Wednesday, November 21, 2007

In the Flesh: The Mummies of Guanajuato

We came from Mexico City, arriving at the bus terminal at the edge of town late in the afternoon. Dusk is already slipping over Guanajuato as a taxi takes us into the city through its numerous cavernous tunnels, an intrinsic element in the city’s labyrinth. You slip into one for just a few moments and when you emerge its difficult to discern where you’ve gone. It’s the same with many of the cobbled streets, so narrow I can reach out my arms and touch the opposing buildings: they turns sharp corners, careen, come to a sudden halt, lead us in directions our internal maps can’t seem to follow. Maybe that’s why both an old man and a small boy compete to guide us to our hotel (which –surprise– is also a labyrinth of corridors and dead ends). From the rooftop patio we fleetingly see the city extend into the ragged edges of the ravine into which it was built, buildings crowding into crannies at all angles in the fading light.

Labyrinths have always been seen as possessing a certain magic –and a certain threat. The particular magic that brings most people to Guanajuato is said by some to result from the dry air, by others from something in the soil. Whatever the case, something about the specific atmospheric conditions of Guanajuato keeps the dead remarkably well preserved.

Laura and I came to Guanajuato for several things –there’s this terrific club that has good tequila, Cuban salsa and ladies’ footwear dangling over the bar– but really, like all the other tourists, we came for the mummies, which reside in a museum high up in the city, itself, again, a labyrinthine edifice, resting over the cemetery from which the first mummies were unearthed in 1965. It’s not the most well organized museum you’ll find in Mexico, but what it houses proves to offer far more than morbid novelty.

Before entering the museum proper there’s a temporary exhibit of photographs dating from the period in which it was customary to make portraits of the dead before interment, mostly images of parents or siblings with dead infants, standing before a stranger’s camera in their finest clothing during a moment of unspeakable grief. These are some of the most painful photographs I’ve ever seen, all the more so for their formality. The series seems an ideal entry into the museum, functioning as an antidote to the sense of abstraction you struggle against while gazing upon the 100-plus corpses laying in the adjacent rooms.

Many of the mummies are said to have perished in a cholera outbreak here in 1833, though, due to rigorous taxes placed on keeping bodies in the limited local cemetery space, bodies are continually being dug up and appropriated by the museum, though only a fraction are ever on display. If one desired to become a mummy, your best bet would probably be to die in Guanajuato and simply wait a while. Sooner or later, you’d have a good chance of winding up in here.

The mummies of Guanajuato –amongst them the smallest mummy in the world!– are one of the most uncanny manifestations of Mexico’s obsession with death, a strange conspiracy between the elements, the folklore and the tourism industry. The museum doesn’t present these mummies with a great deal of reverence. Most are unidentified. It is difficult –yet perhaps vital– to look and remember that under other circumstances you may once have passed them in the street, spoken with them, shook their hands, made love to them. Of course, this sort of thinking leads to an uneasy ontological quagmire. Maybe its better not to see these objects as people, maybe this is too undignified a way to remember a once-living person. The museum, for better of for worse, renders them more as objects than individuals, as works of art, crafted solely by nature.

Amongst them is a woman, much of her flesh intact, whose knee-high leather boots and stockings remain, while the rest of her clothing has disintegrated. Her breasts have shriveled into dusty butternut squashes, her legs are spread, her tongue protrudes from between her clinched teeth and a museum guide claims that the black mark around her neck indicates she’s been strangled.

In any other context, this arrangement could be regarded as ghoulishly, perhaps misogynistically, erotic. Her taut, leathery skin and oddly positioned limbs, like so many other specimens here, evoke Egon Schiele’s work. Still others, mummies whose limbs have been severed at certain joints seem to recall Paul Gaugin’s paintings of anatomically incomplete Polynesian women. …Is it just me? Do the track lights, velvet pillows and glass cases themselves provoke comparisons to great works of art? Or is death finally imitating art as clearly as art imitates life?

There is a woman whose arms are closed around her face, as though weeping in terror. The guide claims she was buried alive, and, given the mummy’s vintage, it seems perfectly possible. Yet there’s a nagging sense that the museum will happily interpret any aspect of the mummies’ involuntary contortions as something horrific. The mummies, after all, already appear frozen in a silent scream when they rise from the earth, the way the flesh pulls back from their cheeks, the way so many mouths desiccate into a plaintive O, the way the dark stains on the skin from exploded organs speak of the unfathomable discomforts of decay. There are pregnant mummies, baby mummies with pacifiers still in their mouths, rich and poor mummies wearing all manner of regal clothing. And all of them are gathered here, seemingly, to report collectively on the pain of death.

Leaving the museum, I feel at once as though I’ve seen something extraordinary and still seen nothing at all. I know what I’ve seen has, for lack of a better word, a sacred element, yet it’s though it were all an elaborate hoax as well, a sort of side show. In Mexico, death is all part of the grand show, the tapestry of history made colourful, fun, exotic and undercut with terror. Laura and I sink back into the labyrinth and try to shake off the motes of old death lingering in our clothes. We know a good bar down there, if we can find the way.

(This piece originally appeared in Vue Weekly, 20/6/2007)

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