The Way of the Shovel: Art as Archaeology

The Way of the Shovel: Art as Archaeology traces the interest in history, archaeology, and archival research that defines some of the most highly regarded art of the last decade. Consisting almost entirely of work produced after the year 2000, The Way of the Shovel re-imagines the art world as an alternative “History Channel” that is as concerned with remembering histories as it is with challenging their truthfulness. Archaeology is considered both metaphorically and literally, with an emphasis on historical and archival research and the relationship between objects and historical truth.

Dieter Roelstraete: The exhibition really kind of starts from an essay I wrote in 2008. That essay was concerned with what I termed as a subtitle "The archaeological imaginary in art" and it was an essay that kind of departed from an observation that many contemporary artists today are interested not just in archives, not just in history, but really in acts of excavating in digging.

My impression is, in fact, that for most of the first decade of the 21st century, one of the dominant preoccupations of contemporary art in a critical sense has been this concern with history. So in a sense this exhibition offers a survey of that particular movement or that particular trend or a particular paradigm in contemporary art—something that I’ve called "the historiographic turn."

The shovel that’s referred in the title is an illusion obviously to the archaeological trade or the archaeological paradigm and it’s important also to kind of stress that this is an exhibition that is concerned with history but that really kind of narrows down that concern through the lens of the archaeological metaphor, but then on the other hand also archaeology as subject matter as a topic as the actual content of the work.

Mark Dion: I’m very careful not to pretend to be an archaeologist. I know what I do is not what they do. I know that my archaeological projects are not archaeology in the purest sense. At the same time I think that there are aspects that do overlap with how one presents archaeology so – not so much what archaeological science itself but rather that place where it gets mediated for the public so what I try to do is to short circuit or go against the grain of how archaeology is presented to the public and to play with their expectations of what archaeology is and to disrupt the kind of official story that we get told what archaeology is and I think that this, much to my surprise, has resonated a lot in the archaeology community that wasn’t really a community I expected I would have such a strong dialogue with. And so it rippled, these projects, in ways that I didn’t anticipate and their layers of meaning that I didn’t anticipate, which is what I always kind of hope for as an artist that you make something even richer than you imagined.

DR: Another element that is really quite important in this exhibition is this notion of research, basically research of historical materials and this notion that you know the artist in a way explores, searches, unearths; that the artist is kind of engaged in the process of the discovery of something that’s been forgotten or something that’s been trampled over, marginalized, cast by the wayside.

Pamela Bannos: My passion is to go to these archives. I love to see the actual document. It looks like a watercolor rendering, these beautiful script and these cotton rag. I’m like infatuated with the objects. So if I could photograph a document, I put the photograph of the document there so that the audience can see the object, not just the information, and so I think that sort of separates what I do from what a historian does, which is to sit down look at the documents to read them to find in that primary source an idea that might link to another idea, and in my case I’m trying to show exactly what’s happened. I try to unravel the history, unpack it, and then present it.

Susanne Kriemann: Photography is super essential when you think of archaeology because like it’s something has been under the earth for a long time and then unearthed and that moment when it comes to the Earth’s surface it has been shot, depicted by a picture/photographic image, before again being transported into a museum. That moment when it’s like I’m always depicting it as this watch wrist of sand that kind of – you have this sand that’s running and there is this archaeological moment, and then the sand is gone then you see this sculpture. You take a picture and then the sand comes back in but the sand is the museum collection that – where it’s stored in boxes for ages and not any one can see it for a long time unless it’s exhibited, of course.

DR: I noticed just this kind of growing enthusiasm among a generation of artists, you know, people born in the sixties, early seventies that many of these people kind of turned to history for artistic inspiration. Of course this is not new. Artists of all ages and all eras have been in a dialogue with history and art history but all of a sudden so many artists were working with 16-millimeter film or of 8-millimeter film like obsolete media; the Kodak slide carousel was going out of production all of a sudden there was this rush among the artist population to kind of you know salvage it from oblivion. All kinds of printing procedures and photographic techniques that were basically really on their way out.

