thomas m wilson

Places of ceremony and power in the Pacific

August 22nd, 2023

This afternoon I was at the Humbolt Forum, and spend some time in the section on Melanesia and Micronesia.  A wonderful experience has been designed by the museums curators, where you are taken by large projected video up the Sepik river on the north coast of Papua New Guinea, one of the great rivers of the world, still full of wildness and grandeur. Then you walk down a stair case and stand in front of a traditional men’s house and its triumphant gable.  These houses up to 25 metres in situ, and this was smaller but was still extremely large so that it took up two or three floors of space.  I stood in front of a flat large touch screen and went through old photos of these places.  And what came into my mind, but the tympanum (the section above a door lintel) with its carvings and images of old men representing saints and so on above the main entrance to English and French cathedrals… Strangely this came into my mind… As I looked up at the row of large stylised faces of men looking down at me from the gabled front of this Sepik River men’s house.  Humans repeating motifs and patterns in the world over thousand of years and, deserts and oceans and forests away.

These houses were for men to be initiated into the world of the spirits and the ancestors. As I spent more time learning about this Sepik river architecture, about how these houses are built, and what they were for, I remembered the ancient and enclosed world of PNG traditional culture that I had learned about from watching the famous triology of documentaries by Australians Bob Connolly and Robin Anderson, from reading Throwim Way Leg by Tim Flannery, and other sources. It is a cultural cosmos, complete and elaborate and proud, to rival any other cultural cosmos in the world.  Unlike English aristocrats who emulated ancient Rome in their architecture and culture, these men and women did not know about the outside world until the twentieth century.  They were not ‘remote’, they were not ‘on the periphery of world affairs’, they were not ‘far away from the centres of power’, etc.  They were at the centre of their cultural and natural universe.  Living cultures thousands of years old full of rituals, architecture, art, rites of passages, languages, knowledge of the plants and animals and weather of their world. 

Being here in this section of the Humbolt Forum made me want to take a long canoe with an outboard up the Sepik.  It gave me feel refreshed to remember that peoples and cultures close to my home in Perth, W.A. have until recent decades, felt secure in their place in the cosmos, and were planted in a dense culture that showed no deference to Greek democracy, Shakespearean drama, Claudean landscapes, industrial revolutions, or European monarchs.  That existed proudly independently and confidently, naked and strong and ingenious amongst their yams and their pigs and their forests full of vines and mountains and wide brown rivers. 

After immersing myself for half an hour in the architectural traditions of this culture along the Sepik River, and standing under the eves of one of its towering products, high above me, I moved on.  I walked to a bai, a traditional house for ceremonies, made in Palau, in Micronesia.  Yes, they have an actual bai here in the Humbolt Forum in Berlin.  It was made in the first decade of the twentieth century for a German ethnologist by the locals over three months, then shipped to Berlin.  And so I took my shoes off and stepped inside the raised platform of the bai, under its thatched roof.  The beams above me were carved with figures and animals, each telling a different story.  I sat next to the stones of the central hearth and pressed a button, and a disembodied voice from the rafters above me told me the stories of the people.  As each story was recounted I could look up and find it represented in carvings on different beams.  This made me think of the way the story of the bible is carved into wood and stone in English churches, from medieval times when most people were illiterate and stories were best represented that way.  It was the same here in this old Palauan culture.  What a wonderful experience. 

But it felt strange that I had come all the way to Berlin to have this experience, when I live in a country that is, comparatively, just next door to PNG and Palua.  Why don’t we tell these stories in Australia, to become more acquainted with our geographical neighbourhood more intimately?  I also reflected on how all of these rituals and ceremonies on the Sepik River had their swan song in the 1980s, and since then the triumph of meddling Christian missionaries have pretty much ended it all.  What continues is now done mainly for the tourists, what little come to this often violent area of the planet.  What a horrible thing to usher in the demise of cultures many thousand of years old through bigoted proselytising of your own holy book.  It is bad enough when you meet, as I have, people working in mining in PNG who don’t seem to care much about the people whose rivers they are polluting, but worse when people actively dissuade others from following their own cultural inclinations because of their own religious self-righteousness.

