WTF Fun Fact 13655 – Ice Age Fire Art

Surviving the Ice Age required more than just hunting and gathering – there was fire art. OK, hear us out.

As they gathered around fires for warmth and safety, something more than just physical comfort emerged. This was a time for them to indulge in an artistic pursuit that continues to fascinate us today.

The Paleolithic Animator and Ice Age Fire Art

In recent research published in PLOS ONE, a team led by archaeologist Andy Needham proposed an intriguing idea. They suggested that Ice Age artists used the flickering light of fire to bring their stone carvings to life.

These 15,000-year-old limestone plaquettes, adorned with animal figures, were not just static art. Instead, under the dynamic light of a fire, they appeared to move, animating the etched creatures. Fire art!

Needham’s team studied various limestone plaquettes found at the Montastruc rock shelter in southern France. These carvings, attributed to the Magdalenian culture, showcased a range of animals like horses, ibex, and reindeer.

Interestingly, these plaquettes showed signs of thermal damage, suggesting exposure to fire. But was this intentional?

Experimental Archaeology Sheds Light

To answer this, the researchers turned to experimental archaeology. They created replica plaquettes and subjected them to different fire scenarios. These experiments aimed to replicate the pinkish discoloration seen on the originals. The results? The patterns suggested that the artworks were deliberately placed near the hearth, likely as part of the creative process.

Further exploring this idea, the team used virtual reality to simulate firelight’s effect on the plaquettes. The results were fascinating. The irregular lighting from the fire brought an illusion of movement, making the animals seem like they were alive and moving across the stone surface.

The Role of Pareidolia in Ice Age Fire Art

This phenomenon can be partly explained by pareidolia, where the human brain perceives familiar patterns in random objects. In the flickering firelight, viewers would see incomplete forms on the plaquettes. Their brains would fill in the gaps, creating a dynamic viewing experience.

The Ice Age artists might have used this to their advantage. They could start with natural rock features to shape their animals, allowing the firelight to complete the picture. This interaction between the art, the rock’s natural form, and the dynamic firelight created a captivating experience, unique to the Paleolithic era.

Beyond survival, these artistic endeavors provided a social outlet. After a day of survival tasks, our ancestors likely gathered around the fire, not just for warmth but for a communal experience. Here, they could indulge in storytelling, companionship, and artistic expression.

The act of creating art by firelight was perhaps as important as the art itself. It wasn’t just about the final product but about the process of creation, the gathering of minds, and the sharing of ideas. This communal aspect of Ice Age art adds a deeply human dimension to our understanding of these ancient peoples.

Art as a Cultural Practice

Ice Age art wasn’t merely aesthetic; it was a cultural practice imbued with meaning. The process of drawing, the summoning of spirits, and even acts of destruction (like deliberate breakage or fire damage) could have had significant roles in their society.

These artistic sessions by the firelight might have served multiple purposes – from summoning spirits to strengthening community bonds. The plaquettes, once used, could have been discarded or intentionally destroyed, suggesting a transient nature to this art form.

 WTF fun facts

Source: “Ice Age Artists May Have Used Firelight to Animate Carvings” — Smithsonian Magazine

WTF Fun Fact 13219 – DNA Sculptures

An artist named Heather Dewey-Hagborg has created DNA sculptures using genetic material from random items discarded by strangers.

How are DNA sculptures created?

Dewey-Hagborg first collects discarded DNA samples. These come from cigarette butts or hair. She then uses the DNA left on the items to generate 3D-printed portraits. In theory, these sculptures should reflect the physical attributes of the person from whom the DNA was taken.

The process starts with extracting the DNA from the sample. She then amplifies specific regions of the genome that are associated with physical characteristics, like hair color or facial structure. The amplified DNA is then sequenced to determine the individual’s genetic information. This information is used to create 3D models of the person’s face. Those models are then 3D printed for her art installations.

The artist bases the final sculptures of the sculpture on genetic information. But it also relies on assumptions about how genes influence physical appearance. So, in some sense, they are speculative. You likely wouldn’t be able to track down a person based on a sculpture.

