Gelf Magazine - Looking over the overlooked


July 14, 2009

Neanderthal Sculptor Do Job Good, Smash Conventions

Combining art, anatomy, and anthropology, the paleoartist Viktor Deak tries to explain hominid evolution to the public.

David Downs

Why does Viktor Deak get to live the artist's life in New York: top commissions, huge crowds, writeups in the New York Times? Because caveman creation is really hard, and Deak ranks among the top paleoartists in the world. From the morgues of Brooklyn to pitch meetings in Hollywood, Deak has used pen, paper, clay, and dissection to provoke the animistic core of a profoundly superstitious country.

Viktor Deak
"What is exactly human has become kind of blurred for me."

Viktor Deak

Gelf Magazine lined up to pick nits off the sculptor last week and talk about his work in the Hall of Human Origins at the American Museum of Natural History, as well as his new book The Last Human: A Guide to Twenty-Two Species of Extinct Humans, a collaboration with Gary J. Sawyer, the museum’s physical anthropologist. In the following interview, edited for length and clarity, the 32-year-old Connecticut native tells Gelf about the new Lucy exhibit in Times Square, Danny McBride, Tool's Maynard Keenan, and seeing apes in us all.

Gelf Magazine: There's a culture war in America and the world over evolution. Two hundred years ago, saying man descended from ape and then showing people that with movie-quality skills would be the kind of thing that could get you killed. Have you ever thought about that?

Viktor Deak: [Laughs] I don't know, not really. I try not to think of that really.

Gelf Magazine: Were your parents religious?

Viktor Deak: Nothing really. Just very open, you know? When I was growing up we'd sometimes go to church on Easter or Christmas. It was like,"Quick, Jesus is coming, everybody scramble." But no, it was never really pressed upon me, anything like that. In fact I remember very early on my father talking about things that just never made sense to him and then it made equally less sense to me and then you know…

Gelf Magazine: Is this because Hungary was Communist and there was just no religion?

Viktor Deak: : No, no, it's not that.

Gelf Magazine: Sober-minded people is all?

Viktor Deak: Right.

Gelf Magazine: In this country, we still have boards of education fighting over this. Has it ever come to a head for you with people who disagree and say that dinosaurs and unicorns were on the Ark?

Viktor Deak: Just recently, at the Lucy show, I was standing in front of one of my new pieces, and a woman walked by and said, "Oh, pfffthhbb that's impossible. We didn't come from a monkey. Everyone knows that we came from God." But so far I've been pretty fortunate in not having too much resistance.
After the Times article came out in June, though, I started to get a bunch of emails from people all over the country who needed to voice their opinions.

Gelf Magazine: See, you smacked a beehive.

Viktor Deak: There's a big shift happening between religion and science. It started about 200 years ago when we didn't have any of the technology that is there now or even any of the fossil finds, research, or understanding.
Why 200 years? It just so happens that about 200 years ago was when the idea of evolution started to really open up and people wanted to understand the world in a much more tangible physical way. Rather than, "So and so told me so it must be right."

Gelf Magazine: Evolution seems like this flash of insight that's but a few generations old. It is just me, or can some people just not digest it the way others can't process lactose and hence are lactose intolerant? Can it be that some people are physically incapable of digesting the concept of deep time?

Viktor Deak: I'm not exactly clear on why that is and why that block is really there. I suspect a lot of that has to do with fear and coming to terms with, "Well, the things you were told as a child aren't exactly right and there's a whole other set of things that are occurring to you that brought us here." A lot of people are uncomfortable with that. A lot of people have to have that constant justification of, "I am a human. I have the right to squash a bug or kill an animal and to say what I want to whomever because I'm a man."

Gelf Magazine: "I have been given dominion over the Earth, thank you."

Viktor Deak: Right. When that ground is shaken and that justification really holds no water anymore, most fundamentalists don't know how to react. It's very interesting that the behavior of it is so ape-like and animalistic. If it's not right, they get violent and angry. They beat their chest and show their teeth.
I don't know that evolution has really been explained properly to a lot of people who aren't understanding it. The big block that I seem to come across a lot is that people have such a problem with being connected to the animal world and accepting and understanding those mechanisms of change of adaptation that just happen to lead to evolution and development of new species over time. What's so bad about it?
I don't feel like it removes us at all from being special or connected or divine or whatever, or any less spiritual. I think that it makes everything much more fascinating; I'd think it's the kind of thing where it would make us more connected as people to know that at a very deep level we're all just the same thing. And people don't like that still.

