Peruvian Divination Mirror

Take the first step easy.  There could be ice.  To your left is a lion—I think you know—but don't worry, he's not looking at us.  He's looking northwest, where his prey comes from.  We can slip by, I think, undetected.  But slow down.  We're about to cross the threshold, and the door is heavy.  That whoosh behind us, it’s swinging back into place.  Now we’re inside a dark antechamber.  I see a golden light ahead.  Walk forward with me.  Everything's bathed in this warm golden light.  It's so gray and blue tonight, but here it's this gilded light or I should say the light gilds everything: glistening banisters, stone walls, the floor, everything covered in gold light, but I say gold, because it's actually dim, warm, like a dull gold or hammered brass set down over every surface.  More steps.  Going in every direction like an Escher, up, down, left, right, but we're not going up that way.  Keep walking forward, another heavy door, that’s right, step through, and now an even more golden room.  There's a man tilting his head at you.  His eyes are closed, but he's smiling faintly.  He’s missing an arm.  I don't think he recognizes you.  We can slip by, if we go right, quick.  Now a narrow hall.

Is this where I think it is?

I don't know.  Did you used to come here?

It was all different back then, so I don't know either.

Well, this is kind of a side corridor, easy to miss, almost an afterthought.  The heart is still ahead, past that one-armed man.  Do you remember him?

Like I said, it was different then.

Ok, now stop here.  Let me explain where we are.  It’s outside.  You can see the evening snow falling in white dots over a low gray horizon broken by mountain peaks.  Six or seven to be exact.  One is a kind of a plateau, and they’re all lumped together, you know, toward the left.  In the middle distance is a row of wooden huts and a small forest of what look like pine trees.  Definitely coniferous.  Everything is either white or gray, except there are these three men walking.  At least I think they’re men.  Two to the right and one away from them, to the left.  He’s wearing blue and carrying a straw umbrella.  The others are wrapped tightly in yellow cloaks.  The snow looks deep.  They’re on a slope.  His back has been snowed on, like he shook a tree and it all fell down at once.  The umbrella’s closed around his head like a straw hat, tilting forward in the direction he’s headed—you can see he’s clutching the pole, almost hugging it—hunching down the slope in the deep snow toward some tall pine trees covered in snow like him, away from the others.

Is there writing?


I know this one.

I can’t read it, of course.

Really?  I thought you could.  You lived there so long.

Well, it’s a tough language, and I was in more of an English bubble the whole time.  I didn’t even try.  But I assume it’s his name.  Hiroshige.  And maybe it says the title, which is “Kanbara, Evening Snow.”  That must be his name in the red peanut-shaped stamp in the middle of the white sky, and then the title in black ink strokes next to it.  They write vertically in Japanese.

This was always one of my favorites.

I wasn’t sure, but I thought so.

You know, Frank Lloyd Wright brought a collection of these prints back from his trip there, and they influenced his design aesthetic.

Do you want to go to some of his stuff next?  They’re just up that staircase.  They ripped pieces off the walls of condemned buildings he designed and keep them on display here.

No, no, that’s okay.  You keep leading the way.

Before we move on, there’s a little more.  This print is part of Hiroshige’s travel series, “The Fifty-Three Stations of the Tōkaidō Road.”  It’s this famous trade route that merchants walked in Japan on foot before vehicles and later became kind of a romantic pilgrimage for poets and painters.  There were fifty-three stops along the way, and he painted them all one time.

Did you go?

Well, yeah, it’s still like the main route that connects all the major cities along the eastern corridor.  So, I guess I didn’t really go on the pilgrimage, just rode the Shinkansen train from Tokyo to Osaka a few times.  The strange thing about this painting, something I never knew before, until one of my students told me, is that in Kanbara, it never snows like this.  Nobody quite knows why he painted this snowy scene for the Kanbara station.  It’s a mystery.

That’s good.  That’s really good.  Maybe he didn’t actually see it.

That’s what they say.  Sometimes he relied on others.  Others’ works, other prints, hearsay.  Maybe he conflated two Kanbaras.  Or maybe it’s just artistic license.  But I prefer to think he’s trying to say something.  Anything’s possible.  In Kanbara.

