Monday, October 12, 2009

Images Past

I've had some fascination with prehistoric European cave art for many years, but I never had as much interest in American petroglyphs and pictographs for some reason. I suspect it's because I never really saw any in situ until our trip to Moab. That changed my appreciation for it very quickly.

Spread throughout the Canyonlands and Arches National Parks are several sites of well preserved examples of Native American art, some dating back a couple thousand years or more. Like the better known cave paintings in Spain and France, there are some fairly accurate representations of local animals that were hunted by the indigenous peoples. But also like the European art, there are fascinatingly surreal figures interspersed among the recognizable fauna.

I mentioned in the previous post how humans were subject to wild flights of fancy. These images seem to confirm that. Technically called "shamanistic figures," they certainly look like the results of a fevered dream or trance. Indeed, I can relate to those grotesque visions.

When I was very little I had a couple of bouts of bronchitis and fever. I distinctly remember the hallucinations I got when I was very sick. Objects and people grew ponderous and distorted and everything moved in slow motion. A sense of confusion and even fear became palpably real and very little could be done to calm me down when I was caught in the throes of those images.

Could it be that these ancient etchings represent very real emotions rather than just shamanistic symbolism? I would venture it was a combination of both: a very real attempt to explain our fears and put them into concrete form. Indeed, how very different are the two, really?

At the same time it makes me acutely aware of the universality of our human experience. Gazing at these figures and what they might represent makes me wonder how much has really changed over the millenias. The attempt to explain our world is as old as humanity itself. Our quest to do that, our ability to reflect on the past and to project into the future - in essence to dream - is both a gift and a curse.

At the same time, those rock images were, in a very large sense, an attempt by their makers to create something beyond themselves and their fragile lives. Whether through the cave paintings and rock art of the past or through the fine art or pop art or even the graffiti of the modern age, the urge for some form of immortality is still very much alive and part of the human psyche. We each, in our own ways, want to leave our mark on the world. Why else do so many of us make art, take photos and write blogs?

And perhaps, like the annoymous artists of the past, we will do just that, becoming in the process the annoymous artists of the future, whose immortal marks will be nothing less than the continuation of the human spirit.

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