All posts by Mark Sheerin

Back to the future in Liverpool

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Liverpool doesn’t have a prehistoric cave, but it does have a historic Cavern. So it might prove not too much of a distraction from writing on paleolithic art. Beyond the Beatles heritage trail and the football, it had become a centre for visual arts in the UK.

It is also, one might argue, a marker for the benefits of remaining in Europe. The EU has invested more than £1.6 billion into this city, constructing and reconstructing an airport, a cruise terminal, two cathedrals and the Bluecoat gallery, etc. In 2008, Liverpool won its bid to become the European Capital of Culture. The city was filled with excitement, with spectacle, and with international art, thanks to an expanded role for the city’s Biennial, which began life in 1999.

My first visit to Liverpool was in 2010, for a Biennial with the theme ‘Touched”. And I was duly moved, maddened and changed by the things I saw there. Touched remains a personal touchstone 10 years on, an example of how art can inhabit an entire city.

At artist-led studio and gallery space The Royal Standard, I spoke to an artist and critic who already had plenty to say about art in Liverpool: Laura Robertson. Together with writer Mike Pinnington, she now runs The Double Negative, a visual arts blog oriented around the North West. Their new crowd-funded publication, Present Tense, forms the occasion for this post.

Together with Laura and Mike, six writers have explored aspects of the City of Culture’s legacy: in the form of public sculpture, digital culture, zines and even gardening. it also features an interview with John Walter, whose personal slice of cultural legacy includes the purchase of recent works by the venerable Walker Gallery.

Unlike some art writing, Present Tense is accessible in tone and digestible in format. A pocket-sized paperback with judicious black and white photography, it will sit well on the shelf next to the compact catalogue for the 2010 Biennial and act as a beacon for my own writing, thanks to its clear understanding of what is at stake in discussions on art.

But we cannot ignore the fact that this is a very tense present, and the prospect of sailing away on a small austere island with disaster capitalists at the helm is alarming.

Yet in Liverpool we find a city which has survived dark days and periods of so-called ‘managed decline’.  Whatever its legacy now, we must remember years like 2008 (or 2010!)  if we’re ever to see their like again.

Present Tense is available from The Double Negative for £14.99. See here for more details.

Visiting Lascaux II

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[author’s photo]

In my last post I promised to note the lighting arrangements in Lascaux II. Well, I went to inspect them today, and, as it happens, I was not disappointed.

The tour began with a couple of gloomy exhibition spaces. But already it was clear that the cave’s original replica (indeed, ‘original replica’) was to be a more earthy, some might say chthonic, experience. And whereas the guide at Lascaux IV was armed with a slick laser pointer, our guide at Lascaux II used a battered flashlight. This says plenty about the difference between the two experiences. And yet, there was more.

Before we entered the artificial painted grotto, our guide disappeared on some pretext. We were left alone for maybe three, four minutes. He returned with an actual flaming torch. This delighted young, old, and me, alike. So we ventured onwards.

Once inside the Hall of the Bulls, the flame was all we had to go on, as our guide stoked up the air of mystery and illuminated bovine form after bovine form.

But having established we were ‘not afraid of the dark’, he extinguished the torch, and brought up the house lights. It was still not as bright as Lascaux IV. The ochre yellows were not as cheerful. The rock appeared more abrasive. The art somehow looked more monumental. Were we at closer quarters with the art? It seemed that way. The passage through the Diverticule axial was certainly more narrow, more dramatic.

To compare Lascaux II and Lascaux IV will prove interesting. I’m glad I made the hike, (one mile uphill in 37 degree heat). I climbed a bit further to take a peek at the entrance to the real Lascaux. You can just about make out the steps. Barbed wire, sight-blocking hedges, and private property notices, seem like a strange afterlife for the most famous cave in the world.

Visiting Lascaux IV

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“Lascaux IV”by Alexandre Dolique is licensed under CC BY-NC-ND 2.0

 

As I looked up at an 18 metre painted ceiling known as the Diverticule axial, I was, for the first time not merely intrigued by prehistoric art, but moved by it. The weird thing is, I was not in a prehistoric cave. I was in a two-year old replica.

Today I visited Lascaux IV. While a mere 200 scientists get permission to visit the original each year, Lascaux IV is a resource for the rest of us. It is extensive, atmospheric, and I’m told accurate to within a 16thof a millimetre. Really!?

It would be hard to conceive of a more exhaustive visitor centre. Our tour lasted for more than an hour; the guide was knowledgeable and personable; the replica caverns were stunning; there was no shortage of museological add ons (films, sound effects, multi-media theatre, 3D cinema, VR lab, interactive gallery of ‘primitive’ modern art, and a temporary exhibition space, gift shops for both grown ups and children.)

