Wednesday, 4 March 2015

The Hypothetical Object

I've been thinking about the idea of a hypothetical object.

An object that you think might exist, but it has not been discovered yet.

Something that remains unfound.

Or, an object that you can hypothesise about: an object that is found but you don't know what it is, or why it is.

It's about the guessing game of archaeology, that is based around objects, materials, traces, gaps.

Shadows.

Tangle drawing, detail. Graphite on paper

Today I made a drawing that is a tangle of lines, but from the tangles some shapes emerge that look like bones and could be recognised by somebody who is familiar with them. Somebody who knows what to look for.

I remember a phrase that Dr Thomas used in a lecture a little while ago. The lecture was about horse breeding, and, if I remember correctly, he was talking about how horse bones may have been used for other things after the horse had died, perhaps ground up and used as fertiliser, and thus they were being "removed from the archaeological record." I was intrigued by the notion of "the archaeological record", the idea that there are items kicking around somewhere that are all part of this bigger framework, this complete record, a jigsaw of hypothetical objects that just need to be pieced together and it will all make sense...

Except the record is not a complete logical record, it is blurry and has gaps and parts removed or altered, and it shifts constantly and is redrawn. Tangled, disentangled, linking knots tied and then untied.

It will never be complete. It's an ongoing and impossible quest. And I like that.

Friday, 20 February 2015

Digging


"The past is not behind us but beneath, and the ground we walk on is nothing more than a pit of bones, from which the grass unstinting grows."1
Olivia Laing was writing about a place in Sussex, but I thought about her words as I sat on a bench in Bradgate Park, Leicestershire, looking out over this landscape.

This area will be the subject of an archaeological dig in the summer months as part of the University's Fieldschool. I've spent the last week devising a way to make a creative response to the dig as part of my residency.

Reading through the excavation plan, I've picked up some terms new to me:  LiDAR, a sort of laser-scanning of the landscape, that can "see" through buildings and trees to create a beautiful graded monochrome image of the land's undulations; and lithics, the study of flints and stone tools, our earliest form of tool making. New and old technologies converging.

Bradgate Park has a long history, but as a protected area most of it has not been excavated so there are many secrets still hidden. As a place that I walk often, it will be really exciting to be a part of an investigation here.

I'm already thinking about the area in a different way. I watch the people enjoying the winter sunshine, walking the paths and tilting up the slopes, not giving a thought to what might be beneath them in suspended time. I wonder how my work will respond to the unlayering of some of this landscape.

The University's Fieldschool now have a blog and a Facebook page where you can follow progress and find out about the public open days.



1 To The River, Olivia Laing, 2011

Friday, 13 February 2015

A Reliquary for a Hen Harrier's Wishbone

Reliquary for a Hen Harrier's Wishbone, acrylic, gold leaf, 2015
I have just completed this reliquary. The box is a plastic specimen box from the Bone Lab; the design is in gold leaf, based on a medieval manuscript illumination.

The box measures 5.5cm x 4.3cm,  and just under 2cm high.  The wishbone of a hen harrier would fit inside exactly.

I was fascinated to discover in the collection that the wishbone (furcula, or "little fork" in Latin) of different birds are very different shapes. Some are quite straight and stiff, some very curved and fluid; some skinny, some wider and flatter. The hen harrier's wishbone is rounded, almost heart shaped. You can see the shape of it in the centre of the curling gold leaf.

It seems to me that the furcula is a very special bone. It is (almost) only birds that have them, and their function is to keep the bird's chest from tearing apart each time it beats its wings. The force of the wing stroke would be enough to do this if it wasn't for the strengthening power of the wishbone.

The wishbone is a charmed bone, too. I remember from my own childhood making wishes on these bones from the Sunday roast.

My Reliquary for a Hen Harrier's wishbone is an empty box. We still have hen harriers in this country, but their continued existence is threatened; their numbers are fast declining and the RSPB think that only three pairs bred in England last year. The hen harrier needs our wishes. I have left the box empty because it is a reliquary for the future, perhaps for the last hen harrier. I hope it will never need to be filled.

Click here to read the RSPB's appeal for the hen harrier.

Friday, 6 February 2015

Display and burial

Archaeology is a continuous play between the hidden and the displayed.

Sketch for Wrapped Bone, 2014
It is curious that the things that prehistoric people would have displayed are now gone, the act of displaying them making them subject to corrosion by the elements.

Whereas the things they buried were then preserved...

...in order for us to then dig them up and reveal them again, and display them in museums.

The act of displaying something is an act of transformation.  A prehistoric tool made from bone is transformed by us, by placing it in a glass case, from a useful material thing into an object for admiring, revering its age, beauty and ingenuity. A relic.

However, prehistoric people buried their special things.
"British prehistory represents a complex dialectic between hiding and revealing things..."1
Prehistoric peoples buried things in pits, placed things in tombs, concealed their hoards and buried objects as well as bones in careful and specific ways. But were they separating things out as special, such as we do with display? Or were they returning things to the earth, thereby reuniting them with the original source of all things?

