Living with the Gods

This exhibition at the British Museum expands in the mind of the visitor and becomes a phantasmagoria of objects produced by cultures from across the world, of stories connected with them, of idols and charms, warding off illness or encouraging devotion, a general mental excitement in which all the human practices which might be called devotional or superstitious, otherworldly or magical seem equally interesting and equally valuable because they are human and rated highly by their practitioners. The exhibition lulls the visitor into a receptive state with faint but compelling background music, a combination of wind noises, human whispering and tinkling bells. The physical layout of the exhibits, grouped in sections separated by sinuous gauze curtains, which makes them feel like something taking place in the mind, seems to encourage the idea that these are in some way all phantoms.

Not that the objects are not real and often extremely vivid, but that they are mixed in ways that break down normal categories. A few of the objects are venerable, like above all the Lion Man from 40,000 years ago, discovered in a Swabian cave a week before the start of World War II. He is made from a mammoth’s tusk and dated by taking radio carbon readings of the soil he was found in. His lion-part is judged to represent an extinct species now called a cave lion, which, going by drawings on cave walls, did not have manes. Thus the uncertainty can arise over whether he is lion or lioness, male or female. He is thought to be an implement in a religious practice, based on the widespread attribution of spiritual powers to human-animal hybrids in other cultures and on traces of wear which have been taken as signs of frequent handling by the group that commissioned or made him.

He is the most numinous object in the exhibition, pieced together in the 70+ years since he was found by adding hundreds of further bits identified in the detritus surrounding him, leaving him in spite of all the careful attention looking extremely ruined. Except that, by the time I saw the Lion Man the ivory original had gone back to Germany, to be replaced by a piece of high quality 3D printing. Thus he had become a deceptive picture of himself, the most up-to-date kind of magic.

It seems appropriate to the ethos of the exhibition that the oldest object displayed has been transfigured into the newest without losing its aura, and is still displayed in a dark space all by itself. There’s a sprinkling throughout the exhibition of extremely fresh objects, made of cheap materials like plastic or commissioned by the Museum from contemporary artists and thus showing for instance that Jahrzeit candles go on being needed because ancient practices survive. In the world of belief time does not need to behave historically. Someone who wants to determine the qibla direction can trade his little compass and sundial with exquisitely small directions in Arabic for a simple mobile phone app, and Tibetan priests fit their prayer wheels with prayers on computer print-outs that squeeze in more pleas than human handwriting ever could.

The idea of art doesn’t apply or is downgraded in many of the territories we visit. A series of household altars is one of the most moving sections, more appealing for being genuinely home-made or at least produced for humble customers, like an Ethiopian reredos crudely inscribed in a language unspoken since 1200 (Ge’ez) and completely covered in familiar stories.

I found myself leaning on the words ‘folk art’ at many points, but this is not the right term, except as it expresses our distance from much of what we see in Living with the Gods. Last week I was dazzled by an interior just around the corner, in a Victorian church I had passed hundreds of times and never thought of entering. This ordinary space was covered from head to foot in Byzantine-style paintings of saints and angels and biblical scenes. Down in the corners at two points were the dates 1993 and 2003. I can’t interpret the weird symmetry of the numbers but I can sort of imagine how the local Greek church got its job-lot of holy scenes and personages. They’re completely ordinary regarded as art, but overpowering as an enclosure for devotion.

We, meaning visitors from the West, can certainly be fooled by other people’s devotional objects, or imitations of them. Juggernaut’s car, for instance, which I took as a genuinely Indian product, was ordered by a bored Englishman stuck in an out-of-the-way spot in South India in the 18c. It was the biggest of all the exhibits but still a very reduced model of a festival chariot which would carry an avatar of Vishnu on a nine-day holiday in the country, together with his brother and sister each of whom had their own similar transport.

The exhibition comes in another form which I have barely sampled yet. I don’t know which came first, a series of 30 fifteen minute radio talks by Neil MacGregor, former director of the British Museum, or this exhibition. I gather that MacGregor uses many of the objects that appear in the present show, and more besides, re-combining them in different orders, an appealing possibility because they already seem a ferment of metaphors or physical analogues for modes of thought, translations of bodily sensations into something else, like prayer flags which disperse prayers into the atmosphere or bells that incorporate lamps or scarves which clothe cross-shafts and shield Christ’s nakedness.

The radio version of the subject ends with one of the largest and oddest of all religious gatherings, the Kumbh Mela, which takes place in the riverbed of the Ganges in the dry season. The British Museum version does not try to represent this gigantic hubbub, noisily present in the radio form. To attempt devout contemplation in the midst of a crowd numbering millions, to build a great tent city to accommodate all of them on the understanding that it will be taken down a month later, after which the river will rush in and erase all trace that it has ever been—can these ideas of passage and progress make sense of the bewildering variety of appliances and practices we have met, and transform agitated thought into a source of comfort?