I’m starting the year trying to get to grips with why it is that I want to be involved with an archaeological site. I have been making work based on my visits to the Mesolithic site at Star Carr for the best part of two years now, and have so much more I want to make. What is it that propels me?
The first reason has got to be connected to the idea of human presence in the landscape, as it’s not landscape that draws me in and of itself. Having said that, I think that the linking to an actual place makes me feel a greater connection with the physical world. Does this reflect a symptom of modern life, that we are becoming more and more distant from the physical world, and in some way gradually losing contact with the natural environment? How can I become more in touch with the world in which I live? I’m reading popular science books about geology, cosmology, archaeology. Perhaps I need to physically get out there more than I do. And being involved with a site means that I have to be out there, experiencing the physicality of place.
There’s also the prominent question of beginnings, which for me is a substantial subtext for any archaeological site. Physically looking back thousands of years into human past makes me want to see how far back it actually goes, like following a track through a forest. It then makes me wonder how humans first lived, when the world would have been so different from what I experience today. Who am I in comparison with Mesolithic people? Do I have the same kind of interests and concerns? If it were possible to meet, would there be common ground? Common priorities? Pleasures? Fears? And how would I have coped in those early days? Would I still be me? Or is part of me a result of twenty first century living? Is my knowledge of myself merely superficial? Should I be digging deeper? Would I surprise myself if I were suddenly plunged into a primitive environment? Would I be disappointed by my lack of courage, knowledge, flexible thinking? Or might I be pleased with unexpected resourcefulness? You can see the kind of path I’m going down. So much to explore. . .
Which in turn makes me aware of the existence of a resonance with other human beings across the divide of time. Is it a basic feature of being human that there is a connectivity between individuals thousands of years apart? What is it that makes us both human, as outward realities would be quite radically different? Is what connects us that indefinable essence? Or is the possibility of such a connection a figment of my imagination? And all archaeological interpretation along those lines merely evidence of the civilization that the archaeologists themselves belong to? Is it rather that I am fascinated by having to dig deeper into my own psyche, bypassing the trappings of civilization, to find out who is really there underneath it all? Is it also a way of thinking about how to clear out the unnecessary, and discovering what is truly essential to live successfully, fruitfully, positively, dare I say happily, in this world? Does it help me to get at the essential core of what life on this planet is? And can I find visual form to express/ discuss/ explore such things?
For some reason, the piece of work that comes to mind as I write my never ending list of questions is Barbara Hepworth’s group sculpture ‘The Family of Man’. I wonder if she made all those pieces with corners and straight edges in an environment of organic form to comment on how far modern man has come away from his roots in the physical world? Possibly.
Barbara Hepworth – ‘The Family of Man’
In an article called ‘Sculpture’ published in the 1937 edition of the magazine ‘Circle’, she wrote:
“There must be a perfect unity between the idea, the substance and the dimension: this unity gives scale. The idea – the imaginative concept – actually is the giving of life and vitality to material; but when we come to define these qualities we find that they have very little to do with the physical aspect of the sculpture. When we say that a great sculpture has vision, power, vitality, scale, poise, form or beauty, we are not speaking of physical attributes. Vitality is not a phsyical organic attribute of sculpture – it is a spiritual inner life. Power is not man power or physical capacity – it is an inner force and energy. Form realization is not just any three-dimensional mass – it is the chosen perfected form, of perfect size, and shape, for the sculptural embodiment for the idea. Vision is not sight – it is the perception of the mind. It is the discernment of the reality of life, a piercing of the superficial surfaces of material existence, that gives a work of art its own life and purpose and significant power.”
I think all this applies to painting, as well as to sculpture, and is a useful set of guidelines to have, in order to assess one’s own work. But I wonder if what I value so much from interaction with archaeological sites has been pinpointed in the last sentence. Perhaps I’m seeking visual form which allows me to think about “the discernment of the reality of life”, a way of making art which both necessitates and allows “a piercing of the superficial surfaces of material existence”. In which case, I shall continue to focus on stratification and excavation in my work, and value the privilege of seeing such places as Star Carr. Thank you, once again, Barbara Hepworth!