SEPTEMBER  is when art galleries draw back the curtains on their big-gun exhibitions. Luckily, big reputations are relatively affordable in the artworld when it comes to exhibition-making, but sought-after artists are invariably booked up years in advance. Dublin’s Temple Bar Gallery + Studios (TBG+S) must have a finger glued to the artworld’s pulse when you consider the International artists they have exhibited in recent years with very little means. Last year it was Ed Atkins, on the cusp of his speedy ascent up the who’s who of contemporary art: Atkins has since had solo shows at Paris’ Palais de Tokyo and London’s Serpentine Slacker Gallery. This year Nathaniel Mellors is TBG+S’s Autumn BOOM-stick, who, in the past five years has presented work at just about every curated exhibition that matters in Europe, including the 4th Tate Triennial (Altermodern), The British Art Show 7, and the 54th Venice Biennale. 

Experiencing Mellors’ art is a bit like the honeymoon period of a relationship (split from reality and sealed in dyad world where language and the senses get all gooey). He is partly known for his vomiting and talking animatronic-heads, which are mutant offspring from his better known Ourhouse series (2010 - ongoing). The latter is the artworld equivalent of a T.V. soap opera or sitcom, wherein warped sub-plots and inbred characterizations are sealed within a cul-de-sac of absurdity. However, whereas one can devour bad T.V. efficiently without recourse to waste, Mellors’ art requires either a gagging reflex (his puking sculptures), a slow metabolism, or the constitution of Elvis for indigestible irresolution. His hyper-characterizations also help to draw you into the orbit of his absurdist universe; a universe that synthesizes the semantic-munching shenanigans of Spike Milligan and Samuel Beckett with the affected T.V. theatre of David Lynch’s Twin Peaks and Simon Pegg and Jessica Stevenson’s Spaced. At TBG+S we get to experience his most recent short film The Sophisticated Neanderthal Interview, which welds the missing links of a speculative prehistory with a join of science-fiction slapstick that is distinctly British.

With every blindfolded revision of prehistory the Neanderthal – misunderstood club-wielder and derogatory term for present day football hooligan – seems to grow in cunning. Once we were told that Neanderthals hadn’t the spark of intelligence to control fire. Now we are told that they interbred with modern humans, ate salad and most recently, made art. Mellors plays with these shifting ethnographic paradigms in The Sophisticated Neanderthal Interview, and places art centre stage as a marker for human consciousness.

The twenty-two minutes long film opens with a scene reminiscent of the nondescript rocky landscapes that Captain James T. Kirk and crew repeatedly materialize upon in the original Star Trek series; when, before CGI, most representations of the ‘other-worldly’ looked uncannily, and disappointingly, Earth-like. A wide-eyed young man wearing a space-age onesie – to compliment a lack of street smarts we discover later – descends down the hillside like a toddler with momentary purpose. He arrives at a cave mouth where a ‘supposed’ Neanderthal sits with a scattering of his personal effects (including a resin bust of Shakespeare which materializes in the gallery as a delicious sculpture with drinking straws poking from the skullcap). The interaction between the man (named Truson – a spinoff character from Mellors’ Ourhouse) and the Neanderthal begins immediately without the buffer of small talk. The Neanderthal’s gestures and responses seem haphazard and playful, as if predicated on previous experiences with modern day humans. Perhaps tormented by human predictability, he makes up answers as he goes along for masturbatory amusement.

On the instruction of the Neanderthal, Truson scans his prehistoric interviewee with a device that determines chronology. Absurdly, the legs and head of the Neanderthal date from different time periods. Anthropological hijinks ensues. The ‘why?’ and ‘what for?’ of cave art is proffered by Truson. From the Neanderthal’s answers we learn that he has been expelled from the cave by something called “Sporgo”, because his art isn’t  “Sporgo-ey” anymore. European cave art is removed of any ethnographic significance when the Neanderthal sheds light on his method of application.

Neanderthal:  I did ‘em with me nobber.

Truson:           What the Buffalo-Man? And the Bison-Lady?

Neanderthal:  I did ‘em with me Janets.

                        I just swing ‘em round on the walls in the dark

                        I don’t know how they come out like – but they do.

The Neanderthal answers Truson’s questions with the tone of an over-rehearsed tour guide who’s had his fill of fair-weather tourists with no regard for personal space or imagination. Mellors’ suspenseful audio-scape of synthesized sounds compounds the sense that everything is not as it seems on the surface.

This sense of foreboding comes to psychedelic fruition when the Neanderthal invites Truson to partake in some ritual substance abuse: presumedly some kind of Neanderthal Art foreplay. Truson is coaxed into snorting mind-expanding substances while the Neanderthal cakes weird substances onto his face. Never physically forced, Truson is mentally teased and taunted by the Neanderthal. Sitting before a silk flame machine – what would a prehistoric movie be without fire, even the illusion of fire? – the Neanderthal hunkers over his puppet and suggests a twisted scenario that involves Truson putting his face in the ‘fire’.

Neanderthal:  Yes, to expand the mind –

                        face in fire at about gas-mark six for five minutes

                        then I’ll lower the heat for let’s say another 10 mins.

                        and then I’ll give you a taste, see how you feel

                        and we’ll take it from there.

From here on in the Neanderthal, the dialogue, the mise-en-scène start to lose resolution. Inside the cave, where the Neanderthal warns Truson not to enter because of Sporgo, the young man comes across a table with indiscernible objects. Not far behind the Neanderthal appears, sporting a streamlined, tropical-themed shell suit, while a light projection divides the pair into a gridded pattern: Tron meets Teen Wolf. Effervescently dancing back and forth, the Neanderthal sums up man’s search for humanity’s provenance as a fool’s errand.

Neanderthal:  Ten cubic centimetres of man-jam!

                        Don’t worry brainpan – there’s more than one way of being human.

                        It’s all a question of resolution.

                        I’m a bigger resolution.

                        You can’t resolve me.

The Sophisticated Neanderthal Interview plays with the fact that prehistory is a clean slate for fictional re-visioning. Mellors is ad-libbing the past with the same arch-zeal as Monty Python, or Catholicism for that matter, leaving the viewer stranded between giddiness and Machiavellian unease. In this context the resin bust of Shakespeare with drinking straws bespeaks gift shop tat; a Slurpee of knowledge that achieves brain freeze not enlightenment. Patrick Kennedy – the actor who injects crackling charisma into the role of the Neanderthal – describes The Sophisticated Neanderthal Interview perfectly: “It’s sort of like a psychedelic caveman movie that makes no apparent sense. But this is what’s fun. It makes sense at the back of your head.”

Through November 1.

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I’m with Stupid.

IMAGE CREDITS: Still from The Sophisticated Neanderthal Interview 2013-2014

35mm film and Digital-8 HD transfer, color, sound. 22 min.

Courtesy the artist and MONITOR, Rome; Stigter van Doesburg, Amsterdam; and Matt’s Gallery, London.

Installation photo by Kasia Kaminska; courtesy of TBG+S.

Thank you to Nathaniel Mellors for the script excerpts.

The Sophisticated Neanderthal Interview

Nathaniel Mellors

Temple Bar Gallery + Studios, Dublin

5 September – 1 November 2014

(Curated by Rayne Booth)


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