The Way of the Shovel: Art as Archaeology

Posted by Ian on May 9, 2013 in news

It’s going to be a great day in Chicago tomorrow morning. I am pleased to be bringing together a panel of curators, artists, archaeologists and scholars to have an open discussion about the emergence of archaeological themes in contemporary arts practice. I hope you will be able to join us in Chicago, and if not, don’t miss the exhibition that inspired the session “The Way of the Shovel: Art as Archaeology” at the Museum of Contemporary Art Chicago that opens this November 2013.


2013 Theoretical Archaeology Group – Chicago, USA

Session: The Way of the Shovel: Art as Archaeology

Date: Friday, May 10, 2013, 9:00-12:00pm


Room 208, 2nd Floor

Gleacher Conference Center of the Booth Business School (downtown campus)

University of Chicago. 450 N Cityfront Plaza Dr # 1.


Session Abstract

As a prelude to the Museum of Contemporary Art’s upcoming exhibition “The Way of the Shovel: Art as Archaeology” curated by Dieter Roelstraete, this session will bring together a panel of thinkers and practitioners from the arts and archaeology to explore issues arising from the exploration of the interstitial space between art and archaeology. Beyond a shared disciplinary history within art history and antiquarianism, art and archaeology share sensibilities around approaches to material, time, process, performance, liveness, assemblage, fragmentation, decomposition, reconstruction, archive, and representation. Both order things in specific, intentioned ways, creating conditions of possibility for making meaning and sense in the world. Over the last two decades, there has been increasing symmetry between art and archaeology. Within archaeology, scholars and practitioners such as Colin Renfrew (1999; 2005 also see Renfrew et al 2004), Michael Shanks (1991; also see Shanks & Pearson 2001), Tim Ingold (2011; 2007), Ruth Tringham (2007; 2009) and Doug Bailey (2005; 2008), amongst others, have undertaken substantive work exploring the possibilities of a mingling of archaeological and artistic practices. Within contemporary art, there has been a symmetrical interest in archaeological, and more broadly historical, practices (both in aesthetic form, conceptual intent, and epistemological process) as they relate to growing movements in contemporary arts practice around concerns about art as research and research as art – responding to a shared moment, rife with anxiety about remembering that which is threatened by forgetting, revealing that which has been committed to oblivion, liberating and empowering through that which is marginalized by disappearance, and narrating and visualizing the past as an act of resistance.



Ian Alden Russell, Curator, David Winton Bell Gallery, Brown University

Dieter Roelstraete, Manilow Senior Curator, Museum of Contemporary Art, Chicago



Ian Alden Russell, Curator, David Winton Bell Gallery, Brown University

Title: The Art of the Past: Before and after Archaeology


With intellectual and disciplinary roots in art history, early modern science, and antiquarianism, the field of archaeology exists within the arts, humanities, and sciences. As with their antiquarian forebears whose work to compose images of the past slipped easily from art to science and back again, contemporary archaeologists compose pasts from traces, residues, absences, and presences appropriating, mixing, and inventing techniques and methods from across the academy. In the first decade of the twenty-first century, there has been a resurgence of interest in the composition of the past within contemporary arts practice. With some artists focusing directly on archaeology and the act of excavation and processing of finds in particular, some archaeologists, such as Colin Renfrew, Ruth Tringham, Michael Shanks, and Doug Bailey, have endeavored to meet this interest within the arts, sustaining critical, interdisciplinary work on the renewal of the past through both archaeological as well as artistic practices. In many cases, archaeologists themselves have transgressed disciplinary strictures engaging artists directly through residencies and commissions and in some cases taking to making art themselves. Collectively, there is evidence of a concerted effort within both archaeology and art to address the composition of the past—not as an end result of technological analysis but as the beginning of a possibility for renewal through process. Doing away with the rubric of a scientifically managed past, perhaps we may be witnessing a revival of an avant-gardist past, akin to the predusciplinary spirit of antiquarianism, that is not confined by disciplinary strictures or epistemic conventions, where the past is not a destination but a continual process of composition and renewal.


Dieter Roelstraete, Manilow Senior Curator, Museum of Contemporary Art, Chicago

Title: Field Notes: On the Archaeological Imaginary in Art


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. The tools of the archaeological trade—the titular shovel, for example—are likewise examined in relation to the act (and art) of excavating. The exhibition is arranged according to several conceptual underpinnings. In the first strand, archaeology is considered metaphorically, with an emphasis on art that takes the form of historical, often archival, research. Most of this work is photographic in nature, much of it moving-image based, and explores art’s documentary powers. Key figures in this category include Phil Collins, Moyra Davey, Tacita Dean, Stan Douglas, Joachim Koester, Deimantas Narkevicius, Anri Sala, Hito Steyerl, and Ana Torfs, among others. In the second strand, archaeology is considered more literally, in works that question the relationship between matter (stuff, things) and historical truth. This section features the sculptural work of artists such as Cyprien Gaillard, Daniel Knorr, Michael Rakowitz, and Simon Starling, as well as artworks that address the political dimension of archaeology by Mariana Castillo Deball and Jean-Luc Moulène. Two “exhibitions-within-the-exhibition” take a closer look at the towering figure of Robert Smithson, art’s quintessential searcher, and at psychoanalysis as an archaeology of the mind. In these subsections, we encounter the work of Jason Lazarus, Tony Tasset, Shellburne Thurber, and others.


