Paleo Riot: Nathaniel Mellors’ Sophisticated Neanderthal

Posted October 14, 2014 in Exhibition Previews

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What happens when a camera-wielding, onesie-wearing Homo sapien meets a rather gruff but soft-spoken Neanderthal? Well, they talk about art, get a bit pissed on ant juice and smoke Nat Sherman cigarettes, apparently. What else would they do?

This fictitious but highly entertaining scenario is what’s played out in The Sophisticated Neanderthal Interview, part of an exhibition of that title by Nathaniel Mellors in Temple Bar Gallery and Studios. A slick blip of a sci-fi mini-movie, somewhere between art and mockumentary, the film follows a presumably contemporaneous (or perhaps futuristic) man, Truson, who somehow locates a Neanderthal man in his natural habitat.

What unfolds is a telling dynamic between interviewer and interviewee. Truson arrives clad in an all-in-one (a common sci-fi trope, though on Truson it’s less Star Trek and more like a BabyGro), camcorder in hand, and begins asking his Paleolithic pal questions about life and art. He has the sort of wide-eyed naïvety of a first-year student, and the antagonising arrogance of one too. The Sophisticated Neanderthal, on the other hand, reclines nonchalantly, clad in leopard-print, like some hair metal lothario, spewing facts of life like he’s seen it all (and let’s face it, at 40-odd thousand years old, he probably has).

What’s entertaining about our Neanderthal friend – the driving force in this bizarre situation – is that he clearly knows social codes, yet chooses to flout them. He’s nuanced enough to spark up a green cocktail cigarette, but uncouth enough to proclaim that ‘It’s all a big bag of cocks’. He was, he explains, a very successful artist at one point. But he goes on to bitterly tirade against ‘the Sporgo’, who govern all art. ‘I used to make art that was more Sporgo-ey,’ he reminisces. ‘Made a few shells.’


Now though, he is dejected, playing a forlorn sort of romantic figure, an outsider artist, outcast from Sporgo culture. ‘I am an oxbow lake,’ he proclaims, cementing his outsider status, ‘with no water.’  He has chosen to disalign himself from the Sporgo art system, instead squandering his time on bottles of sweet, sweet narcotic ant juice and dining out on dolphin meat (‘preferably served up a tree’, he adds). Until, that is, Truson asks to see the art. At this point we slide noxiously from day into night.

Where did the hours go? this ant juice shit is potent; Truson growing more and more inebriated by the minute as our host for the evening spins into full-on Neanderthal party guy. The face-paint comes out and after galloping off into the barren landscape, the Sophisticated Neaderthal remerges with smoothed-down locks, a 1990s shellsuit and a Scouse accent, performing a manic ritual around a demented altar covered in candles, rocks and miscellaneous talismanic objects. Glowing electric guitar lighters and The Matrix-style green lasers render this arid and supposedly prehistoric setting as a bizarre digital alternate universe where the relics of the past all sit alongside visions of the future. Apt, given that the cave The Sophisticated Neanderthal Interview was filmed in is the same one used for the original Bat Cave in 1960s.

A euphoric, psychedelic romp through space and time, The Sophisticated Neanderthal Interview parodies both the role of the artist and our misconceptions of prehistoric man. It subtly tugs on the sleeve of the term ‘outsider art’, asking just exactly what it means to carry such a title. It queries our perception of not just Neanderthal man, but all earlier kinds of man, force-fed, as we are, misleading theories of ‘progress’ and evolution. In the words of the so-called ‘dean of science fiction writers’ Robert A. Heinlein, ‘Each generation thinks it invented sex; each generation is mistaken’. The Sophisticated Neanderthal’s social infrastructure is no less fickle or materialistic than our own; he is, after all, part of the generation that coined land ownership and basic agriculture.

Mellors is clearly informed by pop culture. He has played in a number of musical acts and founded a non-profit record label, Junior Aspirin, so it’s no surprise that the soundtrack is carefully considered; a fizzlng synthetic soundscape of noise and drone. At one point, the Sophisticated Neanderthal proclaims, ‘Let there be house!’, surely a reference to Rhythm Controll’s 1987 cult rave classic My House, later sampled on Fingers Inc’s Can You Feel It. But more so than this, there’s an obvious nod to sci-fi classics including 2001: A Space Odyssey and Quest For Fire, a grunting 1981 sci-fi saga about early man’s dependency on the ability to make fire to survive.

Hosting a screening of the film at the IFI the night before opening, Mellors noted that, ‘Every science fiction film is not really about the future, but the age in which it is set’. In which case, what does The Sophisticated Neanderthal Interview say about us? Truson’s malleability, becoming decreasingly lucid as the film progresses, compared to the erratic wisdom of the Neanderthal might say something about our increasing detachment. But on the flipside, it might also hint towards a tendency to fetishise the relics of another era; to romanticise figures of the past in search of some ancient wisdom. Mellors rightly points out the previously unknown competencies of Neanderthal man; but he also subtly pokes at our tendency to bestow him with mystical status. Is our Neanderthal friend really as sophisticated as he lets on? Probably not. But then who are we to talk? Pass the ant juice.

Nathaniel Mellors’ The Sophistical Neanderthal Interview runs at Temple Bar Gallery and Studios until November 1st.

Words: Rosa Abbott


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