Sunday, 7 March 2010

From Archaeology to Art and Back Again

From Archaeology to Art and Back Again

Archaeological remains from palaeolithic cave paintings to Bronze Age rock art to megaliths, stone circles and stone rows to earthworks such as Silbury Hill and the Mississipi snake mound have provided inspiration for a great many environmental artists. In the 1930s in Britain the sculptural qualities of megaliths were explicitly recognised by Nash, Moore and others. In the case of Michael Heizer whose work was formative in the development of American 'land art' (see the discussion below) the connection is even clearer. Heizer's father was the famous American archaeologist, Robert Heizer. Some of Heizer's forms are clearly inspired by Aztec architecture, some of De Maria's by ancient Peruvian Nazca lines in the landscape. In contemporary British environmental art Long, Fulton, Goldsworthy and others have expressed interest and inspiration in prehistoric monuments, in particular stone circles. Lippard (1983) has reviewed these connections in a lengthy study. She describes the process as one of 'weaving together ideas and images of very different cultures by making one a metaphor for the other and vice versa' (Lippard 1983: 2). But there are evident dangers here: that of a pure aestheticization of the past in which an interest in form becomes substituted for meaning. While what may be labelled prehistoric 'art' or 'sculpture' had socially embedded meaning in the day-to-day structures of life and in relation to myth and cosmology in the past such a general perspective can only result in an irrational and reactionary nostalgic mysticism if it is used to inspire and inform the production and understanding of contemporary environmental art. Lippard, an important art critic, considers many archaeological statements about the past as being 'boring' and 'limited'. She places equal stress and relevance in her book on empirically constrained attempts to understand prehistoric monuments by archaeologists and statements of mystical belief by 'popular' writers evoking 'earth powers', ley-lines and other generalized notions such as ideas about 'femaleness' and mother godesses being embedded in the contours of the British countryside. The social and meaningful messages of contemporary environmental art work best, and are most powerful, in our opinion, when they are expressing ecological and political concerns about the environment today as opposed to claiming any mythical or religious content or connection with the past. While most environmental artists acknowledge inspiration from prehistoric forms none are particularly archaeologically informed or interested. The past is simply being raided as a source of ideas to produce work in the present. An exhibition at the South Bank Centre in London brought together work inspired by prehistoric forms and some interested archaeologists (Ackling 1991). Noble comments in the introduction to the catalogue: "There is always a danger when bringing together ten artists under a title From Art to Archaeology that they might be seen as a group of 'artist-archaeologists' whose work is directly influenced by ancient source material. Nothing could be further from the truth. Artists are by nature visual magpies collecting bits of information from diverse sources. What is at issue in this exhibition is the transformation of the past through artists' eyes. By crossing disciplines, from art to archaeology and back again with the artist as guide, we are given a door through which we enter the artists' extraordinary vocabulary of experience' (Noble 1991: 4). We can link this statement to some critical comments by Tiberghien: 'these references to primitive civilizations simply allow the artists to create their art within an atemporal realm, between humanity's most distant past and the sophisticated scientific world...Their objective is to return to perception and the search for a 'naive realism'...The aesthetic linked to it, which stresses daily perceptive experience, does not have recourse to any conceptual or theoretical instrument other than ordinary reasoning' (Tiberghien 1995: 226). Clearly the concern in Noble's introduction to the art to archaeology exhibition is to do with preserving the disciplinary autonomy of art and the status and role of the artist. We might ask precisely why an artist-archaeologist is conceived as a dangerous threat. Being a 'visual magpie' may be fine for contemporary art but it is bad for archaeological artistic practice. In relation to Tiberghien's comments about the lack of any significant theoretically informed position behind land art we might ask: what if this practice was informed by a more considered understanding of space and place? Furthermore, what if an archaeologically and theoretically informed understanding of place resulted in the production of art in the environment, a practice linking past and present, place and landscape? Might this produce something more profound? Or is the mere attempt automatically to be invalidated because the person producing the art has a training in archaeology rather than the art academy? The closest that archaeology has come to art is experimentation with various modes of visual representation: models and three-dimensional depictions of the past as opposed to the flattened spaces of distribution maps and site plans. A standard way to put flesh on archaeological bones has been the museum exhibit or the picture in a book of a Bronze Age chief dressed in ceremonial regalia, or the reconstruction of the interior of a house or tomb, or people wandering around in a 'prehistoric view' of Stonehenge or Avebury. And most of these supposed windows into the past have been produced by graphic designers or artists who inevitably know considerably less about the past they are supposed to be depicting than the archaeologists. It is, perhaps, not surprising that the majority of these 'realist' images have a somewhat bizarre and unreal character, half-way between art and cartoon, seriousness and farce. In a different manner Shanks has recently expressed a desire to explore the visual as a means of addressing the 'dismissal of feeling' in a contemporary archaeology whose recent past of scientism has put an embargo on the subjective (Shanks 1992: 2-3). His book, Experiencing the Past, plays with different forms of images: picturesque views of castles and megalithic tombs, photomontages of monuments inspired by Hockney, still-life juxtapositions of brocolli and classical Greek pottery etc. They illustrate his text, reiterate the important point about the subjective dimension to any experience of the past, but do little more. Sometimes deliberately ambigous and bizarre and remaining virtually undiscussed their (sometimes verging on the narcissitic) presence is essentially to evoke a sense of the past in the present rather than to provide any meaningful attempt to understand or interpret that past. What we have here is a conflation of the personal and the subjective. They are not the same thing. No doubt contrary to Shanks' intentions, the visual images remain stranded in the present and reproduce a gulf between past and present, subjectivity and objectivity which any 'artistic' approach must attempt to come to terms with in an informed dialectic.

While artists in general, and environmental artists in particular, have distanced themselves, either by design or default, from archaeology, there has been no attempt to date by archaeologists to use the production of art in the landscape as part of the process of interpreting the past. Going beyond this, while many prehistoric artefacts and monuments are widely acknowledged to be aesthetically beautiful, this is usually by artists rather than archaeologists. The aesthetic qualities of things are sometimes acknowledged in the archaeological literature. They are never discussed. Might an emphasis on aesthetic qualities also be an important element in the interpretation of the past? The most significant point about contemporary environmental art for our work in the Leskernick project is its relationship to landscape and aesthetics: work being created in the landscape and 'artfully' being related to space and place. Whether or not we want to consider a prehistoric stone circle an aesthetically pleasing sculpture, the specific relationship of the monument to place and the relationship of place to the surrounding landscape remains fundamental.

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