The following text was originally published in Modern Painters, March 2012.
The illustration on the title page of Voyage pittoresque dans l’Empire ottomane, 1842, tells a story beyond a romantic vision of 19th-century Greece suffering under Ottoman domination. It shows a grieving woman among Classical ruins, seated before a Latin inscription that translates as: Arise, O Unknown. The picture not only symbolizes the desire of the Greek people to recover their past and reclaim their liberty but also exemplifies how European imperial powers turned the field of archaeology into an arena of struggle for securing an alleged ancestral image of their civilizations. This illustration appears at the entrance to “Scramble for the Past: A Story of Archaeology in the Ottoman Empire, 1753–1914,” an exhibition that offers snapshots of archaeological excavations in a region spanning from Greece to Egypt. Included are reports by both Western and Ottoman explorers, travel writing, maps, and photographs, along with objects excavated from archaeological sites. But the exhibition differs from encyclopedic museum displays on archaeology in that it allows three contemporary artists to intervene into the narrative by way of commissioned installations. SALT Galata’s inaugural show poses the question: How does visual art complicate scientific scholarship when presented together?
Mark Dion’s Dig Culture mimics formal museum concerns: It preserves and exhibits selected objects that are worthy of being made public. But Dion excavates trash heaps and storage rooms of century-old archaeological sites and focuses on objects that can tell tales of discovery—gas lamps, screens, paddles, measurement tools—all displayed on used, stained wooden planks. These often-overlooked objects are not sanitized, cleaned, or catalogued. Still, they are arranged in a way that resembles the so-called scientific visual displays of 19th-century archaeological findings. Dion reads history against the grain and makes a survey of the material culture of archaeologists, co-opting the conventions of archaeological display not only as a form of narration but also as the result of a subjective system of taxonomy.
In For what it’s worth…, Michael Rakowitz devises a simple method of displaying the archaeological practices of ordinary people. Selected by a group of Istanbulites as objects they believe will have archaeological value in the future, childhood stationery, anonymous letters, worn-out cigarette packs, and other such trivial items sit atop used coffee tables. And in Can’t hurt, might help, Rakowitz also refers to the daily engagement with material culture. Both projects display a hierarchy of value that stands up to scientific and institutional value creation for material objects by prioritizing the human engagement with materiality.
Celine Condorelli’s contribution is a display structure for the main exhibition. In Surrounded by the Uninhabitable (Studies), the viewer is encouraged to walk on, sit on, or manually open its parts. Condorelli offers a mediated, if not overwhelming, encounter with the primary materials of the exhibition that disrupts its sequence and offers more than one path through the gallery space. Selected objects are not, after all, simply scientific specimens, the residue of impartial antiquarian scholarship, but rather part of an often-challenged claim to a universal understanding of heritage and culture—entrenched in imperialistic projects—and are given value by institutions based on modernist and seemingly scientific principles of preservation and exhibition.
“Scramble for the Past” combines academic and artistic efforts to inquire into the fragmentary and fragile nature of archaeological practices, collective memory, and historiography. While the exhibition’s primary materials and time line exemplify the changing practices of archaeology, the contemporary works produce new configurations: They are not analytical, institutionalized, or purely autonomous aesthetic objects. The show may appear unfinished and rough to many viewers, especially those who visit the gallery as an extension of scholarly research. The element of confusion and the strength of the works’ statements, however, seem to be the exhibition’s greatest assets.