For Rhizome (

Critique of Villa Arson's "lascaux2" web exhibition
Joseph Nechvatal

"Lascaux is the passage from the work world to the play world, which is the
passage from the Homo Faber to the Homo Sapien."
-Georges Bataille, "Lascaux: La Naissance de l'Art"

The Villa Arson, a relatively well-known center for contemporary art located
in Nice, France, has closed its doors for the summer and opened itself up to
the web with an exhibition called "lascaux2" ( In
that I had planned to pass by Nice during my stay this July in the south of
France to see the Villa Arson, this came as unfavorable news; but now that I
am back in Paris I have made the visit virtually.

I was particularly interested in the title of the exhibit in that I had a
couple of years ago received special permission to visit the actual Grotte
de Lascaux (carbon dated circa 17,000 BP) which is located atop an ancient
headland in the Perigord for my research into immersive consciousness (see: This particular voluptuously
painted cave is the most superbly adorned of the prehistoric caves,
festooned as it is in a wrap-around overhead garland of overpowering
bestiality, with even its ceiling painted (with the use of temporary wooden
scaffolding). It is not the oldest (some of the paintings in Chauvet cave
are over 30,000 years old; 3,000 years older than the oldest cave paintings
previously known and nearly twice as old as those found at Lascaux) nor the
largest prehistoric cave, but simply the most artistically achieved and thus
the most alluring.

Lascaux's most upper-walls and ceilings are resplendently surfaced with
sumptuous immersive paintings which depict a swirling riptide of quivering
apparitions depicting hypothetical notions of semi-transparent animals. The
leitmotiv of the cave is the translucent grouping of horses in and around
large semi-transparent dominating bulls. But what is particularly noteworthy
to us is that this tangle of animal forms exists in a groundless (virtual)
atmosphere where the bodies are not anchored to anything suggesting land.
Rather, what is suggested is a 360° non-Euclidean space - which is precisely
the arrangement of the ideal range of virtuality in Virtual Reality. There
is no attempt at depicting non-virtual Euclidean ground or defining a
landscape - and there are no plants, trees or rocks depicted. Moreover, the
dominating figures here are not simply bulls, but rather bull-apparitions,
hung with and interposed by a dainty petticoat made up of smaller animals
(stags, horses and bison) all organized in crescents and cruseiforms in and
around them in interpenetrating and profuse fashion. Furthermore the mural
in the Salle des Taureaux struck me as aesthetically deluxe in its capacity
to evoke intelligence through the management of line and its unification of
the semi-sculptural with the graphic.

The ludicrous title of Villa Arson's show "lascaux2" is a transparent
reference to "Lascaux II": an immersive reproduction which copies the shape
of the Grotte de Lascaux's Salle des Taureaux and the Axial Gallery. Here
painters have reproduced the figures and symbols of these two galleries
exactly as possible using the same painting materials as the Magdalenians
used. Lascaux II also contains a small museum which is educationally
informative. There is no sense in calling it a copy. It is an educational

Also one thinks of the artist Benjamin Britton's 16 million color, high
quality definition "VR Lascaux" which utilizes an HMD system to view
high-resolution image maps. Britton's immersive VE is an educationally
rewarding experience, and like Lascaux II shows something of the cave to
those (almost everyone) who may not enter it. However we would be deluding
ourselves in pretending that these simulations approach in any meaningful
way the experience of immersive consciousness which can be gained during
murky moments within the actual Grotte de Lascaux.

The catch-as-catch-can approach of lascaux2, however, holds nothing of the
layered, nuanced, cadenced, and revelatory aesthetic qualities of even
Lascaux II. It is rather just another summer group show - this one of
primarily web-casts augmented by chilly chat. As such, it is neither better
nor worse than the typical summer group show - it is a jolly (or unseemly)
hodge-podge of effaceable works which suffer from ordinariness. Like an
inexpensive French table wine, it has no bouquet.

