Sous les pavés, la plage (Beneath the paving stones, the beach). The graffiti from May ’68 in Paris conjures an image of undoing the material world piece by piece. To this day, the students and workers from that period, and the artist-cultural-critics among them known as Situationists, are widely cited because of their transformative deeds, words, images, and above all, their potent possibility. But for all the reverence they receive, could the activists of that moment anticipate the world we live in today? Moving beyond the legacies of the ’60s, “The Way of the Shovel”, Dieter Roelstraete’s new exhibition, examines more recent attempts by artists to unearth and undo the material world they find themselves in.
A rock spins on a turntable, glistening as it rotates and catches light. An extraction site is revealed, smoke fills the air and a small crane fills a dumptruck with earth. As the wide shots of the HD video pull back, the carved landscape of a mine provide a backdrop for slow freight train movements—hinting at the logistics and transport needed to transfer extracted material to other sites of processing. The movement continues, and the next shot thrusts the viewer into the pristine floors of the stock exchange, where chairs with headrests spin in front of screen-laden desks and a reporter practices her smile for the camera while she prepares to read the latest financial news in English. The link between the material and the financial has been swiftly and elegantly drawn. Aleksander Komarov’s contribution to the exhibition, the 20-minute video Estate (2008), may be one of the more literal works in relationship to the title, but it is far from the simplist.
“The Way of the Shovel” defied my initial expectations of a straightforward interpretation of artists working across disciplines. It grapples with the framework through surprise and complexity. Themes in the exhibit weave from the explicit engagement with the digger’s discipline of archeology to metaphoric digging of a historical or archival nature—questioning the construction of art history, narrative and memory. There are a number of works dealing with post-communist events in Eastern Europe, and a current of post-colonialism shows the politics of the project of excavation. A great deal of the work might fit within the framework of expanded landscape art, while others make sense of mobility and movement.
Artists travel. Susanne Kriemann goes to the Texas town of Llano and the German village of Solnhofen, Moyra Davey went to South Africa’s mines, Joachim Koester photographed boarded-up buildings in Chicago, Hito Steyerl went to make a video in Sarajevo, and Cyprien Gaillard did a project that involved excavating a bunker in the Dutch seaside town of Scheveningen. Some artists stay home. Mariana Castillo Deball goes back to Mexico, LaToya Ruby Frazier documents her hometown of Braddock, Pennsylvania, and Scott Hocking makes work about Detroit in Detroit. Jean-Luc Moulène went to the Louvre, and long-time local photographer Pamela Bannos went downtown to the MCA Chicago to make a new work about the land where the MCA sits—both projects operating in traditions of site-specificity and institutional critiques that put the museum at the center of the digging and undoing under examination here.
In 1976 the Iraq Museum, ten years after its opening, published a mission statement in an exhibition catalogue that profoundly read, “The relics of the past serve as reminders of what has been before, and as links in the chain of communication between past, present and future. The society which possesses many and fine museums has a correspondingly stronger historical memory than the society without them.” Unrivaled for their collection of Mesopotamian artifacts dating back to 9000 BC, the museum sent tremors throughout the world with widespread publicity of the looting and destruction that overtook its collection following the fall of Baghdad, after US troops invaded the city in April of 2003.
The strongest contribution to the “The Way of the Shovel” is the ongoing project by Michael Rakowitz, The Invisible Enemy Should Not Exist (2007-present). The installation includes dozens of objects, each presented with detailed captions and catalogue data. One artifact, item #Im42494, is from 2600 BC. The caption reads, “material: alabaster; status: unknown.” The background is a flat surface covered in newsprint with Arabic type, the foreground a small relief carving featuring a figure seated, wearing a horned cap and holding a feather. Across the figure one reads “Packed for and distributed by Ziyad Brothers Importing” in packaging shades of yellow, green, and white that were impossible to achieve in 2600 BC. Rakowitz’s installation presents his re-creation of objects, many of which were destroyed or looted from the Iraq Museum in April of 2003. Utilizing packaging from commonly imported products and newspapers available in the US where he lives, his material choices convey the disconnection experienced by people in a diaspora, attempting to reconnect to the strife of their homelands.
Something that was undeniable in the sentiment of May ’68 is that work of digging beneath the paving stones is work we do together. The beaches that we discover beneath us in that process will be that much more meaningful for the methodical, experimental, and intelligent practices presented in this exhibition. Beyond merely looking back, “The Way of the Shovel”, at its best, poses the material remnants of the social world as devices for deciphering the present.
until 9 March 2014
Above – Pamela Bannos, Shifting Grounds: Block 21 and Chicago’s MCA, 2013
Derek Brunen, Plot (production still), 2007
Stan Douglas, MacLeod’s, 2006
Shellburne Thurber, Arlington, MA: Office with red window curtain and small statues, 2000
Tacita Dean, The Life and Death of St Bruno from The Russian Ending, 2001
Tony Tasset, Robert Smithson (Las Vegas), 1995
Anri Sala, Intervista (video still), 1998
Ana Torfs, Anatomy (detail), 2006
Michael Rakowitz, The Invisible Enemy Should Not Exist, 2007-ongoing
Cyprien Gaillard, Untitled, 2012
Mark Dion, Concerning the Dig, 2013
Zin Taylor, Wrong Way to Spiral Jetty, 2006
LaToya Ruby Frazier, Home on Braddock Avenue, 2007
Gabriel Orozco, Stream in the Grid, 2001
Stan Douglas, Film still, Overture, 1986
“The Way of the Shovel: Art as Archaeology” installation view at MCA Chicago, 2013