In 2013, Turner Prize-winning artist Elizabeth Price was commissioned to create a new artwork based on the collections of the Ashmolean and Pitt Rivers Museum. The final product, A Restoration, was displayed at the Ashmolean between March and May 2016 and received universally positive reviews. The video installation reinterpreted images from Arthur Evans’ archaeological excavations at Knossos between 1900 and 1930 by layering them with electronic music and the voices of computer-generated narrators—a ‘chorus’ of museum administrators, who use Evans’ excavation archive to create a new restoration of Knossos, one which draws on the present and the future much as it does on the past. Following its display in Oxford, A Restoration travelled to the Institute for the Study of the Ancient World (ISAW) in New York, where it was exhibited from October 2017 to January 2018 alongside pieces loaned from the Ashmolean from Evans’ excavations at Knossos as well as his archival material.
The ISAW exhibition is the basis for this beautifully presented and illustrated book, and, like the exhibition, the question of the boundary between interpretation and invention when it comes to reconstructing the past is at its heart. The juxtaposition of Arthur Evan’s original recreation of the Minoan world and Price’s modern reimagining offers insight into the subjectivity of our understanding of the past as well as the influence of the contemporary world on this understanding.
In the introduction, Rachel Herschman (curatorial assistant at ISAW) provides a brief but succinct overview of Evans’ excavations at Knossos and his aim to make the Bronze Age civilisation ‘intelligible to other men’ (p. 17)—an aim that was to influence his work at the site and indeed the popular and scholarly conception of the Minoans for many years. Evans’ ‘reconstitution’ is discussed, focusing in particular on the works of Émile Gilliéron père and fils, remembered primarily as the father-son team who restored the fresco fragments found at Knossos; here the focus lies in their role as second only to Evans in shaping our image of the Minoans. This discussion is supported with multiple clear and impressive colour illustrations, including many that will be new to some readers, such as Henri de Toulouse-Lautrec’s lithographs, which were both inspired by and inspired the Knossos fresco reconstitutions. Herschman’s consideration of the Gilliérons’ work is concise and objective, although she does not shy away from its tendentiousness. Price’s contemporary work is then discussed, first setting up the background to the project and then situating it within this context of prior reconstitution. The chapter ends with a brief overview of the remainder of the book.
The central chapter and heart of the book is an interview between Elizabeth Price and Jennifer Y. Chi (then chief curator and exhibitions director of the ISAW) which covers Price’s previous work, her creative practice, the creation of A Restoration, and her impressions of Evans himself. The discussion in the previous introductory chapter, on the influences of contemporary artistic styles and cultural developments on Evans’ reconstitutions, sets up Price’s introduction to and exploration of the Evans’ archive at the Ashmolean. She was given the entirety of the Ashmolean and Pitt-Rivers collections to explore, but it was the ‘permissiveness and excessiveness’ (p. 41) of Evans’ Archive which ultimately drew her in. In discussing her practice of video-making as a form of bricolage and her interest in the shifting contexts of artefacts and archives, Price reflects on how this led to a sense of recognition when she first confronted Evans’ commissioned watercolours of Knossos, as she questioned whether this familiarity was a result of viewing them through her own prism of knowledge or Evans’. Whose history—Price’s, Evans’ or the Minoans’—were reflected in this recognition? This questioning of the historicity of Evans’ reconstruction led to A Restoration, her attempt to disentangle these multiple histories and to create a restoration of Evans’ restoration. Screenshots of her work are interspersed throughout the transcript of the conversation, giving the reader a hint as to how the finished project appeared to its viewers at the Ashmolean and the ISAW. A major drawback here is that for those who haven’t seen A Restoration, the discussion and glimpses of her work offer only tantalising clues of the finished piece.
The third chapter, by Kenneth Lapatin, is the longest of the book and traces Evans’ impact from his early days as the Ashmolean’s Keeper to his purchase and excavation of the land at Knossos, and his subsequent discoveries and—at times hyperbolic—interpretations of the finds, which were often filtered, consciously or not, through his own contemporary experiences, desires, and knowledge of Classical history and literature. Thus the then-undeciphered Linear B tablets discovered in the first weeks of excavation became the Laws of Minos and the forerunners of later Greek legal codes. While today we know this interpretation to be unambiguously incorrect, as an anecdote it serves to illustrate Evans’ predilection for collapsing archaeological fact and whimsical interpretation. Lapatin’s lively review includes more examples of Evans’ dynamic creation of a world of ‘beauty, grace and transcendence’ (p. 63), but also the wider reception of the ‘modernity’ of these finds in a world where sanitation and plumbing, corsets, and Art Nouveau (all reflected in these Minoan discoveries) were the very epitome of haute. A consideration of a central artefact of the exhibition appears towards the end of the chapter: the ivory figurine christened ‘Our Lady of the Sports’. In his desire to find evidence for female bull-leapers, Evans’ accepted this forgery as fact, and Lapatin (unsurprisingly given his previous research1) eruditely discusses the manufacture of forgeries that Evans’ excavations and the subsequent demand for Minoan antiquities created. As an art piece, however, the gold and ivory figurine provides a perfect metaphor for Evans’ work: the mingling of the ancient and the modern, the contemporary creation of an ancient past. Finally, Lapatin acknowledges the wider influence of Evans and his excavations on such seminal twentieth-century figures as Sigmund Freud and Pablo Picasso, as well as contemporary figures such as Karl Lagerfeld. It is within this broader background of influence, inspiration and creation that Lapatin places Price’s work, noting, however, that she goes beyond simple reference or homage by interrogating the process through which we create our archaeological knowledge.
The preceding three chapters are lavishly illustrated—which in itself makes the book highly desirable for anybody interested in Minoan archaeology—and the final chapter offers additional illustrations of Minoan artefacts, artfully staged photographs of pottery, and watercolour reconstructions of the frescoes, many of which are published here for the first time.
Price’s work is fascinating and highlights the interplay between imagination and scholarly endeavour that encapsulated Evans’ work—and indeed all archaeological reconstruction to some degree. It is a shame her work is not available to view online, as that would only serve to emphasise further the parallels between her piece and Evans’ creation. For example, Evans’ use of the most up-to-date material available in order to preserve his vision (ferro-concrete in his case) is echoed in Price’s work through the use of digital imagery, hosted by a computer server, to bring her Knossos to life.
While the book offers little in the way of new information for the scholar of Minoan Crete, it is not its intent to do so, and therefore should not be considered a drawback. Herschman and Lapatin’s well-written, scholarly yet accessible chapters act as literary equivalents of the exhibitions which frame Price’s art piece. This book offers a window into Price’s work for those, like this author, who did not have the pleasure of seeing it first-hand. It is also beautifully presented, and worthy of inclusion on any bookshelf for its rich and informative archival images alone.
The central concept of this book regarding how the past is made accessible and meaningful is doubly resonant. It offers a valuable insight into archaeological reconstruction and the interplay of excavation and contemporary culture, as well as new perspectives on how we create our narratives of the past and the ways we make them resonate in the present to assure they continue to be remembered in the future.
1. Kenneth Lapatin, Mysteries of the Snake Goddess: Art, Desire, and the Forging of History. (Boston; New York: Houghton Mifflin, 2002).