In 2016, Cesar Cornejo was in Brooklyn, New York. Working towards an exhibition to mark the end of a residency – combining ideas and materials that had arisen in various experiments and diverse areas of research — his Trepanation sculptures announced themselves almost ‘magically’, says the artist. ‘Somehow everything came together in pieces.’
Cornejo’s initial Trepanation series is comprised of three works – ‘whenever I have […] something that I'm trying to figure out, I try to make at least three variations to get a sense of how the idea might work’ – each balancing three primary elements. Beginning from a wooden base, we move over Cornejo’s trademark miniature bricks arranged in structures which recall the architecture of shanty towns in his native Peru. Sharing that materiality, both part-and-not-part of the ‘building’ aspect, are casts of skulls. Completing the metonymic trio, and springing from foundations in the ceramic heads, are metallic bars.
Made from aluminium coated in zinc, the slabs straddle a delicate balance between structure and ornament. ‘I had these pieces of metal that I’d never used from 2011. [So] things came together – the sculpture and the architecture, this element of metal and the skulls’, says Cornejo. Touchingly small, noticeably elongated and unmistakably human, those skull casts are themselves casts of bones from Peru’s pre-colonial Paracas culture. ‘The Paracas were the only culture in Peru which had the tradition of elongating their skulls: the skulls of their leaders, apparently’, explains the artist. ‘And they did it to an extent that no other culture did. No one understands really why, or how – and that’s just the elongation. The trepanation’ (which gives the work its title) ‘is a separate thing.’
Trepanation refers to the process of making a hole in the bones of the head; one of the oldest known medical procedures in human history, it’s a technique which dates back thousands of years in civilisations from Scandinavia to Russia and China — and South America, where Cornejo’s skulls are sourced. Despite countless examples unearthed around the world, the purposes of trepanation are still contested today.
While there is evidence to suggest that it had medical uses – and that in fact, many subjects survived the procedure – trepanning might also have been understood as a way of opening a physical passage between the patient's mind and a higher power. ‘Anthropologists have speculated that these [holes] were ways by which people were opening windows for these leaders to connect with the cosmos’, says Cornejo. ‘But there is no written evidence — and then these cultures were dilapidated when the Spaniards came.’
Those Spanish invaders, led by Francisco Pizzaro, arrived in Peru in 1532 and decimated the advanced Incan society they encountered there. Pizarro established Lima as the capital of his new territory in 1535, and Cornejo draws elegant lines between the artefacts of one culture – the Paracas skulls – colliding with that of the conquistadors. ‘I see a parallel between those skulls and Lima, which is the largest city in the country. Almost one third of the population live there, and a ‘capital’ is the head of the country. So in that way, Lima is an elongated head’ – one stretched capita superimposed over another.
Of course, the consequences of Pizzaro’s violent arrival in South America resound to this day. The city he founded back in the sixteenth century has grown into a pulsing metropolis, drawing locals from the surrounding mountains in a cycle of symbiotic influence and raising questions about immigration which are at once widely applicable and hyper-specific to this area of Peru. ‘What happens when people come from the mountains to Lima? They get implanted with a new culture’ says Cornejo, represented in the Trepanation sculptures with those striking metal bars embedded in the skulls as though by blunt force trauma. ‘So because of that they change, and at the same time they change the place where they go; they become an implant for that new place too.’
Places and people are in constant flux, mutually shaping one another with organic processes as well as by force. Cornejo’s training as an architect sees that sensibility infuse his artistic practice far beyond the Trepanations series – after all, what distinguishes a sculpture from a building beyond scale and purpose? Both exist in three dimensions, delineating spaces either beyond or within themselves. ‘I like to think about architecture as material for art’, says Cornejo. ‘I use it for a way to organise things. […] I’m using those tools, sometimes consciously, sometimes unconsciously.’
In Trepanations, the tracks of those tools are clearly legible. ‘The skulls almost become a brick’, says Cornejo – sat atop the shanty structure and hovering beneath its metal adjunct, the casts project monumentality on the one hand while disrupting it with their intrinsic humanity on the other. ‘If you see the skull as architecture, then it makes total sense. Why do buildings have to be square? I mean, why not have curves and shapes like that instead?’ wonders the artist. ‘I felt that the slope [of the skull] went some way towards connecting the explicitly architectural aspects with the metal, the foreign element, in a more organic way.’ In Cornejo’s work, meaning and material, source and symbolism, cleave more tightly than any cement could hope to.
‘When I was doing my thesis in Japan, I came up with a conclusion that the main characteristic of sculpture was not material or scale, or process, but rather the ability to become an object of worship’ muses Cornejo. And ‘this skull, on top of the shanty house, somehow adds a religious aspect. It becomes almost like a sacred building – with the skull, it feels like a temple.’ The shanty structures beneath, meanwhile, are based on childhood memories of settlements on the outskirts of Lima. ‘[At the time] I thought they were horrible – because they look ugly, and dirty, and not well taken care of. But now I see them as art, maybe as kind of simple temples. Let's say everyday temples, and think of them that way.’
If a building can be a sculpture can be a temple, then a temple can be a sculpture can be a building. If a skull can be made of bricks — or be a brick in its own right — then perhaps that same skull might be an aesthetic object on its own terms too. Certainly, the Paracas people who first intervened on the craniums intended to change their appearance as well as their symbolic meanings. While Cornejo ‘could make a pretty decent replica’ of those elongated skulls, he explains ‘I needed to go to the source – because then you’re acknowledging the existence of that person whose bones they are, even if they lived hundreds or thousands of years ago’.
Calibrated just so, objecthood can sweep into pure poetry: the stark reality of moving through space, and the tell-tale testament to hands which push a thought into physical being. Trepanations are aware of what they materialise, whisking sculpture into architecture and vice versa; by troubling categories – ancient and contemporary, native and coloniser, physical and symbolic bodies, places for people and even people figured as places – the sculptures reveal a path towards doing away with those binaries altogether.
Cornejo’s equation for what constitutes sculpture, a worship-able object, draws the things we venerate (artistic, bodily or municipal as the case may be) into generative tension with an all-too-human drive to worship in the first place. Meaning changes spaces, but beneath Cornejo’s hands those same spaces are ushered to embody nothing less than meaning itself. The slope of a skull, the scale of a maquette: propositions for the ultimate altar, a temple to temples everywhere.
By Emily Watkins