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  • Writer's pictureHannah Barnes,Indiana,USA



Mark Dion, detail from Tate Themes Dig, 1999

“History always constitutes the relation between a past and its present.” – John Berger

After the incision, excavation becomes possible. To excavate is to begin with a notion of layers. The present is like a shroud, lid or mask layered over its past, distinct in time but contoured according to the shape of history. When we inquire into our histories, we engage in a form of excavation. As a gold miner seeks a vein, we look for visible markers that might lead us back along some coherent path toward meaning.

The archaeologist excavates with the precision of scientific method, using gloves, small spades, brushes, and fine mesh. Discoveries are plotted and recorded, carbon dated, labeled, categorized, and archived. The archaeologist’s work proceeds under the conceit that history might be reconstructed in a more or less linear fashion, and that some form of truth is accessible in its layers.

The artist as excavator proceeds under quite different assumptions, using different tools, and not bound by the authority of scientific accuracy or a linear model of history. Artists are free to approach the space of history through its subtler meanings; they can unearth material in a way that reveals the poetics of the past and the coexistence of multiple historical narratives. We see this in Mark Dion’s archaeological dig projects of the early 2000’s, wherein posing as an amateur archaeologist, Dion dredges sites such as the River Themes. His findings – mostly trash – are labeled and cataloged with the scientific precision reserved for rare artifacts. Unconcerned with linear history, his displays instead tell us about the desires, motivations, and preoccupations of our societies.


For a place like Old Town Bhubaneswar, the mode of artist-excavator seems especially useful. Several artists in the BAT take an excavator’s approach to the history of Old Town. A collaborative installation by Ramahari Jena and the collective Bhoomi is concerned with the multiplicity of narrative strands that comprise Bhubaneswar’s history. Outsiders: Discovering the Self by Inventing the City explores the point of view of the citizen as outsider. The work’s premise is that nobody really comes from Bhubaneswar; instead, its culture has been formed from a composite of various migrant, outsider identities.

The work’s main feature is a large spiral-like construction made of four tall curving walls, each overlapping slightly and leading inward toward an enclosed central space. As I walked into the piece I was reminded of the disorienting effect of Richard Serra’s Torqued Ellipses. Each of the construction’s four walls is meant to represent a different strand in the history of Bhubaneswar. Along the surrounding walls are arrangements of paired photos and panels of text. The photo pairs depict two views of a single location in Bhubaneswar; as we study them, we work to reconcile the gap between old and new.


The act of excavation suggests a certain porosity between past and present. Cecile Beau’s The Vaporous Region pulls the two realms close. Her large sculpture is an excavation into universally shared, ancient stories that reveal how humans make meaning of the natural world. What she unearths is a universally resonant form with connections to both Eastern and Western mythologies: poisson, matsya, machha, fish. Beau’s concept statement calls attention to the way in which mythological animals are thought to migrate across distinct realms – air, earth, water, sky. She notes the fish’s ancient place in the evolutionary tree as a type of migrant, “one of the first forms of life, from which a branch has emerged from the water to colonize the mainland.” Evoking nature’s deep history, Beau has based her sculpture on the catfish – one of the most ancient and ubiquitous fish on the planet, believed to have existed on every continent except Antarctica. Beau’s massive fish sits in a grassy clearing by the Bindu Sagar as if beached, stranded between water and sky.

At night, the fish’s illuminated eyes animate it and evoke a fierce internal energy; Matsya becomes alive and attentive. This inner electricity is echoed literally by sound emanating from the fish’s interior – a compilation of ‘sounds that evoke the stars of our solar system.” Beau’s fish evokes a sense of power and monumentality, which contrasts poetically with the minute, delicate accumulation of diyas that comprise its armor-like skin. Beau’s use of terracotta diya offers another form of excavation, wherein an ancient tool is regarded in a contemporary context. By re-purposing the simple earthen lamp form, Beau assigns it new meaning, allowing the diya to resonate as both a material and an idea that moves beyond functionality.


Arumkumar HG’s Wheel of Tradition and Faith takes an especially local approach

to excavation by engaging with the ancient ritual and festival practices of the Old Town’s temple community. As with Beau’s use of the diya, Arunkumar’s sculpture shows us a re-purposing of a material carrying deep, ancient connection to the Temple City. Wheel of Tradition and Faith has been constructed using two massive wooden chariot wheels and their axles; the wheels have been taken from the most recent Ashokaasthami Rath car festival of the nearby Lingaraj Temple. The wheels have been spliced together as two intersecting disks; their great timber axels have been placed on the ground, encircling the wheels like the bones of a massive animal.

The physical features of Arunkumar’s sculpture strongly evoke time; the form in fact seems to symbolize a suspension of narrative time. The sculpture’s x-shape creates stability and pause. Crossed together at a right angle, the wheels have become anchored in space, unable to roll in any direction. The physical surfaces of the wooden wheels are embedded with traces that tell the object’s story. The markings on the wheels from rolling across uneven ground tell about its movement through space; their painted surface decorations allude to the festival environment, to procession and celebratory expressions of faith. Here, we see history embodied and captured in form. Poised near the banks of the Bindu Sagar, Wheel of Tradition and Faith serves to condense the complex ancient ritual heritage of Old Town into a single a temporal object.

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