Upon entering the latest contemporary installation at the Ashmolean Museum in Oxford, the viewer is met with melodic, percussive elements juxtaposed with a tightly edited video work of highly captivating archival material. This is the latest work from Turner Prize and 2013 Contemporary Art Society Award winner Elizabeth Price, on display in one of the historic Museum’s hallowed galleries.
Price’s trademark as such has become her choreography of digital images, music, and Barbara Kruger-esque text, employed in order to co-opt and subvert the language of advertising. Her process entails a kind of editing in reverse, of perpetual supplementation via an act of video archaeology: dragging elements from a temporal timeline while immersed in her digital suite. Price’s new work responds to the collections of the Ashmolean and Pitt Rivers museums, in partnership with the Ruskin School of Art, Oxford (where Price also teaches). The result of this collection digging is ‘A RESTORATION’ - an eighteen-minute-long, dual-screen digital video, which employs the Ashmolean’s photographic and graphic archives, utilising the records of Arthur Evans’s excavation of the Cretan city of Knossos.
Price’s practice is predominantly concerned with the medium of digital video and its comparative ubiquity in today’s culture. ‘A RESTORATION’ is presented as a filmic narrative more so than an installation, and yet the work remains immersive for the viewer. One could even claim that there was something ‘sculptural’ in the artist’s construction of imagery and audio, resulting in highly original video works at once with the universal, immersive nature of installation and with the totality of a sculptural form. The viewer is the missing component in this artist’s very physical presentations - the people in the work are, in fact, the audience.
In ‘A RESTORATION’ Price’s audiovisual elements are offset by an unseen ‘chorus’ of museum administrators - the temporary custodians of a particular narrative. This captivating piece begins with a modulated, computerised voice: “We are cultivating a garden,” it declares, as electronic music is juxtaposed with ancient frescoes of plants. The video looks at the museum through the prism of its own historical archive - images rhythmically dance before us, sound builds to bombastic crescendo. Price digitally reinvigorates ancient designs - the famous ‘Prince of the Lilies’ fresco springs to life as detailed and beautiful CGI animation - and in doing so she continues their evolution. As the imagery evolves before our eyes, it becomes a reminder that museums are not necessarily the end of the narrative journey for ancient objects, but a mere pause. It also proffers a more troublesome notion - that the solace inherent in viewing objects from ancient destructive events that the human race survived (Pompeii for example) is false. It suggests, rather, that all things are destined for destruction one way or another.
Price’s work is a vital and percussively breathtaking exploration of the beginnings of civilisation through the unfinished narrative of design and objecthood. The film’s conclusion speaks not to the desire to destroy, but perhaps its inevitability - that the fragility of things in fact creates their value, the idea of preservation over damage and loss, oppressed by museum, and viewer, alike. Price’s filmic response to the museum’s artefacts is in many ways an artefact in itself, created from representations of ancient objects both vibrant and intoxicating. This is a fictional narrative journey through a plethora of ancient articles, which, fascinatingly, will now also become part of their ongoing histories. Gestural and expressionistic, ‘A RESTORATION’ builds to a celebratory and revelatory finale. The nature of the museum is the usurpation of inheritance - lots of things that we shouldn’t have - but we can never own.