In an Artist's Studio, Science Meets Fiction

People, Oct. 23, 1989
Assignment: A profile of a University of Tennessee professor who specializes in fake museum exhibits.

"Of all the overlooked and forgotten chapters in human history, few are as puzzling as the ancient Aazud. Despite their central role in the development of early culture, most accounts of Mesopotamian archaeology fail to make even a passing reference to the Aazud. This exhibition is an effort to bring greater public attention to the importance of Aazudian culture."

-- sign at the entrance to 'Reconstruction of an Aazudian Temple,' a traveling archaeological exhibition

Should you find those words at a museum entrance somewhere, beware -- they are the squibs of Beauvais Lyons. Strange as it seems, he's not an archaeologist. He's not even much of a historian. He's an art professor at the University of Tennessee and a nationally recognized charlatan, and he's discomfitingly good at both.

Says David Ribar, curator of the Cheekwood Fine Arts Center in Nashville, where Lyons' newest exhibit, "Rare Discoveries from the Hokes Archives," will open next month: "He's one of several Joe Isuzus at large within the art world. But only Lyons gets away with calling himself 'Doctor' and running a scholarly foundation by the name of 'the Hokes Archives.'"

Lyons, 31, gets away with a great deal more than that. For years now he has specialized in an odd brand of art he calls "archaeological fiction": Lyons imagines an ancient civilization, creates the artifacts and documentation necessary to make it seem real, then passes off the resultant exhibition in museums and galleries as the real thing. Occasionally the professor, under any number of pseudonyms, even leads visitors on a tour of his historic finds, spouting bits of "Aazudian" (and totally imaginary) poetry and answering questions about, say, the role of "Apasht" women in religious ceremonies. He's been known to plant questions in the audience. "That usually gets the rest of them going," he says.

The curators are in on the game, but Lyons' authentic-looking sculpture, detailed lithographs, and elaborate theses often confound the public.

Says Bill Colby, former director of the Kittredge Art Gallery at the University of Pugent Sound, which showed some of Lyons' work last spring: "The thing that surprised me most was that people came in and thought the exhibit was real, even though we said it was imaginary. Lyons is very convincing."

"Reconstruction of an Aazudian Temple," for instance, opened last fall at Florida State University, which had just closed an exhibition of French prints made during Napoleon's excursion to Egypt. Gracing the entrance to the Aazudian exhibit were two huge black-and-white photographs of scientists from the "Aazudiological Society of America," leaning proudly against their shovels at an "excavation site" on the Iranian-Syrian border. On the wall hung translations of two Aazudian poems, "Hymn of a Young Woman" and "Funeral Hymn for a Child," along with the hieroglyphic originals. Visitors ogled a moldy Italian manuscript, Otto frammenti di un 'antica sconosciuta scrittura, which was, according to the accompanying placard, "apparently published in 1898 by Alberto de la Marmora III." Fortunately for us all, Marmora translated several Aazudian writings into Italian and left this manuscript to posterity.

Ten frescoes exhumed from the ancient Immudab Temple (partially dismantled by the Turkish army in the 17th century) depicted Aazudian deities engaged in various day-to-day activities. In one carefully reconstructed tableau, the date-palm goddess Khalumar proffers her wares (all of them, frankly). Towering over it all was a "facsimile" of the upper Immudab Temple some 25 feet high, covered with 500 hieroglyphs.

It was, in short, the sort of exhibit you'd find in the Smithsonian. "Dr." Lyons even showed up to lead a few tours and answer questions about Aazudian life. Things were going swimmingly until the...unpleasantness.

"One gentleman called me," laughs curator Patrick McCune, "and he said, 'I'm just an amateur archaeologist myself, maybe just a dilettante, but I've never heard of the Aazudians.' He was very excited. Really felt he'd missed something along the way."

Museum patrons noticed other irregularities. Down by Khalumar's left ankle, for instance, was a tiny hieroglyph that on close inspection looked an awful lot like a Pac Man. On the wall, in the middle of the Aazudian poem, was another that looked surprisingly like Mickey Mouse. And Aazudian Hieroglyphic Reconstruction 241 -- fully two-thirds of this temple relief has been "reconstructed" by our scientist from four old rocks. How is that possible?

