28 May 2010

Music to dig by: Josh Ritter, 'The Curse'

A love story between an archaeologist and the mummy she discovers in Egypt. Music by Josh Ritter, from his new album "So Runs the World Away". Film by Liam Hurley (the band's drummer, also a puppeteer!).

For once I have nothing high-falutin' to say about this one, I'm just enjoying wallowing in the poignancy. If you want more, NPR's All Songs Considered covers the making of the film and its great puppets.

Thanks to Terry for the tip!

17 May 2010

The Holy Relics of Banksy

Mark Stryker in the Detroit Free Press reports a multilayered story that says a lot about the contemporary attitude to art and, indirectly, heritage (h/t to Jon DeVore for the tip!). British street artist Banksy has been on an American tour, doing pieces here in there. (One suspects there's a tie-in to the new documentary about his work, now showing in the US.) He stopped at the Packard factory in Detroit, a huge, sprawling, abandoned car factory with a romantic, run down air that's a ton of fun to wander around in if you have any love at all for ruins.

Yours truly at the plant last year. Somehow I picked up a case of poison ivy!

So Banksy left this piece on his visit to Packard. I like his work but I don't think this is one of his best I think this one is weak as hell (it feels a little oversentimental to me, and a little bit mistimed since trees are in fact growing everywhere inside the factory, and parts of the city itself are reverting to forest):

(Jason H. Matthews/Detroit Free Press)

The interesting bit is not the piece but what happened next, and what it says about attitudes to art and heritage. The owners of the 555 Gallery, a notprofit gallery and studio space, took it on themselves to "save" the work and take it to their gallery. Check it out:

Naturally, the act was controversial, a sort of 'privatization' of public art. It's also a classic case of starf•cking in a city full of great graffiti art. (I have this image of the 555 guys muttering 'the precious, the precious' as they scurry toward West Vernor with their new treasure.) At the end of the article there's a shocking quote that made me want to laugh and cry at the same time:
Staff member Eric Froh said that while the painting’s meaning has shifted outside of the Packard plant, it retains an expressive power akin to Renaissance religious artifacts or antiquities uncovered by archeologists and now seen in museums. He also noted that the controversy has already become part of its accumulated meaning.“The work can now live on for many years,” said Froh.
I was really flabbergasted by this statement, and it's taken me a week to sort out what I think it means. First the laughable part: people need to stop kissing Banksy’s ass with such slobbery abandon. I like his work, much of it is at a very high level and achieves poetry - but it’s the first sign of irrelevance as an artist when you stop being controversial and start being revered. The beauty of his work comes from its engagement with a urban space and the things going on in it. It's intended to be temporary and site-specific. Putting Banksy in a gallery destroys much of the point, or rather transforms it into something totally different. (Click here for the full irony of putting Banksy in a gallery setting.) I think the 555 guys' choice to take the piece demonstrates either that they really have no idea what his art is about, or that they care more about owning a relic than an artwork.

Which brings us to an important question: is Banksy's work holy? In archaeology, as in art, there is a great battle between two ways of understanding, two epistemologies if you will. On the one hand, there’s the idea that art is part of society and serves a social function, that it fits into your daily life. Then there’s the idea that art or artifacts express Universal Truth, which is basically saying that Art is God. (After modernism, I suppose, that was all the religion one was allowed to feel.)

For archaeologists, old stuff is interesting because it gives us a window into everyday experiences of people in the past and how the human world once was. Most of us would rather not find gold, which is just a distraction. Everyone’s happy to find an attractive artifact, of course, but the meaning of archaeological artifacts is in their context and their relationship to each other. Taking them out of that context takes away almost all of their meaning except whatever 'prettiness' something has. This is why it’s such a tragedy when people buy looted artifacts – no one begrudges people for wanting to touch the past, but the whole process of looting robs us all of knowledge that could add so much richness to our understanding.

Hey Banksy - all this IS trees, bro. Come back in the 20th century.

A lot of collectors justify buying looted artifacts by saying that they have a kind of eternal truth of their own, or represent some cosmic aesthetic ideal. It's basically a religious attitude. And it’s that religious attitude to art in itself is something I’ve never understood, and makes it hard for me to take museums seriously sometimes. The things that David Froh of 555 parallels to the Banksy piece - archaeological artifacts or renaissance Jesus paintings - were created to serve a social purpose, not to be contemplated as aesthetic icons in themselves. A Greek vase without the context of funerary customs or the symposium might be pretty but bores me to tears. And a Christian icon without religious feeling is nonsense, even blasphemy. Maybe you want a bloody Christ on the wall if you're into the aesthetics of torture or something, but I think mostly it's just pretentiousness - unless you really understand it in a spiritual sense.

