Tuesday, December 16, 2008

Surface Survey and British Surrealism

Survey archaeology's main intellectual challenge has been to reconcile two extreme scales, the tiny object and the expansive landscape. In order to fill this vast epistemological gap, archaeologists have deployed an arsenal of weapons from cartography to statistics. While dissolving the difference of scales, archaeology's positivist language pretends to reconcile the conflict between object and landscape, which in many ways lies at the foundation of the human condition. Literature has explored how we experience place and time, how we reconstruct our own sense of selfhood through our memories, objects, and places. One could read the history of Modernist fiction as nothing more than an attempt to reconcile objects and persons with landscapes and memories, to collapse short and distant focal lengths. Remembrance of Things Past, To the Lighthouse, or even Ulysses are very much surface surveys.

I was reminded of the object/landscape conflict today at the Yale Center for British Art , where I love to digress. Today, I wanted to take a closer look at British modernism, which tends to be overshadowed by its French and German siblings. Today, I had also just read a manuscript by Guy Sanders and a memorial on A. H. S. Megaw (by Hector Caitlin, BSA 102 [2007] pp. 1-10); so I had gotten myself into a royally British mood. At Yale, I was delighted to discover a painting that best explores archaeological conflict, John Nash's Mineral Objects from 1935. I have not yet located a color image of the painting, so I include my quick sketch at the top. John Nash (1889-1946) is considered to be the founder of a distinctively British form of Surrealism. He explored the uncanny relationship between subject and object by positioning mock-monumental objects against the landscape of his southern England. Mineral Objects shows two pottery lathes set on a rolling coastal landscape at Dorset.

Nash is here using British archaeology the same way that Giorgio de Chirico or Aldo Rossi used Graeco-Roman archaeology for their Mediterranean provocations of memory and melancholia. The two conical pottery lathes are constructed from a type of shale quarried at the cliffs of Kimmeridge, which is now protected as a Jurassic Coast World Heritage site. In prehistoric times, the black stone was used for bracelets and adornment. When it was discovered, it became known as "coal money." In the Roman period, the shale was crafted into conical lathes around which pottery was spun. In Nash's painting, the manufactured gray geology becomes monumental and is juxtaposed with the rolling landscape. The two engage in a relationship that beautifies both but illumines neither. The archaeological find and the gigantic landscape are one and the same but irreconcilable. One is smooth, colorful and varied, the other is geometrical, phallic, but small.

1 comment:

Jim Tweedie said...

That would be Paul Nash, Johns' better known brother.

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Kostis Kourelis

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