Gelf Magazine: They're not ready for that.

Viktor Deak: Right. Exactly. And it just prevents forward movement and progression of thought in science and understanding in society. The same dead horse is now a fossilized horse and people are still kicking on it. It's really fascinating.

Gelf Magazine: I think this concept of ferality is really potent in our culture, whether it be Geico cavemen, Where the Wild Things Are, or the movie The Land of the Lost. Did you see it?

Viktor Deak: I thought it was hysterical.

Gelf Magazine: They should put that on the poster. "I thought it was hysterical."—Viktor Deak, Paleoartist.

Viktor Deak: [Laughs] I love that guy Danny McBride. Everything I've seen him in is hysterical. It's a fun movie. It's lighthearted, it's entertainment, and I really went there with that in mind and not looking for the next great sci-fi epic like Contact. It was a lot of fun. And it kept the idea of evolution in it.

Neanderthal Reconstruction

One of Deak's Neanderthal reconstructions at

Gelf Magazine: Tell me about the business of paleoartistry. Were you ever a starving paleoartist?

Viktor Deak: The truth is that since coming to New York—professionally and financially—things are starting to stabilize themselves. But it's been a real struggle. When I went to school, I'd sleep on a floor or on a couch for days, sometimes weeks, just because I was living in Connecticut but going to school in the city.
It's been a struggle because it's not exactly a niche where people are like, "Hey, welcome to the club!" A lot of people who do this work really try to hang on to their name and their work because it's not like everybody needs a Neanderthal reconstructed. Since I was asked to do the mural, things have been on a steady up and up. It's gotten really great coverage now with the article coming out in the Times. That was the best thing that I can ask for. A lot of people want to work with me now and I couldn't be happier. I just love dealing with hominids. I feel like I'm wrapped up in amazing mystery all the time. It's really exciting. There's the story unfolding every day and I am connected to the story. It's not a fantasy. There's something that is very real, and I can really make a mark in how this material is seen and understood.

Gelf Magazine: Do you ever dream about being a caveman?

Viktor Deak: Oh, all the time. The funny thing is, I used to dream more about it when I was a kid, but now working with it all the time and really engaging with it and wrapped around it, it happens a little bit less. Most of my dreams tend to be kind of out there sci-fi kind of stuff—I just have a propensity for weirdness sometimes.

Gelf Magazine: But now you can flesh out your caveman dreams with the appropriate foliage, soil make-up, and sun.

Viktor Deak: My work has been a fulfillment of those dreams, and as time goes by I get to actually live them out and see them not just in my mind. I feel like that calms those ghosts or whatever those visions are. When I put them out on paper or put them out in a piece or sculpture or some kind of image, it no longer is just inside of me. It's released from inside of me.

Gelf Magazine: You externalize that ferality and thereby contain it.

Viktor Deak: Right, exactly. Yeah, totally. I'm very obsessed with this stuff.

Gelf Magazine: How has your field of study shaped your worldview? Do you see ape behavior in much of daily life? Are we all cavemen to you some days?

Viktor Deak: The truth is that it is becoming more and more difficult to see these actual differences between apes and human. I'm on the subway and I see the ape in all of us.

Gelf Magazine: It's all body signals.

Viktor Deak: I see people flashing their teeth if they're unhappy with something. Then when I go to visit gorillas at the zoo, I just see the person in them. I see the human aspect. There are so many similarities between us and the great apes. There are more similarities than there are differences, and the more I'm involved with this work … what is exactly human has become kind of blurred for me.

Gelf Magazine: The Last Human helps smooth out that transition for me.

Viktor Deak: Thank you. That's the big goal on a superficial level, when I handle how these things look once they have skin and hair. If you start looking at the very earliest hominid, you see very ape-like creatures, but as you move through them you don't realize it until it's too late and you're asking yourself, "How many species back was it that these things started to look more and more human?"
As you find yourself at Homo heidelbergensis, all of a sudden these things are human beings. And it's like, "Well, wow, when did that happen?" And you want to go back and say, "OK, there's this very smooth progression throughout the fossil record." Of course there are still some major gaps—and we're not exactly clear as to how everything lines up—but we have a much clearer understanding than even, say, 30 years ago.

