The mysterious Mezcala and ‘the grandfather of chaos theory’

Why did the abstract art of Mexico’s ancient Mezcala civilisation so fascinate the Nobel Prize-winning scientist Ilya Prigogine? Christie’s Pre-Columbian Art specialist Fatma Turkkan-Wille admires his superb collection — offered in Paris on 9 April — and offers some theories of her own

From the mountainous region of Guerrero in modern-day Mexico, the Mezcala culture is famous for its prolific production of stone sculpture, which includes human figures, animal effigies and architectural models, dating from 300-100 BC. Little is known about this ancient civilisation, other than that it chose to bury its dead with these abstract, esoteric stone carvings, and that it was the only one of the Mesoamerican civilizations to have been so focused on architecture.

In the above film, Christie’s Pre-Columbian Art specialist Fatma Turkkan-Wille looks at Mezcala stone carvings from The Prigogine Collection, including a selection of what appear to be facades of temples. ‘There is a big question mark,’ she says. ‘What did these structures mean to [the people inhabiting the Mezcala region]? And what did they mean to Ilya Prigogine? And where were they taking him on his scientific and spiritual quest?’

A Nobel prize-winning chemist and physicist, Ilya Prigogine (1917-2003) was devoted to advancing man’s understanding of the role that time played in physical sciences and biology. His theories have helped us to better comprehend subjects as diverse as traffic congestion, the multiplication of cancer cells and embryology.

Hailed in some quarters as ‘the grandfather of chaos theory’, Prigogine has even been credited with influencing the works of Salvador Dalí, who was inspired by the new approaches to physics that began to emerge in the 1970s. The two men met shortly before the artist’s death in 1989.

‘Prigogine felt that these ancient artists tried to capture man’s constant questioning of eternity, reincarnation and passages to the other world’

‘Prigogine had an all-encompassing view of science, philosophy and art,’ says Turkkan-Wille, who believes the carvings had ‘a special philosophical resonance’ for the Russian-born scientist. ‘He felt that these ancient artists tried to capture, through the mysterious little buildings, man’s constant questioning of eternity, reincarnation and passages to the other world.’

Beginning in the 1960s, Prigogine and his wife Maryna spent 30 years acquiring these 91 Mezcala carvings, ranging in colour from dark, mottled green to milky white, and all carved between the 1st and 3rd centuries BC.

Remarkably, these sculptures were created without the use of metal tools. ‘They simply used stone on stone, and they had a piece of twine with which they would saw away at the stone. And then they would continue polishing them with small pebbles and polishing stones,’ Turkkan-Wille explains. Hundreds of hours of labour were required to shape each model before it was interred at a burial.

The abstract forms of these carved stones evoke the work of 20th-century artists including Alberto GiacomettiPablo Picasso and Constantin Brancusi, while the vacant spaces between the temple columns are reminiscent of Lucio Fontana’s sliced canvases and his search for a fourth dimension.

For Prigogine, who was working at the farthest reaches of the knowable, it was the ambiguity of these statues that fascinated him. ‘Because of their reductivist quality, it’s so easy to project all sorts of thoughts, dreams and fantasies on to them,’ suggests Turkkan-Wille. 

As Prigogine himself once observed, ‘The future is uncertain… but this uncertainty is at the very heart of human creativity.’

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