Office for Neanderthal Tourism & Crucifixion, by Nathaniel Mellors

The College of ‘Pataphysics is not over. It is alive. In fact, nothing can explain so well the absurdity of existence, of the mechanisms that control life – involuntary and resigned for some, necessary and planned for others.

‘Pataphysics has no moral, scientific, social limits; it is the institutionalisation of absurdism and the abrasive criticism underlying it. The science that does not exist must be invented. Cosmically impossible solutions become comically possible. It has a diploma, a professorship and both the committee and the satraps refuse the usefulness of knowledge, imagination and the instrumentalisation of everything. Eadem mutata resurgo. I appear again, different but the same.

Despite its Francophone profile, with renowned names from the history of literature and art – Marcel Duchamp, Boris Vian, Groucho, Man Ray or Alfred Jerry – ‘pataphysics is based on a universal and transversal conceptual rhetoric. We remember Monty Python, Seinfeld, the South Park cartoon and, if we want to be more radical, the instantaneous and chaotic culture of memes, which combine humour and satire with the untimely doctrine of post-irony or post-sincerity, whose critical and political contours are still unclear.

We can also find here the work of Nathaniel Mellors, who recurrently uses conceptual tools of British humour and ‘pataphysics in his videos and installations. Office for Neanderthal Tourism & Crucifixion is his most recent entry into these fields, where the artist shuffles the natural chronological course into an absurd non-historical or timeless trail.

Here, the absurd is not something without reason or meaning. Here, absurdity, as in ‘pataphysics, is a narrative device to underline such important philosophical concepts as existence, truth, factuality, the individual, the collective, morality, ethics and politics – ultimately, language and the powers that be. However, in Mellors, there is also the discursive montage of history, contemporaneity and the phenomena that erode media and everyday actuality.

The Neanderthal is the character rescued from the past. It is he who juxtaposes temporalities, after arriving late to the Iberian Peninsula. Yes, the Neanderthal arrived late to the Peninsula, this territory being the last to be occupied by the Neanderthal, shortly before he became extinct in the rest of the European continent. Prehistory is analysed by Mellors in an archaeological exercise emulated by technology and contemporary absurdism, questioning knowledge about the construction of history, what we think we know about our ancestors and all the ideological biases of that construction.

Office for Neanderthal Tourism & Crucifixion is an exhibition that summarises the production of the last twenty years of Nathaniel Mellors: the anthropomorphic and animatronic sculptures, the satirical video, the different disciplines mixed together, the painting that feeds on the cartoon caricature, in a multimedia work, not only in the material sense of the term, but in the theoretical connection he suggests to the productions of the Anglophone popular media.

In Neanderthal Container, the artist stages the biblical metaphor of the fall. In this perspective, it is the Neanderthal who falls disgracefully from heaven towards failure, incompleteness, death, disease, sin, to become Homo sapiens. This shift and fall depict the passage from a fully ecological existence, like that of the hunter-gatherer, to an existence that amounts to extractive anthropocentrism, massified and with a growing population, like that of Mesopotamian Homo sapiens. However, during this gravitational journey, the Neanderthal may have had a psychedelic, ecstatic and euphoric experience, in line with the oblique and almost stroboscopic projection would have us believe.

Alongside, The Sophisticated Neanderthal Interview essays an interview between Truson, the caricature of modern man, and Voggen Williams, a Neanderthal and personification of prehistory. Evolutionism and Western theory of primitivism are called into question. Truson considers himself enlightened by centuries of positivist science and universal culture, but it is Williams who proves to be wise and intelligent, giving voice to an artist who confuses and contradicts again the thesis that art is what distinguishes and separates the Neanderthal from Homo-sapiens. But there is a deeper critical side to this video: by adding artistic and discursive qualities to the Neanderthal, Mellors creates this speculation, in a critique of the institutionalisation of art and the art system, which is visible here in basements and caves, rather than in the acetic and pristine museums and galleries.

In a more recent production, Neanderthal Crucifixion is a stop-motion conceived during the pandemic, challenging the power and class dynamics within the caves. In it, the Neanderthal talks about his artistic past to underline the biting critique of the separation between so-called high and low cultures present in Super Brow Super Hands.

Office for Neanderthal Tourism & Crucifixion can be seen as an essay on humour, what this has of liberating and cathartic, of confusing and unsettling, when sincerity is called into question. In other words, it is an inexhaustible exhibition, somewhat delirious, but also alarming. Like all great works of art, it is capable of opening up a gap of ambivalence, doubts and unanswered questions in us. The Neanderthal may be the fictitious materialisation of Diogenes in Mellors. Or just another humoristic, ironic, satirical, metaphorical device, without any real consequence.

Until December 31, at Monitor Lisbon.

José Rui Pardal Pina (n. 1988) has a master's degree in architecture from I.S.T. in 2012. In 2016 he joined the Postgraduate Course in Art Curation at FCSH-UNL and began to collaborate in the Umbigo magazine. Curator of Dialogues (2018-), an editorial project that draws a bridge between artists and museums or scientific and cultural institutions with no connection to contemporary art.

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