Joachim Koester: Why do I use 16-millimeter film; why am I attracted to this media? I think to some extent art has become almost a reservation for kind of things that have become obsolete elsewhere and there’s also something else to be said for 16 millimeter and that is that when you are in a space with a film projector it’s always that projector at that moment in that space and it is that copy. What happens is that the copy slowly wears down, so all the dust that is in the museum, it settles on the film and it actually changes the film a bit. It becomes specific; it’s always at that moment and with that copy and that copy won’t look exactly like that anywhere else. So I like that element of something specific.

And the last thing that I use a lot is that the sound of the projector is almost like a soundtrack so there’s no need for sound so to speak, there’s such a momentum in the projector itself, it’s almost like a like a train or narrative. It just goes on and on and on —a sense of urgency.

DR: History is the discipline that studies the written record of human civilization whereas archaeology is concerned primarily with material traces, with shards, and that’s an important factor to take into account because the exhibition includes a lot of photographic work and film-based work. Those are artworks that have a strong kind of documentary dimension but there’s also all of matter in the exhibition—installations and sculptural work. And in the selection of those works I also wanted to remind the viewer that archaeology is a materialist undertaking. It kind of approaches history as a story that’s made up over actual stuff and there, of course, archaeology and easily converge.

Mariana Castillo Deball: I can say that I’ve been always very interested in the materials themselves and I think that’s also very important about this exhibition. It’s about archaeology but it’s not just theoretical approach to the subject but it also has to do with materials, with the things you find, which are rubbish, which are nothing, which have no meaning, and finally it’s us who try to give meaning to this rubble and we try to arrange it in a way or we try to do something with it but at the end, it’s meaningless without our effort to make sense of it. Also for me, it’s interesting to see how artists use these things in order to transform matter in many different ways. So I like that a lot about their archaeological approach, in the context of conceptual art, they are two things that somehow collide but complement each other.

Scott Hocking: I like to come to a place and explore it, find things of interest to me, and then research them both through books and history and the internet and also through people I meet and talk to . . . start to blend ideas, but mainly what I end up interested in is things that are kind of hidden histories or maybe hidden objects or things that become ambiguous. I often work in abandoned buildings; I try and use only the materials I find in those abandoned buildings to make sculptures and photo projects. The layers to me are really important. To go into an abandoned building and build a pyramid for example out of the floor tiles of the building—I’m building a ruin within a ruin but one of the ruins is thought of as a monument whereas the other isn’t thought of as something special, it’s thought of sadly.

DR: Well for me, quite simply, art is a critical force in society and in the world at large. And there is, for sure, a critical dimension in the exhibition and when thinking about this subject matter you’re also struck of course by the profusion of the prefix "re": return, reconstruct, reimagine, recycle. So it’s always this returning radius is kind of at the heart of the exhibition’s logic: this impulse to look back in an attempt to also look forward. Any form of imagination is always a projective one, one that kind of projects itself into the future.

Michael Rakowitz: That question of the past leading to the future is something I’m very interested in. It’s a focus of a lot of my projects in terms of looking at the past, but not looking at it for the purpose of nostalgia but looking at the way that the past actually may presented a prototype or blueprint for what something could be right now. So in a lot of the projects that I’m working on that deal with the identity of being an Arab Jew, as the son of an Iraqi-Jewish mother, that kind of identity speaks a certain amount of truth to power—calling oneself an Arab Jew—because it denies the Zionist narrative of suddenly becoming this thing called Israeli. It recuperates a lot of those histories that were hijacked or suppressed, that speak to the centuries and centuries and centuries, the millennia really, of coexistence because I think if we’re only looking to the past for the sake of a kind of nostalgia. And nostalgia is ok, that means that we want to go home, but we all know how impossible return really is.

DR: Am I just an observer in this movement that I chronicle? I’m more than just an observer; I’m a champion really of this art movement because I think it’s an important one. It was an important role in the way we kind of imagine art to function in the world at large. The historiographic turn in art also needs its own historian and I’m happy to be that person.