In an interview in Interalia Magazine (cited below), Dewey-Hagborg explained her process. “I walked around picking up people genetic material and analysing it, making portraits, to show the coming risks of genetic surveillance. That as our DNA is increasingly legible (fast, easy, cheap to sequence) we are facing new cultural consequences.”

As for her goal:

“My goal, if I have one, is to inspire audiences to critically engage with science and technology in their lives. To be aware of structures around them, of things present or soon coming, and to think and talk about them with others; to discuss what should or shouldn’t be.  I hope that my work invites viewers into a visceral encounter with the near future.”

Genetics and art

By using DNA as a medium, Dewey-Hagborg tries to raise questions about the role of genetics in shaping our identities. Her work also has implications for thinking about advances in biotechnology for privacy and individuality.

Dewey-Hagborg has displayed her work at the World Economic Forum. She has also sold work to the Centre Pompidou, the Victoria and Albert Museum, the Wellcome Collection, the Exploratorium. She has a Ph.D. in Electronic Arts from Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute.  WTF fun facts

Source: “A visceral encounter with the near future” — Interalia Magazine

WTF Fun Fact 13116 – Pigeons Can Tell the Difference Between Monet and Picasso

If you try hard enough, anything is possible. But it turns out training pigeons to discriminate between a Picasso and a Monet isn’t actually all that hard. Pigeons can tell the difference between the two artists with relatively little effort (at least relative to what we would have imagined).

Pigeons and Picasso and Monet

In 1995, researchers Shigeru Watanabe, Junko Sakamoto, and Masumi Wakita published a paper called “Pigeons’ discrimination of paintings by Monet and Picasso” in the Journal of the Experimental Analysis of Behavior. In it, they showed:

“Pigeons successfully learned to discriminate color slides of paintings by Monet and Picasso. Following this training, they discriminated novel paintings by Monet and Picasso that had never been presented during the discrimination training. Furthermore, they showed generalization from Monet’s to Cezanne’s and Renoir’s paintings or from Picasso’s to Braque’s and Matisse’s paintings. These results suggest that pigeons’ behavior can be controlled by complex visual stimuli in ways that suggest categorization. Upside-down images of Monet’s paintings disrupted the discrimination, whereas inverted images of Picasso’s did not. This result may indicate that the pigeons’ behavior was controlled by objects depicted in impressionists’ paintings but was not controlled by objects in cubists’ paintings.”

Birds and bees

Later on, in 2013, behavioral scientists showed that honeybees could also discriminate between paintings by the two artists.

Perhaps more hilariously, a 2010 article in the journal Animal Cognition showed that “Pigeons can discriminate “good” and “bad” paintings by children.” Imagine a pigeon letting your child know their art is “bad.”

Wonder how it was done? In the words of the researcher:

“In this study, I investigated whether pigeons could be trained to discriminate between paintings that had been judged by humans as either ‘bad’ or ‘good’. To do this, adult human observers first classified several children’s paintings as either ‘good’ (beautiful) or ‘bad’ (ugly). Using operant conditioning procedures, pigeons were then reinforced for pecking at ‘good’ paintings. After the pigeons learned the discrimination task, they were presented with novel pictures of both ‘good’ and ‘bad’ children’s paintings to test whether they had successfully learned to discriminate between these two stimulus categories. The results showed that pigeons could discriminate novel ‘good’ and ‘bad’ paintings.”

Who knew nature had such art critics?!  WTF fun facts

Source: “Pigeons’ discrimination of paintings by Monet and Picasso” — Journal of the Experimental Analysis of Behavior

WTF Fun Fact 12721 – The Wara Art Festival

Niigata isn’t a typical travel destination, but it does draw people in for a unique festival held each year between August and October.

The Wara Art Festival is held in Uwasekigata Park and shows off amazing sculptures made of rice straw left over after the annual rice harvest.

People weren’t quite sure what to do with all the straw, but now tons of it is donated to art students at Musashino Art University in Tokyo as well as local volunteers who are tasked with making giant animal sculptures with it. Some of them are up to 16 feet tall!

