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#180 Cave of Forgotten Dreams at the Barbican

April 6, 2011

The horse heads are the iconic symbols of Chauvet.

Bored with Victorianesque retro – sorry, ‘vintage’ stuff yet? This is something a bit older. 32,000 years older, in fact. The veteran documentary director Werner Herzog has made Cave of Forgotten Dreams in 3D, a film about the prehistoric art in the Chauvet cave in France. It was showing for single week at the Barbican, so we went.

The Chauvet cave system was sealed off by a landslide around 30,000BC, leaving a unique collection of cave art utterly untouched until 1994, when the cave was rediscovered. This means it’s the oldest cave art in the world. Entering the cave itself is the nearest we’ll ever get to travelling back in time. With footprints are preserved on the floor and their torch soot still staining the cave walls, it’s as if the cave artists themselves are always one cave ahead, their shadows flickering just out of sight.

The reason the documentary’s in 3D is because the art itself is 3D. The unknown ancient artists used the hollows and curves of the cave to map their drawings onto, so that the horse heads appear to protrude right out of the uneven walls, and a hunted rhinocerous cowers inside a crevice. There’s so much of it, too. Not just horses and deer, but dangerous predators, like cave lions, cave bears and panthers. The cave itself is strewn with huge and sinister cave bear skulls. Gigantic claw-marks in the rock itself show where cave bears have mauled the walls – after the humans had painted them.

Herzog was only allowed a three-man team, and they could only spend a matter of hours in the carefully protected caves. Nevertheless, the dim 3D imagery is extraordinarily atmospheric. The sight of a strange half-man, half-bull figure looming ominously over what seem to be a woman’s legs, all scribed onto a thick stalactite in the cave’s deepest recesses, is more mind-shaking than any made-up science-fiction imagery could ever be.

As you can see from the iconic horse heads on this poster, this isn’t a few scratches on a damp wall that might just be a picture of a mammoth. It’s fully-fledged representational art – and it still has an enormous power to move. Perhaps this art was part of a ritual journey into the dark to ask powerful nature spirits for assistance. Perhaps it was a dance hall for the temple of a universal religion. Or maybe it was a test, a terrifying gauntlet for pubescent children to run before they could enter into adulthood. Nobody knows. ‘Perhaps for ritual purposes’ is the standard phrase that archaeologists use for this kind of unfathomable mystery.

Funny, then, that we saw this in the Barbican’s cinema, which is itself deep underground, a gigantic concrete cavern space in which light is projected on the walls to represent life and movement. Coming out, I couldn’t help thinking that the near-silent spaces of the Barbican, epically poured out of space in 60s concrete, serve a similar purpose for us. It’s where we – or at least some of us – go to find enlightenment in shadow-plays, moving images, dances and painted figures. But there are no animal pictures around the walls of the Barbican.

If future civilisations ever find the ruins of the Barbican, I’m sure they’ll conclude it was used for ‘ritual purposes’. I guess they’d be right.

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