Nature, Culture And The Challenges Of History

Tupilaq figures, Tuktoyaktuk, Northwest Territories, Canada. Photo by Lowell Georgia/Corbis

Tupilaq figures, Tuktoyaktuk, Northwest Territories, Canada. Photo by Lowell Georgia/Corbis

We have found another keeper in this magazine which we have linked to several times in the past, this time with a conservation theme at the intersection of natural and cultural heritage (click the image above to go to the source):

I’ve been nursing a gentle obsession with a quartet of bone-white, thumb-sized figurines. I first saw them, lined up in a row, on the cover of Miguel Tamen’s book Friends of Interpretable Objects (2001). They rested in a pair of open hands, looking toothy, and vital, exuding a cool glimmer, while evoking the long Arctic night and the estranging cold. And yet they’re also tiny and personable, these figurines. Their smooth features beckon you to enfold them in the palm of your hand. Their heads are cocked at mad angles, and their leering eyes and rabid smiles bespeak a secret, conspiratorial sociability.

In his book, Tamen contends that objects — art objects in the first instance, but by extension the many things upon which our fascination fixes, such as shells, stones, stars, milk bottles, leaves, and lamps — take up power and life with us as we incorporate them into ‘societies of friends’. The figurines on the book cover present an admirable picture of such a society — antic and charismatic friends, whose secret stories one desires to know.

As it turns out, the figurines are never mentioned in the text. It’s likely the book’s designer chose the image, seizing on this quartet of seemingly interpretable objects without paying much attention to the manuscript itself. The book’s back cover offers a bit of metadata: a caption, which describes the objects as ‘devil figures’ with a provenance of Tuktoyaktuk in Canada’s Northwest Territories. The caption says they were ‘carved from the teeth of a blue whale’.

I haven’t been to the Northwest Territories, and I have never seen a blue whale. But I know that they do not range as far north as Tuktoyaktuk, and I know that they do not have teeth. The objects on the cover of Tamen’s book were likely made from the teeth of beaked whales — dolphins, orcas, and their kin. Perhaps the teeth belonged to belugas, which are still hunted by the Inuvialuit people of Tuktoyaktuk, a remote village in Canada’s Northwest Territories, known in recent years as the northern terminus of one of the wintertime highways in Ice Road Truckers, a reality series for cable TV. Further search turns up a link to the original picture at the image bank Corbis, where the note about blue-whale teeth likely originated; the caption reads: ‘A person holds devil figures carved from teeth of a blue whale, Tuktoyaktuk, Northwest Territories, Canada’. The photo was taken by Lowell Georgia on 1 August 1980; its ID number is LG002968.

While the caption might err in identifying the carvings as the teeth of a blue whale, it’s not far off in calling them devils. The little ivory characters are examples of tupilaq, a genre of carved critter widespread among the Inuit and other peoples of the far north. Thetupilaq that live outside of museum time, outside of gallery time, are evil spirits called into being by a shaman for the purpose of making mischief. They carry curses to rivals and enemies. Made from bone and fur and other materials, the tupilaq are powerful magic — and dangerous for those who wield them, for if discovered, their powers turn back on their users unless an immediate public confession is made. Secrecy and darkness are the native habitat of the tupilaq; they lose their power when exposed to the sociable light.

But I’m not interested in scolding Corbis or Lowell Georgia, whose photo marvellously evokes the capricious spirit of the tupilaq for one who never has been so far north. For now, I’m interested to note the ways in which collectable objects weave shadows and ambiguities around themselves. The light-skinned hands holding the tupilaq in the photo manifest some degree of control over the carvings, but of a kind that can never be total. Objects arrive webbed in connections, and hoard their most intimate gestures and relations in unreachable treasure-houses. A collected object is a kind of vessel, freighted with an irredeemable record of acts and things, inaccessible worlds of sense and event, a tissue of phenomenal dark matter caught up in time’s obliterative machinery.

The tupilaq, after all, were made from the teeth of an animal whose warm blood surged against tide and ice. These teeth dragged bleeding prey into the black, and tore banners of bubbles through holes in the ice. These teeth thrummed, their ivory timbre sending songs across submarine canyons and ice-hung plains of shingle. Torn from the reek on the blood-soaked shore, these teeth were plucked and cleaned and polished, and carved into devils meant to breed bad luck on a neighbour’s lodge, his wives, his weapons. Every gesture, every practice of craft and magic and the secret haunts of commerce, took these teeth into a new domain: out of the carbon cycle and into the symbolic.

Nor quite this, in the end — for any straightforward dichotomy between the natural and the cultural, the material and the symbolic, is complicated at every instance by qualities that refuse neat abstraction. Toothed whales use their teeth for communication; a porpoise’s charismatic smile tells a story; dolphins deploy the acoustic properties of their teeth to issue warnings and threats. Rooted in the jaw, the tooth likely aids a whale’s perceptual work, its capturing and filtering of sound in the marine environment. Forged in an organismic manufactory, tooled by genes (it’s symbols all the way down), a tooth takes its place for a time in a network of perception and action: catching the piercing resonance of whale song bounding in the deep canyons — testing and metering the shifting temperatures of Arctic air — tearing and gripping the trauma-tautened flesh of smolt salmon.

Read the rest of the article here.

2 thoughts on “Nature, Culture And The Challenges Of History

  1. Pingback: The Pastoral Muse |

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