Hm. As far as the Phd proposal regarding my work and the archaeological/antropological research that goes with it, my admission to the specific PhDArts programme in The Hague (the only official phd-in-arts trajectory in the Netherlands) has been declined after I got through to the second round. I’ll nevertheless keep in touch with some excellent contacts I made during the process, amongst which prof. dr. Raymond Corbey of the faculty of archaeology in Leiden and Anne-Mie van Kerckhoven. Also, it still might be an option to try to get into a Phd-programme in Belgium, though I seem to have another interpretation about the way research and art can be intertwined than people from the art theory do.
I’ve decided to put two of the texts that accompanied my dossier on this blog. They’re all about the context I’m working in. They might be interesting. In this post Text I, in the next post you’ll find Text II.
Alexandra Crouwers, 2011
Maps and Composite Actions
On artificial mountains and gates to infinity
In 2006, in MuHKA, the museum for contemporary arts of Antwerp, I saw an installation by the American artist Cameron Jamie. The installation was called ‘Maps and Composite Actions 2001 – 2003’ and constisted of an artificial mountain, that blocked the entrance to the space behind it. To get into that space one had to cross the mountain by walking over a path while holding a lantern. On the other side it was pitch black. The light in the lantern – I suspect it was one of those darkroom photodeveloper lamps, safelights in short, – was very dim. Once my eyes got a little used to the darkness I could make out some easels, randomly put in the space. Rather large drawings were attached to wooden boards, leaning on the easels. These drawings were only well visible when standing close, keeping the light up. The images seemed to be somewhat disturbing; goats heads, blood spatters, ghosts, knives, rocks, skulls. It was horrible and mysterious and fascinating at the same time.
When I returned to the real world the accompanying text explained how the drawings originated through a remarkable process. Apparently Jamie had led a friend into the mountains that divide Los Angeles from the desert, and executed on several occasions and locations performances especially and only for that friend. After which he’d send the friend to (one or more) composition sketch artists, the ones that make drawings for police investigations. These drawings were produced following the friend’s descriptions of the performances and those ‘reconstructions’ were placed into the installation.
To me, this installation approximates a perfection in combining many interesting elements: a story, the background of that story, the briliant idea to close off the space with a mountain, the resulting darkness and accompanying isolation, the choice for the dim lantern the viewer had to carry which immediately emphasized the notion one just entered another reality, the simplicity of the drawings placed on easels and the strange mix between entertainment (the walk across the mountain) and ‘serious business’ (the alarming images). I just can’t seem to recall whether there were sounds or not. There probably weren’t any.
Much later I stumbled, though through a whole other path, upon a similar way of presenting my work, though I only noticed this after I’d actually made the work. For a solo exhibition I wanted to divide the space into three parts, after the archaïc structure of a narrative: start, middle, ending. To obtain this I needed something to lead the viewer from one part into the other so I built a large gate of ‘crappy’ wooden boards which was placed as a divider between the first and the second part of the space, after which it became increasingly darker. The last space – the ‘ending’ – was filled with almost ceiling-high black murals, which were vaguely lit by the orange/brownish glow of a few safelights and an animationprojection of a lunar eclipse. I realized I’d build a temple.
As from the art-academy on my work has been infused with references to science-fiction, ghosts, devil’s horns and an investigation towards the behaviour of light. Besides that I’d been reading for years many scientific books on evolutionairy biology, the rise and decline of civilizations and the expansion of the universe. For a long time this was only an extended hobby, something I could never really integrate in my work. The moment I, almost by accident, constructed a temple, something clicked. I seemed to have started working in a direction that goes back to the origins of image-making, a cultural-evolutionairy road that began about 35.000 years ago and at the time for a large part seemed to have been taken place in caves.
I needed to know more about this. The modern human has had its brain structure and size for over 100.000 years. Why did it take way over half our presence before we started drawing in caves, or started carving sculptures in ivory, bone or stone? And who exactly where those people?
We’re now in the fortunate circumstance that the last ten, fifteen years there’s been much progress in carbondating and interpreting archeaological data on a multi-disciplinairy level. This means cognitive neuroscientists, biologists, archeaologists, philosophers, antropologists and psychologists are all dealing with the background noise of our contemporary existence. One sometimes refers to the Upper Paleolithic era as an explosion, the big bang of our visual culture.
