Seeking the Pre-Historical

The first act of The Sophisticated Neanderthal Interview, the new short film from artist Nathaniel Mellors now screening at the Hammer Museum, and the source of a new body of work exhibited at MONITOR, presents as advertised with little interruption. You’d be forgiven for wanting to read it as commentary. 

In a remote, featureless landscape, two characters—an earnest, wide-eyed "man from the future," and the cantankerous, fifty-three-thousand-year-old titular character—discuss the business of making art. Cradling an orange bust of Shakespeare, puffing on Nat Shermans and anxiously requesting a "write down-er" instead of a recorded conversation, the Neanderthal bemoans his fall from grace at the hands of a gatekeeper named Sporgo.

Usually working in London and Amsterdam, though recently a resident of Los Angeles, Mellors is interested in sealed narrative scenarios, or autonomous aesthetic universes found in screenplays or television sitcoms. Unlike contemporary art objects, which are inscribed value through context and exclusivity, perhaps screen and TV come closer to something more primordial, like the earliest cave art—such as the Venus of Hohle Fels, an ur-object which so pristinely objectifies the state of self-awareness.

So while the surface of the film is undeniably British—the wry surreality of characters who span eons finding common ground through slapstick—I found myself thinking of the Los Angeles artist Jeffrey Vallance as I unpacked the moral imperatives of the cave. Similarly curious and infatuated with television, Vallance spent the Reagan era infiltrating the structures and edifices which house mystical art objects like reliquaries and shrouds, often mimicking their formal qualities with works of his own or ingratiating himself into their narratives through performance or written correspondence. 

Mellors too is in search of the pre-historical. For millennia, the Neanderthal explains, he made the work Sporgo wanted. With a dramatic flair he points to a cave. That is where the art is. Yet just as one senses the film, which is screening at the Hammer Museum as part of Mellors’ residency, is foreshadowing the museum’s upcoming survey of institutional critique, the allegory dissolves into something more interrogatory. Inside the cave, the characters and the narrative perversely regress to a diminished state, revealing an analogy to the contemporary mediation of art objects, an investigation of what it means to work in the dark.

At the fair, Mellors will present Shakespeare With Chunks, a resin cast of a Shakespeare bust similar to the one the Neanderthal owns in the film, but excavated with a proto-human skull protruding from the back, as well as a photogram of the Venus from a prior body of work. The temptation to read the latter as a mystical object—a photograph immaculately conceived without a camera—is balanced by the Neanderthal's more profane explanation of making art in a dark room. "I do them with me knobber. I just swing 'em round on the walls in the dark. I don't know how they come out like, but they do."

Written by Sam Bloch.