Archaeology of an Unwritten History The Artwork as an Artefact of the Future

Alessandra Troncone

In fairly recent years, a debate has begun in Italy on the possible confluences between contemporary art and archaeology. This debate has been stimulated by moments of encounter between artists and the archaeological inheritance, both in the phases of research and production, and upon the occasion of exhibitions. In the contribution L’artista come archeologo. Uno scavo nell’arte italiana del XXI secolo [1], Massimo Maiorino offers an initial survey of this tendency, giving various examples of practices and tracing an initial reflection on the subject in the English-speaking context, particularly in the writings of the archaeologist Colin Renfrew, who delved into artists’ and archaeologists’ “parallel visions”[2]. Yet, Maiorino and Renfrew’s considerations emphasise a possible methodological overlap: artists “excavate” as archaeologists do, recovering traces of the past and (de)contextualising them in a poetic and aesthetic discourse. But what happens when the authors “simulate” the traces that are to be consigned to History, in the form of artworks that appear as relics of an indefinite epoch, but also as a warning of a present in danger?

A first, blockbuster-epic-style direction taken by this approach was offered by Damien Hirst, with the exhibition Treasures from the Wreck of the Unbelievable, at Palazzo Grassi and Punta della Dogana, in 2017. This was a muscular effort of considerable dimensions, with the production of large-scale works linked by a precise narrative: it is 2008 and a shipwrecked vessel is found in the Pacific Ocean. Inside, sumptuous possessions tell the parable of Cif Amotan II, a former slave who lived in Antioch between the first and second centuries AD and managed, after being freed, to accumulate immense riches. The exhibition thus becomes an itinerary through original artefacts and museum copies, narrated in their own specificity, which tell the story of this exceptional discovery, corroborated by the photographic documentation of the submerged finds. It is too bad that this never happened, and that the treasures of the title are creations of the Bristol artist, manipulated to look like valuable objects found in the depths of the sea, complete with coral outgrowths. Statues with classical references alternate with contemporary icons (Mickey Mouse, Transformers) that contribute to a sense of temporal disorientation and raise a question: what is the civilisation from which the remains we are looking at came? Hirst’s operation, however controversial, emphasises at least two aspects: the suggestion of narrative fiction, which shapes the imagination even before the material itself; and the temporal ambiguity, which translates into a formal and aesthetic ambiguity, especially in the use of the fragment and expedients – including the coral concretions – that suggest the idea of a passage of time that never actually occurred. The focus, here, is not the fascination with the ruins of the past, so much as the gaze on the products of our civilisation, which can turn into a relic if they are projected into a future which is not even so far away[3]. So, the point is not what the past has left to us, but what we are leaving to the future.

Examples of research delving into these issues can be found in the work of Emilija Škarnulytė (Vilnius 1987), who appears in her films in the guise of a mermaid, able to move fluidly over the ruins of our present, simulating the gaze of an archaeologist from the future grappling with our civilisation; in the works of Daniel Arsham (Cleveland 1980), whose poetics revolve around the idea of “fictitious archaeology” and the transformation of everyday objects from the late twentieth century into archaeological finds of solid dust; in the sculptures of Peter Buggenhout (Dendermonde 1963), who in the series The Blind Leading The Blind, presented in Bologna in 2017, covers the works with a thick layer of dust as if they had been found after decades of neglect; or, again, in the environmental installation by Gian Maria Tosatti (Rome 1980) created in Odessa in 2020, in which eight street lamps lit on a near-deserted beach appeared as finds that had survived humanity’s self-destructive course.

Sticking to the Italian context, it is possible to trace a peculiar line of research in sculpture, which emerges quite clearly even when considering the diversity among various artists’ poetics. In this sense, it is worth establishing an initial distinction between the use of an either cultural or natural aesthetic of the relic – planes that nevertheless often tend to overlap. In both cases, the works become a manifesto of the precariousness of the era in which we live and of the transience of the human being’s presence on Earth, endangered by disastrous events largely linked to humanity’s own actions. Thus, on the one hand, there is the tacit hope that these relics will perform the function we recognise in the ruins of the past, as beacons capable of guiding us in the understanding of epochs and cultures that preceded our own; on the other hand, they take on an almost prophetic value, a prediction of a post-apocalyptic scenario which has sadly been announced in advance. It is, therefore, no coincidence that one of the recurring references is to climate change and its effects: the stories of the present are cultural residues or fossil traces of the past. An important contribution to the reflections on a possible “archaeology of the future” comes from the language of sculpture, “arcane and stupendous” – to take up the apposite title of a 2001 exhibition [4] – which, by insisting on matter, succeeds perhaps more than others in restoring a (fictitious) idea of the accumulation of time.

