et al. 2020 | Alvin Ong on Elizabeth Price | A Restoration

Elizabeth Price, A Restoration, 2016, two-screen video still. Image courtesy of the artist.
Elizabeth Price, A Restoration, 2016, two-screen video still. Image courtesy of the artist.
Elizabeth Price, A Restoration, 2016, two-screen video still. Image courtesy of the artist.
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24
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24
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THE 2020 SOVEREIGN ASIAN ART PRIZE

 

 

We are organizing a lovely, perverse refuge.

 

A voice intones from the darkness of the room like an oracle. It is the voice of a cybernetic female narrator—taut, detached and measured. We are watching Elizabeth Price’s 2016 video-installation A Restoration, jointly commissioned for the Ashmolean Museum and Pitt Rivers Museum.

This utopian paradise begins with darkness. In the video, the voice refers to itself as “we,” the singular voice of an assembly of unnamed administrators promising full restitution as it strives to encompass everything in this act of retrieval. We are reminded of the totalizing collector, much like the biblical character of Noah; one who shows no hesitation and no restraint to possess a complete category in each and every variation.

 

Elizabeth Price, A Restoration, 2016, two-screen video still. Image courtesy of the artist.

 

Ancient frescoes of flora and fauna soon illuminate this dark abyss, flashing briefly on screen in rapid succession. Gradually, their elegant branches and tendrils begin to bloom and proliferate. This is all narrated by a dispassionate voice: the voice of God in a digital genesis, animating life on screen.

Images from man’s nascent beginnings give way to advances in human civilization. There are no living faces here, only traces. Clubs and spears soon evolve into floor plans and images of sophistication and accomplishment— monuments, cities, temples, city squares. Then come the instruments of music, dance, art and war, aerodynamic inventions; swords, staffs and a multitude of vessels, goblets and glass. Price presents them through montage and the sequencing of thousands of images, all wrapped up against a multi-layered track that pounds with a percussive vitality and an intoxicating mix.

Price behaves as an archaeologist, collector, and a curator. We observe her as she mines and indulges her personal impulses, gathering, editing, and trimming a multitude of disparate elements into shape. We follow her through all her twists and turns, meandering through museology, semiology, archaeology, workflow and data-entry systems, even finding myself in a celebratory bacchanal celebration over her digital reconstruction from the ruins of Knossos, an ancient Greek city on the island of Crete.

 

Elizabeth Price, A Restoration, 2016, two-screen video still. Image courtesy of the artist.

 

In the same way that flowers bloom, feet and fingers grow.

 

This collective is a highly vulnerable one. This party builds up to a crescendo with much rumbling and shaking, before spiraling out of control into free fall. The final image we are offered is a glass cup descending downwards in slow motion in surreal digital darkness, before registering the sound of its own breakage, coming to us as a kind of welcome release.

Damage is this agent of change, belonging to moments in time that cannot be regained, actions that cannot be reversed. The rhythmic clapping of hands, the clatter of weapons and the snap— so these objects were made to be broken.

We are left once again with debris, death and extinction. Eventually, we exit the dark room, and after moments of silence, the video eventually restarts in a loop. Interspersed amidst walking and digesting my thoughts, I think about how every ending presents the perpetual fresh beginning of a controlled cycle, continuously establishing, destroying, and once again, rebuilding a fixed repertoire of temporal references.

 

Elizabeth Price, A Restoration, 2016, two-screen video still. Image courtesy of the artist.

 

In some way, we have become a silent witness to Price’s personal obsessions, a pre-programmable journey through which we are implicated in an experience that remains intimately bound up with our own memory and imagination. As Walter Benjamin writes, “Ownership is the most intimate relationship that one can have to objects. Not that they come alive in him; it is he who lives in them.”

In Price’s hands, an assembly of dry archaeological shards can potentially become a palimpsest of memory, a magic encyclopedia, a series of historical constellations and a suite of associations, blurring the distinctions between fact and fiction. Maybe this explains why to be surrounded by our personal possessions is a dimension of existence as essential to us as it is imaginary. It means every bit as much as our dreams.

We will organize a lovely, perverse refuge. And it is good.

 

Elizabeth Price, born 1966, is a London-based British artist and winner of the 2012 Turner Prize. She is a former member of indie pop bands Talulah Gosh and The Carousel.

 

Reference:
Benajmin, Walter, “Unpacking my library“ in Illuminations, New York: Harcourt, Brace & World, 1968, p. 67.

 

 

 
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