17 March 2011

I’m developing links with archaeologists, and considering the connections between that discipline and abstract art.  In the pursuit of that I came across the website ‘Art + Archaeology’, run by Dr Helen Wickstead from Kingston University, London, who, to quote the website, is ‘currently editing a volume that explores the interface between artistic and archaeological practice.’  She has written an introductory piece called ‘Contemporary Art as Archaeology? Archaeology as Contemporary Art?’, which is a starting point for thinking about the issue.

It’s a provocative title for a discussion paper, but I wonder how far the discussion would actually go, as I think that both parties are after different things.  Archaeologists are of necessity constrained by factual information.  Although the process of interpretation is an essential part of that discipline, it still has to accommodate the data, which is only right.  Artists interested in archaeology take it as something that informs and drives their work forward, incorporating relevant data, maybe, but not tied to it.  This may be too general a statement, but is how I understand things so far.  I don’t as yet know any other artist who is fascinated by archaeology and uses it as a springboard for their work apart from Brian Graham, so I have very few opportunities to discuss this with other artists.  Incidentally, Brian has also produced work based on the site at Star Carr, my current place of interest.  Because of that looser link with data, I can see that art may not be very helpful to archaeologists in a direct kind of way.

However I do think that artists may be of use in bringing the more subjective realities of life  into the picture.  For example, there may be no physical evidence of how people went about their lives, how they felt about their circumstances or environment, or what their belief system consisted of in practice, but it may be in these areas that artists can make a contribution.  Particularly abstract art, which for me is a searching for forms that communicate the unseen.  As Shirazeh Houshiary puts it, the abstract artist ‘unveils the invisible.’ 

My own work is taking the site at Star Carr as a starting point, and I am coming at it from the standpoint of an abstract artist involved with landscape, fascinated by the resonance I experience in connection with that excavation.  But no matter how much research I have done to understand something of the landscape before me, my work will be shaped by my response to formal values as I make the work.  Data is definitely and necessarily secondary.  Once a piece is being made, it matters how the composition works, how tone, line, texture etc hang together to enhance the whole.  The data has to be put on the back burner.  I can’t see how an artist could take any other position.  It would be too easy to be swamped by information, and end up reproducing it rather than producing something new from it.

So I conclude that the dilemma posed by Dr Wickstead’s paper is not really the issue.  True archaeologists would never accept an artist’s work as archaeology because it introduces into the mix so much more than the relevant data attached to place.  Artists wouldn’t be particularly interested in crossing disciplinary boundaries, they would still want their work to be seen as art, not archaeology.  Where there may be a debate is over the possibilities that both disciplines present to each other for enriching their own fields of study.  But I’ll need to think about that further before I come to any conclusions…….

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