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The material engagement approach (Part 1)


The interaction between modern art and archaeology
Colin Renfrew Archaeologist
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So then the way artists use artefacts. Tony Cragg makes strange creations of glass bottles or plastic containers and so on, and that leads to the focus of the, the use by artists of material culture and that very much ties in with Eduardo Paolozzi's work as a sculptor. He's always worked really in collage and put together objects and then often cast the end product and done a bronze out of that just as his graphic work is literally collage, cutting up bits of paper and so on. That was the way - he was one of the leading initial figures in, in pop art. So there really turned out to be a lot of ideas that I thought would make an interesting course of lectures, which I think were successful enough and then Thames & Hudson published those in a book, which I called "Figuring it Out", and I found it really quite a liberating experience to be thinking in this way about how we interact with the material world, the material engagement process as I think of it, and the experience takes one a little bit outside the very linear thinking, the very logical thinking of what do we do next. And so on in a very logical way and allows one to interact emotionally if you like, certainly interact directly with the sculptures or with the material artefacts that you're finding and that started, for me opened up new avenues in thinking, which in some ways are not so remote from those of some of the interpretive archaeology school who also favour sort of non-linear and sometimes rather empathetic and reactive approaches. But in my case I was able to feel that I was looking on this as a source of ideas and inspirations to apply to the material record but not to construct some alternative logic. I still very much believe in the principles of processual archaeology and trying to develop a, a coherent theoretical framework into which we can integrate our understanding, our developing understanding or our construction of our view of the past, so I rather dislike the rejection of the interpretive archaeologists of the achievements of the processual archaeology. I rather disapprove of their rejection of the philosophy of science as a, the right way of thinking about how we go about constructing the past, so that element of their work, their rejection of processual archaeology has always rather disappointed me, and I've not been happy with it. On the other hand one has to say that some of the more original thinkers have moved in very interesting directions. Chris Tilley has written very well about how he responds to monuments and to, to the landscape, so-called phenomenological approach, and mainly working in the British Neolithic, people like Julian Thomas or John Barrett have I think developed very interesting ideas, as has a former student of mine, a Matthew Johnston talking about the medieval period and though all of those are definitely self-avowed post processual archaeologists, I think I can almost forgive them that they're post-processual and in that sense I would say anti-processual because I think they're contributing something new, but as I, as I see it, what needs contributing is adding to the possibilities of processual archaeology rather than seeking to replace it. Maybe it doesn't make so much difference after all in, in the end, but I found that really a, a very refreshing experience and writing about that, indeed the lecture I gave, which, which went down best, I think, in the Edinburgh Rhind lectures, was when I was talking a little about the actual experience of, of digging and the way when you're digging, you're interacting with the soil and you're scraping the surface and so on, your interaction with the material, which of course applies at different scales. You interact sometimes through the microscope or you interact through aerial photography and I had an interesting experience with Kate Whiteford who's a very interesting sculptor when I was visiting the British school at Rome when she was an artist in residence and she was at that time, getting very intrigued by aerial photographs and we did a little publication together, which I suggested we should call "Remote Sensing" where it had her, her photographs and her drawings inspired by aerial photographs, which was, which was fun to do and so that was a case where we interact at different scales, through the microscope or from the aircraft, visually with the traces of our, of the past and in, in a whole number of other ways. And so I found all that an interesting way of the rethinking a little bit what the archaeological project is and what it's basis is, which is this direct experience of and engagement with the material reality of the past and therefore I found this analogy with the experience of interacting with contemporary art, helpful both for enjoying the contemporary art but also helpful for getting a fresh approach to the, to the archaeological record.

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: 6 minutes, 11 seconds

Date story recorded: January 2008

Date story went live: 14 May 2009