Still, thank you Humbolt Forum. You have widened my field of vision.

The mighty Sepik, a river to celebrate and honour. I think a journey up the Sepik would be a great adventure, up there with a journey from Lake Victoria to Cairo (and sadly probably not much safer these days with so many guns around).
Where else can you go to a museum and learn so much about the architecture of the Sepik River region in PNG? I think Alexander Humbolt, that great explorer and scholar, would have been proud of the museum named after him.
Back in the 1980s the last of this culture of veneration and ritual in these men’s houses was able to be documented before it faded away.
These structures tower up to 25 metres high in Abelam villages up on ridges. That is like a 7 story apartment block today. Can you imagine what imagination and skill and vision it took these men to design and built these out of wood and bamboo?
Further north in the Pacific you get to Palau. Here the cultre also built houses of great cultural significance, the bais.
I sat inside a bai today and listened to stories told about the Paluan ancestors from speakers in the rafters, while seeing these stories etched into the beams above me.
When you live in Perth, what do you see if you look straight north?

Fellow converts to the religion of walking

August 21st, 2023

“Sometimes, I overheard my aunts discussing these blighted destinies; and Aunt Ruth would hug me, as if to forestall my following in their footsteps. Yet, from the way she lingered over such words as ‘Xanadu’ or ‘Samarkand’ or the ‘wine-dark sea,’ I think she also felt the trouble of the ‘wanderer in her soul.”

The Songlines, Bruce Chatwin

Helmut Newton’s portrait of Bruce Chatwin, and me. At the Museum of Photography, Berlin.

I was reading Bruce Chatwin’s letters while sick in bed at the start of this year. Strangely that book and that experience was part of the inspiration for my peregrinations in 2023.

“I haven’t got any special religion this morning. My God is the God of Walkers. If you walk hard enough, you probably don’t need any other god.”

― Bruce Chatwin

I wouldn’t go as far as that, but I do agree with Chatwin and other such as Wordsworth, that if you want to cast off low spirits or confused thinking, just walk for at least two to three hours a day, every day. If you don’t believe me, then try it. It works for me.

The other day I was sitting in Dussman’s in the centre of Berlin – a very stylish bookshop with a large English language section. As I was browsing I came upon this map.

Where to next?

Gemäldegalerie, Berlin

August 20th, 2023

This place is huge! And you won’t have any crowds to deal with, even in the highest of the high season. Personally I have found this to be my favourite gallery in Europe in terms of overall experience, of the range of artists and the quiet and spaciousness of the gallery context. The Uffizi Gallery in Florence is great, but it isn’t so enjoyable to visit if you are being jostled by a crowd of thousands.

Yesterday, mid summer, in what I think is Berlin’s greatest art gallery: the Gemäldegalerie. I stood in rooms full of Holbeins or Rembrandts or Vermeers or Claudes with hardly a soul to disrupt peaceful viewing.
Hans Holbein the Younger 
J., ‘The merchant Georg Gisze’, 1532.

The Birth of Bourgeois Man. From around 500 years ago in north-west Europe, in places like this and people like Holbein’s merchant, we get a gradual shift in psychology. Institutions like stock markets, banks, market towns, and universities affect Western psychology and that that psychology becomes more about acquisitions, hard work, deferring gratifications, bending over the desk and focussing on personal enrichment. The eyes of the individual become dull and joyless. In this painting by Holbein we have a perfect representation of this new kind of man. The middle class striver, and pen pusher. Money lays on the desk, keys hang in the top right – make the money, buy the stuff, lock it up. Keep good records. The slender poesie of flowers has but a moment before it will wilt. Our living moments are passing and fading away as we focus on the jingling coin. There are so many details in this painting that you can focus on when you see the large original canvas, for example the Turkish rug covering his table makes me think of global trade flows.

Bust of an Apostle, Anton van Dyck, Gemäldegalerie, Staatliche Museen zu Berlin.

