Week 11 – Beth Collar – 16-22 March

I must be obsessed with liminality. It follows me around like a fog, or I move through it like a ghost. Neither one thing nor another, everywhere and nowhere, I’m never sure what I’m supposed to be.

Liminality in general usage is variously employed to mean ‘between two things’, kind of both and neither. The state between caterpillar and butterfly; the periods of adolescence and twilight; where you are during a spiritual vision or in an airport, in No Man’s Land or at a crossroads. Non-heteronormative sexualities and genders are liminal. Angels, centaurs; Lear’s wise fool, Lear himself; spies, ethnographic researchers; writers and artists. Consciousness itself seems to exhibit an ineffable liminality, existing between the past and the present, between rationality and instinct, between free will and determinism.

Liminality as a concept was originally developed in anthropology, specifically to describe ambiguities in the middle-stage of ritual activites such as initiation ceremonies, where participants stand at a threshold. It also came to refer to periods of cultural and political change during which social hierarchies are questioned, traditions ruptured, the future thrown into doubt. Basically: ENDTIMES… but thousands of years ago…

Over three hundred bodies have been found in bogs in Ireland. These ‘bog bodies’ date from as far back as the Bronze Age. The oldest is the Cashel Man from 2000BC. There is strong evidence to suggest that many of the bog bodies found in Ireland were ritually murdered. The Cashel Man may have been a Bronze Age king murdered by his tribe to appease the goddess of fertility, following the failure of crops. The inauguration of a king was a symbolic marriage to the land itself, with a responsibility toward the future of the tribe. So if a harvest failed, the tribe might replace him – through a ritual killing.

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What they couldn’t have known was that a climatic shift was happening during the Bronze Age, with increased rainfall and lowering temperatures. The increasing evidence of bog bodies from the period could stem from the fact that such conditions are ideal for the formation of bogs, but also because these conditions created a liminal period during which times became harder, and ritual tribal activity to appease the gods of the elements became more marked. What is theorized here is that the ritual killings evidenced by the prevalence of bog bodies were a prehistoric response to climate change. Which is an amazing thought. Imagine if we ritually sacrificed our oil-friendly climate-change-denying political leaders so we could cross the threshold into a greener period of history. Imagine bog-workers in four thousand years uncovering the immaculately preserved bodies of the leaders of the G8.

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Bog bodies are a beautiful collaboration between human ritual actions and natural processes. Following their very violent death and deposition, the bodies have been preserved because of the acidic composition of the bogs. There is water but not oxygen. This contrasts with the human efforts of cryogenics to remove the water from the body in order to preserve it (because water expands when frozen, destroying corporeal cells). The bogs themselves are of peat formed from the dead bodies of plants. The bog forms a record of history (not unlike the rings of a tree), both climatic and social. The stratified layers in a metre of peat can contain a millennium of history which can be ‘read’ in a laboratory: the presence of varieties of pollen can indicate farming activity; ash and birch are evidence of intensive human communities.

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Thus, the human is written into the landscape. This is literally the territory of Beth Collar’s work for Week 11 of fig-2, developing themes she began exploring during a 2014 residency in Bristol using not peat but mud as a starting point, making shaky videos of mud and water and silt — liminal substances — in the New Cut, a man-made cut through the River Avon in the middle of Bristol. In her interview with curator Fatoş Üstek she compares this to the Andes where she discovered similar landscapes that in the films (exhibited at fig-2) are seemingly devoid of the trace of the human. But are they?

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Theodor Adorno said that form is “sedimented content”. I think of this as I look at the work. Videos of tea and milk in water forming beautiful clouds, then the clouds over the Andes and the silt brought up into water as the tide comes in. The use of dehydrated turnips as part of the framing of the drawings on the walls, presenting pencil landscapes, one of which was actually a vagina, or rather labia. The human drawn into landscape or the other way round? The drawings presented with stratified layers of wood and paper, framing but also integrally part of the content: layered, suspended, sedimentary.

