… This work was also inspired by the practice of ex-votos. In ancient Etruscan and Roman cultures gifts were offered to the gods with prayer as a form of healing, in the hope that the body part would take on the ailment of the original. This practice of votive offerings demonstrates a belief in the curative power of mimesis, and the practice continues to exist in many contemporary cultures such as those of Italy and Brazil.
The idea that a representational object can contain the spirit of the original is developed by the anthropologist Michael Taussig in his book Mimesis and Alterity.1 Writing about the figurines which represented white colonialists, carved by the Cuna Indians of Central America in the mid twentieth century as part of their curing rites, he speaks about the ‘magic of mimesis’ and how ‘the making and existence of the artefact that portrays something gives one power over that which is portrayed’. Behind most of these fragments of narrative there lies the repeated and deep engagement with the power struggles enacted within human relationships as a protection against loss, and in the year or so that followed this exhibition I began to develop a greater focus on the significance in cultural life of archaic artefacts, which in many ways are designed to assist in this process of protection.
As a ceramicist I never experienced a strong connection with the late-twentieth-century contemporary abstract vessel movement or the decorative history of functional pottery, but a growing awareness of the range and meaning of clay artefacts in burial sites presented me with an area of the discipline that carried deep significance. Ceramic artefacts occur in large numbers of graves from many different countries (for example, Mexico, Japan, and China) and were almost certainly carriers of deep meaning in their time. They often formed part of a complex cultural mourning ritual relating to a transitional journey into the afterlife and affirming relationships with the ancestors which could be vital to the continuity of the society. In contemporary culture these transitional rituals can be seen to have a parallel with psychoanalysis and the need for transformation through that process.
I am attracted to these objects partly because of their age and their worn aesthetic and partly because of their connection to a history about which we know very little. We share a common interest in people from the past, whether our immediate ancestors or people from long ago, because we need continuity. This is demonstrated by the popularity of exhibitions about past cultures and the current interest in archaeology, a discipline that has undergone many changes since it developed from early natural history into a more disciplined science.
The word ‘archaeology’ comes from the Greek arkhaiologica, meaning ‘discourse about ancient things’, and in first-century Greece archaeologists were actually a category of actors who re-created ancient legends on stage through dramatic mimes. Today archaeology is about studying human past through material traces of it that have survived, though only a tiny fraction of these traces exist and only a minute proportion of them are correctly identified or interpreted. As many archaeologists will confirm, they really only uncover the tip of the iceberg.
… Another recent work, ‘Ex Votos’, from the series Between the Dog and the Wolf, resembles an archaeological dig or a burial site. Shards, those pottery fragments that provide archaeologists with scraps of information about the past, fill up the male and female heads with information, history, and memories. These shards come from previous artworks of my own that have been rejected or damaged. The broken fragment of fired clay was once part of a whole form that has been lost, yet the fired fragment remains indestructible and permanent. Each head is documented with a number in reference to museum classification systems, and some numbers are prefixed by dollar and yen signs to demonstrate their timeless, priceless status.
Referring to both the embodied gift as a way of finding redemption and to the recent discipline of archaeology that developed from the practice of natural historians and antiquarians, the wall relief entitled ‘Insignificance’, developed from an earlier work at Wapping, The Transformers. In ‘Insignificance’ the bodies are laid out like a map or a dig, reflecting the power and indifference of the natural landscape. The formal relationship refers to the fifteenth-century transi-tombs in which an ornamental representation of the aristocratic deceased is echoed by the cadaver below, reminding the viewer of physical mortality, to which even kings and princesses must succumb.
At the same time the hanging body parts make reference both to the practice of ex-votos and to ancient fragments as a source of knowledge, and this mix of nature and learning offers hope. In her review about the work in progress exhibition of this work, Babette Martini writes that my figures
become more like ‘essays’ on a particular experience, they no longer only look incomplete but they are incomplete or unfinished in the same sense that man keeps developing, even over centuries, adjusting mind and body to new environments and challenges. Thus the fragmented figure becomes a sign for healing and in a sense the disjointed body regains completeness, the limbs become re-attached.2
Artist Statement >
1. Taussig, M., Mimesis and Alterity, Routledge, 1993. back to text
2. Martini, B., Between the Dog and the Wolf, Interpreting Ceramics, no. 5, 2004. back to text