Words worth 1,000 pictures

Two new Museum of Anthropology exhibits straddle the watershed between oral and written culture

Northwest Coastal First Nations' "artworks, for want of a better term." Photos: MOA

When I hear the word ‘semiotics,’ I reach for my revolver.

Not that there’s anything innately suspect about the idea of paying attention to how we make sense out of signage. Indeed, symbols – written, uttered or depicted – are everywhere around us; they form the very scaffolding of our worldviews and cultures.

But, as an academic discipline, the study of semiotics has by now congealed into a stifling plaque of meta-referential jargon that all but dements any meaningful discourse. So it’s a bit chilling to see the term sprinkled so liberally throughout the grey slabs of scholarly prose that garnish the very fetching images in the coffee-table-formatted catalogue for the ongoing “Traces of Words” exhibit at U.B.C.’s Museum of Anthropology (MOA).

Still, there’s no getting around the ‘S’ word in any in-depth consideration of the exhibit’s subject: calligraphy as a characteristically Asian meld of artwork and written language that pervades the social, cultural and spiritual life of the continent.

And calligraphy continues to push the semiotic envelope, MOA curator Fuyubi Nakamura contends; the tradition is as vibrant and innovative in Asia today as it has ever been throughout its millennia-long history.

By the same token, equally steeped in Semiotica is the inaugural show, “In a Different Light,” that debuts the MOA’s newest display space, the 210 m2 Gallery of Northwest Coast Masterworks, right across the hallway from “Traces.” Whether intentionally or not, the juxtaposition of the two exhibitions neatly straddles a decisive watershed of semiotic evolution: the transition from oral to written culture.

Blessed with abundant surpluses, the pre-Columbian indigenous nations of this resource-rich coast achieved North American apex levels of cultural attainment, all without recourse to written language. But that hardly left them without a rich vocabulary of symbols, as attested by the 110 items – “call them ‘artworks,’ for want of a better term,” according to co-curator Jordan Wilson – on display in the new gallery.

The better term he’s groping for would encompass the compound nature of the objects – ranging from bracelets to clubs to pipes to spoons to rattles to cloaks to paddles to baptismal fonts – in the exhibit. Exquisitely detailed and pregnant with (that word again!) semiotic ceremonial significance, they’re all nonetheless practical tools in daily use, rather than inert showpieces.

To highlight this distinction and situate the objects in more of a real world context, the MOA’s new state-of-the-art display cases even dispense with traditional spots and floodlights.  Instead, they’re fitted out with a custom-designed microchip to continuously tweak the interior lighting in real-time accord with the constantly shifting “colour temperature and light intensity of the sky” outside.

But perhaps the new gallery’s most striking instance of “Different Light” might be the two massive cedar slabs that dominate the whole Eastern end of the room. Salvaged from the facing of a 100+ year-old clan house, they appear as nothing more than a couple of weather-beaten boards – until you hand-activate a lever that switches the angle of illumination from frontal to lateral.

Then the planks reveal an intricate filigree of ornamentation as dense and rich as any Gothic cathedral portal. Not that this sculpture was ever intentionally incised there, curator Bill McLennan explains. Rather the whole house front was daubed in a flat, multi-hued mural. But some of the dyes more effectively masked the substrate than others against the century-long assault of wind and salt, which over time naturally etched the pattern in shallow relief.

The effect was only discovered when somebody accidently shone a flashlight sideways across the boards while exhuming the nondescript lumber from the MOA vaults, McLennan relates. The planks originally comprised just about one fifth of a 50’ by 18’ “family crest,” he adds.

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