Sunday, 17 April 2011

Lost in Chauvet

We watch as two albino crocodiles stare at us. Are they twins? Both are looking through the glass; trying to find the creatures within. Curiously and acutely they look; staring now through our dark windows, catching the vague shadows that float, dissolve and disappear. Maybe, just maybe, there is something for them to catch…

How happy was Herzog! when he found these reptiles, bleached by the cooling waters of a nearby nuclear reactor. A tropical greenhouse where crocodiles grow like Amazonian flora: a jungle of heads and tails, roots writhing on the sand and steaming water.

The rest of the film lives amongst a different pre-history, when Homo sapiens lived with Neanderthals in a landscape erased by ice and snow. We see a modern German dressed in skins…

Under this artic cold man created a gallery of animals. They move around us in a magic lantern show, the curator’s words take us there, when torches flickered and the water flowed, into a natural basin… but the electric lights, the modern shadows flitting across these old paintings, leave us here, on this side of time’s rock face; the past like a whiff of perfume, fading on the breeze.

Ten years and more to make a tiny flute. The laboratory assistant a medieval craftsman, piecing together the forgotten fragments, for a refined and intelligent face, his body in the clothes of an animal, to play the Star Spangled Banner.

Painstaking. These scientists are the old guilds reborn, recreating a lost world with infinite care and minute attention. They know each and every detail. They have the patience of the skilled artisan; and the vision to overcome the boredom, those long years fixing together this galaxy of pieces; their computers and software the old nails and glue.  This work is a work of art. Is it more splendid than the glorious original?

They still have to descend the cave by rope.

We know so much! and so little. There seems to have been two different peoples who painted in these caves, thousands of years apart, before a landslide sealed it for good. Or almost: three Frenchman found it in 1994. Once outside the cave we know hardly anything at all. The scientists speak like shaman as they try to divine the past. They talk of adaptation and the magic of the landscape; a nearby arch and its iconic effects. One man talks of the aborigines, the key, perhaps, to this past’s mysteries: these paintings are living spirits, he speculates; telling a story from Australia, where a man touched up the decaying wall art, to keep it alive.

This could be true; but are we the same as the ancient Egyptians, and they only three thousand years ago? What of ten times that figure? Are the aborigines of today the same as this crowd of 30,000 years and more? Are cultures that stable?

We leave these Magi for the artist, Herzog. As he lets the crocodiles stare through his half-closed windows he ponders on the unknown past. Do we create this pre-history in our own image; are these two crocodiles before us one reptile seen in a mirror…

…one crocodile swims away. The other lingers, before us. Do we know anything about this time; or is it an odd vision, a new world, a free creation, out of the fragments of a lost one? Is it all hot air and supposition? The crocodile swims and swims.

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