If the greatest painting of all time was never seen by anyone but the artist, does it matter that it was created?
Even if that work was lucky enough to be seen by a large audience, who is to say whether or not an exact duplicate preceded it? Julia Gfrörer’s Dark Age centers on decay, the passage of time, and artistic expression through this lens. Natural beauty, art, and life are portrayed as vulnerable to obsolescence, though their preservation is important to those involved.
The title, Dark Age, draws a quick association with the medieval period, an era widely depicted as devoid of progress and expression. However, this concept is factually inaccurate, as that era was actually full of scientific and cultural expansion. A marked difference between the medieval age and those that came before and after are the number of records detailing the people and events during that period. It is a dark age because we cannot clearly see it from our current position; our view is obscured by the comparative lack (and destruction) of documentation from that time span as compared to others. Likewise, the characters and fixtures in this zine could easily be lost to their own dark ages, without any proof that they had existed.
The cover image spans across the front to the back, revealing the slowly rotting corpse of a deer-like animal. The rib-cage juts out over what remains of the animal’s flesh, and only two legs and hooves remain. With the clues left by the decomposing body (the animal’s size, the fur, the hooves, and the intact skeletal structure), you are able to picture the what it may have looked like while alive. It would have stood tall, with a long torso, strong legs, and thick fur. It would have been a beautiful sight, but that particular animal will never exist outside of a mental approximation.
Likewise, the interior folds of the cover reveal a single scene from front to back cover: stalagmites and stalactites in a cave. They appear to be permanent and fixed, but these are constantly growing formations that can be easily altered through contact with dirt, oil, animals, and plants. As rigid as they appear, they are completely defenseless against contamination. And given enough time, stalagmites and stalactites will merge, no longer appearing as crystals growing from the ceiling and floor of a cave, but rather as a single column. Even natural beauty is not preserved in the passing of time.
Time threatens artwork as well. While a couple explores the cave, the man says “I recognize this place.” They stop to look at the drawings on the wall, and realize they had participated in the painting themselves when they were younger. He points out that he drew the aurochs that the woman is admiring, and she jokes about how bad her artwork was. But note that they stumbled on the cave drawings. It’s a possibility that one maneuvered the other to that location on purpose, but this is clearly not a place either of the two regularly visit. They had to sneak inside the cave system before anyone noticed them going inside, implying that it’s forbidden to enter. If they had not decided to go spelunking and accidentally found the pictures, they may have not remembered ever making them. Had they forgotten, the art would have lost all meaning and power. They pictures need to be seen to live.
When the couple walk into the room of crystals, they first pause to admire it, and then the scene is made bittersweet. The woman’s face takes on a serious edge as she says “Nobody will ever believe us.” A powerful experience gains momentum when shared, but stifles when others reject it (or are unaware of it). The man says “So what? They’ll be wrong.” But knowing you’re right is small consolation when what you want is to share your story with others. The woman adds “We discovered this.” Maybe they are the first people to find the cavern, but maybe they aren’t. It could be that others had already been there but did not communicate about it, died before they could, or they told people but no one believed them. When we encounter an image or idea, there is no guarantee it hasn’t been visited before, and there is no way to find out for sure.
Soon after this, the man begins to shimmy through a small opening and gets trapped inside. The woman tries to pull him free, then leaves with the torch to find more people to help. Two panels show his hand reaching out to her in fading light, and then sixty-seven panels of pitch black follow. This effectively communicates the passage of time and his total lack of interaction while in the dark. If no one came to rescue him, he would die pinned between those walls. If no one remembered him, the end of his life would also be the end of his influence. And if his influence does not expand beyond the memories of other people, he will meet his ultimate end once they die.
Their exploration of the cave was a demonstration of the frailty of art, natural beauty, and human life. Even after being saved by the woman and their friends, the man cannot shake these realizations, and breaks down in terror when he sees the spiky, antlered shadow at the cave’s opening. It is half auroch, half man, bordered by the sharp angles of the stalactites, and is completely blacked out as though a void. It is a manifestation of past creations that others will never see or remember.
This is only one interpretation of this short zine. There are also ideas on religion, parenting, fear, sexuality, civilization, and more. It took me two months to write a review of Dark Age because I didn’t even know where to start. These twenty pages pack a punch, like all of Gfrörer’s work. This is short but powerful.