Doug Bailey, Department of Anthropology, San Francisco State University

Title: Going beyond and letting go: non-archaeological art and non-artistic archaeology.


Almost without exception workers at the interfaces of art and archaeology have restricted themselves to the boundaries of their respective discipline and discourse. Whether it is an archaeological investigation of ancient art and artefacts or an artistic recreation of past places, peoples and events, we have not grasped firmly enough the accompanying opportunities for transformative thinking and practice. In this paper, I argue that artists and archaeologists will benefit from moving beyond the current restrictions and limitations. The result will be a lack of discipline (in every sense of that phrase) that will have innovative and transformative things to say, show, do, and make around key issues of modern thinking in the humanities and social sciences. This paper will draw examples from prehistoric and contemporary art as well as from recent work by colleagues who have broken through and broken free.


Rebecca Keller, artist and School of the Art Institute of Chicago

Title: Excavating History, Artists in Historic Sites


Historic sites are palimpsests: places where stories are layered over other stories.

My installations, writing and exhibitions, done under the umbrella title “Excavating History’ involve unearthing new connections and complicating the existing narratives of historic sites, collections and archives.

Beginning with intensive research which unfolds into a sort of ‘rigorous imagining,” my work unpacks and expands the meanings embedded in historic sites and archives. These acts of excavation bring to light the multi-layered (and perhaps subconscious) interpretive and narrative frameworks that have shaped our assumptions, world views and politics.

These projects are done in dialogue with the site; more than site-specific, I think of them as “site-complicit.” This approach is related to the increasing interest in art-as-research, as well as to the capacity of art to produce social relations. Excavating History projects are driven by the conviction that the meanings embedded in our public historic sites can be connected to contemporary social issues and help us envision alternate futures. A book, “Excavating History: Artists Take on Historic Sites” was released in 2012 by Stepsister Press


Jack Green, Chief Curator, Oriental Institute Museum, University of Chicago


Hamza Walker, Director of Education and Associate Curator, The Renaissance Society, University of Chicago

Title: Curatorial responses to Danh Vo’s We The People at the Oriental Institute Museum


We present our curatorial thoughts and experiences in collaborating on the recent exhibition of Danh Vo’s We The People at the University of Chicago. We The People consists of life-size fragments of a replica of the Statue of Liberty made from sheet copper that are dispersed around the world. Vo does not assign specific meaning beyond the reproduction and spread of the pieces, although it is considered to draw upon Vo’s own life story as a refugee from Vietnam and notions of fragmentation of freedom and democracy. As part of the Renaissance Society’s exhibit of Danh Vo’s work, pieces were dispersed within interior and exterior spaces around the University of Chicago campus, including the Mesopotamian galleries at the Oriental Institute Museum, which specializes in the archaeology, history, and art of the ancient Middle East. The theme of fragmentation and dispersal was key within a space containing reconstructed fragments of ancient sculpture from the imperial city of Khorsabad (modern Iraq), which are now distributed in museums across the world. Although Vo leaves the political implications of his Statue of Liberty fragments to visitors’ own interpretations, the exhibit’s archaeological setting at the Oriental Institute led to new ways of considering Vo’s work and generated unexpected historical, archaeological, and curatorial responses.


Michael Rakowitz, artist and Department of Art Theory & Practice, Northwestern University

Title: Artist’s Statement


Based between Chicago and New York City, Rakowitz is an Iraqi-American conceptual artist who operates within art spaces and beyond them. With his series paraSITE, Rakowitz built customized, inflatable shelters for the homeless using a mere budget of $5.00 for plastic bags and waterproof tape for each project, and the exterior vents of buildings for heat. In Return, produced by Creative Time in 2004, Rakowitz reopened his grandfather’s import and export business, Davison’s & Co., which first operated in Baghdad and then relocated to New York when his family was exiled in 1946. Rakowitz’s resurrected family business offered free shipping to Iraq three months after the U.S. declared stifling trade restrictions on the country. Spoils of 2011, another Rakowitz and Creative Time collaboration, took a more provocative and personal approach to American-Iraqi relations. Housed at Park Avenue Autumn restaurant, the “culinary/art experience” provided patrons with rich traditional Iraqi dishes served on rare pieces of fine China from Saddam Hussein’s personal collection. More surprising than the sensory tensions experienced by each diner, notably the contrast between the “sweetness of the Iraqi date syrup, and the…bitter provenance of the dishware,” was the dramatic conclusion of the project. A cease-and-desist letter from the State Department calling for the “surrender” of the plates abruptly ended Spoils, and resulted in their return to Iraqi territory. It was, according to Rakowitz, a “kind of perfect” ending to the project.


Roundtable Discussion

The Roundtable portion of the session will feature all presenters and organizers as well as:

Pamela Bannos, Distinguished Senior Lecturer, Department of Art Theory and Practice, Northwestern University