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Sunday, April 28, 2013

69) Reindeer

Rangifer tarandus

Whenever I’m in London – and I’m there, in general, once every few years – one of the first places I visit is the British Museum.  I’m a creature of habit, I suppose, content to do the same things again and again – but notwithstanding that, the seemingly infinite insights into humanity afforded by the museum’s collection will, I imagine, never cease to amaze, astonish, and delight me.

Usually I’m content just to wander through the museum’s maze of rooms (though there’s one item in particular, an ancient board game scratched nearly three thousand years ago into the pedestal of an enormous Assyrian statue, that I always make sure to visit), but when I was in the museum just a few weeks ago it was with a much more specific, and directed, aim: I had a ticket to see the museum’s Ice Age Art exhibition.

The exhibition, which opened earlier this year and will close on the third of June, presents a number – a relatively small number by the standards of modern exhibitions – of carvings and sculptures created in what is now Europe over a period of time ranging from forty thousand to ten thousand years ago.  The exhibition is presented chronologically, and within each room is further divided thematically so that similar objects appear together.  Here and there the objects are counterpointed by small works – sculptures, drawings – by modern artists such as Mondrian and Matisse, but the focus is always – as it should be – on the ancient art.

Several of the items appear, to our eyes, to be purely decorative; whatever meaning they had we can now only guess at – barely even that.  A great many of the items, however, are clearly figurative or representational, and besides the human figures – overwhelmingly female – what they represent are animals.  Mostly mammals, but mammals of all kinds, again and again: sometimes crudely rendered; sometimes – the more recent carvings – created in exquisite and outstanding detail.  Whatever the level of craftsmanship, though, all the carvings display a breathtaking vividness, the vividness of animals acutely and daily observed.

The enormous head of Musk ox (Ovibos moschatus) seems to have been almost willed out of a chunk of rock; or more tantalisingly, when the viewer’s eye lingers over the sculpture, a feeling emerges of the artist responsible having spotted the original rock and discerned within it the shape of the Musk ox’s head, the potential for transformation hiding within the rock.  A Cave lion (Panthera leo spelaean) reaches forward with all four legs; though the sculpture is barely more than a rough silhouette hewn out of wood, an accompanying photograph of a modern lion demonstrates the astonishing succinctness and clarity with which the artist summed up the animal in all its mid-hunt ferocity.  One extraordinary object is a spinning pendant, found in the Mas d’Azil Cave: one side depicts an infant Aurochs (Bos primigenius), the other side the adult; a hole is in the top of the disc and as the disc was spun by a thread tied through this hole the carvings on either side of the disc would have presented the flickering image of the animal growing from youth to maturity and back again.

For me, though, the most astonishing piece of all is a depiction of a Reindeer that was found in the La Madeleine Cave.  The animal’s likeness is etched into the ivory of its own horn.  It’s tiny, and with its enormous eye it appears at first to be almost a caricature.  Yet there’s something precise about the creature’s outline: the way it stretches its neck out as if cautiously smelling the air; the particular point of its ear or the tuft of fur on its chest.  If you can find space in the crowd of people around the display cabinet you might be tempted to lean in for a closer look, and as you do the astonishing detail of the work suddenly reveals itself as if a microscope had been switched on: every contour of the animal’s body, skeleton and muscle alike; every change in the texture of its fur – every detail of the animal is carved into the ancient ivory with a series of tiny and precise scratches that any jeweller would be proud of.  Looking at the animal it’s even possible to fancy that the beast is slightly undernourished, as if caught in the middle of a particularly difficult season.  That such detail was achieved on such a tiny scale, tens of thousands of years ago, using tools no more sophisticated than rock and bone and naked eyesight, makes the viewer gasp and almost cry at the genius of it. 

It’s that genius, that realisation of the keen intelligence and insight of the people who, when we were in school, we dismissed as merely “cavemen”, that justifies this exhibition its title: Ice Age Art.  Art is not always alive or vivid or exciting; it does not always convey something ineffable yet undeniable about the nature of its subject – but at its best, I think it’s fair to say, it always does.  The items on display in Ice Age Art rank among the greatest pieces of art I’ve ever had the pleasure of seeing.  Modest though they are, it’s surely not unreasonable to place them among humanity’s most significant achievements.

To be honest, though, I found it difficult to engage with the non-figurative items – those that I’m tempted, rightly or wrongly, to call ‘abstract’.  Even the human figures did not always excite me, marvellous though they are.  The items that really held my attention, that really made me gasp and grin in delight, were the carvings of animals.  It seems that throughout the entire long period represented by the exhibition, it was into the depiction of animals that the artists put all their effort and insight.  In these items it’s possible to see the artists – those ancient humans – attempting to engage, in some way, with another living creature: to give that creature some kind of dignity or worth in itself, if nothing else then through the very fact of having devoted so much time to its creation (researchers have concluded that some of these items would have taken hundreds of hours to create).  Again, we can’t know the purpose of these items, and perhaps there was some ritual or mystical significance to their creation or their existence – and yet as I looked at them I found myself feeling that I understood the minds of those ancient people

 When I started this blog, and ever since, I’ve been driving at something: I’m unsure what, or how to explain it, but I know it’s there and I can feel myself getting closer to it, or at least circling it.  Though it may make me sound hubristic to say so, in Ice Age Art I saw that same sense of drive, the same sense of purpose: the palpable feeling of a questing human mind, unsure what exactly it’s driving at but feeling itself on cusp of some discovery about itself or about the world.  Perhaps I’m wrong, but if whole point of Ice Age Art is to bring us closer to the common humanity of our forebears, then it works, it works spectacularly; and that’s how it worked on me.  It’s a privilege to have been able to see it; it’s the greatest privilege of all to belong to the same species as the people who created such exquisite and moving works of art so long ago.

