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Vol. 9, No. 3
June/July 2006

  >>   On the Waterfront
  >>   Land's End
  >>   Diamond's Edge

Deepening the Mystery 

story and photo by Guy A. Sibilla


I stretched out my sleeping bag under his three-foot-long nose. I was bored with my anthropologist friends, who were constantly digging and sifting and measuring in and around the stone men of Rapa Nui (aka Easter Island). I was traveling with Dr. Terry Hunt, an anthropologist at the University of Hawai‘i who was directing a field school for students from across the United States. They had come here for the purpose of analyzing the moai; I just wanted to feel them. So for a couple nights, I wandered up to the rim of Rano Raraku Crater for some peace and quiet.

For me, it was all about art, and art doesn’t require deconstruction. It is what it is. Surrealist painter René Magritte once proclaimed that the job of the artist is to deepen the mystery. If that is the measure of superlative art then the rapanui who carved these giants succeeded beyond anyone’s wildest dreams. From the moment Captain Roggeveen first saw them in 1722, the moai have been and remain beautifully perplexing to outsiders. All of the science for all of these years hasn’t made much of a dent in explaining these magnificent, monumental sculptures. Only the moai know the answers to all of those curious little inquiries, but they continue to be stone-faced on the subject.

So I turned to a local bar for some insight. Passing a hitching post located just outside the front door, I walked across the empty dance floor to get a better look at, of all things, an amusing knock-off of Magritte’s Golconde. You know this painting: A sky full of proper English gentleman, dressed in bowlers and topcoats and suspended in the air like raindrops. The local artist’s interpretation substituted moai in place of the tiny Englishmen. Art inspires art.

I was also surprised, delightfully I might add, to learn that even if the Chilean peso isn’t a powerhouse on the world currency markets, it does buy you a fine Pisco Sour anywhere on the island. Several drinks later, I was thinking about how odd this all was: I live in Honolulu—in a strictly geographical sense, one of the remotest inhabited spots on earth. But isolation is relative these days: For all the vast Pacific that surrounds it, Hawai‘i isn’t necessarily secluded; Rapa Nui, on the other hand, is truly alone in the middle of the sea.

But then I recalled staring out the window of the Lan Chile aircraft as we began our approach for landing, straining to get a look at Hanga Roa’s Mataveri Airport. I especially wanted to see what $17 million dollars looked like spread out on the ground: That’s what the United States paid to have the Mataveri runway extended to a length that would accommodate an emergency landing of the Space Shuttle. What I saw instead of a spacecraft was a dark-skinned, black-hair-flowing-in-the-breeze rapanui caballero, cantering headlong down Hanga Roa’s main street. He rode bareback, oblivious to the jeeps and cars rented by tourists, who were wandering among stalls filled with local handicrafts.

Is there really such a thing anymore as being alone at sea?

If the moai were not originally intended to be artistic expressions of the rapanui, they are now. Even Coke couldn’t resist taking license: One day as I was leaving town, the iconic swirl of red and white caught my eye. But instead of a curvaceous bottle on the poster, there was only a row of standing stone giants. Andy Warhol must be enjoying all of this.

When it was time to leave, it seemed everyone on the airplane was laden with moai: woodcarvings, drawings, T-shirts, key chains and tons of other trinkets. I left Rapa Nui with a few rolls of film and the understanding that some things will always defy the intellect. Like great art ... oh, yes, and bottled pisco. HH