The Vézère Valley is baking today: 40 degrees according to my phone. But I found it really instructive to be told to think of the region as having once been more akin to Lapland or Greenland. Today it is forested. Then it was tundra. Once we were nomads. Now we are tourists.

Many on the tour are driving round the region seeing more caves, including those where you can see original artwork. I on the other hand will be visiting two more caves here at Lascaux: the first replica (Lascaux II) and an undecorated neighbour, Grand Roc. I must remind myself: it’s all about the replicas. I will try not to well up again, at either.

By the way, the image is from the Atelier section of the visit. Photography underground is prohibited, which is in itself interesting. But this was the passage which gets compared to the Sistine Chapel. It’s more cheerful than Michelangelo, at least the colours are brighter. I look forward to comparing the lighting at Lascaux II.

The faux pas of primitivism

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“Lascaux 170”by Ma Boîte à Image is licensed under CC BY-NC-SA 2.0

In post war France, prehistoric art got people talking. At least it got intellectuals talking, but this being France we can imagine that the zone of interest was widespread. The basis for this post, about primitivism in the years following the Second World War, is an important paper by Douglas Smith called Beyond the Cave.

While many in France thought they’d found the origins of humanity, three figures called into question the simplicity of that conclusion: Georges Bataille, Maurice Blanchot and René Char. Smith quotes poet Char on the dubious quest for orgins: “Cette espérance de retour est la pire perversion de la culture occidentale, sa plus folle aberration.” (This hope of going back is the worst perversion of western culture, its maddest aberration.) But all three writers complicate the notion of origins. They assert, in various ways, with critical subtlety, that the works at Lascaux are both origins and originary non-origins. Bear with it.

Smith concludes that Lascaux was indeed an ‘impossible origin’, given the efforts of the parties who wanted to find the descendants of the modernist White Cube in the Hall of the Bulls. This was the general idea behind the second wave of primitivism in French culture in the 1940s and 1950s. In the first wave, modern artists looked to exotic cultures for the origins of modernism. But now, figures like artist Jean Dubuffet, photographer Brassaï, and architect Le Corbusier were taking inspiration from the indigenous primitivism of prehistoric art, as if the first artists were already modern without realising it.

Writer, politician and former Resistance fighter, Andre Malraux claimed that the caves at Montignac were used as an arms cache for his comrades in arms. Lascaux was thought to be a place of anachronistic goodness. This was to ascribe a spurious innocence to prehistoric art, in the face of the guilt which humanity shares in the wake of Auschwitz and Hiroshima.

How authentic is cave painting?

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I have been reading a correspondence between Spanish academic José Díaz Cuyás and Dean MacCannell. MacCannell is a former soixante-huitard who lost faith in a 1960s style Revolution. But as he observes, some fifty years later: “‘The revolution’ and especially the romantic figure of the revolutionary is a myth that effectively disables the left today.”

The public are not totally alienated consumers, as Marx suggests, but more like ‘readers’ (Cuyás) faced with supermarket shelves rather than books. There will be no uprising of organised workers, as in Russia in 1917. But there are still ways to fight climate change, to accommodate migrants and to one day depose the right wing populists who govern us.

In 1976 MacGannell published The Tourist: A New Theory of the Leisure Class. In doing so he instituted an entire field of academic research, tourism studies. This too is a book about revolution. In a response to Cuyás, its author quotes a passage in which he imagines a totalizing revolution in which every habit of mind is rethought, every book rewritten, every city rebuilt. The end of capitalism is only half of this unthinkable scenario.

“And yet,” writes MacGannell, “our laws have undergone total change and our cities have been rebuilt block by block. Our masterpieces are remade in each new genre.” So might I also add, our paleolithic  art has been thoroughly replicated, and  reinterpreted. In this light my history of the caves and their mediation could be a history of revolutions.

And while we may bemoan our lost access to the caves, our passive alienation under capitalism, and our confinement within hyperreal simulacra, MacGannell argues it was ever thus: “No human group, not even the most primitive, has ever lived in anything resembling objective reality.” So if prehistoric art marks the very emergence of the symbolic order, access for its original audience was in a sense as indirect as ours.

Perhaps MacGannell believes it naïve to want authenticity. He writes: “Without the symbolic, society does not exist”. It underpins science as well as art. It gives us language, law, face to face interaction with other subjective beings. And ironically, one presumes, without it we would be too primitive to ascribe any value to authenticity.

