Thursday, December 06, 2007

Egypt for dummies

There is a reasonable chance that I'll never visit Egypt or China, so seeing the Tutankhamun and terracotta warriors exhibitions is a worthwhile experience. Sadly, I would probably have learnt more about Egypt from B&Q than from Tutankhamun and the Golden Age of the Pharaohs at the O2.

The experience is a very shallow introduction to Egypt, which would be unobjectionable except that £20 is rather steep and the hype rather excessive, given that the British Museum does similar with its permanent collection, without cost or fuss. It's blockbuster, where the busted blocks were at the boy-king's tomb entrance.

Some of the objects are undoubtedly beautiful and in stunning condition; the dry heat of a sealed tomb is perfect for preservation, so you have the vivid turquoise of millennia-old faience (pottery whose glaze contains tin) as brilliant now as then. This goes for paint as well: a wooden model of a boat still has its red, blue, green and black geometrical design, the sort of thing lost from Greek sculptures and buildings because of their exposure. It's hard to believe there has been no restoration.

"Modern" principles of design are in evidence, with a chair made for Tut with a bowed seat, curving neatly for a superior posterior. A modern preference for life-like representations of subjects is also noteworthy, given the centuries of ideal types which preceded and followed.

The lack of explanation of stylistic (dis)continuity is typical of the featherweight approach to some of the big questions which remain unaddressed. If Tut's father demanded a unique style of elongated features for his statues, why did this persist even when his audacious religious reforms were swept away? Why are we so uncertain about genealogy, resulting in 'possibly's and 'maybe's everywhere? What was Tut's legacy? There is nothing remotely socio-political here to provide intellectual background, and if this is my only chance to see these objects, I'd like to understand them better.

Enough has been said elsewhere about the lack of Tutankhamun's actual mask (too fragile) and corpse (too dead) in the show; obviously it would be interesting (and ghoulish) to see them, but at least there's sufficient respect for the preservation of antiquities not to ship them around the world.

From the narration of Omar Sharif to the mysterious ambient music which pursues you throughout the show, it's all a bit too numinous for me, as if Peter Ackroyd had been let loose in the Valley of the Kings (tho' without his considerable brainpower). These objects and this history are wondrous and fascinating without the Disneyfying 'experience'.

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