Art as Archaeology: Rummaging in the Aura of History
Exploring the connections between contemporary art and archaeology

Written by Cos Ahmet for new online culture journal: Bezalel 7 Gallery, Israel

Are there common parallels with an artists’ practice to that of an archaeologist? This notion of art as archaeology has occupied my mind for some time. Thoughts surrounding this notion first stem from a recent interest in Sigmund Freud and his interest in archaeology as a metaphor. Following this interest, I saw some part of this in a series of works I created for MM1, an experimental collaborative project. (Co-curated by Sharon Toval & Nimrod Vardi, London and Tel Aviv).

‘Point of Juncture’ (Suture Series, 2012), consists of colour Xerox images of Greek statues, manipulated and obscured with other imagery, in this case the subsequent imagery came from the shared source during the experiment. Hand collaged, the imagery is spliced, used like sutures, stitching the fragments together, much like archaeologists would when improvising repairs on finds from a dig. In my act of suturing, the statues became ‘imagined artefact’, alluding to their own archaeological site and findings, displaying a new presence. In many ways, I was attempting to find a truth from the many shards that the experiment was uncovering and mending the unknown. Until that time, and quite innocently, I had not considered this link with contemporary art and archaeology. I could see that, this was exactly what I, and other artists have and are doing.

Perhaps, what we are engaging in is our own form of excavation or ‘Art-chaeology’?

Freud often referred to archaeology as a metaphor for his own practice of uncovering desires and phobias. He kept an audience of some of his favourite figurines (Egyptian, Greek, African etc.) on his desk in his consulting room, watching over him and his patients as they dug deep within themselves. This led him to his famous analogy between the practice of the psychoanalyst, who digs and uncovers strata of the unconscious to that of an archaeologist.

The art critic and art historian, Donald Kuspit coined the term "archaeologism”, likening post-modernism itself to an excavation. Kuspit based this on Freud’s metaphor, and from the position of a postmodern understanding of narrative, truth, and history, regarding archaeologism as a method of establishing meaning from the discursive and fragmented depths of the unconscious, identifying the preoccupation with archaeology in the late 1980s as a major aspect of post-modern artistic practice. 1

So, could Freud’s analogy be the basis in which we can compare art and archaeology? Both seem to go hand in hand. Before I return to Freud’s metaphor used in recent exhibitions, we need to briefly understand about the process of archaeology itself.

According to its dictionary definition, the goal of archaeology as a science and a methodology is to trace, study and preserve the history of mankind. Ever since it’s advent in the 19th century, spurred by the discovery of Roman cities of Pompeii and Herculanium, the discipline has been divided into specialised sub-categories. The meaning of the term ‘archaeology’ has since greatly deviated from the practical scientific function it embodies. 2

In my search for art as archaeology, hidden amongst the mundane sources of information regarding the discipline of archaeology itself, examples started revealing themselves, some of which were perhaps not immediate, but were now so very obvious.

Giorgio de Chirico (1888 -1978) used a recurring subject in which the figure’s abdomen is laden with objects, bizarre constructions, fragments of architecture and elements of landscapes. De Chirico developed this form for The Archaeologists Series (late 1920’s onwards), which would continue to appear and reappear in both painting and sculpture. The Archaeologist figures are composite anthropomorphic forms, ‘mannequinesque’ in their physique. Notions of fragmentation and decay, factual and figurative are themes present in this series. For De Chirico, the fragment was not only an index of the past but also of the present. The Archaeologist series has an almost ‘reliquary’ presence and quality - the artists personal accumulation of artefact in his search for a new materiality perhaps?. His appropriation of iconography into the new context of a dream-like space imbues certain timelessness, yet brings our attention to their evanescence. For De Chirico, the past and the present were never far from each other.

Today, we are born into a world of artefacts. “It is a cumulative process”, says Colin Renfrew. In his book ‘Figuring it Out’ he comments on the allure of the artefact: “ The human makes the artefacts, and then the world of artefacts shapes the human, and it is these and the way we learn to use them that makes us what we are”.

Eduardo Paolozzi (1924 -2005) was perhaps the first artist to reflect on this process and to encapsulate it in his imposing bronze figures. Many of his sculptures represent the human form, and have an unmistakable resemblance to the artist himself. Constructed of artefacts – robotic, part machine, part human, form a three-dimensional collage of figures, emphasise on human existence shaped by the world of artefacts which are themselves the product of human activity. In the book ‘Man Makes Himself’, whose title sums up the idea of self creation of the human as a ‘demiurge’, the archaeologist, Gordon Childe comments on culture as an ‘accumulative process’, outlining two major steps in which our world is shaped: the Neolithic and Urban Revolutions. 3

The bronze figures created by Paolozzi for the National Museum of Scotland, embody these ideas. The museum has a strong history of exploring connections between archaeology and contemporary art. Abstract, almost automaton, they form an avenue leading into the museums ‘Early People’ gallery. Alice Blackwell, a research fellow says: “There presence emphasises that ‘people’ lie behind everything that we do as a museum, behind all the objects in our collections. Despite our best attempts to connect them through archaeological remains, ‘people’ in the past will always remain shadowy figures”.

