EXCAVATIONS: A Conversation on Fragments

Part One

 

Rachel Frank, Curator of EXCAVATIONS

in conversation with

Sarah Madole, Fragmentist and Professor of Art History at the Borough of Manhattan Community College, NYC

 

 Excavations installation

Excavations installation

Rachel Frank: Thank you for being willing to talk with me about your practice and the Excavations exhibition. Could you give me a little more detail about what you do as a fragmentist?

 

Sarah Madole: I am a fragmentist by the very nature of the kind of work I do, as a scholar of the fragmentarily preserved ancient world. Specifically I specialize in Greek and Roman sculpture, often preserved in paltry fragments, and I attempt to reconstitute the fragment into an integral original context (related to social history, gender, cult and storytelling). In sum, the question of fragments is near and dear to me, as is that of material, craft and process.

 

RF: Since your work focuses on the archeology and hermeneutics of the fragment, I thought it might be interesting for you to talk about some of the ways the artists in Excavations are utilizing the idea of fragment in their respective works and how this might relate your practice.

Ellie Krakow captures a moment from a fleeting gesture by arresting an everyday hand movement and freezing the gesture as fragment. Do any of the fragments you think about or research lead to you to reconstruct or imagine movements, performances or actions that took place in the ancient world? For instance, I can imagine the way a vessel might be worn could indicate how it was once used, or a repair done on an object to extend its life could indicate the importance of that object to the owner or community. 

 

 Ellie Krakow "Arm Armatures"

Ellie Krakow "Arm Armatures"

SM:  In Ellie's work there are so many references to fragments, not least the fragment stands that in this show appear as glazed terracotta objects transcended from their original context in both material and form. The extension of Ellie's artistic processes in recreating these fragments supports the photographs of hand gestures and brings a more explicit human inference into the work (versus the texture of the glaze over the terracotta, for example, which also speaks to me of actions and lived life).

Yes, for me there is often a visible dialogue between created objects and their ephemeral social contexts in the Greco-Roman fragments that I work with and in the more recent objects in this exhibition. A depiction of a human figure in an expressive gesture on a textile fragment appears to dance, and connects the viewer with ancient pantomime performances. From here I think of conversations ancient viewers would have had experiencing this textile when it was whole and in its original domestic context, perhaps as a background for private dances performed at dinner parties. The textile fragment (I have one in mind) is one example, but there are so many ways these fragments reflect integral, lived experiences, both the ancient fragmented objects and their contemporaries in Excavations.

 

 Arthur Simms "Excavation" and "Beattle"

Arthur Simms "Excavation" and "Beattle"

RF: Arthur Simms uses his own personal history, including memories of living in Jamaica and New York City, as subject matter of his assemblage sculptures. He collects objects and discarded elements, elevates and re-appropriates them and treats these fragments as synecdoches of the past to explore the status of identity as it traverses time. Can you talk about how detritus of the everyday provides another mode of insight to peoples or individual’s conceptions of identity in the ancient world? Or how this detritus is elevated through artist practice or museum/scholarly investigation/display?

 

SM:  In archaeology daily detritus comprises one of the most important testaments to a society, even more than the polished, public monuments such as imperial portraits, the ancient equivalent of our airbrushed, manipulated selfies that bear little or no resemblance to our actual selves. Found, castaway objects in the ancient world such as bits broken pottery covered in ancient writing (ostraka) encourage us to modify our conceptions of, in this particular case, literacy. These fragments preserve precious ancient voices (Homer, Aristotle etc.) -- and they're found in garbage dumps. 

I have often wondered what our society will offer archaeologists of the future, and Arthur's work speaks to that question with prescience. 

 

 Julie Ann Nagle installation

Julie Ann Nagle installation

RF: Julie Ann Nagle uses the iconic National Geographic Magazine as the physical material for an excavational dig site, highlighting both the periodical’s role in domesticating the foreign while embracing these juxtapositions of images to create new relationships across time and culture. Often museum displays are organized according to traditional narratives of culture or region, whereas in many cases in the ancient world, groups of people traveled, traded and influenced one another. How does the framing or curating of the past impact our narratives or understanding?

 

SM:  Julie Ann's installation in this exhibition asks a number of questions about created sites of archaeology and the juxtaposition between made and unmade (especially evident to me in Hourglass). It also makes me think of the role of curator as the archivist who shapes how we view the past, here through artful display. Her figurine made from magazine pages clearly references an art historical type but calls to question the viewer's knowledge and experience of it. 

As historians of the past we feel the need to name, to classify and analyze (especially with fragments). In these divisions, we create separations that -- as you say -- didn't really exist. The neatly ordered display case offers a curated sample of objects inside and on top of it, the frames themselves and the organization of the photographs (of artfully crafted "ethnographic" and "art" objects in their post-excavation afterlife as exhibitions) recall this need for categorization. The recognizable National Geographic magazines have become geological specimens, organic matter that adds a sense of authenticity to the "lost worlds" suggested by the other side objects on the shelves and wall. 

 

 Susan Metrican installation

Susan Metrican installation

RF: Susan Metrican uses synecdoche and metonymy where a part (an ear, pants, wagon wheel) invites a reading of the fragmentary object in relation to a whole (auditory immersion, a covering of the body, the landscape). This trickery of material and fragmentation of the viewer’s perceptions plays with idea of real. I felt there was a connection between the ancient Greek trompe l'oeil, rivalry story between Parrhasius and Zeuxis and how the way perceptual information is confused or interchanged in Susan’s work. Are there certain fragments or objects in your studies that have given you an indication about the perceptual or the sensorial? Like how a particular place smelled, sounded, or how an object might have felt to be used? Or, instances where those senses are confused? 


 

SM: I see that connection between trompe l'oeil and Susan's work, as objects emerge from the background as you engage with the work, and your sensory experience shifts. 

The fragment of the wheel viewed in conjunction with the camouflage motif does suggest a much broader tableau of which a few fragments remain. Metonymy is one of my favorite concepts, and it's a word I use a lot in my research. When I see a garland swag carved on a marble sarcophagus, I'm immediately connected with the fresh garlands and flowers used in the funerary ritual and decoration of the tomb, and yet also in the wedding ritual by torchlight. That metonymic symbol is so deeply evocative of a broader, lived social history. If the viewer is willing, there is so much symbolism within these visual synecdoches.

 

Part Two