Lincoln Art San Diego

Horse power: Visitors to Art San Diego 2011 contemporary art fair were invited to test drive the latest Lincoln automobiles.

the walls of the Chauvet cave

A painting of horses and bison on the walls of the Chauvet cave featured in Werner Herzog's Cave of Forgotten Dreams.


It is the Monday night after the close of Art San Diego 2011 contemporary art fair and time to reflect on my pilgrimage to the ad hoc temple of art at the Hilton Bay Front. Four days of initiation into the rites of curated chambers and the sacraments of VIP access, of the esoteric doctrines of the buying and selling of cultural indulgences also known as collecting art; of the temporal and spatial homage to corporate patrons and the magical incantations of the holy brand; of supplicants, applicants, innocents, protestants and sycophants all gathered under a single roof in an effort to resuscitate, revive and resurrect an art market struggling to emerge from its sepulchre. In the aftermath, I am left with many questions about what art is and what it has been in the past and perhaps what it will be in the future.

But for tonight, my friendly reader, let me temporarily put aside these brooding questions to watch Werner Herzog’s Cave of Forgotten Dreams with friends Douglas and Roman. Each of us is a disciple of St. Werner and we periodically gather to baptize ourselves in the pathos, suffering and dour germanic humor of his cinematic genius.Cave of Forgotten Dreams is a documentary film about the pre-historic art inside the Chauvet cave of southern France. The French government extended exclusive access to Herzog to film the interior of the caves and to tell the story of their discovery in 1994. It was a smart decision. Along with the anthropological, historical and scientific threads that tell the objective story of the caves, Werner weaves into this remarkable film, his own idiosyncratic narrative of the cave as a place that has the power to influence the dreams of those who enter into it.

Douglas, Roman and I settle down to break bread and watch. The film begins by establishing the beautifully austere and rocky landscape along the river valley below the cave’s entrance. Early on, we learn how the cave was closed off to the public by the French government very soon after its discovery by a group of speleologists led by Jean-Marie Chauvet. The cave’s fragile equilibrium is now preserved for scientific and scholarly research. The paintings are estimated to be 32,000 years old. Herzog interviewed several of the scientists involved in the project including one young paleontologist who was a circus performer before becoming a scientist. “Perhaps you tamed lions?” inquires Herzog, suddenly sensing a surrealist opening through which to pursue the interview. “No, not a lion tamer. I was an acrobat…a juggler,” comes the surprised reply from the gypsy-looking young scientist with a long ponytail and a wispy Johnny Depp goatee. He then recounts a series of revelatory dreams of lions inspired by the paintings of lions on the cave walls, dreamt during the time he worked inside the cave.

Cave of Forgotten Dreams was shot in 3D and although we watched on a flat screen at home, I can imagine how rapturous a vision it must have been to see it on an iMax screen. I was intrigued to find out that Herzog’s director of cinematography first proposed using 3D technology but Herzog rejected the idea as heretical – a gimmick of “commercial cinema.” However, once inside the cave, Herzog immediately recanted. The 3D technology takes full advantage of the ecstatic aura within, using light to conceal and then reveal the paintings, the stalagmites and stalactites, the calcium accretions collected on the surfaces of objects, and the curving, irregular surfaces of the cave walls. Besides being a temple of art, the cave was also a dwelling for animals. Throughout, the floors of the cave are covered with their bones. One room is named the Skull Chamber for a calcium encrusted bear cranium that sits on an altar-like pedestal of stone. In many sequences, the shadows of the film crew can be seen dancing across the cave walls evoking everything from the shadows of the original Paleolithic artists to the allegory of Plato’s cave.

So many of our myths about art and the artist, the painter in particular, are descended from these pre-historic paintings. The subject matter, gestures, textures, line, value and proportions of the paintings themselves seem entirely modern. Herzog comes back again and again to a series of horse heads painted on the wall. They overlap each other in an arching composition reminiscent of racehorses packed tightly together at the finish line. Even the idea of the image itself is contained here in a thick palimpsest of overlapping figures. After viewing the cave paintings at Lascaux, Picasso is said to have observed, “They’ve invented everything.” Some of the paintings show animals with multiple legs, creating the illusion of motion, as if the artist were attempting to animate the figures. Voicing over these shots, Herzog dryly and somewhat egomaniacally observes that they are a form of “proto-cinema.”

Werner Herzog leading his crew in Cave of Forgotten Dreams.

