Moreno said, noting that the heads previously had been displayed only in institutions at the level of the Art Institute and the Smithsonian Institution. (A replica Olmec head, donated by Veracruz to Chicago in 2000, sits on the lawn between the Field Museum and Shedd Aquarium.)
"It's a well-known museum, it reflects the efforts of the Mexican community of Chicago, and it was highly recommended," Veracruz representative Hesiquio Aguilar said of the Fine Arts Center Museum. "After looking at what they had to offer and what they were asking for, we couldn't have agreed more."
Ta da -- one Olmec head on the move.
OH9 usually resides at the University of Veracruz's Museum of Anthropology at Xalapa, but it was being displayed at a museum in Monterrey, Mexico, before heading to Chicago. That journey entailed traveling by truck (inside a 7-by- 5-by-5 1/3-foot wooden crate) to Mexico City, riding a cargo plane to Houston, then being loaded onto a flatbed truck for an all-day-and-night drive to Chicago. Museum officials said that last drive was necessary because cargo planes don't fly directly from Mexico City to Chicago.
Nestor Roldan, who coordinates security and tours for the Xalapa museum, accompanied the head on its long trek, so he was sitting on the plane in Mexico City a week ago Thursday when he felt a "pequeno" bump, which turned out to be a repair truck. "We were about to take off when they told us about a small detail," Roldan said. "The right wing of the plane was damaged."
Another delay pushed back OH9's Mexico City departure from Saturday afternoon to midnight. Around 7 a.m. Sunday, a 48-foot truck was leaving Houston with the crate resembling a lonely building block centered on the long flatbed. It arrived at the Fine Arts Center Museum 5 a.m. Monday.
Meanwhile, another 48-foot truck carried the exhibit's 60 other artifacts (as well as Roldan) in an enclosed, climate-controlled cabin. Tony Tronca, who was all alone driving the OH9 truck, said he hadn't been told what he was transporting and assumed the real valuables were in the enclosed truck rather than outside exposed to the rain. (Who needs climate control when you're a big rock that's survived 3,000 years?)
"It turns out I had the star of the show," Tronca said.
The job of unloading, unwrapping and mounting the Olmec head fell to Methods & Materials, a Chicago-based fine-art rigging and installation company. The firm is led by transplanted Englishman Roger Machin, a bearded fellow in a "WTTW Kids Fun & Run" T-shirt whose cell phone rings to the tune of "What Do You Do With a Drunken Sailor." (After it rang, at least one member of his four-man crew could be heard whistling the song as he worked.)
At about 8 a.m., the M&M folks gingerly lifted the crate from the flatbed with a forklift as anxious museum workers looked on. "We've been having nightmares," museum visual arts associate Raquel Aguinaga-Martinez said, scratching her chin as she stood outside on this crisp September morning.
One side of the crate was marked "base," but Machin and crew wanted to check so they wouldn't have to turn the statue around inside. Sure enough, after some nails were banged off and the crate top was removed, Machin's longtime associate Dean Langworthy peered inside and declared, "It's the opposite." He scratched out "base" and wrote "top."
"Let's go get this bad boy," Machin said.
The head was face-up, which presented its own challenges. "Whenever you turn a piece from the horizontal to the vertical, it can be tricky," Machin said. "Well, it's not tricky so much as you've got to take your time."
At 8:45 a.m., the forklift drove the crate into the gallery, which had freshly painted rust-red walls as well as temporary plywood floors previously lain down by M&M as reinforcement. In the middle of the room stood two large yellow gantries, with chains and pulleys hanging from the top bars to do the heavy lifting.
The crate lid came off for good at 9:10 a.m., and as the workers prepared to knock down the sides, Ixchel Fuentes, a courier from the Xalapa museum, drew Moreno aside for some anxious consultation in Spanish.
Acting as translator, Moreno explained to Machin that the couriers were concerned about removing the crate before the piece had been moved into position.
"The important thing is to see the object so we can decide how to wrap it and how to strap it," Machin replied.
Several other such fevered conversations between Fuentes and Moreno ensued over the next couple of hours, with Fuentes expressing concern over the pace of work.
"They think we're going too fast, but we're not," Machin said.