The author of the tourist even refers to cave painting in his prescription for art: “When it is framed as a vital organ of the symbolic, from the first outline of an animal on the wall of a cave, down to the present day, for better and for worse, all art must engage its audience and continuously demand that its audience complete it.”

Whether or not it be ‘art’, I intend to demonstrate that 20thand 21stcentury audiences have completed the works found in Franco-Cantabrian caves in a number of ways.

Lascaux: an intangible monument

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I’ve been reading an essay by Rosemary J Coombe about world heritage in an age of neoliberal politics.

Whereas a monolithic state may once have strived to preserve monumental artefacts and artworks of supposed universal appeal, we now have a web of agencies both within and outside of government that connect around artefacts that may not even be tangible.

Efforts to preserve a rare language or a local cuisine are now validified, and the actors who lobby to give them listed status with UNESCO World Heritage Sites, are as likely to be from the community as from the corridors of bureaucratic power, or so it is hoped.

Intangible cultural heritage even has an acronym (ICH) and ICH has comprised many of the efforts of a 21stcentury UNESCO, in a bid to redress the 19thcentury bias towards Western Europeans which ‘monumental heritage’ is said to represent.

  • But what about a monument which is 20,000 or even 40,000 years old? Is it possible to ‘inherit’ culture which predates written history?
  • If Lascaux is closed to the public, and virtualised in the form of digital reproductions and multiple nearby replicas, how tangible do the original caverns become?
  • And given the little we know about correlatives to the parietal art (which many believe included storytelling, music and/or dance), is Lascaux largely intangible? If so, do the caves represent lost ICH?

Whatever the case, one cannot today conceive of Lascaux without UNESCO World Heritage Status. Even if it remains to be seen how the network of bureaucrats and heritage practitioners line up to support its preservation, presentation, and promotion around the world.

The Minister for Culture may once have closed the caves to the public , but the arrangement in place to keep them closed is described by Coombe as an ‘assemblage’ of interests from the public-private, local-national-and-global joint ventures who compete and collaborate to manage the site at Montignac.

How French is Lascaux?

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In a hypothetical word association game, I predict that food, the Eiffel Tower and the Mona Lisa would all get a mention long before Lascaux. The cave at Montignac seems French only insofar as a specimen of moon rock appears to be American.

Today I was reading about the heritage industry and wondering just who might be the heirs to Lascaux. Surely it was once recognisably ‘French’. Indeed it is said to have been a prop in the post-war rebuilding of the nation. See Douglas Smith (2004) on the New Primitivism of the 1940s and the 1950s and the reconciliations of Lascaux, modern art and tradition.

But now, sealed off, and replicated several times, the 17,000 year old cavern resides on a UNESCO list of Sites of Outstanding Universal Value. It belongs to us all, in theory. But this ‘world heritage’ status is ironic given that only a handful of scientists see Lascaux first hand.

If we are heirs to the world’s first art, we have to put up with the idea that it is held in trust for us in perpetuity. Easier to inherit the intangible pleasures of French gastronomy, be you French or not, than the mysterious paintings of Lascaux, so hard to domesticate.

Review: Bruno Latour, We Have Never Been Modern (1991)

Although Latour’s contentious book is a mere 145 pages long (in fact he calls it an essay), the notion that, after one reading, this fledgling researcher is qualified to review this for you feels like hubris. However, We Have Never Been Modern reads like a manifesto and, as such, the pages call for a response.

Latour is known as a thinker within the canny niche known as science studies. It is a branch of enquiry which shares with anthropology an interest in human cultures and examines networks in order to grasp the impact, and limitations, of science. Put this way, science studies appears to be a somewhat marginal endeavour. But the arguments set out in this title, put the specialised discipline centre stage as Latour gets to grips with the differences between premodern societies and the modernism in which technology seems to have wrenched us away from nature. (That’s an oversimplification to be sure).

Science studies appears to offer a way out of some dead ends which have arisen from modernist thinking and which lead to the playful branch of nihilism we call postmodernism. But the disenchantment of the world appears to be greatly exaggerated. In our attempts to be modern, we are wallowing in a certain self pity, a certain self-dramatisation. Says Latour:

“Haven’t we shed enough tears over the disenchantment of the world? Haven’t we frightened ourselves enough with the poor European who is thrust into a cold soulless cosmos, wandering on an inert planet in a world devoid of meaning? Haven’t we shivered enough before the spectacle of the mechanized proletarian who is subject to the absolute domination of a mechanized capitalism and a Kafkaesque bureaucracy, abandoned smack in the middle of language games, lost in cement and formica? Haven’t we felt sorry enough for the the consumer who leaves the driver’s seat of his car only to move to the sofa in the TV room where he is manipulated by the powers of the media and the postindustrialized society?! How do we love to wear the hairshirt of the absurd, and what even greater pleasure we take in postmodern nonsense.” Latour (1991) p.115

