*This is part 6 of a 13-part series. Read part 5 here.*
Scent is one of the most underrated sense impressions; it is also one of the most important for memory.
I can still recall that immense chasm of smell that existed between my dusty travel partner and I, on the one hand, and the recently showered and perfumed family on the other. They were kind enough to pick us up — after seeing us drenched in sweat on the side of the road — and I am grateful for that, but great-googly-moogly we smelled a hell of a lot oo-glier.
It was a rarity in our hitch-hiking journey thus far to get a ride inside the sleek, climate-controlled interior of a Mercedes — usually we hop in the back of old pickup and hide our face from the sun — but not as rare as what lies ahead.
Over a half-century ago Sir Edward James, a bohemian aristocrat from England, was coasting through this lush Eden in his Rolls Royce. Alongside him was Plutarco Gastelum, a Yaqui Indian he recently met at a post-office in Ceurnevaca. He convinced him to come along on a journey that eventually brought them to a tiny paradise in the Huastecan jungle near a town called Xilitla (hee-leet-la).
Not too long before, James was schmoozin’ about with artists in America. On a trip to Los Angeles, he hatched the idea of creating a paradise — a Garden of Eden that would not quite fit in Southern California, so he hopped south of the border.
He started off simple (for him), buying a coffee plantation and a few thousand orchids. Days were spent wandering around naked hearing the coo’s and caw’s of exotic birds as well as “the sound of green” as he wrote in poem. That simple start ended abruptly, after the frost of 1962.
The orchids died in droves.
As the precious flowers dematerialized into the hungry floor, a new vision was born: that of a permanent garden. One that couldn’t wither away so easily. The next few decades are spent in a tireless journey to cement this vision into, well, cement.
Hundreds of workers were employed to create this peculiar labyrinth of sculptures, bridges, and stairways. The $5 million garden was financed by James alone, paid for by auctioning off his collection of Surrealist art.
James was a huge proponent and patron of Surrealism. He financed Salvador Dali for all of 1938, bought four of his famous lobster telephones, and sponsored the influential Parisian magazine Minotaure. To sell of his collection, widely agreed to be one of the best privately owned collections at the time, was a step that showed just how committed he was to this permanent Eden.
“Pfft…a kid could make this.” my slightly disgruntled travel mate S. opines. “Oh wow, how original…” she says with a dry smirk, “a stairway to what, heaven? a ceiling?”
“Geez.” I smirk. “You’re kinda hurling abuse all over the place, huh?”
“Well this place is abusive to art. Or maybe I just don’t get it because these squiggly lines don’t seem like art to me. Art is supposed to be something that not everyone can do.”
Knowingly or unknowingly S. just opened up a philosophical hole that, if one dares to jump in, can lead to the center of the 20th century… which is kind of an unexpected thing to happen at 10 in the morning on an overcast Tuesday in the tired jungles of eastern Mexico. Nevertheless it is here: What is Art?
In the early 1900s, Sigmund Freud was smoking cigars (and screaming emphatically “Sometimes a cigar is a cigar!!”) and shaping history — I’ve tried and, unfortunately, it’s not that simple. In between puffs he described, with scientific accuracy, what came to be called the unconscious. This new space of primal drives and repressed desires can only be know indirectly, through interpreting dreams and slips of tongue.
The Surrealists — who Edward James help fund — were just one group that tried to give visual form to the chaotic landscapes of the unconscious. Abstract expressionists and their kin also drew inspiration from this messy realm where a lot of unrefined things dwell. The works of this era overthrew centuries of art tradition and made a lot of folks confused.
“But is art simply about pretty pictures? About impressive draftsmanship?” I ask.
“Yes.” S replies affirmatively. “That’s exactly what it’s about.”
S. breathes in slow, an exhausted jungle breath that isn’t about to debate.
“Do you want to go swimming?” I ask.
Las Pozas translates as “The Pools”, so it would be a shame not to jump in. The smell of green fills that strange jungle.