Lincoln is a paradigm of the city as palimpsest and thus a particularly appropriate venue for curator Tom Morton’s excellent survey, majoring in the historiography of archaeology. The poetic meaning then of what is left when rooting around in rot. We begin at the Collection, where large steel shelving units that store archaeological samples (flint, clay pipe and bone from Poplar Farm, Grantham) share space with contemporary works that may or may not become relics in the future. So we find Sarah Lucas’s Willy (2000), a mute plastic gnome, thumbs aloft, covered with ciggies, and a photolithograph of Keith Coventry’s crappy Crack Pipes (2000). David Musgrave’s varicoloured Overlapping Figures (2001) explicitly references archaeology as palimpsest, an economic gesture that contrasts sharply with a busier, albeit obtuse, vitrine by Rupert Ackroyd. Alexander Tovborg relieves the predominantly monochrome tone in the room by showing a series of five brightly coloured paintings. That these, such as Stella A. Olympia (2012), recall Tal R is no bad thing. We learn that they respond to an ornate medieval baptismal font parked nearby. Jan Ijäs’s video Two Islands (2012) features Fresh Kills Landfill on Staten Island, which we hear might be “the most important archaeological treasure of our civilisation”, what with, among other things, its piles of glasses, nail clippers and love letters. Hart, located in the Sound, is the other New York City island of the dumped, with its mass graves of the homeless, the stillborn – Böcklin’s Isle of the Dead (1880) as a real-life limbo.
Across the street at the Usher Gallery we find Love, Like a Cough, Cannot Be Concealed (2013) by Jess Flood-Paddock. This is an installation that meditates on Pompeii, its title another poetic reference, this time to Ovid. Pillows, footage of a one-armed bandit and precataclysmic Roman naughtiness deliver a melange that one might dream Jessica Stockholder creating if she had
been incarcerated with Tony Robinson on long- running British archaeology TV show Time Team (1994–). A prone corpse lies in the room next door: more rot, but this being a gallery, we are not shocked – it will be made of silicone, not carbon. Jeremy Millar’s Self-Portrait as a Drowned Man (The Willows) (2011) sees him facedown and prebloat, covered with horridly livid skin immersion artefacts, perhaps courtesy of sea- lice. That he wears only one sneaker, laces undone, is a poignant detail. Behind him Adrien Missika’s film Black Sand Beach (2011) lightens the mood, featuring as it does a couple of slackers playing under a petrified tree on a Hawaiian coast. Rodney Graham devotees will be reminded of his shipwrecked pirate, then vexed because there is no comparable hilarious payoff.
We head up Steep Hill to the magnificent cathedral where Roger Hiorns’s Untitled (2012) sits in the transept. We see a jet engine (a local Frank Whittle reference) suspended by thick cords; behind, a statue of Bishop Edward King looks on aghast. Maybe Hiorns is playfully suggesting an escape route for today’s troubled ecclesiastics. The freezing crypt at the Greyfriars Building back down the hill is a suitably atmospheric venue for Karen Russo’s terrific new film Externsteine (2012). These rock formations in Germany are a contested site, ‘contaminated terrain’, in the words of one archaeologist. Here we learn about forged runes and dodgy Nazi scientists like Wilhelm Teudt who proposed claiming the place as a ‘sacred grove’ for nationalists. Völkisch archaeology? Nein, danke! This ambitious, sprawling show implies, to bastardise Tennyson, that if we could understand what we are, rot and all, and all in all, we should know what God and man is.
This review was first published in the May 2013 issue.