Fuentes also wondered why the steel base hadn't already been set up. Machin's preference was to position the head as it hangs in the gantries, then slip the base beneath it.
"I'm very nervous," Fuentes said. "If there's ever an accident, it's my responsibility. And we're in a foreign country; I'm used to these moves in my museum."
Machin professed sympathy. "It's their stuff, and we have to be very careful, and we want them to be comfortable," he said. "It's a matter of trust."
To ease the tension, Machin made a point of cheerfully announcing every step to the room as if he were auditioning for a reality TV show. At times the onlookers numbered as many as 30.
"I hope this many people come to the show," Machin quipped.
By 9:40 a.m. the crate sides were off, exposing the boulder wrapped in a thin, cream-colored blanket and trussed with blue, knotted straps. "You shouldn't have knots on this stuff," Machin sighed. "It makes the straps weaker."
Using the pulleys, the crew lifted the head slightly by the blue straps from its foam bed, then wrapped several thick yellow straps around it and tucked in some thick green blankets for further cushioning and reinforcement. By now the head resembled a well-worn medicine ball.
With both gantries positioned above the bundle, the crew attached various straps to chains and yanked on other chains, which moved in quick loops through the pulleys, filling the room with a surround-sound rat-a-tat-tat. Despite all of this activity, the gantries were rigged so that the actual head would move in tiny increments -- slowly, slowly, slowly being turned upright.
When the wrapped head became completely vertical at 10:40 a.m., Machin announced, "That was stage one, folks!" Then he turned to Fuentes and said, "You're smiling." She was.
The workers slowly pushed the rig and its suspended package toward the main wall, then took a lunch break. Machin had to wait anyway for the arrival of a strap he had ordered early that morning for same-day delivery from Miami. This strap, he said, previously had been used to move a 16,000-pound sphere at the University of Chicago.
"That will be good for this piece," he said.
By 12:45 p.m., everyone was back in the gallery, and the crew started unwrapping the head except for the cream-colored blanket, which was held in place by two horizontal circles of duct tape. Now was the time for that special strap to show its stuff.
It looked like dirty yellow suspenders for a very fat guy, with four straps rising from what would be the waist. It worked like suspenders as well, as the circular bottom part supported the weight while the four straps were attached to pulleys. The addition of some tucked-in blankets and wrapping made it look like a blindfolded man.
Slowly, the bundle was lifted, and the black base was slid beneath it. What followed was painstaking positioning of the piece -- a little bit up, a little bit to the left, a little bit down, a little bit to the right, as Fuentes and a fellow courier from Xalalpa suggested the tiniest of adjustments.
Moreno, who'd been up since 3:30 a.m., looked exhausted. "My adrenaline is almost gone, but this is it."
At 1:50, the head was set onto its base. The crowd gathered around, eager to get their first look at that ancient face. The workers took hold of the blanket for the dramatic unveiling.
"No, no, no," ordered Fuentes.
First, wooden wedges would have to be driven under the head for support. "These pieces are for security," she said.
With the wedges in, another strap was wrapped around the top of the head to hold it to the base. The forklift, driven back into the gallery, pushed the base against the wall.
Down came the straps, and at 2:12, workers removed the blanket to a round of applause. "Whoa," Moreno said, looking relieved at OH9's smiling, fleshy mouth, bulbous nose (with a little crater in the center of it) and mysteriously marked helmet.
"I'm speechless," Aguinaga-Martinez said. "Finally, it's here."
Some people muttered that they thought the head was tilting to the left, but Fuentes said it was supposed to look that way. At any rate the eyesore wooden wedges would be hidden by a sheet before the head would go on display.
Over the next few days, the museum staff also would need to build a "pyramid" of ramps leading up to the head's platform to prevent visitors from touching the artifact.
As the M&M crew gathered their equipment, Moreno kept gazing at the head, his face betraying a bit of anti-climax.
"The magic for me is always the lighting," the visual-arts director said. "For me when we close it off, when we dress up the base and light it, that's when an exhibition comes to life."
"Mexico doesn't just lend this out to anybody," he said. "It definitely raises the bar for us."
"Treasures of Ancient Veracruz" runs Friday through Feb. 6 at the Mexican Fine Arts Center Museum, 1852 W. 19th St. 312-738-1503. Admission is free.
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