Truth be known, every bit of the exhibition was cleverly forged, including the mold on fringes of the alleged Italian manuscript. The photographs were blow-ups of a real German expedition to the Middle East in 1910. Artifacts from the "excavation" were designed of plaster, carefully chipped and fragmented so as to seem ancient. Khalumar isn't a goddess; she's a slut. And there's only one member of the Aazudiological Society of America. Guess who.

"It's a kind of theatre," says Lyons. "All of the objects are props in a story. I find that even if you tell people it's fiction, they tend to believe it's real. They say, 'Nah, couldn't be fake. No one would go to this much trouble.'"

Lyons embarked on a career in scientific fraud in 1980 with an exhibition entitled "The Arenot Ceremonial Complex in the Noawa River" at the Center Gallery in Madison, Wisconsin. Calling himself Henrich Dreichmueller, Lyons led patrons through a tour of Arenot culture, whose rise and fall in north-central Turkey he "documented" with 20 ceramic burial items. The Arenots, opined Dr. Dreichmueller, lived in a dystopian, culturally isolated society dominated by priestesses who sacrificed dogs in an effort to open the "spirit eye." One of his discoveries: a shattered "funeral punch bowl" with an elaborate dog-eat-dog motif.

Lyons actually got that idea from legitimate sources. "The Mayans were a brutal people," he says. "If you study pre-Colombian culture, it's just a nightmare. I don't think I could do a project like that and stay with it."

So in 1983 he unveiled another exhibition called "The Excavation of the Apasht," a society that allegedly flourished thousands of years ago in present-day Afghanistan. The Apasht, Dr. Lyons told gallery patrons from Chicago to L.A., were a bunch of Jungian case studies who worshipped a "primordial hermaphrodite" and consumed too many hallucinatory mushrooms -- a practice well documented in the late '20s by "renowned ethno-mycologists U.C. Holmberg and Alexander Rouhier." (This may explain why one of the tiny Apasht hieroglyphs looks much like the Rollings Stones band logo.) They left behind a large structure (the Etanicullah Monument, discovered in 1915) and four "codex mounds," one of which was burned by invading Muslims. Today one can still see charring on several of the clay tablets "recovered" from the mounds.

Lyons usually "documents" his cultures in two ways: with sculptural fragments and with books filled with color lithographs purporting to be the work of scholars from another century. Visitors to the Apasht exhibition, for instance, were greeted first with carefully preserved pages from a thick tome entitled Catalogue of the Apasht Excavation, Vol. II, allegedly the 1933 English translation of a book written in 1929 by French scholars at the Universite de Lyon. The catalogue (there is no volume 1 -- Lyons follows Homer's dictum about starting a story in medias res) relates in exhaustive detail what is known of the Apasht and their monument, who discovered it and the poem he left on top ("If any fool this high samooth explore/Let him know Charles Masson has been here before"), how the missing parts of the first codex were found in the basement of the Peabody Museum Library, how the hieroglyphs translate into the Apasht myth of creation, and on and on and on. All the artifacts and scholarly accounts are painstakingly illustrated, numbered, footnoted, reconstructed -- in short, documented.

And it is, of course, unadulterated hooey -- but who cares? Lyons' biggest fans aren't those who believe his charade, but those who admire his talent and the seamlessness of his visual fiction. It ain't easy to achieve that National Geographic look. Lyons is an attentive, meticulous lithographer who spends hours in libraries, sneaking illustration ideas from travelogue/sketchbooks popular in the 1800s and poring over the windy tracts of long-forgotten scholars. He's careful to include real archaeologists and historical events in his accounts; foreign translations are checked with language experts beforehand. And his "artifacts" are virtually indistinguishable from the real thing. Everything you see in Lyons' exhibition could have happened. It just didn't.

