Warning: mysql_real_escape_string(): 56 is not a valid MySQL-Link resource in /var/www.arte-coa.pt/Classes/DataSource.php on line 92 Warning: mysql_query(): 56 is not a valid MySQL-Link resource in /var/www.arte-coa.pt/Classes/Ligacao.php on line 103 Warning: mysql_real_escape_string(): 56 is not a valid MySQL-Link resource in /var/www.arte-coa.pt/Classes/DataSource.php on line 92 Warning: mysql_query(): 56 is not a valid MySQL-Link resource in /var/www.arte-coa.pt/Classes/Ligacao.php on line 103 Côa

ArtPrintCritical dictionary

Art, Life and Medium

Mário Perniola


The sex-appeal of the inorganic in the Coa Valley

In the interpretation of so-called Rock Art it is possible to identify two fundamental tendencies generally known as Hunting Magic and the Neuropsychological Model. The former is based on the concept of magic as imitation, according to which prehistoric petroglyphes and pictogrammes would be functional to the success of hunting: this theory was widely recognized during the first half of the twentieth century. The latter, which was first presented and then developed in the second half of the century, outlines the relationship between these compositions and the

States of Consciousness (ASC) of the shamans, who would have represented in these engravings and images the visions perceived in a kind of travel of the soul through the supernatural world. The first theory has a functionalistic orientation because it establishes a connexion between these images and everyday life; the second theory turns to initiation paths which enable access to exceptional spiritual conditions.


Keywords: roots of art; antropology of image; Georges Bataille; shamanism; hunting; art, image and technique; imitation; visuality; kinetic

Mimicry and trance

At first glance, these two theories seem to be in opposition; but this contradiction becomes remarkably reduced if they are radicalized and taken to their extreme consequences, as explored in Roger Callois’ work, Les Jeux et les hommes : le masque et le vertige. The imitation is no more a simple mimesis, but mimicry, and the altered State of Consciousness is not a spiritual journey, but a dizzy trance. Caillois distinguishes essentially four types of game: the agon (competition), the alea (luck), the mimicry (simulacrum) and the ilinx (dizziness). The first two form a couple, as do the last two. The competition and the luck obey the spirit of contention, even though they regulate it in an opposite way (in the former case by merit, in the latter by chance). The simulacrum and the dizziness are closely interconnected, too: the imitation, taken to its extreme, erases the original resulting in inseparability from the experience of the void. The simulacrum is not simply a drawing imitating reality, but a mimicry implying the discovery of the precariousness of existence and the suspension of individual subjectivity: it is a therapy for survival, by transforming the feeling of bewilderment and demoralization into a frenzy close to a trance. This one, in turn, has to be thought not as a liberation from the world, but as a rite of possession, where the one experiencing trance feels his body as something no longer belonging to him.      

In other words, there is a fundamental difference between sciamanism and trance: in the former the soul visits after-death places while keeping its own identity, in the latter the body loses its identity to be occupied by an external force.

This third interpretation, which could be defined as dizzy-mimetic opens up a completely different scenery from the habitual one (conditioned by the theories of the Hunting magic and of the Neuropsychological Model) regarding the way the authors of petroglyphes and pictogrammes were. However, it is never to be forgotten that any hermeneutic effort conducted over traces of such a remote age (going back from 30.000 to 10.000 years ago in the case of the Vale do Coa) belongs more to the frame of mind of the interpreters than to that of the prehistoric men, who fascinate us precisely because they confront us with something enigmatic and incomprehensible in its essence. The primitive man, as the philosopher, to borrow the title of Paul Rodin’s (1927) pioneer book, remains an inaccessible crypt to any intellectual effort: it is similar to a core situated inside our unconscious, to a tomb whose existence we ignore, as the psychic crypt Nicholas Abraham e Maria Torok discovered during their studies on trauma and mourning. The word “philosophy” is inadequate to describe the mentality of the primitive man, not less than the word “art”  because the notion of art is a historical product of western society even more recent than the notion of philosophy. In his book on the Lascaux cave paintings the French thinker Georges Bataille established a close relationship between these traces and the experiences of death and sexuality which found humanity as something different from animality. Nevertheless, the question about the essence of this experience is never going to receive a definite answer.

