I’m currently sitting in the cafe beneath The Ashmolean in Oxford. It’s bustling with tourists, seniors and families taking a break from the collections above and the rain outside. I’ve taken refuge from the museum above because my mind has just been completely overloaded – and I haven’t even visited a single exhibition space yet. I’ve just come straight from seeing Elizabeth Price’s ‘A Restoration’: a video-art installation based on the archives of Sir Arthur Evans, the English archaeologist who excavated Crete’s Knossos in 1900. It’s a stunning artwork. Literally. Set in a dedicated dark space, surrounded by speakers and flashing phrenetically across two screens, the viewer is bombarded with successive layers of poetic narration (of a synthetic disembodied collective voice of imaginary administartors), percussive electronic music (think Yann Tiersen’s ‘Amelie’ soundtrack crossed with Jamie XX), and cleverly edited archival images (historical and modern photographs of artefacts, drawings, maps, graphics and clever animations bring to life both Minoan iconography as well as computer archival icons). In this way, like Alice through the rabbit hole, or Theseus in the labyrinth, ‘A Restoration’ takes you ever deeper into the world of the mysterious administrators.
‘A Restoration’ is not a politically or culturally critical artwork – especially compared to some of the recent video-art installation works disentangling (post)-colonialism, museology and repatriation which I saw attached to the joint British Museum – National Museum of Australia exhibit (how I wish that exhibit had toured to the UK! I may have to write about that exhibit and its use of art and video too actually…). Instead, ‘A Restoration’ is a playful, gentle, exploratory, and softly satirical work, commenting more on the limitations of our ways of knowing and envisioning the past, and our possibly naïve attempts to reconstruct the past in some ideal form. It has a very European sensibility to it: testing but also ultimately propagating the notion of Knossos as the fount of European civilization, constructed seed by seed, brick by brick, person by person – as illustrated in the fragments composed together like a giant jigsaw puzzle of the past. It concludes somewhat ambiguously – which to me is a reminding that in the end our attempts to preserve the remains of the past can only be at best, temporary.
You can see a trailer of ‘A Reconstruction’ on the Guardian website, and on Elizabeth Price’s website. The exhibit continues for 5 more days until 15th March.
Marina Warner wrote a lovely essay on the exhibit, which was available on site as a pamphlet. Hopefully it will be published after the exhibit. Keep an eye out.