Back and forth between now and 32,000 years ago

Still from "Cave of forgotten dreams," Werner Herzog, 2010.

Ulufer Çelik’s text was among the four selected proposals submitted for‘s open call for young art writers and artists who express themselves in the form of text form. With this open call, we wanted to expand our discussions through commissioning texts on art and to develop our relationship with young art writers for future collaborations. The subject of the open call was a straightforward yet complicated and urgent one: How do visual arts transform the daily life? We asked this question to writers who were born after November 9, 1989, the fall of the Berlin Wall.

Ulufer Çelik

What is known through sense perception is an image.
—Plotinus [1]

Olafur Eliasson, in his Notion motion installation, draws on reproductions of daily life on the surfaces of the exhibition space. Beginning from the walls of the Chauvet Cave, the self’s reflection on various surfaces has increasingly included dwellings in everyday life—the surfaces no longer deemed merely a stage. In Eliasson’s installation, the wall, where the work is rooted, interacts with light and water, making the space legible through vibrations and wave patterns created by visitors. The work immerses viewers as strongly as the precision of their ability to observe, and demands an experience activated with the bodily movement rather than a passive participation.

When I first see the installation, I feel as if I’m visiting an abstract replica of daily life. Other visitors and I, our shadows, the floor we are standing on, the sounds we are making, the rough vibrations of the earth on the street, as well as the water and the light—we are all reflecting on and affecting one another. I discover this perception over and over again as I meander around the installation in Bodon Gallery of the Museum Boijmans van Beuningen in Rotterdam. The noise caused by the foot steps of visitors engages with the dialogues of dark silhouettes on the walls, infusing into the reflective environment by blurring boundaries between the space and outside of the museum.

Eliasson states that the artistic aim of the installation is to make viewers realize their potential impact on the work of art. In his own words, “Physical involvement is a thought process too, just as the thought process is related to the physical.” [2] Eliasson’s participatory practice possesses a persuasive power. At the same time, the installation challenges the consistency of visual perception as it suggests that the spatio-temporal conditions in question are rather marked by other elements such as vibrations, sound, and water. The installation brings out an outsiderness for the visitor, which nurtures the sense-perception, in an altered form of the exhibition space through projecting aspects of it.

While crafting these boundaries of perceptual phenomena in public sphere during my walk outside the museum, I become convinced that this artistic endeavor dates back to much earlier. Werner Herzog’s documentary, Cave of Forgotten Dreams (2010), portrays the story of the 32,000-year-old cave paintings in the Chauvet Cave in southern France, first discovered by speleologists in 1994. One can interpret the film through the interconnected nature of biosphere, thought processes, art, and physical interactions. These recurrent notions sensitize individuals to the infinite number of perceptual shifts that are possible in their interaction with familiar elements in daily life.

In his work, Eliasson generates a direct involvement with natural elements that transcend cultural models of relationships between humans and the environment so that the individual, instead of simply observing, is also responsible for interacting with natural forces through art. As for Herzog, he talks about the aura of melodrama in the Southern France type of landscape that he finds at the Chauvet Cave. The filmmaker wonders whether this spectacular landscape—reminiscent of a Wagner opera or paintings of German Romanticism as he perceives it—could connect us to the people of the Stone Age. He explores whether we could possibly have a perception of the inner self, one that is similar to what people had 32,000 years ago. These people practiced the notion of the inner self through projecting their shadows and daily life scenarios related with nature on the walls of the Chauvet, and Eliasson engineers an apparatus behind the perceptive front that registers human action in a common sense. In both cases, nature is no longer something intact and immeasurably vast but rather an evolving image that human beings are constantly shaping.

I rediscover this phenomenological perception from thousands of years ago as I look at a simple wall, and I cannot let go this visceral and immersive experience easily. My route outside the museum follows the waterways in the city, just like I walk along the second part of the installation that is the wooden deck, surrounded by water in the exhibition space. The wooden deck activates waves—new waves are formed as visitors walk the path, creating new vibrations. The water is then reflected on the walls; the visitors’ movements, shadows, and sounds turn into images in the gallery space. And the third part of the installation consists of waves created by a sponge on a rope that plunges into the water at regular intervals. I collect the glimpses of the waterfall that no longer exists, which shaped the ground of the Chauvet. There is a metal deck that enables the camera to get as close as the film crew can approach it, without damaging the sediments.

32,000 years ago, Europe was a cold but sunny area full of glaciers, hosting rhinos, giant deers, horses, bisons, and antelopes living by rivers, as well as humans among all these carnivores and predators. Michel Geneste, director of the Chauvet Case Research Project, points out that all the natural formations, animals, and vegetation have an active role for the Stone Age people to understand the world. On the other hand, in their daily life, these aspects refer to a sign in their imagination, to stories and mythologies.

Drawings on the walls of the Chauvet show that animal figures were predominant in the myths of paleontological “painters.” For Stone Age people, the way to understand the world started from the nature outside the cave. The fire was essential for looking at paintings, to dance around, and to develop rituals as it allowed people’s shadows to fall on the animal figures. In the 400-meter-long cave, the elements of light and shadow, created with the help of torches, helped the paleolithics to see animals move and become alive—just like the light Eliasson uses in his installation to create a contrast and a depiction of moving image at the gallery space. For Herzog, eight-legged bison or rhino with an illusion of movement and the three-dimensional dynamics constitute a form that could be the first example of cinema. With the torches, Stone Age people added their own shadows on the drawings that resembled the frames of an animated film, allowing them to relive their daily life experiences between walls and their bodies. Marked on walls, the daily life would be an act of remembering, which would eventually transform into rituals and be experienced and shared over and over again through physical interaction.

Despite a time gap of thousands of years, human beings keep creating spaces of exchange to represent their daily life practices. Both the cave paintings and Eliasson’s installation turn into two similar sparkles in a frozen moment of time, captivating viewers in an altered space where they can practice their visions in a social context. Here the image becomes a mediator that transfers knowledge through space. Both approaches break the boundaries of the landscape through the principles of phenomenalism to generate new lenses for human perception in their interactions with nature and the surroundings. These tenets carry the potential to release our perception of images from traditional techniques of seeing, and animate a shift on the new myths of our culture in limitless directions.


[1] Plotinus, The Six Enneads, trans. Stephen MacKenna and B. S. Page (London: Encyclopedia Britannica, 1952).

[2] “Olafur Eliasson, Notion motion”, Museum Boijmans van Beuningen, June 28, 2016,

Edited and translated from Turkish by Özge Ersoy

Ulufer Çelik (b. 1991) is an artist and architect based in Rotterdam. She is currently an MA candidate in Art Practice at the Dutch Art Institute. She works across various mediums of video and performance. Characterized by an approach on archaeology and memory, her practice combines the notion of affect and spatio-temporal elements via generating new layers for the meaning in postcolonial critique.