As Georges Bataille (1897-1962) in his lengthy 1955 essay "Lascaux: La
Naissance de l'Art" said of the Grotte de Lascaux, we cannot know its full
meaning but we can sense its maker's desire to impress by stunning our
senses. And indeed in coming into the immersive space of the Grotte de
Lascaux my first impression was of being stunned and disconnected from the
norm in favor of a psychic space where sex, art, and death meet in an
aesthetic discharge. lascaux2 has none of this. Even worse, it is devoid of
that damned elusive thing called taste. I am not talking about that quality
called beauty, but of that quality which can invest the ordinary
no-nonsensical with dignity and indelibleness. Zeal, spunk, concavity, airy
intelligence and an obtuse, non-belabored Proustian wit for non-idealized
schematicization are all there in abundance, but the sense of subtle
understatement mixed with powerful presentational finesse: this is absent.
And it is a pity in that the exhibition fails then in making the visitor
more alert, more interested, or more aware of the cross-currents between
contemporary art and the distributional aspects the Internet.

I do not think we should blame the Villa Arson directly for these short
comings; the trouble is indirect and lies deeper. France, like America in
the 90s, has adapted a blathering aesthetic rut where most all artistic
endeavors are ultimately subsumed by some sort of naturalist morass. This
comic-pathetic mentality is admirable, of course, for its efficacy of
anti-intellectual acumen and oppressive non-loquaciousness, while one might
regret its lack of quixotic subtlety and style.

To be sure there has been assembled an amazing amount of semi-turgid
material by a wide range of artists and commentators here. One is tempted
towards a thematic exfoliation following the model of the Grotte de Lascaux,
as the title lascaux2 suggests, but this leads nowhere. But this needn't
perturb the process. For me, Proustian aesthetics are the dominant theme and
"proust2" the appropriate title as Proust all his life distinguished public
events from their private meanings. Moreover, the prominent rhizomatic
French philosopher Gilles Deleuze (1925-1995) has given us an explanation of
the virtual via the celebrated French author Marcel Proust (1871-1922) in
his book "Bergsonism" by defining the virtual as that which is real without
being actual, ideal without being abstract.

Early on in the 20th century Marcel Proust in his masterpiece "Remembrance
of Things Past", links cravings to sense and understand the entire field of
atmospheric impressions (through intimate observations) with the compunction
to penetrate exterior matter so to understand the precision of the
sensuality behind the aesthetic. lascaux2 is Proustian then in that there
seems to be only a hazy core of earthly facts suffused with
aggressive-deprecatory virtual apprehension for us to decode - along with a
rather enfolded but satiable consciousness laced with anxieties of jealous
passion and psychic stress. Patterns of withdrawal and inversion -
illustrated by a wealth of banal incident and cheap sentimental effects -
also contribute to the Proustian environment if one eschews the Lascaux
connection altogether.

One sort of thin and severe taste will complain that too many Proustian
references only muddy the factuality of the works on display - to which I
would reply that Proust would not be Proust without some brittle cocktail
chatter to leaven any artistic metaphysics with mundane details. But to call
for a strictly categorical acceptance of the exhibition as an entirely happy
happenstance - as opposed to a generalizationalized aesthetic construct -
would be to call for mere sympathetic non-judgment just because the show
happens to appear on the web. This is precisely the way to keep web
criticism from opening up and judiciously growing outward - from keeping web
art from being critically advanced. Proust is pertinent to lascaux2 in that
he provides a more diaphanous mist around the mundane facts on display which
compounds doubt, projection, memories, analogies, desires, terrors,
jealousies and misgivings. Proustinian reverberations enliven the show
immensely as Proustian arguments flare the mundane out into a distinct
reflection on the erotic and the social. But finally, only Proustians who
have a spacious allotment of time at their disposal will linger here long.

Book References:
Bataille, G. 1955. "Lascaux: La Naissance de l'Art". Geneva: Skira
Deleuze, G. 1988. "Bergsonism". New York: Zone Books
Proust, M. 1924. "Remembrance of Things Past: Volumes 1 and 2". New York:
Random House