Wednesday, 3 April 2013

Bone: Ice Age Art Review

Self portrait with portable art

Yesterday, I went up to "that London," grumpy Cornishman in tow, to see an exhibition I've been dying to visit since I first heard rumours of its future existence. "Ice Age Art: arrival of the modern mind" did not disappoint. Before I even get into reviewing it, and making some observations, let me say this. Go, go now, book it for tomorrow. I went completely en famille, and we all enjoyed it (well, I think we did. By the end of a boozy lunch afterwards that was the impression I got).
The family queue up

I've divided this review up into 3 sections: things I loved, things I liked, and niggles. So, here goes.

Things I loved:

-the drip, drip, drip of water which permeated through the exhibition, which, coupled with the darkness, gave a sense of claustrophobic caves and melting ice. This noise wasn't constant, or obtrusive- but it gave me a little shivery thrill each time it plonked out of the hidden speakers.

The cave experience doesn't come out so well in Instagram... who knew?

- the tunnel and cave, with the projection wall covered in changing images of Paleolithic rock art. Obviously, you can't just transport parietal art- but the curators had a damn good go. We sat next to a small boy who was enthralled by the images on the handily placed bench. He sat with his mouth open gazing at the flashing pictures, the bison swooping across the wall. A long time ago, in an undergraduate class, my group designed a museum exhibition centred about recreated rock art in an atmospheric cave-like setting. It was very weird seeing this realised in a manner 1000 times more sophisticated than my student dreams. And the fact that all those "enigmatic marks" flashed onto the narrative scenes in time with the dripping water noises like hallucinations at blink-and-you'll-miss-it speed was fabulous.

- the material. Just- wow. I saw the swimming reindeer. I saw Venus figurines. I saw the earlist ceramics from Dolni Vestonice. There was a replica Lion Man. It was all gorgeous- the haunting beauty of the figurines, the bittersweet images of animals on tools designed to slaughter them more effectively. It's just such a shame they are regularly so tiny- although this is completely part of their power, it did mean that a lot of people hustled around one small object, which kind of diminished the experience. We went quite early in the morning, and it wasn't too bad- I'd recommend other people do likewise.

Glorious, beautiful objects. No flash was used to take this picture.

Things I liked:

-the link with modern art. This worked really well, and didn't feel forced. My non-archaeological half is a big fan of Henry Moore, and he lapped up the connections. I felt like it helped him connect with and appreciate the archaeological materials more.

-generally, the tone of the commentary. You can't interpret this sort of art too much, and I thought they balanced it relatively well- introducing quite complicated ideas like the increased intensity of making miniature figures, but stepping back from certainty. I liked this, but my brother hated it- he wanted a bit more honesty about what the curators thought, or a bit of fronting up on the unknowability of the deep past. It's a fair point- adding a question mark to a statement does leave you in limbo I suppose.

-the gift shop. Tea towels framed as accessible art on the walls- copied and now soon to be resplendent in my house. Good idea, I'll copy that thank you very much. Exit via the art to take home- no ordinary gift shop. The cuddly mammoths were also a highlight. *


-no touchable replicas. While the video showing how the Lion Man was made was great, it would have been wonderful to have little replicas available to touch and feel. The statuettes and figurines were (to me anyway) made to be held, to be rubbed between finger and thumb. The exhibition felt very look-don't-touch and this was a real shame. Maybe there are handling events that I missed.

-a little light sexism. This was my real irritation. I took a photo of the worst panel-culprit. Apparently, men's identity alone is tied up in hunting implements. The old "man the hunter" stereotype is still around, even though I thought he'd been feminist-critiqued into oblivion. Yes, women in many modern hunter-gatherer societies don't hunt-but some do. We have no idea exactly who was doing the hunting in the Paleolithic, so let's not smudge ethnocentric gender stereotypes on the past please. Rant over.

Oh, a man's hunting kit? Who else could possibly have one. Grrr.

So, all in all, a great day out, some amazing archaeology and a lesson in atmospheric exhibition curation. Have you been? Did you like it? What are your loves and hates and thoughts?

*Did anyone else have the "Our Mammoth" books as a child? A family defrost and adopt a lovable mammoth called Buttercup. Beautifully illustrated and fabulous fun.

1 comment:

  1. Great post!

    I'm going to "that London" on Tuesday and I am very much looking forward to finally making it to the exhibition - I've heard so much about it! You're not the first to say you would have liked to have replicas to touch and feel - was there a comment book?



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