Lives in neon lights and unmade beds

Figuring It Out
July 4, 2003

The origins of this book are the 2001 Rhind lectures delivered to the Society of Antiquaries of Scotland. The original title, "Art as Archaeology and Archaeology as Art: The Construction of the World through Material Culture", perhaps gives a clearer indication of its content and intention.

There are two basic ideas: first, that the processes of appreciating modern art and of appreciating archaeological materials are similar - we are "all" archaeologists. Second, that the acts of creation in contemporary art - using many processes in a broad range of media and physical contexts - offer "analogies" for the types of "engagement with the material world" our own species (and our recent ancestors) has experienced through its evolution.

An unlikely pairing, perhaps more suited to the immediacy of the extensively illustrated lecture than to careful scrutiny on the printed page, but Colin Renfrew is to be commended for allowing us to share his vigorous "engagement" with trends in archaeology and anthropology that stress the centrality of material culture in understanding human existence in the world.

The book's title is drawn from a question posed by Paul Gauguin in the top left-hand corner of a Tahitian scene encompassing birth, maturity and old age, painted in Tahiti in 1897: "Where do we come from? What are we? Where are we going to?" These questions, particularly the first two, are ones to which we all seek answers, Renfrew argues. One approach - that of what he calls the "science of archaeology" - is the systematic study of the human past, particularly that part often defined as the "human revolution" about 40,000 years ago when people like us ( Homo sapiens ) arrived in Europe. But Renfrew is not satisfied with the definition of this moment as the key transition, instead stressing his surprise that it took "so long" for a further series of what he regards as crucial innovations - sedentary living, agriculture, monumental architecture, metallurgy and other transformative technologies, and urbanism - to emerge: "How come, if the 'human revolution' took place 40,000 years ago in Europe... we had to wait another 30,000 years for these things to happen?" More than a hint of teleology here? Renfrew calls this time lag the "sapient paradox" and his solution is that, although evolution delivered humans the relevant "hardware", it took longer for the "software" to develop. That development came through a process he characterises as an "engagement with the material world".

It is in this engagement that contemporary art comes in, because, while art in general explicitly interacts with the material, contemporary art, with its vastly expanded range of media and "acceptable" forms, offers, in Renfrew's opinion, a suggestive series of engagements between mind and material culture that can inform our exploration of humanity's past 40,000 years. One might say that for Renfrew, as a "cognitive archaeologist", contemporary art offers a range of analogies - creative analogies - parallel to the behavioural analogies drawn from ethnography that archaeologists have employed to shed light on the way past communities lived.

In his words, "the visual arts... transformed themselves into what might be described as a vast, uncoordinated yet somehow enormously effective research programme that looks critically at what we are and how we know what we are - at the foundations of knowledge and perception, and of the structures that modern societies have chosen".

Crucial here is that art produced now is embedded in "modern societies" (in the same way that hunter-gatherer groups now are implicated in modern societies, although seemingly "pristine"). To assume an analogy between past and present is to make the uniformitarianist assumption that the past is just like the present, denying the possibility that the past is a "foreign country".

All this might seem heavy-going, but it is neither intended to be ("the juxtapositions and comparisons that I shall offer... are also supposed to be fun, since contemporary art is fun"), nor is it, for Renfrew writes with clarity and commitment, although the colloquial style occasionally adopted jars somewhat. His publishers have served him well by including the extensive illustrations without which a book such as this would lose much of its impact, although we still miss the performance aspect of a lecture series.

Renfrew's overall strategy is to interweave archaeological examples with the work of contemporary artists. The first three chapters deal primarily with art; the second three with the archaeological implications. In "Encounters: art as archaeology, archaeology as art", Renfrew charts the similarities in process between archaeology and contemporary art, juxtaposing the Neolithic chambered cairn of Quanterness on Orkney - an early excavation of his - with the "land art" of Richard Long.

The next two chapters explore how the concept of the "work of art" has changed, starting from ideas he published as a student in a 1962 article in the Cambridge Review. "What is art? The tyranny of the Renaissance" takes its title from that article and begins with the aesthetics of Cycladic marble sculpture, pronounced "repulsively ugly" by Paul Wolters in 1891, but now highly valued aesthetically and commercially on the antiquities market. This revaluation of the aesthetics of Cycladic sculpture is a result of the way modern aesthetics, formerly "tyrannised" by attitudes formed in the Renaissance, were freed in the late 19th and early 20th centuries through the work of figures such as Picasso and Brancusi.

