Restoring the Minoans: Elizabeth Price and Sir Arthur Evans
On ViewInstitute For The Study Of The Ancient World (Isaw)
October 5, 2017 – January 7, 2018
The latter part of the Victorian era was a romantic age of celebrity archaeologists: Howard Carter’s discovery of Tutankhamun’s tomb captured the public’s imagination, as did Leonard Woolley’s excavations of the burial pit at Ur. Sir Arthur Evans unearthed and restored Knossos, and Heinrich Schliemann excavated Mycenae—rescuing Homer’s lost civilizations from the mythological mists of time.
While exhibitions relating to such excavations can be dull and dusty, this one pulls the viewer through Evans’s excavation in a lively, scholarly, and refreshingly amusing waltz through the material. In 2016, Elizabeth Price (winner of the 2012 Turner Prize) made A RESTORATION, a two-channel video. Price was commissioned by the Contemporary Art Society in London to make a video based on the collections of Oxford’s Ashmolean and Pitt Rivers Museums. ISAW’s chief curator, Jennifer Y. Chi, curatorial assistant Rachel Herschman, and the J. Paul Getty Museum’s curator of Antiquities, Kenneth Lapatin, curated the ISAW exhibition both in response to the Price’s video and to bring the Knossos of Sir Arthur Evans to life. The result is a selection of archeological watercolors, museum artifacts, excavation plans, and photographs, paired with the work of a remarkable contemporary artist. Showing how Evans used “permissive” restoration techniques and how authentic artifacts, forgeries, and fresco reproductions entered museum collections, the artist and curators treat this history with a combination of playful wit and excellent scholarship.
It all begins with a myth. Sir Arthur Evans thought the Palace of Knossos he unearthed was the labyrinth of King Minos’s Minotaur described in Homer’s Iliad. This structure becomes an organizing principle for the video—A RESTORATION ends with a labyrinth in the form of a giant digital ear, into which a vast cache of artifacts is dumped. Price’s pulsating soundtrack makes the Minoan world of bull-leapers and snake goddesses come alive as we enter Knossos through the site plans and photographs of Evans’s reconstruction. A chorus of digitally manipulated female voices Price calls “museum administrators” functions much like a Greek chorus, with their running commentary printed out in a text box.
A RESTORATION was made during a two-year residency at Oxford University’s Ashmolean and Pitt Rivers Museums, where Price chose to make an artwork based on the Sir Arthur Evans Archive. Price uses the beginning of the video to introduce the restored frescoes of a garden habitat and then takes us into Evans’s excavation site using archival plans and photographs. The work moves between fragments, discussing how a restoration was created from them—“making whole” that which has been lost. Evans becomes an artist as his fantasy becomes this version of Knossos. Photographs of thousands of objects, like drinking bowls, parade before us, spilling from endless shelves and files. Price’s work is a brilliant commentary on how we see artifacts in the digital age, and her digital file folders within file folders show the sheer volume of the material, and also mimic her artistic process. Borges’s “The Library of Babel” comes to mind as shelves and shelves of drinking vessels, bits and bobs of frescoes, and a parade of artifacts spill across the screens. Price has a level of scholarship we don’t often see in artists, which makes for a memorable collaboration between artist and museum.
Sir Arthur Evans devoted a lifetime to the restoration of Knossos. He was also a director of Oxford’s Ashmoleon Museum and brought the semi-moribund institution back to life, expanding its collections. Coming from a wealthy family, he even bought the excavation site on Crete. His archaeology was in service to a European mythology: Evans declared the famous throne from Knossos to be the oldest seat of power in Europe, made long before Greece, Rome, and even the Egyptian first dynasty. With the help of an expert excavator, Duncan Mackenzie, and two Swiss archaeological artists, Émile Gilliéron (pére and fils), Evans rebuilt the palace in several successive versions, using modern steel-reinforced concrete. Sometimes a fresco was “restored” when only 15 percent of the original existed, so there was some creativity involved. An amusing 1929 travelogue by Evelyn Waugh reads:
I accompanied a party of fellow passengers to the museum to admire the barbarities of Minoan culture. One cannot judge the merits of Minoan painting, since only a few square inches of the vast area exposed for our consideration are earlier than the last twenty years, and their painters have tempered their zeal for reconstruction with a predilection for the covers of Vogue.
Kenneth Lapatin’s ISAW catalogue essay makes for great reading. We learn Evans’s excavation inspired writers like William Butler Yeats, psychologists like Freud, artists like Pablo Picasso and Max Ernst, and even dress designers like Mariano Fortuny. Lapatin traces the work of Evans from the excavation site to the watercolor versions of the frescos that traveled to museums, along with photographs and other replicas. Anything found on-site had to remain in the country, so it was hard to quench the thirst of museums and collectors for Minoan antiquities. An ivory figurine christened “Our Lady of the Sports” (borrowed from the Royal Ontario Museum in Toronto) was made at a secret forgery atelier by members of Evans’s work crew, without his knowledge. Evans, with his desire for a female bull-leaper, could never quite denounce it as a fake, and it is placed prominently in a vitrine at ISAW.
Restoring the Minoans gives us a wonderful sampling of Minoan artifacts—including a stunning bronze female figurine, ceramics, and fresco fragments—alongside large watercolors of Minoan interiors and illustrations of frescoes that told the story of Evans’s excavation as they were sent to institutions around the world. This exhibition shows how an artist and an institution can work together with intelligence and creativity to bring not only a story to the viewer, but present a dialogue about art, museum practices, and archaeology in the digital age.