The reasons I’m especially interested in cave paintings can be found in a number of things. I do not care for interpretations of what the depiction of a bison, a horse or an imprint of a hand on the rock surface might have meant. One can endlessly debate possible meanings in books, but we can never find out exactly what they were. Meaning is not important. The most interesting part is that they’re there and that they were made where they were in fact found. Maybe there were many drawings outside, in the open air, that over time have worn – we’ll never know – but we do see a large part of the cave-paintings were made on locations in caves that are or were not exactly easily accessible. There are, as far as I know now, no examples of drawings or paintings found at the entrance of caves – or even close enough to the entrance to be seen by daylight. That in itself already points us towards an interpretation of the then significance of the drawings – or even more – the importance of the space, the cave itself, of the darkness in it and maybe it also tells us something about the relevance of a cave structure within the culture of our prehistoric selves.
This all lead me to the following: if drawings in a cave and their placement are interacting with eachother, they’re in fact multimedia installations. I assume sounds were made, music even maybe, because a cave is a rather special accoustic environment. If caves were regarded upon as some sort of existing, natural architecture (since man was still a hunter/gatherer ‘we’ didn’t build houses yet), it might explain why a bit further up the timetrack Neolithical man would make such an effort to build monuments in certain places. The hunebeds, for example, of the Northern Netherlands; these tombs, monuments or ritual spaces in places where there were no caves to be found, were build up by enormous rocks and covered with a layer of sand, and thus became artificial caves, representations of caves.
In this respect Stonehenge could be considered as an over-evolved attempt to create a fake cave, one that became too big to cover with a roof. The builders of Stonehenge or any other ‘henge’ for that matter were probably not concerned with trying to re-create a cave. It was undoubtly a whole different culture from the Upper Paleolithic cave-users. Anyway, the purpose of ‘monuments’ like Stonehenge is still mysterious.
There’s a bit more known about the ‘Iron age man’. Remnants of ideas about life and death are found in Germanic and Skandinavian sagas and legends. Stones and rocks were still important; in Skandinavia drawings were scraped onto the rock surface and everywhere in Europe are monoliths found, or groups of rocks with evidence of usage.
Meanwhile, in the Middle East, architecture evolved into something different – actual buildings. The one temple after the other monument was erected. A pyramid can be viewed upon as an artificial mountain with a cave saved on the inside. Temples were extremely controlled environments, with an emphasis on verticality and often a lack of direct sunlight, which effects the visitor, even up to the present day. Though often empty now, it’s safe to assume these spaces were filled with paintings, flowers, food and sculptures, all referring to myths and stories that everyone knew in those times. ‘Filled’ might be a bit too strong of a statement because emptyness too is an element of a temple, found in its volume.
Temples were built higher so they became small mountains themselves, put on pedestals that rested on a natural elevation. Some time later the temples in Europa got renamed to churches, construced based on symmetrical plans and accomodated with recesses and alcoves which are cave-like trades.
The rich sculptural decoration of Gothic cathedrals unintentionally recalls stalagtites and stalagmites, both from the inside and outside. The height and volume is phenomenal. By using colored glass windows more light could get into the space, but only as part of the controlled environment; light comes from above, diffuse and sheering high above the heads of the mortal.
Every element in those spaces is working together to emphasize other laws are valid in there, that you’re in a space that gets you closer to god, so to speak. A gateway to divinity.
I’ve barely touched upon the subject of sound but echoes, for instance, operate as a natural amplification for the priest at the altar when normal mortals can only whisper in humility. Maybe the artificiality of those spaces, including the caves of 30.000 years ago, is what impresses us so much. They don’t look like any natural or normal, functional space – they’re totally ‘out there’. The wider the gap between the prozaic world outside and the portal into time, space and stories on the inside of these buildings (or installations), the more the viewer becomes isolated from reality while being in that space.
Contemporary art museums, sometimes rightfully referred to as ‘art temples’, are just as much controlled environments as the ritual spaces I briefly described. There’s barely a window to the outside world to be found and the volume of the spaces, combined with architectural interventions that direct the viewer through the building, deciding what is noticed first and what is not. Except, contemporary museums, influenced by modernistic conventions, are usually flooded with lights, the walls are bright and white and there’s rarely a priest or a choir that obscures our whispers or thoughts so the viewer is often very much aware of himself. This disconnects the viewer only partly from the ‘normal’ world and, worse, at the same time partly from the works he’s looking at. Disattached from the work, not stepping in to it and rationally judging what he sees, the viewer fails to communicate with art on the level the artist set out to do. Even I, an experienced art viewer, rarely feel that I’ve seen something that actually is a gateway to the artist’s mind. Since that’s where the work originates from, that’s what I want to experience.
There are only a few occassions when the viewer steps into a world made of art, a world that’s made of the compressed story within the artist’s own mind. This is what happened in Cameron Jamies installation. This is what I hope to achieve with my own work.