The sculptures include gorillas, dinosaurs, bears, rhinos, and more. Underneath is a wood frame skeleton to ensure the sculptures stay up throughout the festival, but over two weeks, more and more layers of wara are added. Some are braided, others thatched – in fact, there are many techniques the artists use to build their sculptures.

If you do go to Niigata for the festival, be sure to try the rice, which is considered to be the best in all of Japan. And according to Japan’s tourism association, the town is also known for its sake as well “thanks to the high snowfall in the prefecture which creates pristine conditions for rice growing. Centuries-old sake making traditions are kept alive by the toji, or Sake Masters, of Niigata. Local sake from breweries in Niigata are revered nationwide for their dry, sharp finish and refreshingly crisp flavour.”

If you visit the park, there are sake breweries within walking distance as well as beer breweries to visit.  WTF fun facts

Source: “Wara Art Festival, Niigata” — Japan National Tourism Association

WTF Fun Fact 12635 – A Pre-Raphaelite “Supermodel”

Elizabeth “Lizzie” SiddaI wasn’t beautiful by conventional 19th-century standards. Tall, thin, and red-headed, she worked in a hat factory, making her pale skin and gauntness even more striking. She wouldn’t have been noticed as beautiful at the time except that she caught the eye of Walter Howell Deverell in the winter of 1849. He was a member of The Pre-Raphaelite Brotherhood, a group of painters trying to bring back Renaissance traditions.

It turns out all of the painters all found her to be a perfect muse. Siddal eventually became a member of the Pre-Raphaelite movement herself as an artist and poet.

Being an artist’s model was a scandalous profession at the time, but it was Deverell’s wealthy mother who arrived to ask Siddal’s mother for permission for her son to paint her. Apparently agreeing that it was a safer profession, she was allowed to model part-time.

Deverell painted her as Viola in Twelfth Night, Holman Hunt painted her for A Converted British Family Sheltering a Christian Priest from the Persecution of the Druids (1850), and Dante Gabriel Rossetti painted her for the first time in 1850 in Rossovestita. Siddal and Rossetti eventually got engaged, and he painted her thousands of times, even becoming jealous and refusing to let others paint her after a while.

According to Siddal’s biographer Lucinda Hawksley:

“Although today Lizzie Siddal’s willowy build, gaunt features and lustrous copper-coloured hair are considered signs of beauty, in the 1850s being very thin was not considered sexually attractive, and red hair was described by one female journalist as “social suicide”. Through her modelling work and the success of the paintings she appeared in, Lizzie helped change the public opinion of beauty.”

Siddal became most famous as the muse for Millais’s Ophelia. – WTF fun facts

Source: “The tragedy of art’s greatest supermodel” — BBC Culture

WTF Fun Fact #12393 – An Olympic Medal For Art

From 1912 to 1952, the Olympics awarded medals for original paintings, sculptures, architecture, literature, and music inspired by athletics.

These were categories throughout the first four decades of the modern Olympics, yet hardly anyone knows about it. The only book on the topic is Richard Stanton’s The Forgotten Olympic Art Competitions.

He spent a great deal of time digging through boxes of crumbling files on the interesting piece of history in Switzerland. As it turns out, the founder of the IOC and the modern Olympic Games, Baron Pierre de Coubertin, saw art as a natural part of all-around displays of talent.

As Stanton told Smithsonian Magazine: “He [the Baron] was raised and educated classically, and he was particularly impressed with the idea of what it meant to be a true Olympian—someone who was not only athletic but skilled in music and literature. He felt that in order to recreate the events in modern times, it would be incomplete not to include some aspect of the arts.”

The first time medals were awarded for these talents was at the 1912 Stockholm Games, where 33 artists submitted works. But it wasn’t popular with all artists, some of whom thought competition of this style was crass for true artists to partake in.

WWII and changes to amateur athletics put this chapter of Olympic history to rest. The final artistic medals were handed out in 194 but later stricken from the Olympic record books.

– WTF Fun Facts

Source: When the Olympics Gave Out Medals for Art — Smithsonian Magazine