The Lope: Happy Easter Island

Saturday, April 15, 2006

Happy Easter Island

I'm sure you're familiar with the form above, even if you are not a tiki fan or an archeologist. The big stone heads, or "moai", are the enigmatic sculptures on Easter Island in the South Pacific.

"Easter Island", it was called, by the crew of a Dutch ship that ran across it on Easter day in 1722. It is called Rapa Nui by its indigenous people.

The history of Rapa Nui - sociological, religious, anthropological and ecological - is frequently in debate. As recently as a month ago, previous presumptions about time-frames of its history have been called into question. I shan't get into it here, but will refer you to the Wikipedia listing, from which I obtained the two public domain photographs above and below.

A Rapa Nui enthusiast recently started a blog for news of the island; Ace highly recommends it.

I'd always been fascinated with moai; I think I saw a real one in the Smithsonian years ago, but the closest I've gotten recently was when I photographed a casting last August on the grounds of the Los Angeles County Museum of Natural History.

As with many beautiful things one encounters, this casting gets more interesting when you research it.

In 1968, Lan Chile Airlines and Air France planned to construct a jet refueling facility on Easter Island for their trans-oceanic flights. To make room for this - you guessed it - hundreds of Moai would have been displaced or destroyed.

Enter Samuel Adams Green, descendant of the Boston beer manufacturer, friend to the likes of Garbo and Warhol and quite an interesting study unto himself. He was then Cultural Consultant to the City of New York and was asked by retired U.S. Army Colonel James Gray to help prevent this archaeological and anthropological disaster by bringing it to public attention.

He succeeded. Green became Special Projects Director with Gray's organization, The International Fund for Monuments, and, working with the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization (UNESCO), he traveled to Easter Island and brought back a small (8-foot) moai which had been knocked off its torso by a storm in 1960.

He arranged for the moai to be shipped to New York City where it was displayed at Park Avenue's Seagram's Plaza.

The display generated enough publicity and funding to stop the refueling base and to expand a University of Wyoming archaeological study of the island. UNESCO managed to stop all commercial development of Easter Island.

Above two photos used by personal permission of Sam Green. I was fortunate to be able to question Green, via email, about the eventual fate of that particular Moai. He responded: "On its promised return to Easter Island- having toured Washington and Chicago after NYC, it was kidnapped by the Chilean authorities - Chili being the protector of Easter Island - and is now mounted outside the Chilean National Museum in Santiago."

A number of castings of the New York moai were made by Lippencott of North Haven, CT, a firm which apparently specialized in producing giant sculptures for public view.

According to Green, "Our arrangement with the now defunct Lippencott sculpture manufacturers in North Haven CT was that they could replicate up to 100 heads in cement when orders were placed provided them with six thousand dollars more than the manufacturing price (which was to go to Easter Island). I believe they only received orders for 6 and so there are 94 more that could be made if they had not gone out of business years ago."

Those marks on the casting's face may be simple graffiti, or may be someone's attempt at a religious symbol from Easter Island.

The imagery of moai spread from Easter Island, carried by books like Thor Heyerdahl's 1958 "Aku-Aku", and burrowed into the public consciousness.

Sometimes the usage was blatant.

Aku-Aku restaurant and lounge, Worchester, MA (photo shot in 2003, business now defunct) is a group that frequently deals with the actuality of Rapa Nui, as well as the use of its moai imagery in tiki bars and pop culture. Check out these vintage comic book pages shared by tikicentral member Slacks Ferret. They're good enough that I amended this post to add them.

Indeed, the image of these big stone heads has become so ubiquitous that I cannot easily round-up all of the pop-culture moai I've seen; it's like trying to remember every time you've seen something inspired by a pyramid. Back in the 1970's, when it was all the rage to make those "aliens helped us make everything old and fantastic" pseudo-documentaries (i.e. "Chariots of the Gods") you couldn't avoid seeing a moai on TV if you'd wanted to.

Fans of the animated show, "The Critic" may remember the kid from Easter Island in the United Nations school - he had a moai for a head. More recently, "The Incredibles" featured two large moai in the villain's headquarters.

Moai have emerged in many other artistic or commercial endeavors. Here are just some of the ones I've photographed in the last three years.

This moai keeps company with Hawaiian-inspired tikis at the Bahooka restaurant in Rosemead, CA.

Moai are a natural as tiki restaurant and bar decor in huge metro areas...

...and in bars across from the railroad tracks in Kansas.

Tropics Lounge, Wichita, KS

They've been used on tiki barware, both simple...

...and innovative.

Trader Vic's "suffering bastard" decanter.

They sell groceries...

Trader Joe's Tucson, AZ

This huge moai lords over a miniature golf course.

Magic Carpet Golf, Tucson, AZ

While this one looks on from the green.

Tiki Hut Mini Putt, Overland Park, KS

Hollywood constructs of fiberglass what Easter Islanders had to laboriously render in stone.
C. P. Three Prop House, Los Angeles, CA

Not that I'm not guilty of trivializing the probable gods of Easter Island, myself. This was my Halloween display in 2004.

This big, orange light-up moai was sold by Spencer Gifts in 2004.

Moai have been the muses of artists who sculpt in wood...

Todd Baker, Overland park, KS, with "Ed the Head."

...and concrete.

I am pretty sure that "Giganticus Headicus" at Cozy Corner Trailer Court, Antares, AZ, is the only moai on Route 66.

And I'm very sure it's the most campy use of a moai I've ever personally seen.

Unless...Ace Jackalope surveys a plasma moai lamp and wonders if the gods would be pleased.

The aching question to me is: why, oh why has someone not made available to me - the baby-boomer with disposable income - a bag of plastic Easter eggs shaped like moai. Target Stores, Spencer Gifts, Accoutrements (maker of offbeat toys)...are you listening?

For more moai in a post made a year after this one, see More Easter Stuff.