If the enemy masses his forces he Loses ground, if he scatters he loses strength.
–Mario Merz quoting Vietcong General Vo Nguyen Giap, 1968
Everything has always been about space, about our relationship to movement in space, possession of space, and power over others (nature, animals, and humans) to acquire and protect space. No matter how sophisticated we may think painting has become pictorially, semiotically, as a practice, or as a discourse, we are always painting as dwellers of both geopolitical and psychic space. As such, painting has always held a close relationship to power struggles over space and to survival, to violence, and to war. To speak of painting and space is to speak of the geopolitical implications of the painted image in light of its materiality and to movement between spaces since the first painters were nomads. Such a discussion must necessarily begin with a look at the cave paintings of prehistory.
In many ways, because of our fear of the natural world and our subsequent will to control it as an instrument, we have always been vector artists, movers between points, vehicles and vessels. The first painters were also the first vector artists whose earliest-known painted works were depictions of the creatures and deities that both comforted and terrorized them, that held dominion over their known physical world, and to whom they were beholden for survival. Painting began as a celebration of, and meditation on, the paradox and delicate balance between space and movement, between life and death. Violence inhabited painting from the beginning. The oldest-known paintings, works literally painted with the ground up minerals, earths, stones, vegetables, and other materials mixed with water, animal fat, and later, oils, were three-dimensional histories of movement cave walls and across the vectors of the mysterious and dangerous worlds outside the darkness of the cave. The first vector graphics were literally and figuratively culled from territory, and were housed in the havens of the darkened interior spaces that were illuminated solely by flames fueled by animal fat. As such, the material and semiotic elements of cave painting, indeed of all so-called “tribal and prehistoric art” were inseparable from each other. They were so close together in the painting process that both the painter and viewer inhabited the same direct material consciousness in relation to painting. Or rather, there was no relationship between the painted image, its makers, and its viewers as this would presume a distinction and a distance between the three. Instead, the material presence of the work was an extension of the consciousness that created it. Before we had “art”, “art works”, and “artists”, before the separation of subject and object, there were simply, creative acts that were as integral to life and death as hunting, eating and giving birth.
The artists in Lascaux, Altamira, Africa, indeed all the prehistoric and many current-day tribal painters lived the relationship between color and surface, or energy and matter, as a relationship to the physical and psychic elements of their time. Their use of the textures, contours, and dramatic changes of the surfaces they painted on as pictorial complements to the forms they depicted were symbols of their relationship to the territories that they inhabited. In other words, they knew no metaphorical distance and hence they had no need for three-dimensional illusionism. Instead, their illusions were concerned with the spiritual world associated with their survival in the natural world. Because there was no objectified conception of “art” there was no notion of concept, idea, theme, or the sign. In short, there was no need for semiotics as we know it today.
For the contemporary artist, the notion of art without object, without a semiotic presence, is practically impossible to grapple, or at the very least, runs counter to one of the grounding principles of the contemporary art practice with its objectification of the art work as either capitalist product or intellectual object or both.The cave artists’ use of topography and changing surface textures made their paintings sculptural forms where the notion of pictorial composition and spatial illusionism, was superseded by the immediacy of painting in the physical world itself, where paintings were architectural in nature and not yet portable commodities. These works were not “art“ in the sense that we now conceive of it. Rather, they were sculptural embodiments of the physical and spiritual worlds as humans perceived and constructed them. These paintings were points in time and space.
They were documents of movement and of territory where the artists were vehicles traveling between them.