See, for example, some works by Antonio Fiorentino (Barletta 1987), which play on a – deliberately sought – ambiguity of temporal slippages. In Kiribati, a project begun in 2018 which is still ongoing, he went to the island of the same name in Oceania. This is a place marked by time, for it is the first to see sunlight every day, and thus irrevocably projected into the future. The island is also at risk from the effects of global warming, and is destined to sink due to rising sea levels. Here, the artist has made casts of objects that recall the life and cultural traditions of the inhabitants, as well as corals used to build protective walls on account of the increasingly frequent coastal storms. These casts gave rise to the sculptures presented in the solo exhibition at the Fondazione Pastificio Cerere in 2019, a collection entrusted with the memory of what could disappear. Also by Fiorentino, Il nuovo Poseidone (2007-2019) and Opusmaris (2016) repropose an aesthetic of the find in its quality as a fragment. Water also plays a leading role, with the task of shaping forms, as an erosive force that acts aided by time and contributes to outlining a possibly submerged scenario, a basin of residues ready to resurface after a shipwreck that promises to be imminent.

Water and clay are central to the process pursued by at least two other Italian artists who work on a possible aesthetics of the relic, even when it is not deliberately sought after: Alessandro Biggio (Cagliari 1974) and Diego Cibelli (Naples 1987).

In Studio per un ritratto (2016 – ongoing), Biggio dissolves small clay heads of uncertain features in water, spreading the resulting mud on moulded raw cotton cloths, which become the residue of a transformation ritual. In Sénne (2018), a mixture of ash and water is manipulated until it takes on a form dictated by material and environmental variables. In their fragility, these sculptures take on the archaic appearance of timeless objects, perhaps destined for a slow process of disintegration that echoes that of the disappearance of great civilisations.

Especially worth noting from Cibelli is the cycle of sculptures belonging to It Tastes Like a Landscape, created during the residency the artist obtained through the 2019 Italia-Argentina art prize, and exhibited in a solo show at the Italian Cultural Institute in Buenos Aires. The video Nativity, presented in Berlin in the same year, is also linked to this. The image of mestizo shepherds, made from different soils, literally dissolves in water, staging a return to nature and its elements, a process of which only a few fragments and the video documentation remain. In the Gates project (2021), ceramic stones become surfaces on which present and future, culture and nature, coexist: references taken from ancient illustrated volumes are contaminated with symbols of our present, ancient inscriptions with seeds, shells and other natural elements that enliven these possible finds.

Sediments in between culture and nature are also lined up by Lucas Memmola (Bari 1994) in his recent solo exhibition Trinity Site at the aA29 gallery in Milan: a collection of found objects that appear as survivors who have escaped a catastrophe, alluded to by the bunker-shelter that acts as a design frame. Also found in Memmola’s work are excrescences that mark the passage of time, generated through chemical processes, and evoking the image of build-ups of coral (Dafne, 2019).

Instead imagining his own traces as fossils, in his body of work entitled Mixtopedia Francesco Bertelé (Canzo 1978), composes tables that bring together naturalia and artificialia as possible extracts of reality in this historical, environmental and geological moment. The artist deposited the cast of a part of his body in one of the petrifying springs where the transmutation of organic matter into travertine takes place, consigning it to the action of natural agents. The creation of a possible relic is here based on a natural process; the result lends itself to interrogation by those who find it, as a coagulation of nature and culture, but above all as a material embodiment of the time in which we are living.

Despite the diversity of practices and approaches, from the few examples cited emerges a shared view of the uncertainty of our time, which identifies, in the physical and material remainder, a new idea of the relic. In the temporal dizziness provoked by these works, one glimpses the prophetic capacity of art, which retraces the forms of the past to offer us the artefacts of a future that we will never see – or one that we have perhaps already left behind.

[1] M. Maiorino, L’artista come archeologo. Uno scavo nell’arte italiana del XXI secolo , Arshake, 2020.

[2] C. Renfrew, Figuring it Out. What Are We? Where Do We Come From? The Parallel Visions of Artists and Archaeologists, Thames & Hudson, 2003.

[3] On the fascination with ruins, see M. Augé, Le temps en ruines, Galilée, 2003. Among the exhibitions that in recent times have addressed the theme, including works by contemporary Italian artists: Futuruins, curated by D. Ferretti, D. Ozerkov, Venice, Palazzo Fortuny, 19 December 2018 – 24 March 2019; Ilmondoinfine. Vivere tra le rovine, curated by I. Bussoni, S. Ferrari, D. Fumarola, E. Macali, S. Soccio, Rome, Galleria Nazionale d’Arte Moderna e Contemporanea, 13 December 2018 – 23 January 2019.

[4] Cosa arcana e stupenda. Scultura italiana contemporanea, exhibition catalogue (Sermoneta), ed. by A. Bellini, Silvana Editoriale, 2001.