Paolozzi’s figures reflect the themes of the Early People gallery, but also function as ‘display cases. Set in their chests and elsewhere, a series of glass panels through which prehistoric jewellery and other ancient finds of Scotland’s past can be seen. They serve as ‘giant reliquaries’, each a powerful presence, intimidating, suggestive. “The figures, like the objects are enigmatic – their meaning is not entirely clear, but with a deep sense that they do have meaning, something to say”. 4

Links with past and present resonate very clearly with many other artists who are preoccupied with the act of excavation. In 2014, Museum of Contemporary Art, Chicago (MCA) presented ‘The Way of the Shovel’ – a group exhibition tracing contemporary artists’ pervasive interest in history, archaeology and archival research, something that has become a prominent feature in art production in the past decade. Consisting almost entirely of work made after 2001, ‘The Way of the Shovel’, according to its curator Dieter Roestraete - “Re-imagines the art world as an alternative history channel. All the artists in this exhibition show a passion for history and a fondness for digging up the past. The title makes reference to the tool of the trade, reflecting upon the act of excavating as one of the defining paradigms of much recent art”. 5 With more than 30 artists represented, it suggests that this act is very much a part of the artistic practice. Deiter Roestraete goes on to say – “archaeology is a materialistic interpretation of matter, which easily merges art and archaeology together”.

In a review of the exhibition, Ruslana Lichtzier comments on artist Michael Rakowitz’s ongoing project, The Invisible Enemy Should Not Exist, 2007–present. Something that is extremely topical of our current situation regarding art and history: “Rakowitz reconstructs lost or stolen archeological artifacts from the National Museum of Iraq in Baghdad. In the exhibition, the reconstructed newspaper sculptures, colorfully covered with found Middle Eastern packaging paper, are presented on a mockup of a fieldwork-table with indexical labels. It seems that Rakowitz’s project strength comes, partially to him being an Iraqi-American artist based in Chicago.” 6

It is not surprising that cultural background or oppression should play heavy as an influence. Another artist whose experience stems from oppression (perhaps not consciously, but profoundly affected by it) is sculptor Daniel Silver, who alongside this influence, was also inspired by my earlier reference to Freud’s famous analogy and metaphor of archaeology. I want to return to this with Silver’s recent exhibition ‘Dig’. An Art Angel commissioned project, one starting point was his fascination with Freud’s collection of sculptures and figurines.

Situated in an abandoned overgrown and derelict landscape, the Central London’s Odeon Cinema site was now Silver’s own excavation site. In a review, art critic Richard Cork comments on Silver’s intrigue with Freud’s collection: “It reflects Silver’s fascination with the immense history of sculpture, from its primordial origins through to Brancusi, Epstein and Gaudier-Brzeska. Their 20th century obsession with ‘carving direct’ is reflected in Silver’s own work. But his interest ranges widely, and Dig also testifies to his involvement with the sculpture collection amassed by Sigmund Freud. Silver came across the collection four or so years ago and became intrigued by Freud’s references to archaeology as a metaphor for the process for uncovering the truth through psychoanalytical probing”. 7

This is no more evident in Silver’s mass of trestle tables atop with displays of sculptural fragments, arranged in rows like pieces unearthed from an extensive excavation. Made from a range of materials, including marble, plaster and terracotta, the figures have been worked by hand; modeled and then eroded and deformed. Heads, some hauntingly Darwin-esque in appearance. Body parts, such as arms and even phalluses are also present. They all appear to be both ancient and modern. Elsewhere on the site, are large figures, half hidden in the shadows. Strange bearded heads, obscured and unrecognisable in feature, are balanced on top of sturdy concrete plinth monuments. An ancient world of deities, floating in concrete dumped waters, they seem to have lost their former power.

One particular set of sculptures seems to pay homage to Freud: “Silver confronts me with a marble bust bearing an unmistakable resemblance to Freud. Perched meditatively on a plinth, his eroded features look stoical and reassuring. Nearby, another bearded figure reclines on an austere wooden couch. He may well be analysand whom Freud is attempting to help. But, the man’s face is based on a life-cast of Silver’s own features. So, I am confronted, here, by the artist’s fantasy of lying down in Freud’s consulting room?” 8

So we have returned to Freud and his consulting room and his famous analogy? Perhaps the psychoanalyst’s engagement with his own digging into minds to uncover hidden experiences plays a bigger part in some of our artists’ own preoccupations and obsessions?

It is entirely reasonable to place both practices and disciplines of art and archaeology side by side, as a pursuit of searching for a certain kind of truth – delving deep, digging, uncovering, unearthing, excavating, and piecing the fragments. All of these seem to have a common resonance with one another. In my search for this common link, I have been pleasantly surprised with what I have found and keep finding. It looks as though this has, and is, being explored as a medium for creating and displaying art as archaeology. All the evidence that I have sourced, and this is barely scratching the surface, all point to some kind of wanting to have a connection with past and present - a rummaging in the aura of history, hidden histories, whether our own or of some other world. Though my examples of artists’ practices and their work have concerned sculpture, other mediums such as collage and painting have also explored this subject.

I could have easily referenced plenty more artists such as Richard Long and Mark Dion, but then would leave me having to invest in writing an entire book! Instead, I have presented this small paper for you to ponder over, and leave these other excavations for you to delve into.

1. Time Capsule: Exhibition, 2003, Art in General, New York. Extract from essay for Time Capsule, by Curator Tami Katz-Freiman.
2. Time Capsule: Exhibition, 2003, Art in General, New York. Extract from essay for Time Capsule, by Curator Tami Katz-Freiman.
3. Man Makes Himself, Gordon Childe. Published 1936
4. Figuring it Out, Colin Renfrew, extract Chapter 5 – ‘The Allure of the Artefact’
5. The Way of The Shovel Exhibition, 2014. Dieter Roestraete, Curator of the exhibition and MCA, Chicago
6. The Seen, Online review of The Way of the Shovel by Ruslana Lichtzier
7. Review Extract: of Dig, Art Angel Project commissioned by Daniel Silver, 2013 Richard Cork, art critic and art historian
8. Review Extract: of Dig, Art Angel Project commissioned by Daniel Silver, 2013 Richard Cork, art critic and art historian