I feel like, if you want a religious feeling, you should get a religion. What can you even say about people who are too ‘sophisticated’ or ‘postmodern’ for a religious practice, but then go looking for spiritual fulfillment and eternal truth in abstract paintings, performance art, or Banksy pieces? I'm not saying one has to be religious, but I wish people would be self-aware about the spiritual impulse that is common to almost everyone, and direct it accordingly.

Unfortunately the rhetoric of ‘preservation’ and 'conservation' of artworks or artifacts leans pretty heavily on religious-emotional arguments. Which makes it hard to make obvious observations, like: not every archaeological artifact needs to be in a museum. Not all art is worth saving. Not everything old can or should be preserved. For all its wonderful aspects, the preservation impulse also has the aroma of fear hanging around it - the fear of death. In a western society which has only the most vague and ephemeral expectations for the afterlife, preserving the past seems like a way to hold on to the present and not let it slip away.

But trying to save everything can become a pathology that keeps us from engaging with our lives right now. And an ephemeral work in an ephemeral media, put intentionally on a structure that so eloquently expresses the ephemerality of an industrial empire that once seemed permanent? Trying to save such a thing verges on the pathetic.

Endnote: This rant is more or less friendly - I was a patron of 555 in its Ann Arbor, Ypsilanti, and Detroit locations. I've had fun there, and I appreciate the hard work that has gone into keeping the space alive in an extremely rough economic and artistic climate.

15 May 2010

The Cairo Conference, One Month Later

The Conference on International Cooperation in the Restitution and Protection of Cultural Heritage took place on April 7 and 8, 2010 in Cairo. Over 20 countries from Latin America, Asia, Africa, and the Mediterranean attended. This meeting, the first of its kind, brought together countries that have been victimized by the antiquities trade to talk about return and restitution. As I observed in January, this meeting represents a new phase in the decolonization of heritage.

New Tang Dynasty Television reported on the conference, including an interview with the Syrian delegation. As the clip from Hawass suggests, one of the main aims of the meeting was to further increase the pressure on European and American museums to stop purchasing illegal antiquities.

Two days, of course, was not enough time for the participants to agree on a common platform (though seven countries added items to a repatriation wish list). As Paul Barford notes, it is unclear exactly what will come of the conference, though it is clearly a historic step. Zahi Hawass would like to make the meetings an annual event, and the next one is tentatively scheduled for Greece next year.

Last week Kwame Opuku published an assessment of the conference at museum-security.org, which is worth reading in its entirety (via SAFE). It is refreshing to read Opuku's in-depth discussion of colonial looting from African nations, which is often neglected in the Western press. I was especially struck by his roadmap toward a permanent organization that would advocate for the return of illicit antiquities:
What the Conference needs to do rapidly, is to establish a Secretariat or some other body that would have, inter alia, the following functions:
  1. Follow up implementation of decisions of the Conference;
  2. Collect materials relevant to restitution, such as UNESCO, UN and ICOM resolutions, decisions and other documents and bring to the attention of States concerned;
  3. Assist members of the Conference in the formulation of restitution demands; This is to avoid giving opportunity to holders of looted artefacts saying there has been no demand for restitution. Incredible as it may sound, we still find officials of the British Museum saying there has been no demand for the return of the Rosetta Stone by Egypt. Germans are also saying there has been no demand by Egypt for the return of the bust of Nefertiti even though a German delegation, including the Director of the Neues Museum, Berlin, went recently to Cairo to present what they consider as proof that the bust of Nefertiti was legally removed from Egypt. No doubt much of this is propaganda for internal consumption. The British Museum also pretends there has been no demand for the return of the Benin Bronzes even though a petition was presented by a member of the Benin Royal in the British House of Parliament as shown by the records of the House;
  4. Maintain an internet site where issues of restitution and relevant materials can be made available to the public;
  5. Publish articles and other materials relevant to the objectives of the Conference;
  6. Publish the complete records of the Conference proceedings. No where can one find a complete record of this first conference, not even at the homepage of Zahi Hawass, a consummate master of the mass media. Moreover, the homepage of Egypt’s Supreme Council of Antiquities seems not to have been updated for a long time.
Something along these lines is clearly needed if the conference participants are to achieve their goals.

More coverage of the conference from Looting Matters here, here, and here.