Contributory to this redefinition of aesthetics was the emulation of non-western styles, no doubt fuelled by encounters in the colonial world that not only created the ethnographic database for modern anthropology, but also produced collections of "primitive" art, explored recently in C. Gosden and C. Knowles' Collecting Colonialism (2001).

"Off the plinth: display and process" examines the range of contexts and processes in contemporary art from the "wrapping" of Christo and Jeanne-Claude (most famously their Wrapped Reichstag ), through "activity", reflected again in Long's work and also that of Tracey Emin, to "process", illustrated most tellingly by Mark Dion's Tate Thames Dig, in which archaeological activities over time produced the museum-like display-cases in the Tate. The parallels between Dion's displays such as Raiding Neptune's Vault or Theatrum Mundi Armarium, reminiscent of Renaissance cabinets of curiosities, lead on to subversions of "display" in Marcel Duchamp's (in)famous Fountain (1917), or his use of "readymades" - everyday objects transformed into "works of art" by being hung in a gallery and lit in a particular way. Process and display come together vividly in Cornelia Parker's Cold Dark Matter (1991): a garden shed containing everyday objects, detonated, then reassembled as fragments hanging in mid-air in Tate Modern.

"The human condition: being and remembering" reintroduces human cognitive development, using a schema based on the evolutionary psychologist Merlin Donald's Origins of the Modern Mind (1991). Donald sees human culture as evolving through four stages, each separated by a major transition:

"episodic" culture, characteristic of our australopithecine ancestors; "mimetic" culture, embodied in Homo erectus; "linguistic/ mythic" arriving with the first modern humans; and, finally, "theoretic" culture, utilising external symbolic storage, especially writing, only a few thousand years old.

Renfrew takes issue with this schema, in particular because it omits the "sedentary revolution" of 10,000 years ago and proposes a modified scheme, inserting a phase of "symbolic-material" culture between the "linguistic/mythic" and the "theoretic" phases. He devotes the rest of the book to illustrating this schema through archaeological and artistic examples. The "mythic" stage, occupies the rest of this chapter, utilising the work of Anthony Gormley - a series of sculptures based on casts of his own body that Renfrew dubs a "meditation upon human existence and upon human becoming ". From here we move through the poignant casts of actual human bodies preserved at the site of Pompeii to George Segal's body casts, not timeless, but situated in specific locations - a bus, a diner, (not) crossing a street. The chapter ends with myth and story as exemplified in the paintings of John Bellany. "The (al)lure of the artefact" draws examples of the "symbolic-material" phase from the striking sculptures of Eduardo Paolozzi and the various use of artefacts made by Claes Oldenburg, Tony Cragg and David Mach.

Finally, in "Baneful signs: the archaeology of now", Renfrew introduces writing to his story. After a rather traditional brief history of writing in different archaeological manifestations, we encounter some contemporary art works that deploy text: Ian Hamilton Finlay's evocative pieces in landscapes, Bruce Nauman's neon creations, and Jenny Holzer's arresting phrases situated in cityscapes. Sensitive to rapid changes in our relationship with information, Renfrew appropriately ends with electronic communication and the "dematerialisation of material culture". In considering the written word, Renfrew perhaps misses a trick, since writing - a means "to permit communication over distance, and to permit communication while those not in the know... remain in ignorance" - does not "mean" except when it is read or viewed and such readings/viewings are always in context (in this lies the effect of the works of Holzer or Hamilton Finlay, for example); clay tablets do not "say" anything while sitting in an archive. Engagement and context are crucial.

Who is this book for? Many professional archaeologists will relish Renfrew's provocative discussion of art as material culture and perhaps be surprised at his seemingly sympathetic engagement with recent theoretical developments. A glance at the often-extensive notes, however, yields up Renfrew's commentary on approaches such as phenomenology, material culture, reflexive archaeology and memory. Ultimately, in Renfrew's universe, all is "cognitive archaeology". Art critics and art historians might find the approach to art out of tune with theirs, but Renfrew is not claiming to write criticism, rather to use contemporary art to make a point about human interaction with the material world. The book is a personal engagement by an avid appreciator, consumer and commissioner of contemporary art, designed to stimulate thought. The book offers those of us not present at the lectures an opportunity to "engage" with a lively mind at work and play.

John Bennet is lecturer in Aegean prehistory, University of Oxford.

Figuring It Out: What are we? Where do we come from? The Parallel Visions of Artists and Archaeologists

Author - Colin Renfrew
ISBN - 0 500 05114 3
Publisher - Thames and Hudson
Price - £32.00
Pages - 224

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