Rock Hard Bodies

Exploding Women

We read in Marilyn Stokstad and Rosemary Joyce that the water left inside the female figurines found at Dolni Vestanice made them explode in the kiln. Now why would people so skilled in making pottery — we see they made vessels and clay bricks — why would they purposefully put wet figurines into the kiln to explode? Stokstad gives no answer, but there are three theories, or projections, I like. One is that the artist hated women and wished them harm, treating the clay figurines like voodoo dolls. It was a form of sympathetic magic, and we can spot misogyny twenty millennia away! Another, and the one that is most popular, is that the artist-shaman used the cracking of the sculpture like the Chinese shaman used the cracking of tortoise shells placed over heat — as a way to read the future or receive messages from the ancestors. I think gypsies use tea leaves this way, like psychedelic, mind-revealing Rorschach tests. These frozen pictures of chaos and order reflect back to us something else, a larger story beyond our control. The third theory, which I like the best, is that the life of the object recapitulates the life of a person, and destruction is part of the life. Things are treated as people, just as people are treated as things. The sculpture begins as a small bit of clay, then grows, gradually dries out, hardens, and breaks apart, returning to the ground. There are wonderful, huge terracotta horses in south India, massive red horses, some of the largest clay sculptures in the world, built to slowly decay. They are created during rituals where they are believed to be infused with divine life, and then afterwards they are deposited in lakes, or left at the edge of villages to disintegrate in a process of clay recycling. Beautiful pottery shards found in burial mounds all over the Americas point to a similar practice of destroying the clay or stone artifact as a way of completing it.

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