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Lewis De Soto / MATRIX 144

April 15, 1991 - June 20, 1991

Lewis De Sotot: The Language of Paradise (detail), 1990-91; multimedia installation.

Download the exhibition brochure (PDF).

Over the past ten years Lewis de Soto has explored the theme of the individual's relation to the infinite cosmos. His art embodies insights obtained from Renaissance sacred architecture and the traditions of Chinese and Japanese Buddhism. As such, de Soto's work, whether in photography or in his more recent multimedia installations, typically evokes a heightened spatial awareness while also suggesting the expanded dimensions of the conscious mind.

The Language of Paradise is a multimedia installation based on the cosmology of de Soto's patrilineal ancestors, the Cahuilla people of Southern California. A variety of approaches to this cosmology are overlaid, including an English translation of the Cahuilla creation myth which viewers can study along with a number of relevant anthropological texts at a centrally placed wooden desk, a soundtrack taken from a 1909 wax cylinder recording of the ancient Cahuilla Bird Songs, an oscilloscope display tracking the singer's vocal inflection, a tiny video monitor displaying a sequence of 20 one-minute views of various sites around the artist's ancestral home in Palm Canyon, and a programmed slide projection of an enormous spiral design basket which appears to turn like a galaxy on a ghostly bed of white sand.

The installation is laid out on a central axis so that a person sitting at the desk has a clear view of all of these components. "I wanted to create a situation," explains de Soto, "where you could be reading at a normal desk and then when you look up you really enter the imaginative space of what you were reading. The whole piece is like an illuminated manuscript, except that instead of the illuminations being in the book, they extend beyond into the entire room."1 The key text, identified by a page marker in one of the books, is a portion of the creation myth itself.

This myth, which is still sung today as part of Cahuilla religious practice, is extremely lengthy and can take several days to recite. It begins with the birth out of the void of the twin creator brothers Múkat and Témayawet. Out of a single egg which emerged "above the darkness" the two are born and immediately begin arguing about who is older. "Then the night made a noise. The night was singing. They listened to the noise made by the night. 'Listen,' said (Múkat), 'what is going on there?' 'You said you were older; how is it that you don't know what's going on,' said Témayawet...'The night is rocking us, that's what's going on.' 'What I say is just what you would say,' said Múkat."2

Their rivalry extends to the kinds of creatures they create, with Múkat making humans as they exist today and Témayawet making a somewhat more practical type with a face on both sides of its head and webbed hands for holding water. They also argue about whether there should be sickness and death. "No," said Témayawet, "it's not right that they should get sick and die. They should live forever." "They might crowd the earth if they were to live forever," replied Múkat. "We can do something about the earth. We'll make it wider," said Témayawet. "They'll run short of food," Múkat protested, but Témayawet answered, "We'll make things grow that will bear fruit year after year."3

Finally, Témayawet takes his creations and goes to live underground, while Múkat, who has tricked his people into killing each other with war games, is himself murdered by them. With no one left to guide them, Múkat's people embark on a series of long migrations. It is duringthis time that they begin to sing the Bird Songs, which are based in part on the various birds they encountered along the way and whose migration patterns they often followed. Finally, between 16,000 and 1,000 years ago, the Cahuilla people settled permanently in the desert areas of Southern California.

For de Soto, a post-reservation Cahuilla, access to the creation myth, and to Cahuilla cosmology in general, has been almost exclusively through anthropological data collected in books and recordings. This installation readily acknowledges the extent to which European language, thought structure, and technology have mediated his understanding. He does not regret such impurity, however, but rather embraces its possibilities for renewing the Cahuilla's ancient vision in the present in a form which will make it accessible to a vastly broader audience.

"A new cosmology is needed at this time for Euro-centrist cultures," observes de Soto. "Cultures in general inhabit borrowed and invented world-explanations. The Cahuilla viewpoint is still alive and should be added to the fabric of our understanding."4

Lewis de Soto was born in 1954 in San Bernadino, California. He currently lives and works in San Francisco.

Lawrence Rinder

1 Lawrence Rinder, interview with the artist, San Francisco, 4 January 1991.
2 Joe Lomas, "Creation Myth," in Cahuilla Text with an Introduction, trans. Hansjakob Seiler (Bloomington: Indiana University, 1970).
3 Ibid.
4 Rinder.

MATRIX is supported in part by grants from the Paul L. and Phyllis Wattis Foundation, the National Endowment for the Arts, The LEF Foundation, and the California Arts Council.