Are there footprints in the snow?

Yeah.  They’re littler, gray, and circular, and some in the wrong direction.

I remember those.

Some precede the two men in yellow walking towards the right.  I mean the footprints are ahead of them, which seems impossible.  But maybe they belong to the man in blue who’s come from that way.  But there are extra footprints in our direction too, toward us.  But, again, maybe that’s just where they awkwardly skirted around each other.  Sometimes I wonder if I should have stayed longer over there.

You stayed long enough.

Let’s keep going.  Further down the hall.  We’re passing so many other prints, but we just can’t stop at every one.  Past some huge ceramic things, grotesque monsters.  I think there’s even like a metal scorpion, but I don’t want to look.  Keep coming, keep coming, and we’re in a beautiful wooden space now with lit glass cases of textiles and porcelain objects, not my favorites.  And now we’re through there and into total darkness.

What do you mean?

I mean it’s pitch black all around.  I can’t really see.  Some light from outside, but it’s too dim.  But, put your hand up here and feel this.

Feels smooth.

There are sixteen of these wooden columns surrounding us in the dark.  Since I can’t see, why don’t you take over here?

The surface of this column may be lacquered?  I feel such thin grooves.  From the grain, I imagine.  Like they’ve been nearly filled in by the lacquer, but not all the way, because they feel nice.  But it’s also a thin lacquer.  The wood surface has been selected carefully to be this smooth and uniform, up and down.  It’s a square column too, by the way.  The floor has the same texture, so if there were light, I'd imagine everything looked the same.  I can’t reach the top, but if I stretch out my arms I can touch two at the same time.  So they’re close together.  Easy enough to walk through, but close enough to give an intimacy to this space.  A partly broken-up space.  It’s so quiet, I'm noticing now.  I don’t even hear any other visitors.  Why am I whispering?  This place really has an effect.  Where did you take me?  How have I never been here before?

It’s called the Ando Gallery.  It’s meant to be a meditative space.  It’s like he took the whole place and distilled it down to one overwhelming, awe-silencing microcosm of where we are.  We’re still in the Japanese section, so this is like a glimpse of Japanese minimalist architecture.  I wanted to show you this.

I never did get too far into three-dimensional media in my work, but I like this.  I like the feeling.  Kind of puts us on the same plane.  I wish I had visited you over there.

Yeah.  Shall we move on?  Do you remember colors?  What are they like for you now?  Or is it too painful to think about them?

I think about them sometimes.  No, it’s not too painful.  I used gray so much in my work, but now red is my old friend.  Red keeps coming back to me.

I wish there were a kind of synesthesia for colors and touch, for you.  Maybe there is.  I think it’s only the other senses that blend in synesthesia, like tasting music or smelling topaz, but maybe there is a connection between touch and color.  Can you guess the color of those pillars?  What color did you feel?

Wood.  Colors used to be entirely tactile.  For painters.  Blue came from crushed lapis lazuli.  Vermeer bankrupted himself to get it.  Ultramarine.  He must have pinched some of its powder in his fingers and imagined the milkmaid’s skirt.  One time, I climbed over the rope and scratched one of the contemporary works here.  One of the big abstract Pollock-types, where the paint strokes are so thick they dried three-dimensional.


I can’t believe I did it now.  I was younger than you then.

Which one?

I didn’t want to know, so I didn’t look.  I felt guilty, but I just felt compelled.  It was red and yellow with blue morphed into one tall ridge stroke.  I rubbed the tip of my index finger over the ridge.  I had to touch it.  Maybe somehow I knew what was ahead for me.  I knew I needed to soak up all I could.

Wait, okay, so this is our next stop.

What do you see?