The fire burns in this man, and his eyes tell you that. A ruggedly beautiful face from the brush and the imagination of van Dyck. He was court painter for Charles I in England but this is my favourite painting of his and its here in Berlin. He is an apostle for all passion and all certitude of conviction.

Carrying of the Cross
Pieter Brueghel the Younger circa 1605

So much is happening whenever you take the time to look at a large canvas by Brueghel. Here Christ is carrying the cross to the hill of Golgotha where he will be cruxified. It is a central moment in the religious imagination of the Western World. And yet…

A small section of the above painting that I photographed.

And yet… W. H. Auden was right in his poem about another painting by Brueghel. I will quote a few lines and you’ll see what I mean:

Musee des Beaux Arts

W. H. Auden

About suffering they were never wrong,
The old Masters: how well they understood
Its human position: how it takes place
While someone else is eating or opening a window or just walking dully along;
How, when the aged are reverently, passionately waiting
For the miraculous birth, there always must be
Children who did not specially want it to happen, skating
On a pond at the edge of the wood:
They never forgot
That even the dreadful martyrdom must run its course
Anyhow in a corner, some untidy spot
Where the dogs go on with their doggy life and the torturer’s horse
Scratches its innocent behind on a tree.

Now look at the section of the above painting I’ve included. Look at the two men on horse back having a quiet chat on the way up the hill, and seemingly not galvanised by the magnitude of the moment and its cosmic significance. As Auden says, suffering takes place ‘while someone is eating or opening a window or just walking dully along’. In other words, part of emotional maturity in life is recognising that you or your preoccupation are not centre of the universe. You are not the protagonist in the mind of another person, as you are in your own. Perhaps not even Christ is, sometimes.

“So de Oude songen, so pypen de Jongen”. As the old sing, so pipe the young. Jan Steen, 1663.

This next painting by Jan Steen is a festival of bad behaviour. Boozing, and smoking, and gorging on cake. It was only in the 1500s that highly refined sugar got to Europe in large quantities. As the middle class grew in the 1600s in the Netherlands and north-west Europe more people could have sedentary professions and in combination with lots of alcohol, smoking, and refined sugar, we get more of the mismatch diseases endemic to the modern West. The arteries of these men and women, our ancestors in a sense, start to get more clogged, and their blood pressures start to rise. Diseases of affluence, the one’s that modern hospitals labour under the weight of today in the West, started long ago. In this painting by Jan Steen we see a world where they are really getting under way in earnest. The old are still singing this tune, and the young are still piping the refrain.

 The Duke of Choiseul (1719-1785) of St. Peter’s Square in Rome, 1754, by Giovanni Paolo Panini (Italian, Piacenza 1691–1765 Rome).

This is a huge canvas, and you stand in front of it and are humbled by its size. The screen can’t communicate that to you. But it is a reminder of how much French and English and German aristocrats loved Rome and its glories. It is a reminder of how much I love the sheer scale and majesty of the piazza in front of St. Peters in Rome. It is one of the great human made spaces in the world, certainly one of the greatest public spaces in Europe. Here the world seems larger and the ceiling of cultural possibilities higher.

And what is another obvious choice for a great public space in Europe? Well just walk on through the Gemäldegalerie and come to the Canalettos…

The Molo looking West, with the Ducal Palace, Canaletto, 1730.

I cast my mind back to the Venice this painter knew, full of mouldering Gothic edifices and shimmering sunsets and pungent odours, and I am nostalgic for a world I have never known. Today Venice is still beautiful and to be treasured, but she is dying under the weight of over tourism. The city has been loved to the point of death in 2023. I got up at 5am one morning last year and stood by a column next to the Ducal Palace and looked out from the molo, and felt for a moment this old European splendour and beauty with hardly a soul around in the weak dawn light.

One thing is certain: if you want to escape the world of over tourism, just visit the Gemäldegalerie, Staatliche Museen zu Berlin. For reasons I don’t understand, this place is wonderfully uncrowded.

← Previous Page | Next Page →