Unsurprisingly this is one of the easiest passages in a thesis which, at times, is so topographical that only a scientistic diagram will do. Indeed Latour uses diagrams to map the relations between nature and society, different types of relativism, principles of asymmetry between nature and society, the origins of the divide between nature and society, and so on. If these visuals and the dogged investigative text have a single message, it might be this: the perceived divide between the West and the rest of the world comes down to a rupture brought about by revolutions in science. These changes in the Western self image, date back to Hobbes and Boyle and their experiments with the air pump in the 1660s. There is a scientistic culture originating with these findings, which now sets us apart from the world’s various ‘primitive’ or premodern peoples. So the circumstances around the creation of scientific revolutions are clearly a field which bears examination. This exploration of context is the vital activity of science studies.

Latour’s book was written in the aftermath of the fall of the Berlin Wall. It’s an event which bookends the whole essay and, according to the author, it reflects, “the conjoined failure of socialism and naturalism”(ibid, p.145), as if neither society nor nature can win out in the false opposition between these two terms. In this context, by way of conclusion he writes:

“If we do not change the common dwelling, we shall not absorb in it the other cultures that we can no longer dominate, and we shall be forever incapable of accommodating in it the environment we can no longer control.” (ibid, p.145)

This call for inclusivity and environmentalism has never been more relevant. But it strikes the reader that since 1989 there have been two more ruptures in the march of history: 9/11 and digital tech. It will be interesting to see if Latour’s later works get to grips with a social landscape that could not be guessed at when pundits, like Francis Fukuyama, were predicting the end of history in the wake of the collapse of the Soviet Union. Latour, it should be noted clearly doesn’t buy this. In fact this book attacks the notion of a “coherent temporal flow” (ibid, p141).

Whatever your interests, this book is compelling and one of Latour’s strengths is to give his writings personal relevance. This is apparent from the opening line here: “On page 4 of my daily newspaper, I learn…” (ibid, p1). But since my own research interest is the work of paleolithic man, it opens vistas which previously one might not have previously dared consider. If we have never been modern, perhaps we have never been prehistoric. His is an essay, and a call to arms, that will bear re-reading and I hope to find new applications for it in the field of archaeology; a discipline growing ever more technologically advanced around the study of prehistoric caves.

I’m keen to hear from anyone else who’s read Latour. If I’ve got anything wrong, do point it out. And if you have any observations or additional points of interest, the comments section is always open!

 

A neanderthal in agnès b.

Last week I visited the Neandertal exhibition at the Musée de l’Homme in Paris. The show was instructive and lively. And reasonably busy, for a Friday morning. There is clearly public interest in our nearest prehistorical kindred. Just why this should be, I’ll hazard a guess at the end of this post.

There wasn’t too much about parietal art. But I did learn plenty which cast a new light on the eras in which Lascaux, Chauvet and Altamira were created. Perhaps you already knew, but Neanderthals were the first hominid species to bury their dead. Neanderthals and homo sapien interbred and as a result most of us have a slice of their DNA. And given that, it is a disturbing fact that our evolutionary cousins practiced cannibalism.

At the end of the show we were met by this young woman, the work of French sculptor Elisabeth Daynès. She has the physique of a neanderthal, but the gaze and the expression of a contemporary. More confusing still, she’s dressed in a Parisienne fashion brand, agnès b. In her left hand is a magazine in which she graces the front cover. She’s so smart and upbeat, one is quickly drawn to her. But then since she also looks something less than fully human, one becomes confused and slightly spooked.

There are any number of neanderthal mannequins in museums around the world. Some of them may be made by Daynès, since that is her artistic focus. But the neanderthals who take their place in your average archaeology display are beetle-browed savages; a world away. But his cave person walks among us, the most stylish individual in sight. This sculptor highlights our common ground. Then leaves it to you to sense your radical difference from this model.

So how can a major museum sustain a major show on a topic like this? Well, for a start there is a greater interest in prehistory in France. The country has much of the world’s most celebrated cave art. And, I saw for myself that Bookshop Gilbert Joseph, on the Boulevard Saint-Michel, boasts an entire section given over to the Stone Age. But perhaps more than anything, Neandertal fascinates because its subjects are extinct. They are as tragic as dodos, and perhaps more instructive. Hard to imagine a future in which we feature in a museum display, but surely we must hope there is one.

Neandertal is at the Musée de l’Homme until 7 January 2019.