The engravings and the pictogrammes of Vale do Côa present features of such a peculiarity, compared to the other findings of Rock Art, that it stimulates new theoretical considerations.

While the majority of the other prehistoric traces were discovered in caves, in this case we have to consider an enormous production of drawings and symbols in open air. Thus, in this case the connection between the depictions and the caves conceived as places endowed with acoustic characteristics capable of generating an altered state of consciousness, is no more pertinent. On the contrary, an opposite and much more anachronistic interpretation might be formulated, which considers these creations as a recreational show offered to the public.

It is necessary not to make banal, by establishing absurd affinities with contemporary society, a production which implies a deep and intense psychical participation and lasted for millenniums.

Style as the sex appeal of the inorganic

One of the most disconcerting aspects of the traces of the Vale do Côa is the animation] of some of the figures sculpted in the rock, whose successive movements are represented synchronically. It is as if the very rock became animated giving birth to a sort of sex appeal of the inorganic, whose first theorist was the art historian Wilhelm Worringer (1881- 1965), the author of the most important and luckiest work in the field of the aesthetic of the form in the beginning of the twentieth century, Abstraction and Empathy (1908). In his work Worringer not only separate but even oppose naturalistic representation to the purest and most radical experience of the form, that he defines with the term style.

If we accept Worringer’s theory, the petroglyphes and pictogrammes of the Vale do Côa wouldn’t have anything to do with the functionalistic naturalism of Hunting Magic nor with the sciamanic spiritualism of Neuropsychological Model.

Their authors would be the inventors of style. This can be defined as the tendency to escape both the fortuitousness of vital processes and the transcendence of transcendental visions: style is a desire for abstraction, is emancipation from the angst of nature and subjectivity.

The examples of inorganic style he gives are very meaningful in themselves. There is avant tout the ornamental style: Worringer uses and develops Alois Riegl’s considerations, underlying the opposition between ornament and imitation. In ornamental abstraction the will to transcend nature is manifested in a pure and absolute way. It is necessary not to be mislead by the animal patterns of ornamental art, which are constantly repeated in Rock Art: they are subordinate to a stylization refusing both vitalism and spiritualism.

The ruins of the Coa Valley do offer not only a static, geometric-crystalline representation of the shape; they are pervaded by a mysterious pathos, which gives dynamism to the inorganic, creating a sort of artificial “life”, a “living” mechanics endowed with a much greater intensity than natural life is. In the animations, abstraction celebrates its own triumph, because it gets hold of its very opposite which is the vital dimension. But this appropriation does not mean at all harmonious synthesis: on the contrary, it is a rather worryingly mixture of materiality and sensibility, which appears to the normal vital sentiment as an “excess of dissolution”, to adopt Worringer’s words.

Bataille’s argument, which connects the birth of humanity with the discovery of eroticism, maintains its validity; but the sex-appeal of the inorganic is devoid of those vitalistic and orgiastic connotations Bataille attributes to eroticism. The perversion of the Rock Art of Coa Valley consists in transgressing the limits of organic mobility: energy flows in the dead lines of the rock and gains an infinite force which demolishes any obstacle. Style leads to an experience which dissolves the very notion of form, intended as a determined configuration endowed with a precise identity.

The fundamental aspect of style is its character of “exteriority” as opposed to the organic-vitalistic and to the spiritualistic-sciamanic subjectivity. The Valley of Coa confronts us with the enigma of a stone which vibrates. This aesthetics is something different from religious experience, since it is indissolubly tied to the rock, the thing, the inorganic.

A particularity of the Coa Valley compared with the other traces of Rock Art is the representation not only of animals but of anthropomorphic figures as well: this introduces us into a different perception of the body, which loses its dimension of autonomous living organism. We confront with a mixture of abstraction and materiality that is extremely present-day, as I explained in my book O sex appeal do inorgânico. Some experiences repeat themselves in slightly the same way trough millenniums.

