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The interaction between modern art and archaeology


Giving the Rhind lectures
Colin Renfrew Archaeologist
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And all that is not only something nice that happened while we were in the college, and still continues, although I stopped being Master in 1997 and we moved back to our house in Cambridge, but the sculpture exhibitions continue, but it also encouraged me to be a little bolder in my interest in contemporary art. I had written a few things and I'd written introductions to these catalogues and so on, but through knowing Antony Gormley and Eduardo Paolozzi and Barry, Barry Flanagan, and a number of other sculptors including William Turnbull quite well, I felt that I could actually write something about their work, and in particular Richard Long, because I'd really got to know their work quite well and I'd corresponded with them and had their comments on things I'd written. I'd written an article on William Turnbull for the Cambridge Review way back in the '60s and then one on Richard Long more recently, so that when I was invited to give the Rhind lectures in Edinburgh, and that's a named series of lectures and it has, as you know, Paul, because you've given them yourself, has to be a series of six lectures, so you really, to give six lectures, you have to put your mind to what the theme is going to be, and there is the suggestion that they would like to publish them afterwards so it's an encouragement to think about the lectures rather carefully, and I thought it would be rather interesting to lecture or talk about contemporary art because I'd come to see that the way we look at contemporary art, and first of all sometimes find it rather enigmatic, and then have to get a handle on what it may mean and think about the context and look at other work by the artist and gradually reach some understanding through this engagement with the art, there's a real parallel between that process and the processes of the archaeologist when you're digging up the remains of the past and you start off knowing nothing about this particular period or this particular culture and you find this building maybe with these objects in it, like say a monument in Orkney, you find this building and you find these human remains and you find this pottery and so on, and out of the experience of excavating this, after, out of your material engagement with this structure, you begin to have some understanding of it and then you have to try and formulate that more clearly. That's perhaps where the archaeological theory comes in, but it all starts, most archaeology begins with digging and then, which is a kind of your engagement with the material and then you, you work at it from there and to a large extent one's encounter with contemporary art, which can likewise be enigmatic, comes from your engagement with it, usually in a visual sense, sometimes in a, a tactile sense as well and I'd been thinking over the years about Cycladic sculpture, which had been one point of interest for me and trying to get a better handle on that, and so it occurred to me that this would make a nice series of lectures, both about sculpture and the landscape, the experience of looking at sculpture, the earliest human impact that you can see, those wonderful Laetoli footprints, which are footprints in the ash of an early hominid in, in Africa, ash from a volcanic eruption and this hominid, Homo erectus or Australopithecus, I think it was, early pre-human form had walked in the ash and that had been preserved. The ash had hardened or solidified and so those had been excavated by Mary Leakey, and that is the first record we have of bipedal locomotion, of people walking upright. So, you have all kinds of interesting points of contact. Another which interested me was my recollection at Pompeii, where at Pompeii they found gaps, holes in the volcanic ash, and they realised that these were imprints of humans and animals, which had died and whose bodies had decayed. They also found wooden furniture where the wood had decayed and they had the good idea of pouring in plaster of Paris, and in that way got wonderful imprints of these, of the bodies, which of course, when the ash came round them, were just dying. In fact they're often very moving images of people who've just died, and you get a wonderful impression by these almost sculptures. I mean they're, they're plaster of Paris effigies, which are the casts of these people. Well, that of course relates in a kind of way, or can be seen to relate in a kind of way to the manner in which Antony Gormley chose to make sculpture. He stepped aside from chipping away with a hammer and chisel as many sculptors in stone have done, and instead made, had made body casts of his own standing figure or lying figure or whatever so there are points of contact there in the techniques to discuss and think about.

Baron Renfrew of Kaimsthorn is a British archaeologist known for his work on the dispersal of the Proto-Indo-Europeans and the prehistory of PIE languages. He has been Disney Professor of Archaeology at Cambridge as well as Master of Jesus College and Director of the McDonald Institute for Archaeological Research.

Listeners: Paul Bahn

Paul Bahn studied archaeology at Cambridge where he did his doctoral thesis on the prehistory of the French Pyrenees. He is now Britain's foremost specialist on Ice Age art and on Easter Island, and led the team which discovered Britain's first Ice Age cave art at Creswell Crags, Nottinghamshire, in 2003. He has authored and edited numerous books, including Journey Through the Ice Age, The Enigmas of Easter Island, Mammoths, The Cambridge Illustrated History of Prehistoric Art, and, with Colin Renfrew, Archaeology: Theories, Methods and Practice which was published in its 5th edition in 2008.

Duration: 5 minutes, 54 seconds

Date story recorded: January 2008

Date story went live: 14 May 2009