Gelf Magazine: Vonnegut says we're too smart for our own good. When you see North Korea and Afghanistan, do you just shake your head?

Viktor Deak: Yeah, I don't know if you listen to Tool or not.

Gelf Magazine: Yeah, Maynard Keenan.

Viktor Deak: Awesome. Their last album 10,000 Days has got this really haunting line that gives me the chills; the fact that he wrote it is fucking awesome. There's a line about "monkey killing monkey/over pieces of the ground/give them thumbs/they make a club/and beat their brother down." That's still where we are. We're these very excitable creatures; when things get difficult or circumstances arise, our first reaction is never the cerebral one. It's usually a very physical one. "Let's go get em. Let's invade."

Gelf Magazine: "Let's smoke 'em out."

Viktor Deak: That's the mechanism that in the beginning helped perpetuate our species. It's what helped Homo sapiens become a global hominid. If you follow the mitochondrial Eve lineage you find that everywhere Homo sapiens ventured, about 15,000 years later the other hominid species that is there is gone.

Gelf Magazine: It was a meanest-man contest for the globe.

Viktor Deak: Right, and for whatever reason at that time, Homo sapiens survived. They had better tricks, but it's the same mechanism that is starting wars and political strife and domination over classes and groups of people; it's the kind of thing where we have to say, "Hey, it had its purpose for a while and now we're beyond that." We have to realize and be grateful for all the people we have on the Earth right now. It's amazing they're all here and everyone deserves a chance at life. Ultimately, how are we going to move forward? How do we get rid of the notion of "Kill the other?"

Gelf Magazine: How do we hack our ape-like nature to save ourselves?

Viktor Deak: Even in ape-like nature, there are a lot of groups of hominids that have huge amounts of evidence of caring for one another. We have to go back and listen to them and ask ourselves, "Hey, they were able to pull their shit together for a while, why can't we? If we're so damn smart, why are we so damn dead?"

Gelf Magazine: Is seems like the problem might be conceiving of time. Who cares about landfills 5,000 years from now?

Viktor Deak: I like to think that with time, we will get it and what we're going through now is another model that natural selection is trying out. Our capacity for world-building and technological shape-shifting is really being refined at this point. It doesn't have to be the same 50 years from now. It means that we lived through this model and it doesn't really work and we have to find a new model and a new paradigm to exist that will be beneficial, positive, and help humanity and the world find a balance.

Gelf Magazine: What's the final word, Viktor Deak?

Viktor Deak: People should go check out Lucy's Legacy in Times Square. It needs all the help it can get. She's important.

David Downs

David Downs is a journalist based in San Francisco.

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- Science
- posted on Nov 26, 10

I studied Art at The Art Student's League for many years and I am skeptical of art as a basis for reality.

In 2004 National Geographic tested four paleoartists by giving them the same fossil bones at different times witout telling them other paleoartist would be creating drawings from the fossils. Not one of the drawings looked like the others—and none of them had any body hair on them!

The American Museum of Natural History has a life-sized African diorama with a male and femal hairy homonid walking upright—based on the finding of a set of footprints! Ian Tattersall paleogeneticist (?) said they debated whether they had eyebrows or not and said it could have been a man and a child

Read pro-evolutionist Bill Bryson's best seller "A Short History of Nearly Everything" and discover on almost every other page the charlatanism, chicanery, lies and outright fraud rampant in the sciences—especially paleontology.

- Science
- posted on Feb 09, 11

I believe in science but I don't believe in science fiction.

Read pro-evolutionist Bill Bryson's best seller "A Short History of Nearly Everything" where on almost every other page he exposes the charlatans, schemers, and knaves, in the sciences.

He wrote wrote “If you correlate [fossil] tool discovery with the species of creature most found nearby, you would have to conclude that early hand tools were mostly made by antelopes…”

Especially read the entry on the ultimate arrogance of The American Museum of Natural History life-sized African diorama with two hairy homonids based on a set of footprints!

Article by David Downs

David Downs is a journalist based in San Francisco.

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