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Video transcript

This piece immediately appealed to me, because it seemed to be almost modernist in its bold simplicity, and it seemed very straightforward. But what thrills me is that it’s not what you think it’s going to be. This was made about three thousand years ago by artists of the Olmec culture, the first great civilization in ancient Mexico. It is often referred to as a face mask, but if you look at it closely you realize it could never have been worn by a mortal. There are no holes in the eyes or in the nose or in the mouth to allow someone to see or to breathe. There are these little indentations in the eyes, in the mouth, that probably would have held an inlay, probably a shell. So it may have been seen as much more lifelike in antiquity. And it is more or less life-size of a human face. We’re drawn to faces. Being able to recognize a face is one of those fundamental survival skills. You have to understand: Is somebody angry with you? Is somebody intent to do harm? I was particularly struck by the very realistic details of the fleshiness over the eye, the strength of the jawline, and the soft chin. But when you draw in closer, you think, “What’s going on with that mouth?” The downturned edges, the strange sort of toothless gum above it: what is that? Is this the face of an infant? Is it the face of an animal? On the very edges of the lower lip, ever so faintly, you see the incisions of a cleft mark. For the Olmec, that sort of cleft mark refers to the opening of a husk of corn, the preeminent crop of ancient Mesoamerica. The blue-green jade probably alluded to the growing corn, to ideas of fertility, of cyclical life. Jade is very hard to carve. It would have taken untold hours-- percussion flaking, sawing sections down with string and grit, and then endless amounts of polishing. This very, very durable, strong material lasts beyond human lifespan. In that sense, it touches on the great questions. What is our existence about, what can transcend our time and our place?