30 September 2023 – 21 January 2024
Maeve Brennan’s film, An Excavation (2022), shown in an exhibition of the same name at the Digital Gallery at VISUAL Carlow, presents ancient artefacts, expanding on their legacy, value and movement, and examining the knowledge that we can (or can no longer) glean from them. We watch as forensic archaeologists, Dr Vinnie Nørskov and Dr Christos Tsirogiannis, carefully unpack a cardboard box containing looted antiquities, broken clay pieces enshrined in bubble wrap, lining up the segments and reassembling images of ancient bodies and Gods, sphinxes and arpias. This box belongs to a large seizure at Geneva Freeport in 2014, when 45 crates of trafficked antiquities were taken into custody and are now being examined as criminal evidence.
The puzzle-like task of the archaeologists feels akin to the task of the viewer – to construct meaning out of reference points, while assembling and building on acquired knowledge. The slow pace of the film prompts me to think about the evolution of art. The relationship between art and function was closer in the past than it is now, and these ancient pieces were as much artwork as they were funerary objects. I think about the trajectory of artwork from antiquity until now, the traditions and contexts for making and showing art, of which this exhibition also forms part.
Considering the relationship between the context of the pots and the artwork that is depicting them also invites reflection on the relationship between institutions and artworks. An Excavation was commissioned by Stanley Picker Gallery, Kingston University, with support from Arts Council England and Museum of Ancient Art and Archaeology, Aarhus. I think it is a nice loop for a film that expands on the destructive forces of looting to be supported by an English funder, while the British Museum refuses to be drawn into conversations of provenance regarding Parthenon Marbles and other notable cultural artefacts on show there.
An Excavation is part of a larger ongoing body of work by Brennan, entitled The Goods, which looks at the custodianship of ancient artefacts. Shown alongside the film are two works – a blown-up polaroid of a stolen artefact, and the cast of a car glovebox that was used to store photographs and papers relating to the stolen goods. The placement of these intriguing objects suggested a subservience to the documentary film, and a more engaging exploitation of the space might have better served their embedded potential.
The market for ancient artefacts, involving looters, smugglers, antiquities dealers, auction houses and museums is, by nature, highly lucrative and illicit. We learn the trajectory of these vases, from ancient burial sites in Southern Italy to high-end auction houses like Sotheby’s or Christie’s, with dealers often buying back their own objects, whitewashing them through the selling possess, giving them provenance and a paper trail.
This criminality adds another layer to the biography of these extremely old objects, their physicality touched by ancient noblemen and women through to thieves – from pagan customs to airport customs. This new layer erodes the knowledge we could have gained about the object’s creators and purpose. The context of the vases is removed, we no longer know the tomb from which the object was taken, and so we cannot re-establish the narrative that was so carefully woven about the human who was travelling from the world of the living to the world of the dead.
Normally, a tomb would hold a variety of objects to help the deceased on their journey and it is assumed that the beautifully drawn stories on the pots overlapped with common themes and references, to paint a picture of the life lived. Now that the pots have been looted and separated for the market, it is impossible to know which pots were entombed together 2500 years ago, and as such, a lot of this contextual knowledge is gone. “The historical loss is, by far, much more important than the incomplete nature of the vases themselves,” reflects Dr Nørskov. “We will never be able to re-contextualise all these objects and know which particular objects belong together, in the same archaeological context.”
The history of the people who carefully created these objects has been irreparably damaged, their value denigrated to market prices. Had they been left in place, deep underground, intact and eventually excavated, lovingly and respectfully, then their value would be enormously greater. An Excavation masterfully weaves between narratives past and present concerning the value of artworks, and ties into the artist’s long-standing inquiry into forms of repair and reparative histories.
Ella de Búrca is an Irish visual artist and lecturer at SETU Wexford College of Art.