ARTYFACTS: March 2011

Monday, March 28, 2011

Cave of Forgotten Dreams - a Cro-Magnon cinema?

Although I can’t be doing with 3D, and this movie just confirmed by views, this was a fine film. Herzog reaches across the abyss of time to these 32,000 year old painters with his usual eccentric aplomb. We’re taken inside this low ceilinged cave but it’s really a journey into the minds of Cro-Magnon man and therefore ourselves. I watched it from the balcony of the Duke of York's, our local arthouse cinema, which resembles an old cave. The screen's a little small, so it was like watching a cave from within a cave. Now I could get all Platonic here and talk about epistemology and the representation of representation, but that's another cave story entirely, or is it? At one point that's exactly what one of the narrators does, pointing out our need to represent, the film camera being nothing more than a species of cave painting. So don't expect some polished and superficial BBC Attenborough documentary. This is Werner Herzog, thank God!

Years ago I ventured into the Altamira cave in Northern Spain, and had my own mind blown wide open by these beautiful, coloured, full perspective paintings set at the back in complete darkness. It was truly moving to stand in front of hand prints tens of thousands of years old, formed by blowing saliva and ochre across a hand pressed to the rock. I also swam into the darkness of a cave in Belize this year to see the sacrificial victims of the Maya. This cave, the Chauvet cave, discovered in 1994, has images and contents that are much older, at 32,000 years. It had been hidden by a rock fall some 20,000 years ago.

Deep in the cave, only where it’s dark, lie these exquisite paintings, in black outlines, mostly of animals, but also the silhouetted hand of a man with a crooked pinkie. The faces of the lions in particular, are those of animals on the hunt. Their world is carnivorous and dangerous. Man was clearly both predator and prey. Like Altamira the artists used the contours of the rock for effect, cleaned the surface before painting and overlain one image on top of the other.

Sexuality and fertility

Interestingly, there’s only one human figure, and that’s of a women’s bottom half, a strange image of a woman having sex with a bull, painted on a rock that hangs from the ceiling like a huge phallus. My own rambling thoughts on cave art, associate them with sexuality and fertility, although this wasn’t mentioned in the commentary. It is possible to see these images as the earliest examples of the evolutionary theory of aesthetics that sees them as symbols of sexual power, non-utilitarian expressions of power through excess. The animals are often in pairs, with male and female represented. But in the end it’s all speculative.

Pre-linguistic minds

Nicholas Humphreys even posits a theory that these images came from minds fundamentally different from our own, simpler, pre-linguistic and symbolic. He draws on evidence from the drawings of autistic children with little grasp of language to suggest that these painters were not thinking artists but the last of the innocents. Their lack of language gave them the focus to draw these naturalistic images, without conceptual and categorical interference. This explains the naturalistic realism of the paintings, something that was to be lost until the Renaissance. The deliberate art of the Assyrians, Minoans and Egyptians is very much the product of conceptualising minds. This is a fascinating hypothesis and explains the naturalism, overlapping and repetition. It also explains the lack of human figures, as what language did exist was probably social.

Most of all it gets us away from the shamanism of Williams in The Mind in the Cave, and many of the 20th century musings around mystical, spiritual and reigious meaning and rituals. Most of the commentators in the film are children of the 60s, and love a bit of spirituality. I much preferred the down to earth palaeontologists, geologists and scientists, with their carbon dating and careful hypothesising.

Inside the cave of your own mind

In any case, watch this film, laugh at the wonderful eccentrics, then think deeply about what it all really means, for the cave is the inside of your own mind. It’s convoluted, dark, dangerous, lustful, quirky and largely unknown. Sometimes you have to sit still in the modern cave of the cinema to experience the strangeness and wonder of your own mind. When I emerged into the night, having gone in when it was light, it did feel as though I had literally been in the cave. Was that cave really a Cro-Magnon cinema?

Sunday, March 13, 2011

Afghanistan – history runs backwards (British Museum)

Afghanistan is history in reverse. As a country its culture seems to have been obliterated by war and religion. Fundamentalist Islam places little or no value on events before Year zero, when Mohammed was born. The 6th C Buddhas of Bamiyan were blown to bits in 2001 and the contents of the Kabul Museum smashed and stolen. Sites have been looted and little money, care or scholarship has been possible.

It’s fate was to be a crossroads country, always in the way of someone else’s path to glory. Alexander the Great was the first to sweep through and much is made of the Greek city of Ai Khanun, but what has been excavated here shows a minor Greek outpost a year’s march from Greece. It had its theatre, statues, gymnasium, temples and stoas. They spoke Greek, worshipped Greek Gods, and built Greek architecture. Vines were plentiful and appear as motifs on everyday objects. The other influence was India from the South, with its ivories, lascivious, melon-breasted women carved on chairs, playing music, dancing. All a far cry in time and culture from the Taliban or Islamic norms of today.

But isolation meant obliteration. The indigenous culture was nomadic, and the women buried in tombs festooned with gold showed vestiges of Greek and Indian culture, but little in the way of real art, beyond beaten gold.

This is an idiosyncratic little exhibition that picks on a few bits and pieces from Afghanistan’s long history, but isn’t wide enough to say much, other than the usual Silk Road references and outside influences. Indirectly, however, it shows a history that may have regressed rather than progressed, with regression/progression still in the balance today. The most telling object was a book in the now compulsory ‘enter through the gift shop’ experience. It was a volume called ‘War Rugs’ and showed carpets with helicopter, jets, drones, AK47s etc. in beautiful motifs, woven by hand in those rich colours you only find on oriental carpets. Now that would have made a great and more relevant show.