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Sunday, 14 April 2013

Is it really? - Ice Age Art at the British Museum


To be completely honest I was pretty skeptical of this whole Ice Age Art concept behind the British Museum’s exhibition from the very start. Standing on the escalators in the Tube many a month ago, I remember seeing the poster and thinking, ‘Seriously?’ At the end of the day we are talking about bits of bone and rock with loosely carved bison on them. And while these objects certainly are striking and meaningful for the people that made them, are they art?



It seems that a lot of people want to know the answer to this question because it took me three tries to finally get into this fairly small exhibition. What did I find inside? Meh. It looks a bit like a contemporary art gallery had a drunken one-night stand with some standard museum display cases. The display method was really very traditional- several items in glass-covered cases, a few framed pictures on the wall. Just because its painted off-grey doesn’t make it minimalist.

 Also, there seemed to be some interesting information lurking in the text panels. The overall guiding theme of the exhibition seems to be exploring the point in human evolution where the brain becomes ‘modern’ enough to interpret what we see into lines and shapes. Ok sure, but the science behind this isn’t really explained. It is just taken as a given that at some point around 40,000 years ago a synapse somewhere was connected and BAM art. I think probably some more explanation there would have been useful.

A much more effective thematic thread was the inclusion of modern art alongside Ice Age sculptures. This doesn’t of course make the prehistoric objects more ‘artistic’ in themselves, but it was interesting to see the art inspired by this period. The best case in the entire exhibition features twentieth century minimalist art directly along side prehistoric pieces and I noticed many visitors pointing with surprise when they couldn’t tell the difference. The video installation was also excellent, beautifully evoking the sacred and creative space of the cave.

Despite my intense skepticism, the longer I spent in the exhibition, the more I started to warm to the idea. All of these items aren’t ‘art’ in the way we tend to think of it now (made to hang on people’s walls and make big money on the market) they were made for ritualistic purposes. But wasn’t all art for pretty much…most of human history? Religion for most of time has been the main if not the only acceptable subject for art. So what makes these different?



Any complex art historical questions aside, the reason I think this exhibition is wonderful is it takes archaeological objects and puts them back where they belong: in the limelight. I can’t remember the last time I saw a display of archaeological material where the objects were actually given enough space to breathe. I can actually focus on each of the items in the display and ponder them individually. Usually archaeology museums are so rammed full of bones, rock and metal everything blurs together after the first few rooms. And even though I can bet every single person standing in that exhibition would HATE an afternoon in a traditional archaeology museum, they had bought their tickets weeks in advance to be here. You can say it’s a bit sad that the public just blindly do whatever the British Museum say, but here they had succeeded in getting people to care about prehistoric history. Hooray!

So, is Ice Age Art really an art exhibition? Not more so than any other exhibition you will see at the BM. But it doesn’t matter, you should go anyway.

Ice Age Art: the arrival of the modern mind is on at the British Museum until May 26th http://www.britishmuseum.org/whats_on/exhibitions/ice_age_art.aspx. Be sure to book in advance, it is still very busy!  

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