Tuesday, February 12, 2013

The Ice Age Begins!

So, last week was, like, the most fun archaeology week ever. First, some enterprising folks at the University of Leicester confirmed that they had found the remains of Richard III. Holy cow!

Then, the long awaited Ice Age Art: Arrival of the Modern Mind opened at the British Museum. And so I found myself in nerd heaven.

Video the British Museum produced to promote the exhibit.

And, boy, did I feel the Museum owed me this one. You see, its last major exhibition was Shakespeare: Staging the World, which as far as I can tell was universally beloved by all . . . except me. I mean, come on. The artifacts from Shakespeare’s time weren’t old enough to be really exciting, and will anyone else admit that learning about Shakespeare feels vaguely like being made to eat your broccoli? Except that broccoli is awesome, and Shakespeare is a bore. Anyway, it wouldn’t have been such a big deal except that for the duration of the show, most of the Museum’s lectures and events also revolved around Shakespeare, so I spent all autumn making my weekly check of the Museum events calendar with a big, grumpy frown on my face. Needless to say, I was really ready for Shakespeare to be over.

But now everything changes because -- oh my gosh! -- Ice Age Art has EVERYTHING. Super-old artifacts, exploration of deep history, and the companion lectures and catalog look amazing. It’s gonna be a great spring.

Here's the Museum's catalog of the exhibition by curator Jill Cook, displayed on the shelf with my husband's sizable Nabokov collection.  Can't wait to read it!

Ice Age Art looks at artifacts created in Europe during the last Ice Age, 40,000 to 10,000 years ago, and it looks at them in a new way -- as legitimate works of art. It seems items this old aren’t usually considered “art” and tend to be treated as natural history, displayed alongside arrowheads, hand axes, and other utilitarian artifacts. This exhibition seeks to elevate these works into the realm of proper art by forwarding two major hypotheses:

(1) These objects were created by true artists -- professionals if you will -- who were highly skilled, put enormous amounts of time into their craft, and whose works were valued by their communities.

(2) The people who made these works had fully-evolved “modern minds” and were people we would recognize as being like us.

These concepts are touched upon in Neil MacGregor’s A History of the World in 100 Objects, and in many ways this exhibit is an expansion on ideas discussed there. That contemplation of deep history and what makes us human is a big part of why I fell in love with that book and in turn why I fell in love with the Museum.

It’s also a big part of why I fell in love with Battlestar Galactica. Make of that what you will.

How do these hypotheses fare? Well, the first seems nearly self-evident. The objects on display are obviously the work of talented craftspeople, and experiments have shown that some of these items would have taken hundreds of hours to create. Certainly these artists’ communities would not have permitted them to sit around carving mammoth tusks for weeks on end if the work was not valued.  Was it valued for aesthetic purposes? For religious purposes? That’s less clear, but it is clear that these works occupied an important place in these societies.

The second hypothesis, regarding just how “modern” a mind these artists had, is the tougher sell, though I would say an excellent case is made that the capacity for imagination, premeditation, and the communication of abstract ideas demonstrated in these pieces makes these prehistoric people very much like us in the ways that matter most.

In an attempt to prove this point, the Museum made the somewhat controversial decision to display the Ice Age works next to modern art; I believe the idea is that when you look at a 30,000 year old Venus sculpture next to a woman sketched by Matisse, you can see that the visual language we use to describe “woman” -- a few curvy lines and a couple of well-placed globes -- has not changed very much over the millennia.

I plan to write quite a bit about this exhibition (I'm especially excited to make a study of the Venus statues), but for now I’m just going to offer some general first impressions.

Unfortunately, photography isn’t allowed in the exhibit, which is kind of a drag, but I have some ideas for working around that.  Meanwhile, in the absence of artifact photos, I can always go all Instagram on you and take photos of my lunch. Doesn’t it look yummy!?

Soooo good . . .

The exhibit is located on the second floor of the reading room at the center of the Great Court. It has a very contemporary feel and is quite dark, though the objects are generally well-lit. If you’d like a peek at the show, including a good look at the actual space and a number of the artifacts, check out this YouTube video posted by the British Museum:

Adding to the atmosphere are “Ice Age” sound effects -- slow water drips, distant thunder, animal grunts, a hammer hitting stone. These sounds create the pleasantly eerie sense of being transported to another world, though I found the resulting mood somewhat at odds with the “modern” theme.

As for the artifacts themselves, the first thing I noticed is that Ice Age art is all about women and large mammals. Almost every item on display is one or the other. What’s odd, though, is that while the women are very abstract, the animals are impressively realistic. What's that all about?

And, as abstract as the female figures are at the beginning, they only become more so as the exhibit (and time) moves on. While the figures from 40,000 to 20,000 years ago are far from realistic, anyone would understand them as representations of women. But some of the sculptures from the late Ice Age, 20,000 to 10,000 years ago . . . I mean, are you sure these are female figures? Are you sure they’re human figures at all? I’m really hoping that the accompanying lectures over the next few months will shed some light on these mysterious objects and the Museum’s interpretations of them.

As for trying to make sense of works so ancient, so far removed from our own experience, the best commentary may be found in the text accompanying this small diving bird near the front of the show.

"This sculpture may be a spiritual symbol connecting the upper, middle, and lower worlds of the cosmos reached by a bird that flies into the sky, moves on the land, and dives through water. Alternatively, it may be an image of a small meal and a bag of useful feathers."

Can’t say fairer than that.  


Ann Hall said...

Another terrific post! I particularly enjoyed the ending quote. So jealous of you!

B.J. Richards said...

Thanks, Ann! Isn't it a great quote? I think it adds a much needed touch of humor and skepticism. Jill Cook laughingly repeated it at her curator's introduction today, so I'm hoping that means it came straight from her :)