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The Brooklyn Rail

JUL-AUG 2020

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JUL-AUG 2020 Issue
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I am Prehistory

Raphaël Dallaporta, Chauvet Pont d'arc (2016). Édition Xavier Barral
Raphaël Dallaporta, Chauvet Pont d'arc (2016). Édition Xavier Barral

You’re standing in front of a prehistoric work of art: or at least, you’re being told that it’s a “work of art,” and you’re also being told that it’s “prehistoric”—let’s say roughly 25 or 35 thousand years old. It’s a group of animals drawn in charcoal across a cave wall, for instance, or perhaps it’s a small faceless female figure with visible genitalia that’s engraved onto a fragment of a mammoth’s ivory tusk. All these facts were provided by experts to you in just a few minutes.

In order to get closer to this work, for it to leave your gaze and enter your thoughts, you need to come to terms with an extremely rare and weak interpretation of facts: there’s hardly any information on the society that made it, its symbolism, or as to how it could have been used. If there are theories surrounding these topics, they remain speculative, which inevitably invites controversy. Add to that, as with all archeological findings, that the evidence only applies to fragments of the past: only shards from a vast array of material remain to this day (this could either be due to natural decomposition of organic matter or to geological shifts, climate change, or to human intervention). Imagine prehistory as a film reel that’s irreparably damaged, with only brief sequences remaining, of which the images have been blurred and the soundtrack has been deleted; now imagine trying to trace these clues back to the original script. Basically, what you’re being shown as a work of prehistoric art is shrouded in the unknown, a cloud of darkness.

Besides, when it comes to facts, this isn’t just about the unknown, but moreover, it’s also about what cannot be known, in a cognitive sense. This is closely tied to how we construct objective knowledge around a narrative structure. Knowing an object means you can tell a story about it, saying when it was made and when it came into use, situating it within a relational web of cause and effect, since, this sequence—the link between cause and effect—constitutes one way of telling a story, and thereby cognitively mapping an object, connecting one fleeting moment with another.

But in this instance, prehistory is by sheer necessity a form of unknowing. You can reconstruct the story of two millenia, or at a push, three or four millenia; but not 35 thousand years. At some point, it’s as though the time lapse can no longer appear clearly in your mind as a coherent sequence of events. The story of several dozens of millenia defies objectification or conceptualization, just as two hundred billion years does. Time has become flat. Buried in a distant past, these immeasurable lengths of time fail to offer the mind any distinct forms of representation. In other words, this realm that we call “prehistory” refuses to be reduced in terms of a narrative that we can grasp in scientific terms. Or to put it differently, unlike “prehistory” as film, where, in fact, the script we might have lost could have never existed, the “prehistoric” work of art in front of you is like a black hole. It devours knowledge itself.

Strictly speaking, the prehistoric artifact isn’t an object, due to its inability to find a logical place within a taxonomy. It certainly exists in all its silent materiality; but all the discourse it’s supposed to generate without which it couldn’t even be defined as an object, is a mere stutter. If it were a tool, a carved flintstone, for instance, you could at least approach it based on what it’s used for, holding it in your hands so as to identify it, and to some extent, you would have more control over it. But this doesn’t apply to what we describe, for lack of a better word, as “prehistoric art”: this thing, this physical configuration before us simply can’t be mastered, neither in practical nor intellectual terms.

Based on archeological dates, the only objective truth that remains, is that of the depth of time. Moreover, it’s this depth that resonates with the word “prehistoric,” giving the work its first definition. We know that this depth of time isn’t a very ancient category: as a form of representation, it came into being, gradually, within modern European culture, between the end of the 18th century and the middle of the 19th century. The word “prehistory” itself was made popular by the anthropologist John Lubbock in 1865. By coining this term, the goal was, in the spirit of modern objectivism, to manage to reduce all that is real, including the origin of things, into a world of objects that could be subjected to an analytical gaze; to map out time as though one were exploring Africa.

This goal, however, immediately conjures up another, different, desire: this obscure, hidden desire of going against objective time, evading history and therefore, storytelling, which is aimed at revealing, one by one, different aspects of the world, like characters in a play at the theatre, each of them playing a specific role. The prehistoric era wasn’t just invented because it was deep and mysterious, waiting to be explored, but also because it was dense, indistinct, thereby preventing an objective classification of the chaos of things and events. In this sense, prehistory, in all its indistinction, is tantamount to going against history. Therein resides this fascination that “prehistory” continues to exert within us. You can even feel it as you stand in front of a prehistoric work of art: its sense of enigma will never be solved (since there’s too much information missing); its sense of mystery can never be adored (it’s far too tangible for that and not otherworldly enough); beyond its enigma and mystery, you’re more drawn to it as the abyss, as “the dark abyss of time,” according to an expression that is attributed to the naturalist Buffon.

So if the reference to a work, even its place in time, remains unknown, then what’s left? An undefinable sense of community that exposes itself as it makes the uphill climb towards finding a language. Defining it would mean that you’re objectifying and betraying it. Let’s just say that it would look like a reversal of the extreme past into the extreme present, with any historical mediation instantly dissolving into a sense of immediacy. By giving off this impression, the work loses this sense of being an object; it presents itself as a fragile intermediary between objective and subjective time.

This ambivalence between historicity and immediacy is what really defines the collective desire for a work of art to exist in the modern age. So that’s why we have invented “prehistory” and in that sense a “prehistoric” work of art refers to a fundamentally modern state of being. Look: you’re submerged in time, knowledge escapes you and you’re nothing but a void. Look again: it’s happening here and now, it can't be told, the history of time no longer exists, since you yourself are now prehistory.

(Translated by Mebrak Tareke)


Rémi Labrusse

teaches art history in Paris. In 2019, he published a book on the birth of the idea of prehistory, Préhistoire, l'envers du temps, and co-curated an exhibition on this subject at the Centre Pompidou, Paris.


The Brooklyn Rail

JUL-AUG 2020

All Issues