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The centrepiece of the exhibition was an uncanny water feature involving a disembodied head-like sculpture that degraded over the week owing to the action of the water being pumped back round from the pool. This mimics natural processes of erosion and decomposition, as well as reflecting the ephemerality of the installation itself. The show is over, the victim of water and time, whereas the destructive forces of nature have a paradoxical creativity: nothing is lost, only changed.

Beth Collar’s work for Week 11 forms a reflective exploration of liminality through transformations in matter and through substances that can evoke multiple states – like the undead status of the murdered bog bodies, discoloured by the peat but still distinguishable as themselves, the product of both ritual action and natural process. There is a compelling poetry in the connections between all of these substances and states, bodies and landscapes, that is both alien and familiar, profound and full of emptiness. Then the stratified layers of the bog revealing history, and the ‘sedimented content’ of the bog bodies: dead kings ruling over a kingdom of rain.

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I am indebted to this BBC Four documentary on ‘bog bodies’ http://www.bbc.co.uk/programmes/b03js0gf

Week 7 – Claire Hooper & Maria Loboda – 16-22 February

This week, guest writer Alix Mortimer discusses art and archaeology.

I’m still not sure whether I should have gone to see this with two archaeologists (proper archaeologists, that is, as opposed to a dabbler like me). Possibly one can either approach art in an experiential sense or an analytical sense, and you don’t get to make the same approach twice (not for the first time, at least) and that night, the night of the sloe gin with warmed apple juice, we were all wearing analytical hard hats.

Week 7 was a collaboration between Claire Hooper and Maria Loboda, apparently originally titled “Atheism”, which seeks to “capture the atmosphere of the archaeological dig” and examine the relationship between objects, human interpretations and reinterpretations of them and the elusive movement of all these things through time. As Hooper points out in her accompanying interview, it is our extraordinarily structured brains that allow us to conceive of past and future – the only thing that actually exists in our direct experience is the “Now”. What this means is simply that we can have no firm idea about the meaning an object held even last year, never mind millennia ago in eras when writing either did not exist or was used solely for recording the delivery of sheepskins. The reality in which an object held a particular meaning no longer exists, and is at best only partially recorded. Our brains irresistibly tug us towards the desire to know what we cannot know: how other (dead) people feel about Things. Archaeology, and art that plays on and is inspired by archaeology, is the ultimate optimistic challenge to this troublesome limitation of our tediously locked-down space-time dimension.

Space can also be tricksy. Experiencing the space where ICA holds Fig 2 several times over now, I am slightly more accustomed to what is the Art and what is not, but my friends were seeing the space for the first time. It occurred to me that in approaching the thing as archaeologists we were in essence trying to decode a space from scratch, exactly as you would in the field. Part of field archaeology is about making decisions, often snap ones really. What am I looking at? What else does this look like? What are the things that matter here? Nothing comes out of the earth labelled, and fine art exhibitions generally aren’t labelled either. In archaeology and in art therefore, your ability to decode a space grows with practice.

photo 3The whole exhibition is built around a sort of temple, Claire Hooper’s evocation of a “god storage unit”, a place for storing old idols that was created in the ancient Mesopotamian city of Uruk when the great temple of Inanna was rebuilt with new statues and fixtures. Hooper’s re-imagination of the storage room is lined with watercolour wallpaper, elegant both artistically and archaeologically in that it is based on stratigraphic drawings from the site report, which have their own complex beauty. Hooper was intrigued by the idea of objects that were felt still to have some power, but which were no longer in active use. Nobody wanted to throw away these superseded objects which had once been so powerful. Against one outer wall of the God Storage Unit lean two paganistic-looking bound straw crooks. These are Inanna’s “Gates of the Underworld”, and to be precise one of them was leaning against the temple and the other was on its side, in a way I actually found faintly shocking once I realised what they represented. Is this the Gates of the Underworld “in storage” after a lifetime of use? What happens to the magic space between them, the entry to Underworld presumably, if one of them is lying on its side? Does the wave collapse? Is it dangerous? In this way, Hooper’s work gets elegantly at the idea of investing objects with power and narrative and then outgrowing that narrative and discarding the formerly powerful object, which is essentially what human beings have always done and what archaeologists seek to reconstruct.

