Art in the Twenty-First Century BC: Encino Man


This backflip stands out among the many iconic scenes of the seminal 1992 film, Encino Man, for its purposefully calibrated relationship to time and space, history and gravity. (Full disclosure: I grew up in Encino, California and yes, I am a Man; we’ll get to Encino Woman in a bit.) While it is surely important to note that the conventions of film editing have the potential to effect a form of time travel themselves, as they can span great distances in time (see what is perhaps the most famous graphic match cut in film history: a falling bone flung skyward by early man “becomes” a futuristic spacecraft through the magic of editing in the opening sequence of 2001: A Space Odyssey — a cut that is directly referenced in the opening earthquake sequence of Encino Man), space often comes to figure time, as in the hallucinatory fall that foretells the temporal undoing of the main characters of Vertigo, not to mention my own recourse to measuring time in “distances” earlier. What then do we make of Link’s backflip, the first thing this ice age caveman manages to do right after being excavated in a suburban backyard and stepping on a rake, mistaking a garbage truck for a mastodon, walking into glass, etc.? What can this prehistoric body gracefully falling through space tell us about time?

Falling Shaman, Lascaux

Art always unfolds in the present. It is historical insofar as it releases other times into our own. Regardless of how ancient it is, it, more often than not, tells us more about ourselves than it gives us an accurate picture of life at the time of its making. Perhaps that is what is so compelling about the cave paintings at Lascaux. Like the backflip that announces Link’s arrival at high school, the figure of the erect, bird-masked shaman falling through the sky seems to say, “I am here.” Not, “I was here,” but “I am here.”

It is the presentness of the past in even the most novel contemporary forms that I seek to address in this monthly column for Art21. While I will not limit myself  to the excavation of prehistoric forms, I will be digging the contemporary visual landscape for lingering intensities from yesterday and decades, centuries, millennia ago. One way I will do this will be to mine contemporary art, film, and museum practices for wonderful and perverse histories. Another will be to dig into my own ever-expanding collection of VHS videotapes, which I regularly acquire from the many thrift stores here in Los Angeles. These cast-offs from a not-too-distant era of cinematic consumption, embedded as YouTube videos in the column, will allow us to hold the present in material relation to an eclipsed technology that haunts our second-hand stores, if not our notions of technological advancement.

Tim Noble and Sue Webster, "The New Barbarians," 1997-1999. Fiberglass and translucent resin. Courtesy Modern Art, London.

It would reflect unspeakable hubris on our part if we were to say that fire was the Internet of the ice age. If we were playing pancakes or waffles, I would take fire in a hot second. And yet, here you are, your face and hands pressed close to the glow of your monitor and keyboard. In the context of the contemporary artist’s negotiation with the caveman, however, it is not so much a question of the fire, but how close he or she gets to identifying with it and the cavemanness of the caveman, if you will. Take Tim Noble and Sue Webster’s The New Barbarians. It’s not that dissimilar to the ending of Encino Man, when Link’s unfrozen ice age girlfriend crashes the pool party, except here, the caveman and cavewoman are the artists themselves, perhaps striding into a Michael Asher opening. While they are framed by the white cyclorama of an Apple product photography shoot, their faces evince the quiet attitude of philosophers pondering the materiality of fire and not how to, let’s say, burn a frog. The equal partnership between caveman and cavewoman in Noble and Webster’s work is not, however, reflected in the quality of the made-for-TV sequel to Encino Man, Encino Woman.

Thomas Hirschhorn, "Cavemanman," installation view, 2002. Courtesy Barbara Gladstone Gallery.

While Thomas Hirschhorn’s Cavemanman installation is made out of completely modern materials, such as cardboard and packing tape (like Noble and Webster’s work), it places the visitor inside the cave and the caveman inside us. This gets closer to the Encino Man sensibility of freely collapsing distinctions between us and them, allowing cross-identifications. However, while Encino Man sublimates this collapse into assimilation and joy, Cavemanman attempts to extract an anxiety around extinction, albeit through a comic form. The tension resolves itself in parody and the violent immanence of the caveman is kept at bay.