Ugly Archaeology Picture of the Day: Ancient Clock Screensaver

WTF LOL from smartcode.com:

The accompanying prose is immortal.
Ancient Clock Screensaver immerses you into the atmosphere of ancient mystery that will help you unlock the secrets of time. People are always rushing, trying to get somewhere in time. But time keeps running away from us. Now you have got the time under your control! The unshakable calmness of the sphinxes and their glorious might will not let the time slip away. The powerful sphinxes will patiently keep your time!

04 May 2010

Greeks Beseige Acropolis

Louisa Gouliamaki/Agence France-Presse — Getty Images (via NY Times)

AOL News has the archaeopop headline of the day: "Greeks Beseige Acropolis". Some Communist protesters against the Greek government's austerity plan decided to get themselves some unforgettable media via a banner drop below the Parthenon. Reactions were mixed:
ATHENS, Greece (May 4) -- As thousands of workers spilled onto the streets of the Greek capital to protest new austerity measures, some 200 communist supporters swarmed the Acropolis, Greece's most sacrosanct archaeological site, and unfurled banners reading: "People of Europe -- Rise up."

The scene at the most important symbol of ancient Athenian democracy didn't leave just onlooking tourists aghast. "I'm a communist, but this is a disgrace," said Aliki Rizopoulou, phoning in to a radio talk show early today. "There's nothing catchy about having foreigners seeing us as wacky on top of being considered liars and cheaters."

Minutes after protesters lined up along the defensive walls of the Acropolis, they began picketing before the Parthenon, wielding red flags and shouting anti-government slogans for more than three hours before a state prosecutor ordered them to leave and riot police escorted them off the grounds.
Interesting reactions - the Parthenon has such a religious character in contemporary Greek identity that even some Communists are uncomfortable with the gesture. Happily, no tourists were interfered with. The AP has a short video with more on the context of the protests, with lots of loving closeups of booze, cigarettes, and gasoline!

01 May 2010

Crap of the Titans

What are we doing again?

This isn’t really a movie review, because I don’t want to think about this movie anymore than I have to in order to warn you how bad it was. It was lame in every dimension of lameness that you can think of. Don’t go see it. They took a classic story and made it incredibly boring! Medusa, the three crazy witches, Hades? They were all boring! To an audience (me) who was incredibly sold on the story, excited about even the stupid parts, and highly tolerant of cheesiness and overacting, it was still boring! How do you even do that? I’m still confused.

Poor storytelling, bad pacing, horrible dialogue and accents, and confusing editing: all factors, but that still doesn’t quite capture the total horribleness. They were going through the motions of telling the story, but no one involved seemed to care much. Whole scenes happened randomly – at one moment the Pegasus, for instance, just shows up with no explanation, then Perseus rides away. No setup, no nothing! The cool female characters of the original are reduced to cardboard cutouts with no range. Io’s job is apparently to look hot and doe-eyed and deliver her lines stiffly. Medusa is just a writhing pile of CG with no drama. I wasn’t scared in the least, and Medusa is genuinely a freaky monster.

Killed Medusa. Ho Hum.

Of course, a lot of why I see these ancient-theme movies is to check out the costumes. They weren’t bad, but there’s a mishmash of about 2000 years of Greek arms and armor in there, including a dude in a costume straight off a Minoan fresco, Mycenean figure-8 shields, Hoplite armor, and some outfits that looked vaguely Roman. I suppose you could go with any of these in a mythology-themed movie, but throwing in the kitchen sink like that just seemed desperate. And don’t get me started on Zeus’ shiny, white, effeminate armor, it made me laugh out loud. Instead of a studly naked father god, we get an elf general from Lord of the Rings.

What's Elrond's hairy cousin doing in Olympus?

The acting actually wasn’t terrible (even legless guy from Avatar was decent as Perseus), and it was a pretty awesome idea to cast Liam Neeson and Zeus and Ralph Fiennes as Hades, even if they were totally squandered behind a bunch of bad lines and stupid CGI. I didn’t even mind the ghetto 3D (added after the film was finished, way less than impressive). But the dialogue and direction were really the suck. So I have to put the blame on this one on the director, some chump name Louis Leterrier who also brought us Transporter and Transporter 2.

I did get some warm fuzzies from this movie though - I saw the film at the Grand Lake Theatre in Oakland, where I also saw the original version as a boy. Once upon a time, I think it was 1985, the Grand Lake had a regular double feature of Flash Gordon and Clash of the Titans on weekends. I feel like I went to see it like 100 times then, even though it was probably just two or three. Those moments where you feel that continuity in your life over many years are very sweet.

Anyway, if you managed to avoid this stinker so far, you should save yourself 10 bucks and watch the hokey glory of the original. This clip of Perseus in Medusa's lair is atmospheric and scary like it should be, sans CGI: