It’s 2am and I can’t sleep because my brain is full of questions that I can’t answer. It’s overwhelming, as 2am tends to be when it’s just you and your thoughts. Tonight is different though, because tonight I’m trying to bend my mind around the idea that people have been lying awake at 2am worrying about their world for forty thousand years. It’s a strange thought, comforting and terrifying in equal measure, and it’s entirely the fault of a tiny little carved woman.
Musée d’archéologie nationale
© Photo RMN/Jean-Gilles Berizzi
I have a theory about humanity. When we’re confronted with something beyond our comprehension we react to it in one of two ways – either we shy away from it and reject it, or we allow ourselves to be consumed by an infinite fascination. When it comes to our existence, though, only the latter is an option. This is why people like me lie awake at 2am, why philosophers philosophise, and why millions of teenagers are wracked by the sort of existential angst that Sartre would be proud of. Why am I here, now, and how am I myself? In the absence of a definitive answer, it seems only logical to lay out the pieces of puzzle that we have to play with. Enter art, and with it thousands of years of puzzle pieces – tiny fragments of expressions of existence.
Today, my whole scale changed. When I think about art, I rarely stray beyond two thousand years ago. Quite often I don’t even venture that far – my current paper has had me resident in 15th Century Florence for quite a while now and my brain and I have been having a lovely time there. Six hundred years adrift from my existence is pushing the boundaries of my capacity to relate, but every now and then I’m struck by something so human that that relation is obvious. When I walked into an exhibition of Ice Age art today, my head literally ached as I attempted to imagine humanity forty thousand years ago. Some days I struggle with basic counting so 40,000 is difficult enough as a number, let alone as a measure of enduring reality. My brain was trapped in a mini ice age of its own, frozen.
As it turned out, all that it took to thaw the great freeze was one tiny, carved figure. It was no taller than an inch and (then present company excepted) it was the oldest thing I have ever seen. I recognised the figure from the exhibition advertising but was not prepared for the scale of it in reality – the marketing team had, very literally, blown it out of all proportion. As I stood before it in the British Museum, I was overwhelmed. As the curator’s label informed me, it was not a literal depiction of a woman but it was most definitely a carved human figure; it was instantly identifiable but almost wholly abstract by modern standards. Then came the realisation – I was not looking at some primitive attempt at a portrait, I was looking at an expression of human existence. More than that, it was an expression that tapped into something so essential that twenty thousand years apart from the artist, I could identify with it. It was so simple and yet more complex than anything I can convey, and it was the key to unlocking my understanding of the whole collection of art on display. At first I thought this epiphany was an existential puzzle piece slotting into place, but it soon dawned on me that it was just the realisation that the puzzle is forty thousand times bigger than I’d ever imagined. That tiny little woman is the product of humanity under conditions that are more alien to us than I can really imagine, and yet it speaks to the exact existence I know today.
I find a funny reassurance in the commonality of it all – the idea that people have always tried to express the puzzle of what it is to simply be. Yet, as I lie here, I also can’t shake the enormous sense of disquiet at the thought that a billion lifetimes have passed since that little woman was fashioned and I am no less bewildered at 2am.