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Saturday, April 27, 2013

68) Spider

When people ask me what I write, invariably these days the answer that I give is that I write a blog called Noticing Animals.  When, however, they ask the natural follow-up question – “What’s it about?” – I find myself struggling to answer quite so easily.  It’s about a lot of things: animals, of course; but also memory and reminiscence; amateur sociology; metaphors and parallels; personal appreciations.  I guess, though, that if there’s one theme which has consistently underpinned the whole enterprise, right from the very start, it’s that animals are everywhere; that they are always in our company and we in theirs; and that even in the most urban of environments we see more of them every day than we realise or stop to consider.  In my own way, what I write about – and what I’ve always been besotted by – is nature.

Which is why nearly the first thing I did when I arrived in London for a brief holiday three weeks ago was get the Tube east to Shoreditch, where I walked down Brick Lane to the site of an old brewery.  It was a pilgrimage of sorts.  I was there to go to a record shop, a branch of London’s famous Rough Trade records – because within that record shop are a few short shelves devoted to books championed by the website Caught by the River.

Caught by the River, which updates nearly daily and sends out an email newsletter at the end of each week, is devoted to all manner of things: the pleasures of drinking good beer; the thrill and joy of discovering or remembering great music; the more arcane or esoteric avenues of British history.  Most of all, though, it’s dedicated to writing of – and from – the natural world; and nature – that peculiar British kind of nature, existing in a profound and time-worn relationship with humanity – is Caught by the River’s constant undercurrent.  Caught by the River is a daily reminder of the very fact of nature, its undeniable presence: in turning on our computer, or checking our phone, or engaging with whatever our screen of choice is, and catching up on the website’s latest dispatches – sent in by contributors in the Orkneys, in Wales, in London, anywhere in the British Isles – we (those of us who have discovered and cherish the site) are brought into awareness, and thus in a way into contact, with the natural world.  We’re invited to reach out to it, and if reading about it on a screen can never replicate being there in person, it at least settles a little bit of that natural world into our minds.  It balms our souls.

So it was with great excitement that I stood before the Caught by the River bookshelves in Rough Trade East and picked out what I wanted to buy – books I’d been eagerly looking forward to, and those I’d never heard of before – and took my purchases to the cafe at the front of the shop and settled in, hunching my shoulders against the cold air coming through the open door, to read some of the best nature writing around.  By and large these books – or any books like them – aren’t readily available in Australian bookshops.  I don’t know why the British have taken to nature writing but Australians largely haven’t – perhaps because our nature is more often hostile, and uncomfortable, and more harshly indifferent to our presence.  Perhaps we – those of us of European heritage, who still drive Australian culture – simply haven’t been on this continent long enough to feel the same kind of deep affinity with our land that the people of Wales, and Scotland, and particularly England, seem to.

An engagement with nature doesn’t necessarily need to involved hiking out into the forest, though, or driving miles from human habitation.  Nature is everywhere, and animals and plants are constantly doing what they can to assert themselves: that is, if not the meaning, then at least the constant aim of life; all life.  I wasn’t thinking about any of this as I sat down, though; I was thinking only of how excited I was to finally be where I was, and how much I had to discover and take back home with me.  But as I sat I looked around the shop, taking everything in – and, unexpectedly, I noticed a tiny movement from beneath the table in front of me.  Seemingly unseen by anybody else, a small spider – barely larger than a pin – slid down from the table’s underside on a single strand of silk; and then it climbed up again, disappearing once more from sight.  The animal was visible for only a second.  It was mid-April, and everyone I talked to in England told me how cold this year’s spring had been; and I could feel that cold myself.  The sky was grey, nearly white, overcast.  Icy rain was threatening.  There was no sign anywhere of any insect life – what insect could have yet hatched into such weather?  Yet the spider was there, all the same, investigating its world, and waiting.

I could hear the traffic.  The streets outside were dirty with pollution.  We don’t usually think of cities as being friendly to wildlife, or to nature at all; but in its purest state a city is nothing so much as an aggregation of chaos: a jumble of lives and experiences of all kinds all pooled together and somehow conspiring to cope with each-others’ presence.  Those lives are frequently non-human.  One of them lives under a table at Rough Trade East.  I hope it keeps its head down; I hope it makes it through to the summer, and the coming feast.  I hope it’s still there next time I visit, to see what’s new on the bookshelves and what I’ve missed.  And I know that from now on, every time I check my email and see that another Caught by the River newsletter has arrived, I’ll remember the first time I opened those books in that shop – and I’ll remember that tiny spider, that tiny intrusion of the natural world into the indifferent streets of London.  Every time.

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