Painting was and always has been a three-dimensional art form, one whose roots lie in this material relationship to color, to the vehicle, to surface texture, to architecture, and to the play of light illuminating the painted image. In truth, it is a mistake, for which we pay dearly, to attempt to pedagogically distinguish between two-dimensional art (painting, photography, printmaking, and drawing) and three-dimensional art (sculpture, performance, installation, etc.) as we now do. To fully engage painting as a practice and as a history we must understand it materially and sculpturally, from the point of view of cave artists and begin from there. The significance of this material perspective lies in its relationship to life and death, to temporality and vitality, war and violence. The materiality of prehistoric painting has always been centered on death and the fragility of life, and it is this materiality that has largely disappeared from the equation of painting, indeed, from most art today. Materiality implies mortality. For the human being to arrive at painting, he/she had to begin by killing. The prehistoric and tribal painters acquired, and still acquire the tools essential to painting through a knowledge of their surroundings, the need and the will to kill, and a processing of vegetable and animal materials into pigments, vehicles, supports, and implements. This direct relationship to materiality meant and continues to mean that life and death was and, continues to be, ever present. For the cave artists, there was neither time nor space for intellectual distance because survival in the natural world itself was at stake. In a strange and ironic historical turn, today, with the onset of catastrophic climate change, expanding warfare, and other economic and ecological catastrophes, we can say that life and death have once again returned to the equation of art. Or, rather that they never really left it but that the artist him/herself turned away from it due to the widening gap between cause and effect that modern technology has instituted as a precondition for its existence. We can say that with all our attempts at ruling and controlling the physical world, the physical world is reeking its revenge on us and we have once more arrived at a point where we should fear it, where we should countenance it with awe as it attempts to devour us, despite our sophisticated and contemptible technological arrogance. This is not to say that we turn away from technology per se, assuming such a decision was even within the realm of possibility, or that we attempt to turn back in time to a fictional time of simplicity, no. What we must re-consider is our relationship to techne and to physis,
For painting to do this it must re-acquaint itself with life and death, and simultaneously, rise out of the superfluity of a joyous relationship to life and death, to violence, and to war. This is a paradox akin to life relying on death to realize its strongest form. To understand the origins of painting we must find a way to intimately experience this vitality, this directness, this proximity to death and the play of space, of territory in relationship to death with humility. It is this vitality, this meditation on, and relationship to, death that most distinguishes prehistoric art from the art of our times.
Today we paint, we produce paintings with but traces of this vitality, with a hunger for a visual image that never gets truly fulfilled and that can only be explained by a need to experience color and form on a flattened three-dimensional space, to behold ourselves and our world. We consume images as empty visual calories, perpetually engorging ourselves to turn away from life and death as we become visually and psychically impaired as a result. This image production and subsequent beholding is the seed from which, the Greek dramas, film, and television emerge, from which current-day commodity aesthetics and computer graphics are derived. But these are only traces, ghosts of painting’s history now reduced to our collective subconscious and relegated to museums and history books in our industrialized and simulation-obsessed mediated world.1 Today, with the commodification, industrialization, designificaiton, and simulation of everything, from our food supply and energy, to our relationships, to ourselves, and to art, contemporary painting is but one branch of a specialized economic practice at the service of the wealthy and intellectual classes who crave cultural legitimacy.
it is a negation, a denial of the vitality of life and death. What has changed more than the art itself in the last 30,000 years is the consciousness of artists and how they conceive of art. With the economic and technological evolutions western history has brought us, we have seen art adapt and become but one aspect of a techno-economic production system first put into play by Christianity, then later by the more modern forms of capitalism in Europe and North America to the point today where art is but a new form of cultural and economic neo-colonialist output in the form of biennials and art fairs where in an effort to attain “cultural and political legitimacy”, countries in Asia, South America, and Africa assimilate into the western art game.
But this evolution was always present in the work and the will of the prehistoric artist, in the human being’s attempt at mastery and efficiency that gave rise to technical innovation. What has since changed are the stakes of our objectification of the planet, the environment, and our totalization of both humanity and the natural worlds. We can no longer afford to be so far removed from our natures as material artists working with physis and psyche in a symbiotic relationship. The totalization and objectification of the other, of the world outside us removes us from the biological and instills within us an ethic of the ego, or the egological at great cost. The apotheosis of this detachment, of this dematerialization, is the computer and electronic art that simulates all material into light and data is the most advanced form of this detachment from life and death.
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1.It is important to remember the distinction between “our” technologized and commodified world whose roots lie in Europe and whose development now stems from American corporatism, with its modern economies, technologies, and militaries and the so-called “other” pre-industrialized isolated worlds still more or less removed from the “modern” or “postmodern” world of globalization. This distinction is critical to an understanding of how art is practiced differently by such peoples as Australian Aborigines, native Canadians, and Pacific Islanders, for example, neither of whom escape the vortex of contemporary capitalism as their works are highly commodified. The height of irony here is that these works, created by cultures still much more in contact with life and death, with their material and spiritual surroundings, are relegated to the lower realm of “craft” or “indigenous art” by the capitalist-centric purveyors of contemporary and modern art, oblivious to the neo-colonialist conceits such evaluations embody.