From magma to the stars

An exhibition at the Milreu Roman ruins


Contemporary sculpture has gradually developed into what we could describe as a wide program of research that takes a critical look at what we are. Characterized by a multiple or expanded nature, it is becoming culturally and socially more relevant. The exploration of ways of thinking, communicating and displaying characteristics of contemporary art expands the notion of art beyond the visual representation and turns it into an interesting way of research and communication for the other areas of knowledge.

Keywords: Heritage Studies; Art and Archaeology; Ceramic Technology

In my work I explore the potential role of contemporary sculpture in communicating archaeology in museums. Combining my training in sculpture and my professional experience in the museum context, I explore the way how contemporary art – particularly sculpture – can be included in archaeological research with the aim to develop new ways of thinking and representing, communicating and displaying. Focused on ceramics production, I propose to develop innovative museum strategies which, because they include the display of contemporary sculpture in archaeological contexts, activate the agency ability of the visitors so that their experience becomes more active, free and subjective (Acheson Roberts, 2013).

Over the last two decades, dynamics between sculpture and archaeology have been shifting from the more traditional relationships based on formal analogy and mutual inspiration to other – much more interesting in my opinion – relationships that maximize and explore the potential of joint research projects carried out by interdisciplinary teams of artists and archaeologists (Bailey, 2014: 231-250). The simple reciprocity relationships between the two disciplines are becoming much more complex interactions, where both disciplines address the same issues and adopt working methods of each other (Rea, 2011: 19-30). It is my opinion that the growth of this trend reflects similar developments that have been happening in cognate disciplines such as anthropology and corresponds to a significant expansion of the relationship between art and science in the field of academic research.

The transdisciplinary research I propose makes room for artistic production and scientific reflection. In the process, it brings together initiatives of several research areas (sculpture, archaeology, museums) and puts on an equal footing different positions, practices and methodologies of the arts and the sciences (Palmer, 2004: 145-156).

Although aware of the differences between the disciplines, I believe that the cultural proposals of contemporary art can be a priceless tool in communicating archaeology. Art has long understood that the crossing of frontiers and the resistance to categorization can lead to the development of disciplines that promotes growth and makes a transversal ontology possible (Fernandes Dias, 2011: 103-129). I argue that similarly to art, heritage studies can benefit from an expanded field, a broader context that is at the same time archaeological, museological and artistic.

In order to highlight the value of the research via the artistic practice in my work I am particularly interested in the way how art can interrogate and, in a way, represent the thought of other disciplines and also how it can contribute to its dissemination. One of my main concerns is to perceive sculpture as a form of research while trying not to fall into the attractive and simplistic assertion that all art is research nor into the threatening abrasion of art that results from its subordination to scientific standards. I believe that this path stimulates the exploration of the specific potential of art in the context of research, as well as the conscious pursuit of new ways of knowledge.

I see this artistic practice as a complex and challenging form of research that uses objects from the past in view of their contemporary transformation. Research through sculpture is to study the assumptions and the systems that are the basis of our worldview. Taking practice as the starting point, sculpture is viewed here at the same time as material object and intellectual research.

Focusing on the archaeological material culture, the eye of the artist is naturally different from the archaeologist’s. Linked to the practice, the eye of the artist seeks to enter the gestures of the creators, recreate them and feel them as their own. I explore in my work the relationship between the hand and the matter in the sense of the artisanal know-how. Announcing a possible return of sculpture to ancient production, I evoke the prehistoric practices of the production of ceramic artefacts and associate the practice of sculpture with an archaic, almost archetypal value. I focus on the way the body acts on the clay, matter in movement that takes shape as it receives the organic pressure of the hands. Characterized by morphology, symbolism and the production process, the sculptures may be understood as witnesses of an origin, of an ancient space to which they seem to transport the visitors that engage with them.

In the From Magma to the Stars exhibition (Milreu Roman ruins, Portugal, 2012) the sculptures, which clearly express their own mass that is inherent to the physical properties of the ceramic material, appear to be suspended, free of their own weight due to the installation technique. This apparent, or visual, extreme lightness enables the sculptures to leave their object condition, surpass their materiality and acquire new symbolic meanings.

The sculptures use the archaeological character of the exhibition space to relate to or to engage with the visitors. Placed in a more or less discreet way on the archaeological strata of the ruins, their display assumes the transportation or movement of the visitors between different times, spaces or worlds. Articulating an innovative dialogue between art and archaeology, this exhibition provided a new visual experience that emphasised the tactile and chromatic similarities between the terracotta of the sculptures and the stratigraphy of the location. If on the one hand the exhibition enables us to question the way how material culture remains heritage over time, on the other it allows us to think about the nature of the impact of the archaeological site on the sculptures.

The display of contemporary works of art in archaeological sites can be, besides good to look at, good to think about (Wallis, 2011: 133-160), insofar as it transforms the place and challenges the visitors, re-orienting them towards an innovative commitment between the present and the archaeological character of the space. It is in the exhibition space that through the aesthetic emotion the visitors can metamorphose the sculptures into ideas. To display is to suspend, is to take the objects away from their original context and make them available for contemplation and thought.

With a powerfully significant interpretation of the past in the present, the link between contemporary art and archaeology enables the visitors to engage more actively with the past. Here, the exhibition appears as an ‘experimental laboratory’ where, in an imaginary excavation, the visitors are led to use their visual imagination to give life to the past that echoes in the sculptures. The exhibition represents a passage from the world of the matter, the world of the earth to the universe of ideas, of the symbolical meanings of the memory. More than static objects confined within their material boundaries, the sculptures represent a path, a destination, a movement between matter and the memory that lives in them.

Bibliographical References

Acheson Roberts, L. (2013) The Role of Sculpture in Communicating Archaeology in Museums. Papers from the Institute of Archaeology,

Bailey, D. W. (2014) Art / archaeology / art: letting-go beyond. In Russell, Alden I. & Cochrane, A. (Eds.) Art and Archaeology: Collaborations, Conversations, Criticisms. New York: Springer, pp. 231-250.

Bonavenura, P.; Jones, A. (2011) Sculpture and archaeology. Burlington: Ashgate.

Fernandes Dias, J. (2001). Arte e Antropologia no século XX: modos de relação. In Etnográfica, 5(1), pp. 103-129.

Hannula, M.; Kaila, J.; Palmer, R.; Sarje, K. (2013) Artists as Researchers: A New Paradigm for Art Education in Europe. Helsinki: Academy of Fine Arts, University of the Arts Helsinki.

Palmer, R. (2004) Recherché: Artists’ Research and Pactrice-Led PhD. In Hannula, M.; Kaila, J.; Palmer, R.; Sarje, K. (2013) Artists as Researchers: A New Paradigm for Art Education in Europe. Helsinki: Academy of Fine Arts, University of the Arts Helsinki, pp. 145-156.

Rea, W. (2011) Shared sites and misleading affinities: sculpture as archaeology, archaeology as sculpture. In Bonaventura, P.; Jones, A. (2011) Sculpture and Archaeology. London: The Henry Moore Foudation, pp. 19-30.

Russell, Alden I. & Cochrane, A. (2014) Art and Archaeology: Collaborations, Conversations, Criticisms. New York: Springer.

Wallis, J (2011) Stainless steel/standing stones: reflections on Anish Kapoor at the Rollright Stones. In Bonaventura, P.; Jones, A. (2011) Sculpture and Archaeology. London: The Henry Moore Foundation, pp. 133-160.