New York.- By Vicki James Yiannias
A tiny figure standing in her glass case, lit as if she is a living person, her large black-rimmed eyes looking to the side, opens her arms wide, holding a writhing snake in each hand. She wears a cinched, bare-breasted dress with a layered skirt in checkerboard pattern and stripes, and a leopard is poised on her enigmatic headdress. Whether this replica of a statuette found at Knossos, and according to Curatorial Assistant Rachel Herschman a “showstopper” in the small, gorgeous exhibition, Restoring the Minoans: Elizabeth Price and Sir Arthur Evans
at New York University’s Institute of Fine Arts, represents a goddess, or a priestess performing a ritual isn’t known. Also not known is whether the young bull-leaping acrobats depicted catching the horns of a now extinct animal, the huge aurochs, and vaulting over their backs—exemplified by another tiny uncannily lit statuette with smooth white limbs, wearing boots laced to the knee and a golden loincloth—were engaging in a sport, a religious ritual, or were symbolic representations of Minoan cosmology. With the cultural records of the Minoans written in Linear A, a still not deciphered script, so much of the nature of the society known as “Minoan”, a title given it by the British archaeologist Sir Arthur Evans, remains…unknown.
That great appreciation for natural beauty existed in their world is unmistakable. However, some of what we see of Knossos now is apparently not how it once was. Rather, it is perhaps part of the dream of Sir Arthur Evans.
Elizabeth Price, a Turner Prize-winning artist, explores the intricate relationship between restoration and art by presenting artifacts from Minoan Crete and archival materials from the Sir Arthur Evans Archive, revealing her insights about how archaeologists and artists recover long-lost civilizations and make them meaningful for us today; how contemporary conditions influence the way we understand the past.
From the day excavations began on the massive Bronze Age architectural complex that he associated with characters from ancient Greek mythology, Evans and his hundreds of workmen, team of architects, engineers, masons, carpenters and artists physically “reconstituted” (his term) it was along the lines of his own interpretations of the beliefs and practices of this lost world. Commissioning replicas and reconstructions of the artifacts and frescoes he found, Evans at times extrapolated from the Minoan style to reflect the tastes of the times, modern concepts and styles, such as Art Nouveau and Art Deco.
Evans fundamentally shaped our understanding of the Minoan world. As the first person to recognize the distinctiveness of the Minoans, his contribution to archaeology cannot be underestimated, yet his bold restoration of the site at Knossos, says one of the exhibition’s
wall texts, “confronts viewers with images of an ancient world that appears distinctly modern.
Art Nouveau-styled women and reinforced concrete structures invite questions about the archaeologist’s boundaries between interpretation and speculation.”
Price’s undertaking came about when, commissioned to create a new artwork based on the collections of the Ashmolean and Pitt Rivers Museums, she was drawn to the modern watercolors and photographs in the Sir Arthur Evans Archive. Her video installation takes creative license with the museum’s archives RESTORATION reinterprets Evans’s images from his archaeological excavation by layering them with rhythmic electronic music “to drive a new story that is as much about the past as it is about the future.”
The book accompanying the exhibition, Restoring the Minoans: Elizabeth Price and Sir Arthur Evans, Edited by Jennifer Y. Chi with contributions by Jennifer Y. Chi, Rachel Herschman & Kenneth Lapatin discusses how archaeologists and artists reimagine what life was like during the Greek Bronze Age, and how contemporary conditions influence the way we understand the ancient past. The book considers two imaginative restorations of the ancient world that test the boundaries of interpretation and invention by bringing together the discovery of Minoan culture by the British archaeologist Sir Arthur Evans (1851–1941) and the work of the Turner Prize–winning video artist Elizabeth Price (b. 1966).
Featured essays examine Evans’s interpretation and restoration of the Knossos palace and present fresh photography of Minoan artifacts and archival photographs of the dig alongside beautiful, previously unpublished watercolors and drawings by the archaeological illustrators and restorers who worked on the site: Émile Gilliéron père (1850–1924), Émile Gilliéron fils (1885–1939), Piet de Jong (1887–1967), and others.
An interview with Price explores how her attraction to the Sir Arthur Evans Archive became the basis for her commissioned video installation at the University of Oxford’s Ashmolean Museum and offers insight into her creative practice.
The exhibition Restoring the Minoans: Elizabeth Price and Sir Arthur Evans is on view at the Institute for the Study of the Ancient World at New York University through January 7, 2018