When I'm working in the Bone Lab I think a lot about boxes. I'm surrounded by labelled boxes, categorised bones placed in bags and boxed, stacked around the room. Boxes come and go, occasionally there is a delivery from a Roman site, another set of boxes that need to be sifted through. Objects that have been excavated, revealed, from a site, only to be concealed once again in a box with an esoteric label with numbers and letters.

They might then be taken out of the box, sorted, and placed in other containers, transparent plastic bags or acrylic boxes. This time the boxes reveal their contents so that students can study them.

The relic container, the reliquary, is a box that conceals and displays simultaneously. The relic itself is hidden within the box, though sometimes the box is made around the relic to form the same shape, like clothing, describing what is inside. The outside of the relic displays something about the relic itself; often there are depictions of the life of the saint whose relics are held within.

The reliquary as an object of display and concealment represents, perhaps, the practice of archaeology itself as well as the practice of display and burial of both prehistoric and contemporary people.

You can see examples of medieval reliquaries on the Metropolitan Museum of Art website. There are more, including Buddhist reliquaries, in the British Museum.



1 Making and display: our aesthetic appreciation of things and objects, Chris Gosden, in Substance, Memory, Display, Ed. Colin Renfrew et al: McDonald Institute for Archaelogical Research, 2004

Saturday, 31 January 2015

Materiality

"We should avoid the notion that human action and intention can always transcend materiality, and recognise how the materiality of things can disrupt and deflect human intentions. Objects can, unwittingly, carry forth their own projects." 1
In other words, the materiality of objects affect us when we perceive them.

I've been thinking about the material that is bone, and also about how we place different values on different materials. How material objects are not just signifiers of what they represent, but their materiality actually embodies the symbolic.

Gilt bone.  Polymer clay, gold leaf. 2015
I have been making things that look like bones but are made of material other than bone. How does this change how we perceive them?

I found another interesting piece of writing on the subject in artist John Newling's book An Essential Disorientation, where he considers how the religious ark or reliquary may contain a scrap of bone fragment or a dusty piece of rag, but the ark itself would be lavishly decorated with "precious" materials. It is the contrast between the two materials, the relic itself and the container as the signifier of its contents, that makes the difference:
"...the contrast between them is part of our cognition...Gold and bones combine to create a sacred memorial that questions materials as metaphors of value." 2


1 The art of decay and the transformation of substance, Joshua Pollard, in Substance, Memory, Display, Ed. Colin Renfrew et al: McDonald Institute for Archaelogical Research, 2004
2 An Essential Disorientation, John Newling: SARP, 2007

Wednesday, 28 January 2015

International Celebration of Contemporary Sculpture



I was delighted to be part of the annual International Celebration of Contemporary Sculpture by the Sculpture Network, hosted by Susan Williams at ArtSpace, Kettering, Northamptonshire, which opened on Sunday 25th January 2015.

The show had the theme "Size Matters?". I decided to show the miniature paper spires again, which I reconfigured for this show and titled them "Navigated Spires". I also had two collaborative works as Miles and Dacombe: an older piece "Half Beech" and a new experimental piece we made on site, "The Measure of Things".

The whole show seemed to hang together really well, making use of the indoor space, the gardens and the outside buildings, some slightly ruined and crumbling!

At 11am we made a live link to all the other venues around the world via a big screen, and raised a glass.


I really enjoyed the exhibits and meeting other artists. Susan is an excellent host and I love her work too. Home made food was provided by artist Kate Dyer, warming soups and delicious crumble. The atmosphere was friendly, energised, I met lots of new people and caught up with some old acquaintances. It was a great party!

Singing Ringing by Carole Miles
The Measure of Things (detail), Miles and Dacombe
Phiona Richards

David Booth

Warren Shaw



Graham Keddie

Navigated Spires, Jo Dacombe

Anna G

Susan Williams

Susan Williams (above) and Helen Frankland (below)

Graham Keddie



Friday, 23 January 2015

Bone Publicity

I have been working with the University's Press Office to develop a press release for the project, which will be out soon. So this week I had to be photographed in the Bone Lab for the publicity!

I don't particularly enjoy being photographed, but it was a pleasant opportunity to show some of my work to a couple of people and get their reactions. I could only really bring drawings as the sculptures in my studio are still rather fragile and in progress, so they remain hidden for now!

I enjoyed spreading out the drawings on the tables and arranging bones around them. It got some discussion going about the aesthetics of the objects, and I talked about the different kinds of bones that had fascinated me and why.


I snapped this photo of Debbie Miles-Williams who is the Outreach Officer for the School of Archaeology. Debbie is helping me to set up workshops with local schools and groups to engage with my project. Showing her some of the work was a good way to think about how I might run a workshop and which items got discussion going.

Debbie is also an archaeological illustrator so she is very visually aware. I was extremely grateful to her for making sure that the publicity photos showed my artwork well and not just me!

If you are a school or group and would be interested in me coming to deliver one of my free workshops, Debbie would love to hear from you. You can contact her at deb@leicester.ac.uk