As it was demonstrated by the American art historian Gorge Kubler, who brought a fundamental contribution to the knowledge of Native American issues, every human work more or less consciously finds its place in a chain of similar works, or better, as he says, of “formal sequences” which go through millenniums. In other words, there is not such a thing as the regular historical cycles outlined by the founders of the Aesthetics of Form (like “Renaissance, Baroque, Romanticism…”) : a formal sequence, even if inactive for centuries, may always be reactivated thanks to the boost given by new techniques or new events. The evolution of formal sequences has very little to do with the confused and ruffled amass of events that history is once intended in a merely historical sense. Things have a “systemic age” that nothing has to do with chronological age: human works are like stars, whose light is given out much time before it actually reaches the observer. Prehistoric petroglyphes and pictogrammes are very similar to stars light-years away from us. Their meaning is not relevant: the essential is to discover that our ancestors 20.000 years ago already had an experience of form and corporality that is almost identical to ours. For Kubler history is always open: nothing is prevented from being brought back into the actual scene: for example, who could have ever imagined that native Australians’ painting would have been used as the beginning of a formal sequence developed by 20th century painters? Who could have ever seen in Hero’s aeolipile the prototype of the steam engine? In the theory of formal sequence the attention does not converge on the original, but on the copy. It is the replication what gives sense: if nothing could repeat itself, nothing would be recognizable. Kubler sees the essence of aesthetic experience not in that originality capable of creating from nothing, but in the slightest variation: in his opinion, brand new operations do not exist, but at the same time it is not possible to accomplish an operation absolutely identical to another. From this derives that human behaviour is in all its manifestations essentially ritual, entirely moulded by the logic of different repetition. Human existence is structured by the invisible multilayered network of customs. Originality is disrupting; repetition is protection. Actually, Kubler thinks that great changes are more apparent than real: when submitted to an accurate analyses they reveal slight variations of repetitions. In every moment originality is limited into narrow borders: no invention can exceed the potential of its epoch. Every instant is almost the exact copy of the one by which it was preceded: nothing new occurs out of the blue! The preservation and protection of prehistoric “things” does not escape from this condition: the signals we retransmit to the future, after being deformed by photography, digitalization and by our interpretation, can never be either complete or definitive.

As Kubler observes, there is no operator who is alone in the mare magnum of history. All active men are connected one to the other; their existences are dynamically intertwined forever. As Tommaso d’Aquino’s angels, things repose in an intermediate dimension between eternity and time: they live in the aevum, in a duration that has a beginning, but no end!





Abraham, N. -Torok,  M.,  1987,  L’écorce et le noyau, Paris, Flammarion.


Bataille, G., 1955,  Lascaux ou la naissance de l’art, Genève, Skira.

Caillois, R., 1958, Les Jeux et les hommes : le masque et le vertige, P                aris, Gallimard.


Callahan, K.L., 1997, Current Trends in Rock Art Theory, Anthropology Dept., University  of Minnesota  (USA), in                http://www.geocities.com/athens/acropolis/5579/chapter2.html

Carvalho (de), A.F – Zilhão, J. – Aubry, T., 1996, Côa Valley: Rock Art and       Prehistory, Lisboa, Ministério da Cultura & Parque Arqueológico do Vale do Côa.


Kubler, G., 1962, The Shape of Time: Remarks on the History of Things, New Haven (CT) Yale University Press.


Perniola, M., 2003, O sex appeal do inorgânico, trad.de Carla David, Coimbra: Ariadne Editora.

Radin, P., 1927, Primitive Man as Philosopher, New York, Dover Publications.

Waller, S. J., 1993, Sound reflection as an explanation for the content and        context of rock art, In ”Rock Art Researches” (Melbourne) vol. v. 10, no.        2, pp. 91-101.

Worringer, W., [1908], Abstraktion und Einfühlung, Philo&Philo Fine Arts, Berlin.


© CÔA Todos os direitos reservados© All rights reserved