Allegory of the Cave Painting

Extra City Kunsthal and Middelheim Museum, Antwerp, Belgium

Gustav Metzger, Liquid Crystal Environment, 1965, installation view at  'Allegory of the Cave Painting'

Gustav Metzger, Liquid Crystal Environment, 1965, installation view at 'Allegory of the Cave Painting'

‘Allegory of the Cave Painting’, curated by Extra City Kunsthal’s artistic director Mihnea Mircan, put forward a radical thesis. The source from which it unfolds is a group of cave paintings in North Western Australia known as the Bradshaw paintings, estimated to be at least 26,000 years old. In 2010, an examination of the paintings found them to be colonized by bacteria and funghi, which had formed a film of living pigment over the works that lend the paintings an extraordinary richness of colour. In this perpetual state of self-painting, the bacteria etch themselves deeper into the rock, creating a frame around the images, which preserves them. These living paintings are, according to Mircan, ‘a product of prehistory, of a paradigm that pairs life, knowledge, image and world in ways we can only speculate upon’. Mircan’s thesis, then, is to call into question fundamental notions of origin and intent, contamination and colonization, and image and embodiment.

The show, split over two venues, opened at Extra City Kunsthal with an introduction to the Bradshaw paintings via a documentary, a series of books and a text. Following this, Sven Johne’s brilliant film Greatest Show on Earth (2011) was a humorous, poignant introduction to the rest of the show: German actor Gottfried Richter drolly recounts a tale of the most daring, exciting, unfathomably brilliant circus there ever was. Foreshadowing this grandiose rhetoric is the inevitability of the promise being unfulfilled, of never actually seeing the circus. This chimed with the exhibition’s claim: allegory is a device that allows one to speak about that which cannot be represented or visualized.

Perhaps the most exciting aspect of the exhibition was the manner in which it explored questions of representation and embodiment. The Bradshaw paintings, as live mutable objects, are both images and organisms in flux – proof of the processes that sustain them. This relationship was examined most notably in Gustav Metzger’s Liquid Crystal Environment (1965). The work, produced as part of the artist’s so-called ‘auto-creative’ works, is a series of slide projectors with devices for heating and cooling slides containing liquid crystals that project luminous, psychedelic patterns onto the wall. Similarly, in Middelheim Museum, the second of the exhibition’s venues, Pavel Büchler’s Geometry, Physics and the Science of Life, Part III (2014) consisted of a projector shining through a glass filled with blue antifreeze. Over time, as the temperature of the liquid rises, a white circle of light forms on the wall – the image embodying its own process.

The constantly evolving, yet perfectly preserved, Bradshaw paintings challenge the notion of the historical artefact as dormant and immobile. A key strand to the allegory, then, was the complicating of accepted (art) histories and questioning their means of categorization. Standing in the main space of Extra City Kunsthal was the towering Art for the Masses, Formation Upwards (2012) by Alon Levin (a second, wall-based version of which appeared in the Middelheim Museum). Consisting of a series of red monochrome panels, the work alludes to systems of ordering. Yet the manner in which it is presented – as a structure with multiple pieces seemingly available to be removed and reconfigured – is perhaps an acknowledgement of the arbitrariness of those systems. This is a material archive which can be constantly reformulated.

Elsewhere, the exhibition extolled the interdependence of past, present and future, articulated most clearly through Dan Graham’s performance Past Future Split Attention (1972). Documented at Lisson Gallery, London, two friends speak simultaneously – one predicting how the other will behave; the second telling of the other’s past – creating a closed circuit of competing temporalities. Expanded to the exhibition’s theme as a whole, this created a Benjaminian sense of the present, contingent on the aggregation of moments that have come before it.

The theme of the show was, by its very nature elusive and unrepresentable – often shifting between works, floors or venues with a barely discernible logic. Picking up on connections or the subtleties of emphasis was often tricky. In fact, the nuances of the allegory and its myriad implications indicated that this was a necessarily incomplete inquiry into a complex historical, ecological and conceptual proposition still forming.

Nick Aikens is a curator at the Van Abbemuseum, Eindhoven

Issue 169

First published in Issue 169

March 2015

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