There’s a pipe lying on its side.  It’s broken.  Snapped at the base of the bowl.  There’s an ivory claw carved onto the bowl to look like it’s clasping it.  Well, the whole pipe is ivory.  It’s a Gothic pipe.  There’s a wine flute with an olive in it.  A ball is suspended between two metal rails above the pipe and flute, one of which has a metal hoop also dangling from it, and both of which stretch the length of the rectangular box.  The ball is yellow, maybe painted cork; it’s perforated.  There are numbered punchcards plastered to the back, unpunched.  I think.  I can’t tell.  And a huge picture of Mars, the red planet, or maybe the moon tinted red.  Everything’s enclosed in a wooden frame, a box.  Kind of yellowy overall.  There’s nails sticking out and divots and rough spots. 

Joseph Cornell.

Oh, and there’s a tear down the middle of the picture of Mars, but the two pieces of paper have been put back together.  But you can see the tear.

Thank you for coming back.

This is your favorite, right?  It’s like the one that was in your office.  I always used to look up at it, next to your work computer.  Except yours had the face of a beautiful girl tacked to the back.  Instead of Mars.  You said you never got very far into three-dimensional work, but surely it had an influence on your graphic design.

Untitled … (Soap Bubble Set) … 1957.  Can I touch it?

Seriously?  No, the guard is watching.  There’s a whole section here with pieces you can touch, especially for you.  Down at the bottom of this new Modern wing.  Maybe we’ll make it down there too.

No, let’s stick to the plan.  We can do that next time.  What’s next?

There’s just one more thing, back where we started actually.  The Modern Wing we’re walking through is all white surfaces and huge.  We’re on a platform overlooking the atrium, like a mezzanine.  

I never saw this addition before they finished it.  

I know.  We’re going to cross the new cafe, through the architecture section, or past its entrance.  We’ll save the bottom for the next time.  Okay, now we’re passing Impressionists.  I won’t even try!  Seurat.  So on.  And we’re in that Grand Escher Staircase surrounded by Frank Lloyd Wright.  There’s a naked butt too, always one of my favorites.  Down the steps slowly, carefully.  Here’s the railing.  Hold onto my hand with your other hand.  Down, down.  And around and through the heavy doors and back past the one-armed man.  You still don’t remember him?  Well.  We’re headed basically back where we started.  A little off to the side.  Different room from the prints.  Again, we’re passing all kinds of wildly crazy things that there just isn’t time for.  Moon jars.  Wooden faces with no eyes.  A Maya king.  Ok.  Now.  This is what I wanted to show you.  In front of you is a black cylinder, except it’s squat, like a fat disc.  It would only stretch just beyond the edges of your palm if you held it.  But it’s behind glass on a wire stand, the circle-surface tilted toward you.  It’s like a dark, glass circle, but fully opaque, two inches in thickness.  I say glass because it glints under these lights.  And in the center is a crack or a scrape, lighting shape, radiating out to the edge or vice versa, from off center outward or vice versa.  It’s hard to tell.  The surface is shiny black but also dull.

What is it?

It’s a mirror.  A “Peruvian Divination Mirror.”

I forget.  Did you go there?

Not yet.  I hope some day.  It’s 3,000 years old.  Not only is there a scratch, and a dent just off center where it looks like it may have been slammed against another rock or something, there are also scuffs.  It must have been abraded too.  This thing has a story to tell, but I’m deaf and it’s nearly mute.  Someone didn’t like what they saw.  It’s not a perfect circle either.  It’s irregular, crude, but nearly perfect, made by hand I can’t even imagine how.  There are one or two notches on the rim along the edge of its surface.

What is it made of?

Well, my first guess was obsidian.  It looks like it.  You know, dark-black volcanic glass, but that’s more translucent, I guess.  The label says it’s anthracite, which I looked up, and it’s a kind of pressed coal, almost pure carbon.  Can you imagine some witch 3,000 years ago looking into it and looking for God or gods or the future or for clarity on her relationships or what?  Who even knows?  But here it is right in front of us, behind glass, just sitting there.  I always come look at it every time I visit.

Well, tell me what you see.

There are some scratches on the si—

No, what do you see?  Lean down.

I see, reflected in the surface of this Peruvian divination mirror, the future and the past standing next to each other.  I see art in all its senses.  A blank that reflects.  I see a father and I see a son.  Just barely.

August 2017, Peru