Since I struggle to know, my new ignorance, which is forgetting, became sacred. I’m the vestal princess of a secret I have forgotten. And I serve the forgotten danger. I found out something I could not understand, my lips were sealed, and all I’ve got are the incomprehensible fragments of a ritual. Yet for the first time I feel that my forgetting is finally on a level with the world. Ah, and I don’t even want anything explained to me that in order to be explained would have to be removed from itself. I don’t want anything explained to me that once again needs human validation to be interpreted.
(Clarice Lispector, The Passion According to G.H., 1964)
Their eyes are closed, as if to demands. Taking their own reality away from the one into which they have been placed. As if relics, but levitating. Some have skin coloured straight from the tube – gamboge yellow, or a purple that looks Phoenician.
The Purple People stole dye from sea snails, crushed them by the millions. It was Heracles’ dog that discovered it – crunched the snails at the beach and turned his mouth the colour of wine. Then the Romans made Tyrian purple and came here wearing it, the rich and powerful ones. Just around the edges of their nice drapey linen togas.
The Picts were painted people. That Roman holiday turned into a woad trip. The Romans came and saw and conquered their blue faces. And were then overtaken themselves. Sometimes, patterns still rise to the surface of the skin.
The film Statues also die (Les statues meurent aussi, 1953), by Alain Resnais, Chris Marker and Ghislain Cloquet, is a poetic critique of the Eurocentric gaze on African sculpture. It does it in a fashion that struggles against its ability to do so in any acceptable way. But it makes a case for thinking about sculpture from the point of view of the object itself. We sculptures, they say, people look at us as if our only reason for being is the pleasure we give them. That is, what we want things to mean, or to be ontologically. According to our narrative need. The artist has made these things, but as soon as they are made they become separate entities.
Upritchard has said that the figures she makes are soulless material – but ultimately even she, their maker, does not get to determine that. They may appear to be entities, or to have spirit to some, or each other. This means that things both will never and will always be misinterpreted and that this is correct and good and the beauty of it. Giving rise to the toothiest grin on a sculpture’s mug.
Nietzsche said in the essay ‘The Use and Abuse of History for Life’ that only animals are unburdened by history. That only the beasts are capable of living unhistorically. The animals here are assembled. The whole cast comes. Animal, beast, monster. Human, inhuman, all. Here Comes Everybody. The narcissism of humanity can be seen in our tendency to anthropomorphise.
The material collected here gestures towards a factual history, seeming to reference Ancient Greece and Rome and Pretanic Britain, but history as we know it is a relatively recent narrative development, an effect of modernity. Similarly, a museum may seem like a natural or neutral or timeless thing, but it is a modern invention, an index of European empire building. And in these galleries, object-entities sit in energised relation to this institutional structure - a reactive surface where culture is supposedly created, weighed and measured. And contested.
The sculptures seem to have questions about their situation: “Are we in some kind of fortification? I can hear a fountain … Is that a walled garden?” This place is built on the site of a Roman fortress, and looks like one. A ziggurat, a citadel, the pre-blockbuster museum. All enclosed typologies, aspiring to become ruins.
Who might this fortress be keeping out? No one, according to typical museum mission statements, which, no doubt, set out to provide non-ordinary experiences to diverse publics. Does the fortification, rather, protect its contents? Do these creatures feel protected or is this a siege-like situation for them? Are they slowly starving, like badly kept pet snails?
Resnais et al also asked, in Statues also die, what if so-called idols were not gods, but prayers? It prompts those boldly laying their eyes on sculptures to think about other ontological possibilities and the potential that rests in an indeterminacy that objects enjoy. Or as art historian Roberto Calasso put it in his elegy to modernity La Folie Baudelaire, “The natural obscurity of things”.
The collected works here proceed from other fragments that have been dragged into the museum for consumption, to display some indistinct victory. The Parthenon reliefs, for example, could be about Athens’ victories, its founding, an athletic procession, a festival for Athena, the sacrifice of a king’s daughter to the gods. Or some contemporary event at the time of their manufacture.
In their ambiguity, they’re a magnet for stock narratives. They disintegrate into something vaguely to do with battles – agons, contests as a model. It’s a great and civic virtue to disagree without destroying the position of others. In Ancient Greece, it was thought deities turn their backs upon polluting sights.
Our aggressive eyes become suspect. It used to be said that works of art needed to be bathed in eye-light. Then they needed to be unpacked. Now interrogated. Unravelling alleged meanings like intestines. Medieval torture. We will project our discourses. It’s how we grow subjectively, it is said.
Ontologically, what is seen here could be thought of as the result of things adhering to a sticky surface. The looks of people, the remains, in perpetual montage. It seems important to register these entities as fictions, and to be sophisticated in our thinking about what fictions are, and what they can do.
French philosopher Jacques Rancière pointed out that fiction is not the inverse of reality, rather the mechanism by which new realities are brought into being – often much-needed ones, or ones that cannot exist any other way. Fictions can tactically serve those who are not in positions of power, not adequately represented in a fair sharing of the distribution of the sensible – what is seen, heard, said.
Some of the entities look like something that died under the house. Not abstractions of empire but specific figures. Others seem to be sufferers of Stockholm Syndrome: attached to their captors, obliged to travel and perform: jugglers, acrobats, harlequins. For all the world’s fairs, and all tomorrow’s parties. We all have our roles in the village.
The hats collected here look like numerous attempts to summon something: a character, a magical skill or the ability to learn the labyrinth we all find impossible. As Nietzsche said, “The expulsion of instinct by history has converted people into nothing but abstractions and shadows”. If we grab at masks, we suddenly have only rags and bright patches in our hands. Mad tatters, like Morris dancers put through the wringer of history.
The hats, perhaps, are ‘thinking caps’, both hats for thinking, and hats that think. Sophisticated hats, for performatively sophisticated points of view; numerous idiosyncratic perspectives.
Some of the Greek kylix-shaped vessels and vases are made of thermoplastic, from warmed and hand-moulded plastic beads, the kind they use to fill weighted blankets for anxiety, autism or sensory processing disorders.
There is a difficult, large fur hand that suggests cosplay: be someone else, be only subject to the demands of that narrative. And then leave. Cosplay surely only works in colder climates, affluent ones. Or at least in relentlessly air-conditioned enclosed places.
Museums don’t get visited in novels any more. They’re only there as locations for corporate events. They are no longer enclosed enough – too many windows, the new ones. This is pleasantly enclosed. Like a ship. Like the way a brothel or church works for the shipwrecked, as Kathy Acker pointed out in her novel Pussy, King of the Pirates (1996).
And then there are all the disembodied ears, of different scales. Are they ears of the future that art is supposed to speak to, or for listening to the silence of the museum? Or like the homunculus diagrams in children’s books that put hands and sense organs and genitals at a larger scale to show the parts of the body we are most aware of in terms of nervous sensation?
There are small and large versions of centaurs – the small like tourist versions of the larger. These larger creatures’ material smells and comes from South America. Manilkara bidentata. Balata, ausubo, massaranduba. There are many centaurs on the Parthenon reliefs. Always fighting, dying on their rectangular metopes.