what makes us human?

A year ago, City of Tampere’s Museum Centre Vapriikki** in Finland presented a multi-media exhibition on rock art organized by an international consortium: “Dawn of the Human Spirit”

The exhibition statement offers a clear perspective on why rock art is of such interest and importance to us, and I quote some of it:

No topic is more central to understanding our place in the universe than the question What makes us human? Although there are many traits that set us apart from the natural world, one defining characteristic is our ability to make art. And unlike other traits that may also be important, such as language, art is archaeologically visible, especially in the form of rock art the cave paintings and rock carvings whose appearance seems to signal the dawn of the human spirit.

Rock art is, of course, more than just art. Just as it expresses humankind’s aesthetic achievements if not the birth of our aesthetic sensibilities and religious beliefs so too it is also a reflection of technology: technology in the making of the art, as well as the wider ranging technologies of the prehistoric cultures that it portrays. Similarly, it is an expression of natural history and our changing relationships to our environment: the prehistoric environment of the art’s creators, shown in the paintings and carvings, serving as a kind of prehistoric account of animal extinctions over time. Even more fundamentally, the first appearance of rock art charts our human migration across and colonization of the earth.

Pictures are among the first important traces of human culture. The earliest rock art pictures such as those in the Chauvet Cave are pictures of the highest artistic expression and quality. In principle, the creative power that produced these pictures is the same as that of the artists of our own time.

**Update October 24, 2012: So many years later, the link to the exhibition is of course gone. The Museum website link is now updated.

preserving languages

Recently NewScientist published an interview of linguist Alexandra Aikhenvald. Here are some excerpts :

“Imagine how different politics would be if debates were conducted in Tariana, an Amazonian language in which it is a grammatical error to report something without saying how you found it out – as Alexandra Aikhenvald tells us its speakers tell her. Tariana is in danger of dying. With each such disappearance we risk losing insights into different ways of thinking.”

“Why is it important to preserve these languages? First, to learn about how people communicate and how the human mind works.

What are the categories that are important enough for people to express them in their languages?

If these so-called “exotic” languages die, we’ll be left with just one world view. This won’t be very interesting, and we’ll have lost a vast amount of information about human nature and how people perceive the world.

Second, without their language and its structure, people are rootless. In recording it you are also getting down the stories and folklore. If those are lost a huge part of a people’s history goes. These stories often have a common root that speaks of a real event, not just a myth. For example, every Amazonian society ever studied has a legend about a great flood.”

“And there are so many languages to work on. A dictionary means that the language is not completely lost and it empowers those who speak the language to preserve their cultural identity.”

Aikhenvald also thinks Finnish may be the most difficult language she had come across!

Nexus II


Nexus II
Etching 77 x 111 cm.

Hockney on photography

Yesterday I wrote about the Death of Photography debate sparked by David Hockney.

Today I came across MAeX Art Blog’s entry on this same subject and the link for the Hockney interview in Guardian Unlimited.

It really is an interesting debate that concerns all artists who work with photographs, including myself. As a printmaker, I have used dark-room or “wet” process to prepare the negatives or positives for the photo-etchings I created. Later the computer replaced this process and allowed a greater ability to manipulate the image even further. Artists in every medium have always “manipulated” their imagery to portray their own visions.

end of photography?

Today’s artdaily has a thought-provoking article called False Witness, about the somewhat controversial issue of photo manipulation, especially with today’s digital cameras:

“Last week David Hockney declared the end of photography in these pages: the rise and rise of digital cameras, and the concomitant ease with which images can be distorted and manipulated, have put paid to the notion of photography’s truthfulness, he argued. Joel Sternfeld, winner of the Citigroup photography prize [-] begs to differ.

“Photography has always been capable of manipulation,” says the New Yorker[-] “Even more subtle and more invidious is the fact that any time you put a frame to the world, it’s an interpretation. I could get my camera and point it at two people and not point it at the homeless third person to the right of the frame, or not include the murder that’s going on to the left of the frame. You take 35 degrees out of 360 degrees and call it a photo. There’s an infinite number of ways you can do this: photographs have always been authored.

