“Tell me something”, my friend Patrick said the other day. We were walking in the park near his house. “That’s a beautiful sunset, isn’t it?” Indeed it was. I watched him as he pulled out his camera to take a picture.
“I was just wondering,” he said while checking the pictures he took. “What is it that makes a sunset beautiful? Would it still be beautiful if there was no one around to witness it?”
“You know, this sounds suspiciously like the other thing they say, about the sound of a falling tree if there is no one around to hear it.”
“Yes, I know”, Patrick said. “But that was not my point.”
“I don’t know”, I said. “The answer to the question whether a sunset is beautiful seems to depend on whether there are beings around for whom the question makes sense. It’s not a witness that makes it beautiful, but the potential existence of a witness.”
“This is exactly what I thought”, Patrick said. We remained silent for a moment or two. “And what about when they say that a sunset is so beautiful that it could have been a work of art?”
“I guess that you can only say that a sunset is as beautiful as a work of art if you can consider it on its own.”
“‘On its own’? What do you mean?” Patrick said.
“You need to isolate it from its surroundings. You need to put a frame around it, just as you did earlier with the camera. You need to freeze time, to put the scene in brackets. It’s only then that you can think of it as a work of art, when you can use copy-and-paste, so to speak.”
“Copy-and-Paste? I don’t usually think of my pictures as copy-and-paste”, he laughed. “But regardless: what about if you just experience it and then, later, you bring it to mind at will?”
“That’s exactly what I mean”, I said.
In his Weather Project installation at the Tate Modern in 2003, Danish-Icelandic artist Olafur Eliasson decided to make his own sunset. He employed hundreds of yellow, mono-frequency lamps in order to construct a huge semi-circular form at the end of the Turbine Hall. This form, reflecting on the mirror covering the whole of the ceiling of the hall, created the impression of a huge orange sun. Visitors entering the Turbine Hall would be greeted by a strong, almost blinding duo-tone yellow light. It was as if the Turbine Hall had its own resident sunset.
But it was not a proper sunset.
For one, this was a sunset in suspension. It was static. And then, the sun was not real. The sky was not real. The light was not real. Time itself was not real.
There was no question of whether Olafur’s sunset was beautiful or not. Or, to be more precise, such a question was no longer relevant.
The project was not about the sunset or the light.
The scene itself had an eerie quality, emanating something ominous – magnificent and yet unsettling. It reflected a world.
The story, published in the December 2019 issue of the journal Nature, created quite a sensation to anyone interested in pre-historic art. Paintings, which had been discovered two years before on the wall of a cave in the Indonesian island Sulawesi, had been shown to be 44 thousand years old. To calculate their age researchers measured the relative levels of different isotopes of radioactive uranium and thorium found on calcite built-ups on the painted figures themselves.
The Sulawesi paintings show animals native to the area being hunted by human-like figures. It appears that the pre-historic “artists” wanted to tell some kind of a hunting story. This is still a contestable point, but if confirmed, it would make this the oldest known pictorial narrative, predating similar pre-historic rock art found in Europe by at least 20 thousand years. But it is not the oldest known human drawing. This specific title belongs to a tiny fragment of a rock found in South Africa. It is 73,000 years old and doesn’t tell a story. It only shows some red cross-hatch lines.
It is absolutely impossible to understand what it would mean for those ancient humans to be able to draw these lines or those animal figures. What did they have in mind? Was it an attempt to capture beauty? Was it an expression of wonder? Was it a question? Or was it perhaps an answer?
We cannot know, and in fact it would be unwise to speculate.
Still, we can be certain of one thing. The artists who left their marks on the tiny South African rock or painted the animal hunting scene in the hidden Indonesian cave shared something. They shared the decision to use the means available to them in order to effect a change on something in their world, not because they needed to do it for their immediate survival, but just because they wanted to do it.
We cannot say anything else about their decision other than accepting that they had an intention. And in this they have something in common, not only with themselves and with all other unknown prehistoric artists, but also with Olafur Eliasson, and with my friend Patrick – and in fact with all human beings: an intention, that is, a vector of action. It always implies a starting point, a direction, an objective, and a scope.
But also it implies a choice – and it reflects the world in which it appears.
This piece first appeared in the November 1 edition of Splinters.