fig2_installation_07-Claire-Hooper--Maria-Loboda_08Sylvain_DeleuAround the God Storage Unit, other artefacts littered the space. The lustrous brown plait peeping tragically and tantalisingly from under one of the shelving units was one of the objects that spoke most directly to archaeology – something half-hidden, newly exposed, waiting to tell a story, or rather have stories imposed upon it. The artists apparently spent eight hours wandering the British Museum in preparation for this exhibition and got a shock from the beautifully preserved hair of a young woman buried in the great death pits at Uruk. At intervals in the walls around the space and away from the God Storage Unit itself, Maria Loboda had set tiny dabs of gold, a reference to the gems set into the walls of the Alhambra palace apparently with the specific purpose of impressing distant future generations should the unthinkable happen and the Empire collapse. This is a ruler reaching forward in time, trying to avoid the fate of Ozymandias by facing the probability of collapse head-on. Loboda in her interview points out that there the actual physical works she has created are in some ways superfluous to the art itself – the story of the gems is what matters. Another piece that is pure story were her Samurai swords on a distant wall – stored as they were in Japanese households “for an uncertain future”. This is an evocation of what you might call living archaeology (or anthropology, as an anthropologist would put it), the study of objects that are used in a particular way contemporaneously. As archaeologists we can watch modern spaces and actually see objects being deployed to create meaning, and the fond idea is that this informs our practice in the field, where the deployment occurred millennia ago and is no longer visible.

10954581_614674401966352_1335988916_nOne of the things that blows your mind very early on as an archaeology student is the realisation that you find objects where they ended up. And that might be “in use”, captured in the act of being deployed so that interpretation seems deceptively simple – Pompeii is the classic example – but it might also be after several lifetimes of other use. It might be repurposed, and in fact I am being disingenuous about Pompeii, because plenty of the material and objects there will have known multiple lives. It might be curated – there is at least one example I remember of an Upper Palaeolithic “antiquarian” who collected and curated a set of objects dozens or hundreds of years old and stored them together, where they were found. It might be rubbish, and you might find it in a midden, in a context that says little about the life of the potsherd, or coin, or discarded tablet before it became rubbish. Or, like the objects in Uruk’s original God Storage Unit, it might occupy a space somewhere between rubbish, repurposing and curation.

In the sense that the works referenced all these possibilities, I felt the exhibition was a success. The artists’ point was that Things can (figuratively) outlast their own lives and (literally) those of their owners. People, and their views about their Things, are really pretty ephemeral. Recalculation and reinterpretation occur continuously and come up with new temples, new gods, new meanings. As such it was fitting that one outer wall of the God Storage Unit was painted with the Colour of the Universe (Erratum), the rather jolly turquoise blue that enjoyed the distinction of being the distilled colour of the universe for a whole week, before it was realised that there had been an error in the calculations, and the colour of the universe was reset tragically to a beigy off-white.

photo 2Hooper and Loboda have thought deeply about archaeology and become immersed not just in individual stories and sites, glittering and alluring though these are, but in the theoretical context. Being aware of the pitfalls of interpretation and the difficulty of reconstructing meaning is a core concept in post-processual (by which I mean, oh, the bit after 1982) archaeology. Did it teach us anything we didn’t know in theoretical terms, or prompt us to think differently about the things we did know? Nope. I wouldn’t have said so. If anything it was rather comfily reinforcing. And this is where the analytical hard hats come in, because I suppose what I was hoping for was to be shown something new. There is a whole seam of co-operation between art and archaeology which can be very fruitful and spark new approaches to “doing” archaeology. This exhibition didn’t make it into that category. Maybe it wasn’t quite for us.

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