“And nor is anything that purports to be documentary to be completely trusted, anyway,” he says, referring to Hockney’s assumption that, in the past, war photography was rightly regarded as having claims to veracity. “The Hockney argument is as simplistic as saying that any non-fiction book is truthful. You can never lose sight of the fact that it’s authored. With a photograph, you are left with the same modes of interpretation as you are with a book. You ask: what do we know about the author and their background? What do I know about the subject?

“Some of the people who are now manipulating photos, such as Andreas Gursky, make the argument – rightly – that the ‘straight’ photographs of the 1940s and 50s were no such thing. Ansell Adams would slap a red filter on his lens, then spend three days burning and dodging in the dark room, making his prints,” says Sternfeld, referring to the processes of adding or withholding intensity to a print. “That’s a manipulation. Even the photographs of Henri Cartier-Bresson, with all due respect to him, are notoriously burned and dodged.”

“No individual photo explains anything. That’s what makes photography such a wonderful and problematic medium. It is the photographer’s job to get this medium to say what you need it to say. Because photography has a certain verisimilitude, it has gained a currency as truthful – but photographs have always been convincing lies.”

Vedic Hymn of Creation

The study of ancient art, cultural anthropology and ethnology inevitably, and happily, seem to lead to reading about the many creation myths around the world. Of course, most familiar to me is the Kalevala Epic of Finland and a few of the European myths (see Folk Legends and Myths theme).

Binref has posted the beautiful Vedic Hymn of Creation, of which the first two verses are below.

Neither non-being nor being was as yet,
Neither was airy space nor heavens beyond;
What was enveloped? And where? Sheltered by whom?
And was there water? Bottomless, unfathomed?
Neither was there death nor immortality,
Nor was there any sign then of night or day;
Totally windless, by itself, the One breathed;
Beyond that, indeed, nothing whatever was.”

Do read the rest and admire the lovely original text, too.

Update Aug.24.04 The above link is no longer active, sadly as it was a favourite blog.

The Snow Show

Joe Brady writes for Virtual Finland* about “The Snow Show – a singular cultural project:

It was a miracle of rare device,
A sunny pleasure-dome, with caves of ice!”

So wrote Coleridge of Kubla Khan’s unconventional edifice, when was it, sometime in the 18th century. What follows here may not live up to the poem’s menace and mystique but read on anyway.

The Snow Show does at least promise to be a remarkable cultural event that will bring together internationally recognized artists and architects to design collaborative installations using snow and ice as their primary materials.

In the winter of 2004 these designs will be translated into an outdoor exhibition presenting fifteen unique constructions of significant scale and beauty. The spectacle will be staged jointly in the towns of Kemi and Rovaniemi in Finnish Lapland, the country’s most northerly province.

The curators of the Snow Show, and the main minds behind it, are New York independent curator Lance Fung together with the director of the Rovaniemi Art Museum Hilkka Liikkanen, both in cooperation with colleagues in Kemi and Rovaniemi. The exhibition will be open to the public from February 12 to March 31, 2004.

The project also showcased the models and plans of the participating artist-architect pairs at the Venice Biennale of summer 2003 and at Scandinavia House in New York in October-November of 2003. The Snow Show process is due to continue through 2006, with additional venues to be announced later.

And don’t forget, if you wanted to see The Snow Show on location, as it were, all you’d have to do is get on a plane to Helsinki and then on to another one up to Rovaniemi.

Lots of interesting project details and photos can be seen at their special websites The Snow Show* and SnowNow*.

* these links are no longer active and have been removed.

for the child in us all

Now, this is off my usual topics but I really want to share what I found on Keri Smith’s blog: “If you haven’t been, run don’t walk to Shel Silverstein.com“. I thought I’d have a look and then fell in love with this very entertaining and delightful site of a children’s story writer. You will love it too.

Nexus V


Nexus V
Etching 68.5 x 97 cm.

Nexus III


Nexus III
Etching 66 x 50 cm.