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first sculpture

2 may 2018

The exhibition First Sculpture at Dallas's Nasher Sculpture Center, in the spring of 2018, was splendid and thought-provoking. Organizers Tony Berlant (an artist) and Thomas Wynn (an archeologists) have produced a catalog to match. They take advantage of the outsize format allowed by exhibition catalogs to reproduce actual-size photographs of most of the items in the show. And while writing a main text that provocatively lays out their rationale for First Sculpture, they include several delightful and informative sidebars from an impressive group of contributors who range across the many disciplines relevant to the objects they assemble.

Handaxes you probably know about; they are the ubiquitous tool of human prehistory. Figure stones are more obscure and more controversial. A figure stone is a rock that looks like a person or animal. The problem in identifying figure stones, as Berlant and Wynn make clear, is to decide whether they looked like people or animals to human ancestors. The fact that a rock may look like a woman or an elephant to you or me is irrelevant, because a lot of stuff looks like a lot of other stuff. People see faces in all sorts of things, from clouds to toast, thanks to a phenomenon known as pareidolia. We assume that our ancestors, back to Australopithecus, featured pareidolia in their cognitive makeup – faces are very important to social primates. But whether an early individual consciously kept a figure stone around, the way people preserve Elvis's face when they see it on a grilled-cheese sandwich, is harder to establish.

Figure stones, the authors admit, have long been the province of cranks, dismissed by serious paleoanthropologists. Apparently it's common for museums to get donations of feebly-provenanced rocks that people claim ancient man must have seen faces in. Museums generally dump this stuff. But then there are items like the Makapansgat Pebble, an item found a century ago in South Africa, where it had presumably lain for two and a half million years after an australopithecine had lost it – or carefully placed it there in a meaningful way. It's hard not to see a face in the Makapansgat Pebble, which graces the cover of First Sculpture and is among the uncannier of the objects in a decidedly uncanny exhibition.

Berlant and Wynn included the Pebble, though it does not seem to have been altered by anyone. Most of the other figure stones they showed bear traces of being worked to show off their representational qualities, which seemed to them a vital indication that people saw the resemblances we do. Nowadays, if we find a rock that looks like a face, we can simply touch up the image with a Sharpie. Early human ancestors had to accent the image by knapping the stone into shape. Some of these early items are pretty arguable, but then there are others like a bird-shaped stone that a French Neanderthal chipped an eye into, a hundred thousand years ago – an object you have to admit really is a "first sculpture."

The bulk of the items displayed by Berlant and Wynn are definitely manmade, or at least hominin-made. (Or hominoid-made, or hominid-made? I confess that although I've been reading paleoanthropological literature my whole adult life, I can't keep up with the changing terminology. Early folks, anyway.)

These true artifacts are the handaxes of the book's subtitle. Nearly all of the myriad handaxes found at Stone Age sites throughout the world are lumpy, functional things. Early man got very good at producing sharp-edged stones, but one would not call most of them art. Until you get to specimens like those in First Sculpture, which are so astonishingly beautiful you can't call them anything but art. Early people, in scattered instances, sought out stone that wasn't optimal for tool-making, but was perfect for sculpture. Sometimes they made objects that look like axes but would be too heavy and impractical to chop things with – much as early-modern armorers made weapons for purely ceremonial uses.

Such early sculptures cannot be extrinsically identified as artistic. They don't occur in any context that suggests aesthetic purpose: they're just lying around like all the functional things. In fact, to select objects for First Sculpture, Berlant and Wynn went into museum drawers and picked out the nicest-looking handaxes (17). Some items came from Berlant's personal collection; he has made a career of collecting old, beautiful artifacts. Such a process looks to most archeologists (though obviously not to Wynn) like cherry-picking. But what is curation except cherry-picking? The theory that early people sometimes made objects just for themselves and others to admire can only be tested by seeing if there are objects that seem to excel in admirableness.

Among the collaborators on the volume First Sculpture are artist Richard Deacon, science writer Jared Diamond, neuroscientist V.S. Ramachandran, and other specialists who form a constellation of related expertises. Fully pursuing the implications of the early-art theory means tracing the capacity for aesthetics across time, among species, and deep into the recesses of the brain.

As I said above, First Sculpture is as handsome as the show it catalogs. The only odd thing about the book is that it lacks a spine. I suppose this is so it can lie as flat as possible, to display the sumptuous two-page spreads of assortments of artifacts at its heart. I don't know how well such a binding will hold up; the edge of the book is just a transparent pane of glue. But if you buy a copy, you will presumably handle it like a precious handaxe or figure stone, not like some stony rubbish.

Berlant, Tony, and Thomas Wynn. First Sculpture: Handaxe to figure stone. Dallas: Nasher Sculpture Center, 2018.