Thomas Houseago, "Serpent" installation view, 2009. Courtesy David Kordansky Gallery.

Thomas Houseago’s sculptures are the latest, and perhaps the least explicit contemporary artworks to engage the vogue of the caveman. Houseago contends that his work extends modernism’s engagement with “the primitive.” I would argue, however, that even if we put aside the recent trend of reviving insufferable overdeterminations of primitivity, rather than looking like a Picasso looking at a fetish or a mask, Houseago’s work looks like it was made by a caveman with some dim notion of Picasso’s oeuvre. And that, in effect, makes it a form of sculpture completely compatible with our time; the time not of the “caveman,” but the time of the “man cave,” the dark basement refuge of the self-emasculated bourgeois American consumer who buys his ticket back to manhood (on evenings and weekends) with the purchase of a bigger and better flatscreen TV every year and who, incidently, also has some dim notion of Picasso’s oeuvre.

A Man Cave

When man is anxious about time, he looks to fire (note the flaming stools). When he knows his time has nearly come to an end, he retreats to the cave. He knows. He knows…


Karthik Pandian’s “Art in the Twenty-First Century BC” column publishes once a month on the second Thursday.

  1. Hey Karthik, please tell me that even though you didn’t mention it, you were still thinking about Captain Caveman

  2. Ben Street says:

    Good day Karthik. It appears that German filmmaker of genius Werner Herzog is due to release a 3-D cave painting documentary, which is a phrase I never thought I’d write, let alone get actually quite excited about. Here’s WH on his interest in cave painting (which relates to what you’re saying):

    “What is also strange,” Herzog reveals, “is that somebody [in the cave] started a painting and then they left. And it’s known that 3,500 years later somebody continued the painting. And then a bear that hibernated over it left scratch marks. And over the scratch marks there was man, bear, man, bear, man, bear, man [over time]. It’s like time does not occur – it’s completely fantastic.”

  3. Karthik Pandian says:

    Kelly and Ben,

    Thanks for your provocations.

    I’ve been reading George Bataille’s “The Cradle of Humanity”, his essays on Prehistoric Art and Culture. In it, Bataille writes, Paleolithic art is “characterized by a stupefying negation of man. Far From seeking to affirm humanity against nature, man, born of nature, here voluntarily appears as a kind of waste.” While these very words could have dripped from the mouth of Herzog himself in any given DVD extra like the fetid nectar from an all-too-ripe jungle guava, they also seem to sum up (if I’m not misremembering here) the self-negation at the heart of one of Captain Caveman’s signature moves – the clubbing of oneself over the head – which is also the ultimate party move and what I do if I’m confronted by the cops.

    A 3D movie about painting seems like quite a formalist conceit though, eh? Like we will finally be able to investigate “Facture at Lascaux” or “The Materiality of the Bison” or something like that. Personally, I think all paintings should be 3D to begin with and then down-D’d to 2.

    In point of fact, I think Bataille, Herzog and Hanna-Barbera (Barbaric?), actually collaborated on the most enigmatic and yet incisive car insurance commercials of our times:

    Ah, the melancholy of the celebrity caveman. And finally, did you know that Phil Hartman lived and was, in fact, murdered in Encino? Man, this was a great sketch:

    I think I gotta write the sequel to this Caveman post at some point… Any more cavemen lurking out there in the Man Cave? MAN! BEER! MAN! BEER! MAN! BEER!

  4. Juliett says:

    Current News: In Spain, already known, the genius of the twenty-first century art, is called Vicjes Gonród. Genius is a modern, contemporary, current, has nothing to do with the antics of Dalí.

    Genius Web XXI century art:

    Art Geniuses Goya, Pablo Picasso, Salvador Dali and now Vicjes Gonród, Spain is a land of geniuses, no question.

    – Note: Many thanks for this article is very good.

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