The sense of awe-inspiring silence that Herzog and his crew must have felt while filming inside the cave is palpable. In some sequences, the soundtrack uses choral music to capture the mood. In others, the soundtrack goes away completely as the camera pans slowly over the paintings. “Please, let us all be silent for a moment. And maybe we can hear our own heart beats,” requests one of the tour guides as the camera sweeps across the cave walls. With this scene, Herzog’s film subtly implies the origins of art as a ritualistic and spiritual practice. The first artist weas also shaman. Art itself is not only the paintings on the walls but encompasses the enchanted reality of its being inside the confines of the cave itself. Sequestered deep within the depths of the earth, the paintings are one element among others that combine to create the mood and contours of a phenomena to which we assign the inadequate term “pre-historic art.”

In a brief encomium titled “Origins – a false question”, Theodor Adorno decrees that speculating on the nature of the origins of art in the absence of historical facts is futile. But the urge to theorize is difficult to resist. In the film we meet an anthropologist who argues that the soul of the modern human being can be traced, if not to these paintings inside the Chauvet cave specifically, then, to the Paleolithic era from which they date. Through intelligent adaptation to the environment and the desire to communicate with the present and future by means of art, including images, sculptures and artifacts, homo sapiens first distinguished themselves. There are two other concepts that help in understanding the Paleolithic mind: fluidity and permeability. Fluidity can be understood as the ability of one thing to transform into another, for example an animal changing into a person and vice versa. Onto this concept Herzog tags the painting of a bison grafted onto one of a woman’s torso. Permeability refers to the ability of spirit to flow through and penetrate all things. The ability to grasp these concepts is what some modern anthropologists tell us set homo sapiens apart from their Cro-Magnon counterparts.

At the end of Cave of Forgotten Dreams, Herzog adds a surprising coda that brings into sharp contrast the abyss of time and history between modern humans and the homo sapiens of the Paleolithic era. Heated water from a nearby nuclear reactor has been routed to a biosphere where crocodiles live in a tropical garden enclosed on all sides by moats of steel and glass. Confined and cut off from their natural environment, the crocodiles have produced mutant albinos. Through a deft juxtaposition of imagery Herzog seems to raise the question; as we look back through pre-history to the origins of human culture and art, have we become so disenchanted from our original nature that we stand in relation to it like reptilian mutants gazing through a mirror at a distant reflection? The thought ripples like thunder over the terrain of our sense of self.

Following the crowd at Art San Diego 2011 (photo by Kinsee Morlan).

After emerging from Herzog’s temple of pre-historic art I find I am left with the same questions I had in the aftermath of my visit toArt San Diego. If art was the original source of the world’s enchantment is it reasonable to ask if it can still be true today? While the dreams of artists are what drive the transformation of life into art, it is the mercantile dreams of the art fair directors, gallery owners and curators that fuel the transformation of art into commodities at events like Art San Diego and beyond.

KUNSTMARKT 67 was the first contemporary art fair held in Cologne in 1967 and it continues to serve as a basic model for many art fairs today. Rudolf Zwirner who adapted a prototype based on the antiquarian fair in Stuttgart organized KUNSTMARKT 67. The fair’s ground plan was derived from the landestrasse (strip mall) with booths attended by gallerists, their staff and often the artists themselves – standard practices today. From the beginning Zwirner was unapologetic about the commercial intention of KUNSTMARKT 67. “Commodities can be herrings and [commodities] can be artworks,” he said. “Herrings will be forgotten, artworks will remain.” Such sentiments reflected his rationale for dispensing with art’s aura by reducing it to a commodity in order to market it more effectively.

Today’s art fairs have gone far beyond Zwirner’s vision by linking the commodification of art to corporate models of sponsorship, public relations, marketing and VIP pandering. This is not to castigate artists for wanting to receive compensation in exchange for their work, but artists should mindful about the morbid effect of operating under the sheen of a corporate structure and its negative effects on critical artistic practices over the long run. The art market is not immune to the reductive, self-referential calculus of the capitalistic culture at large. How well does this dynamic serve the interests of the artists and the communities they live and work in? It is up to artists to take control and to maintain a conscious awareness of the context of their art if they want to transcend the disenchanting logic of production and consumption .



Related articles and video:

Werner Herzog Eats His Shoe A short film

Cave of Forgotten Dreams Wikipedia page

First Impressions Herzog became interested in the Chauvet cave after reading Judith Thurman’s New Yorker article.

The Birth of the Contemporary Art Fair by Christine Mehring