Published  02/10/2003

Book review: Figuring it out

Figuring it out

Colin Renfrew. London: Thames & Hudson 2003. ISBN 0500 051143. 224pp, £32.00

In The Shape of Time (1962), George Kubler showed that our knowledge of the distant past relied mainly upon the visible products of man's industry. In contrast, the art of temporal expression, music, talk and ritual, survive only in the expression of remote communities. Thus it is that our working proof of distant peoples is generally of the visual kind, existing in time and space, rather than aural or verbal experiences in time and sound. Such a distinction is less relevant today, for performance, video and conceptual, 'high' and 'low' art, have blurred what once seemed defining boundaries. Colin Renfrew's Figuring it out reclaims this territory for the history of art, which Kubler defined as, 'a vast mining enterprise, with innumerable shafts, most of them closed down long ago. Each artist works on in the dark, guided only by the tunnels and shafts of earlier work, following the vein and hoping for a bonanza, and fearing that the lode may play out tomorrow'. Figuring it out is in the great tradition of Kubler's masterpiece. Not only is Renfrew's account of the relationship between archaeology and art as original as Kubler's metaphor for art history, but Kubler's book was also an inspiration for Eduardo Paolozzi, whose art features in Renfrew's pages.

At a time when 'Time Team' and the Turner Prize are on primetime television as 'popular' manifestations of 'high' culture, we now have an authoritative explanation of how and why the twin pursuits of archaeology and modernism have so many features in common. Figuring it out is a convincing and compelling analysis by a distinguished archaeologist exploring why the processes of archaeological investigation and discovery have been paralleled by the installations and art works of many artists, from the beginning of the 20th century to the present day. Taking Gauguin's text, which became the credo for 20th century modernists, 'Always have in your mind's eye the Persians, the Cambodians and the Egyptian; the Greek is the great error, beautiful though it is' as his point of departure, Renfrew accounts for the similarity between the experience of uncovering the long-hidden past, such as the sensations evoked by the excavation of the five and a half thousand year old chamber of Quanterness, and our response to works like Richard Long's Chalk Line of 1984, which bears an uncanny formal resemblance to the outer sandstone surface of the Orkney cairn. Much of this is a direct - and moving - reflection of the author's own experiences as an archaeologist, and of a lifetime spent in the company of contemporary art and artists. Yet it is neither a series of personal responses nor an exercise in Gombrichian mix-and-match, but an entirely new account of why 20th and 21st century artists have been driven to answer the questions asked by Gauguin's famous symbolist canvas of over a century ago 'Where do we come from? What are we? Where are we going?'

Renfrew finds the answers to these questions in homo sapiens's engagement with the world of 'material-symbolic culture' in early agrarian societies, in the stone monuments of structures like Stonehenge and Orkney, where artefacts symbolised the relationship between idea and object, before the emergence of writing in the city-states of Sumer and predynastic Egypt in the 4th millennium BC. This crucial time in man's evolution saw the establishment of commodification and trade which made symbols of power and repositories of value, before language was turned into writing to make a permanent record of such human experiences. It was this stage in our evolution, rather than the next phase, which gave birth to the mythopoeic tradition of Western civilisation and ultimately to its decadence ('The Greek is the great error' of Gauguin's statement) that is defined by Renfrew as the mainspring of modernism. There is an echo here of Worringer's distinction in Abstraction and Empathy (1908) between the empathetic response to Greek sculpture and the courtly geometry of Egyptian, Indian and Byzantine civilizations, which embody the 'urge to abstraction'. However, Renfrew moves Worringer on art historically, because his theory accounts for much more than a single stylistic division between East and West, by embracing 20th century artistic expressions across a wide spectrum of cultural differences and societies. Dispensing with the worn out art historical categories of figurative, abstract, pop, minimal, conceptual and so on, Renfrew's analysis throws new light on artists as stylistically and ideologically diverse as John Bellany, Duchamp, Barry Flanagan, Antony Gormley, Ian Hamilton Finlay, Cornelia Parker, George Segal, Claes Oldenburg, Eduardo Paolozzi and Andy Warhol.

The basic urge of the early agrarian societies to symbolise their power in order to survive and prosper, Renfrew argues, has a direct parallel with our own intensely capitalised culture which encourages contemporary artists to explore and comment on the nature of man's relationship with the world and to materially engage with it, whether in the land art of Long's walks, the social satire of David Mach's artefacts, Paolozzi's parodies of the machine, or the archaeological pastiches of Mark Dion. For the exploration and discovery of the past is as relevant to an understanding of the urban needs of man as it is to those of less developed cultures. The persuasiveness of this argument is firmly grounded, not only in Renfrew's account of the distant archaeological past, and in a new account of its visual parallels with the present, but also in an anthropological understanding of how late capitalism has conditioned and affected the choice and treatment of subjects by contemporary artists. This goes further than merely contextualising Duchamp's ready-mades as the depersonalisation of a mechanised society, or the Conceptualists with the dematerialisation of values of more recent times. Since Renfrew has been very active in highlighting and legislating against the illicit traffic in smuggled archaeological artefacts, he is more aware than most art historians of the material and cultural pressures which are brought to bear on contemporary art through the dealer and museum system. He thus brings a refreshingly material analysis to his interpretations, which is a welcome corrective to the over theoretical nature of so much art historical writing on modernism. Figuring it out is a groundbreaking book, comparable with Kubler's The Shape of Time, making a strong case for the relationship between archaeology and art in the early 21st century.

Robin Spencer

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