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THE 4TH. EAST ASIAN GAMES 2005

INTRODUCTION TO THE EXHIBITION

MASTERS OF FIRE

When striking their anvils smiths imitate the primordial gesture of the strong god; they are in effect his accessories. All the mythology woven round agrarian fertility, metallurgy and work is, moreover, of relatively recent origin. Of later date than pottery and agriculture, metallurgy is set in the framework of a spiritual universe where the heavenly god, who was still present in the ethnological phases of food-gathering and small-game hunting, is finally ousted by the strong God, the fertilizing Male, spouse of the terrestrial Great Mother.
                                                                       Mircea Eliade, “The Forge and the Crucible”


The archetype and the essence
When meteorites iron begun to be used by being shaped with silex, thousands of years ago, it was related to a gift by the gods, due to its celestial origin.
It was yet to be understood how long the Iron Age would last, bridging millenniums of history until our days, probably in such a taken-for-granted way, that most people are not consciously aware of its time span.
The emergence of the manipulation of fire in the history of mankind brought about a slow but steady understanding of it's essence.
While the arts of fire flourished, namely early pottery, the connection with fire grew more intense, as man discovered Mother Earth’s womb and dared to extract ores and manipulate a non ferrous alloy composed of copper and zinc, called bronze.
The sacred transmutation properties of fire were already known and even worshipped in many cultures as iron ores were discovered.
The smiths, manipulators of the immaterial fire and iron, became invested of sacred identities as those few who would dare to defy the tremendous forces of Nature coming from the entrails of Mother Earth and combine them with the transmutation powers of fire, learnt from the potter’s kilns.
Two main branches emerged from iron work: the agricultural utensils and edged weapons. If the agricultural utensils evolved in a rather anonymous way, the main shape of the edged weapons, the sword, turned into an historical archetype, common to all cultures.

However, few would know by then, how very near they were from the essence of truth, when the smiths were conferred a special status – some cultures requiring the smith to be outcast from the village and uncircumcised, thus possessing both the feminine and the masculine – that enable him to deal with those powerful forces. In fact, the forging of iron is nothing but the re-enacting of the Earth’s core, a gigantic furnace of molten iron full of magnetic properties that ensures both gravity and the magnetic fields that protect the planet.
These ancient cultures were indeed following a different language to reach the same essence: the forces that keep life alive. In other words, each time a smith forges a sword, he is recreating, with his forge, the earth’s essence, well hidden under its crust.

The fire, the elements and steel
It is generally considered that iron begun to be used in China by the 8th. Century BC, according to some excavations in Xingjian, where numerous artefacts of iron were found in tombs, and radio carbon dated. However evidence of forged meteoric iron were later found as cast-in edges for bronze axes, in the Shang and Zhou periods.
Nonetheless, let us bring forward, for a moment, the five elements formulated by Chinese civilization: fire, wood, metal, water and earth, while we bear in mind the main elements of the magnetic force, the positive and the negative poles.
The discovery of steel embodies in it the essence of all the five elements: fire as the transmutation power, wood as the supplier of fire, metal as the element to be transformed, water as the final alchemic agent for steel, and earth, the womb-source.
Only one who has seen steel being heated to a red hot state at night, revealing its secrets to the knowledgeable eye can understand the incredible transformation process that the red hot iron undergoes when it is then immersed in water.
The entire molecular structure changes under the shock of the red hot Yang into the receiving Yin water. Creation is, once more recreated, by the fusion of the parts into the entirety that now is called steel. Yang and Yin, or the positive and negative poles that generate magnetic energy, are fused into a new-born metal whose appearance, as it slowly cools down, can be compared to the multiple organic adherences with which a new-born comes into the world.
Therefore the smith is both a procreator and a re-enactor, an alchemist in his own way, and maybe only he, of all people, can perceive the entire act of creation through the manipulation of primeval forces, both the Masculine and the Feminine.

The sword, the symbol and prejudices
It is without doubt that the sword of steel was one of the most enduring weapons of the history of mankind, a symbol of power, of destruction, but also of the most fundamental values and dreaded manifestations of mankind, such as honour, courage, loyalty and justice on the one side, and cruelty, treachery and cowardice on the other.
From this inevitable duality however, the archetype that emerges are swords that embody mythic empowerments such as the Celtic legend of the Sword of Manaan, King Arthur’s Excalibur, Damocles’ Sword, Archangel St. Gabriel’s Flaming Sword, the Taoist Demon Catcher Sword, and last but not least, the Sword that the Statue of Justice carries.
Today swords are regarded as ceremonial and anachronistic, part of a distant past. No matter how intricate the technology with which it is imbued, one should bear in mind that technology stems from the Greek word Techne that refers not only the activities and skills of the craftsman, but also the arts of the mind and fine arts 1.
Therefore, as the world keeps changing, the traditional concept of culture as being “unchangeable, nationalistic, superior or inferior, and strictly defined”, gave place to a changing and ever broadening perspective where the concept of Art is getting back to its original open concept, and as always, under a new vision.
We are living in a time in the history of mankind where prejudices cannot exist anymore, nor can the arts be divided into major and minor.
Therefore, in present day, it is possible to view the sword as an art and as a design object, for it often bore as much decoration as jewellery, intricate steel patterns and techniques, and was conceived for specific purposes that evolved through the centuries.

The contemporary smith and multi-culturalism
It is therefore under the auspices of the sword’s anachronism, that today’s blade smiths work, still repeating the same multi-thousand years old fusion of the hot and the cold, freed from the obligation to deliver instruments of destruction, are now able to concentrate into the creative aspects involving new techniques of working the ancient craft of steel, with the single purpose of refining and renovating this way of expression.
It is most interesting to observe the diversity of paths, techniques and styles chosen by the Contemporary Smiths for this exhibition. These choices reflect cultural preferences that, very often are not original to the smiths’ own culture, expressing multi-cultural choices of East plus West, placing blade smiths works into the forefront, as ambassadors of cultural miscegenation in their work.
I am not aware that other Museums dedicated their attention to present day smiths, but it is my conviction that the Macao Museum of Art is taking a pioneering path in bringing forth an exhibition of international Contemporary Blade Smiths thus acknowledging the existence of these Masters of Fire.
In doing so, the Macao Museum of Art is placing itself very much in tune with the contemporary concept of Culture and Art, offering a broader perspective on artistic expressions that some would not be aware of.

António Conceição Júnior
Contemporary Blade Smiths Exhibition Curator
Cultural and Art Consultant – Macao Museum of Art

1. Heidegger, in "The Question Concerning Technology".

 

 

 

 
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