A LIVING MEMBRANE BETWEEN REALMS
For prehistorical man, the walls, ceilings, and floors of these caves are little more than a thin membrane between him and the creatures and happenings of the underworld. Fusing with the rock surface, animals appear and disappear. Some leap out of the wall while others melt back into it. Some are painted in glorious polychromy, others engraved in just a few strokes. The more crudely drawn images are obvious artifacts of magical intents—where it is the act of doing that matters. Handprints reveal the visceral dynamics linking man to his artistic expression, and clawmarks from cave bears further compete to bring life to the rock wall.
Regardless of subject or artistic end result, always remains the sense of a presence inhabiting the forms. Paintings and engravings become living images, inseparable from the rock they issue from, the potent darkness of the cave.
Shaman-artists are drawing (in two senses) spirit animals through the wall membrane. They re-create—in some sense re-dream—their visions, fixing them on the membrane through which they have materialized. Through the insertion of animal bone fragments into the rock wall, they are also sending fragments of animals back through the membrane into the spirit world—allowing for a two-way traffic between this world and the spirit world.
On the one hand, the creator of the image holds it in his or her power: a movement of the light source can cause the image to appear out of the murk; another movement causes it to disappear. On the other hand, the image holds its creator in its thrall: if the viewer wishes the image to become visible, he or she is obliged to maintain a posture that keeps the light source in a specific position. Relax, and the image retreats into the Stygian realm from which it was coaxed. These ‘creatures’ (creations) of light and darkness point to complex interactions between person and spirit, artist and image, rock and animal spirit.
Sound plays a significant part in rituals associated with the imagery. Not only art is created in areas of strong resonance, but the type of echo generated at a particular location can relate to the subject matter pictured. For example, where hoofed animals are depicted, echoes generated from drumming or clapping becomes a running herd; if a person is drawn, the echo of a voice seems to emanate from the picture itself. Certain stalactites and stalagmites (referred to as ‘lithophones’) issue pure bell-, drum- or gong-like notes when struck. Most of these display ancient percussion marks and are painted with geometric signs and animal figures.