"He's a damn fine print-maker," says Ribar, "and one of the most intelligent artists you'd ever want to meet. I really think he wishes he were an archaeologist." Lyons' inspired fakery last year earned him a fellowship from the Southeastern Arts Federation, headquartered in Atlanta, and the National Endowment for the Arts. His Apasht catalogue, lithographs and text, retails for a hefty $2,200 in New York.

Far from Afghanistan and the Middle East, the Apasht and Aazud were born in Lyons' print shop at the University of Tennessee in Knoxville. Outside his office are huge crates stamped "Archaeological Evidence" -- the Aazud have returned from a show. Inside, students occasionally are startled to hear their tall, bespectacled professor smashing a newly fired urn (he'll glue it back together without some of the pieces) or sand-blasting some beautiful plaster intaglio. "It's like pre-faded blue jeans or antique furniture," says Lyons. "Things that have endured some history are presumed to be valuable and meaningful....I'm doing on a different level what children do when they make sand castles. But I've had the benefit of a college education."

Lyons' art, of course, pokes fun at admen, academics, and the gullible public. "I believe that society is poorly served by the packaging of advertising and politics, and that packaging deflects scrutiny," he says. Anybody with an authoritative tone, Lyons believes, can get a credible hearing these days, particularly if he presents himself as a scientist. We've achieved cold fission! -- oops, sorry.

"The prevalent mythology of our culture is science," Lyons says. "It's supposed to answer all the questions."

But Lyons thinks art also has let the modern audience down. "I like the idea of multi-media storytelling," he says. "Too often, visual art just doesn't hold a viewer's attention." His solution: an elaborate plot, a visual puzzle, that winds its way through many pieces. The Aazud exhibition, for example, comprises over forty interrelated objects.

"The early museum was called a Wunderkamer, a collection of curiosities," he says. "That's what I want to recreate. I don't want this to look like art -- I want it to look like science."

Many of Lyons' ideas come from wife Deborah Wozniak, 33, a photographer now attending graduate school in Florida. They have two dogs, Alex and Athena, a three-bedroom ranch house, and "free-form rock and herb garden." Lyons spends his time swimming, biking, and playing softball. "I like the ritual aspect of it," he says...predictably.

Lyons' archaeological interests date from childhood. In 1964, his father, an English professor at the University of Wisconsin, won a Fulbright Fellowship that took the family to Baghdad for a year. Lyons was six years old.

"There were a number of archaeological sites around back then," Lyons recalls. "You could find pottery shards just lying on the surface of the desert. There was an eerie, wonderful sense to it all."

The family went abroad again in 1970, this time spending two years in Tehran. Lyons, then 13 and the eldest of five children, attended a school for foreign students during the day but afterward wandered the city streets. "The Shah was in power then, and it was a weird time to be there," he says. "I remember the street scenes the most. There were all these bakeries and produce markets, and everywhere these beautiful mosques we weren't allowed to go to." Thus began a fascination with ancient history.

Lyons hardly originated archaeological fiction. In 1956, American Anthropology published a famous essay by Horace Minor called "The Body Rituals of the Nacrima" -- "American," of course, spelled backward. It's still in many high-school readers. In 1958, Jorge Luis Borges published a book entitled Tlon, Uqbar, Orbis Tertius, which purported to be the eleventh volume in an encyclopedia written by ancient scholars. (No accident, of course, that Lyons stamps all his letters with an official looking seal that says "Orbis Tertius.") David MacCaulay's parody Motel of the Mysteries is a classic of the genre, and there are at least a dozen more artists today working on fake skeletons (Clayton Bailey's "Wonders of the World Museum" in California), "crawling villages of Brazil" (Canadian Richard Purdy), and lost civilizations ("Llhuros," by Norman Daly, professor emeritus at Cornell University). Indeed, the annual convention of the College Art Association has included sessions on so-called "imaginary cultures" for the past two years.

Lyons himself is expanding the oeuvre; he recently "discovered" a cache of Aazudian prayer whistles that look an awful lot like -- well, let's not go into it. If you've got any questions, Lyons suggests contacting his assistant, Ms. Vera Octavia. She handles most of the mail at the Hokes Archives.

Beauvais Lyons