As a fresh graduate from The Ruskin School of Art in 1998, Elizabeth Price worked for a year in the Bodleian Library’s underground stacks. She remembers the damp, the haphazard stacking of books, the way the floors got smaller as they went further and further down beneath the cobbles of Broad Street. A book could be declared lost for twenty five years and turn up in a pile a few centimetres away from its original place. In the stacks books were arranged by size rather than subject, and Price would spend most of her shift reading books in unexpected succession.
This sense of the subterranean, along with the archival practices of collecting, collating and cataloguing, are key components of Price’s new video installation A Restoration.
After winning the Contemporary Art Society Award in 2013, Price received a commission to make an artwork in response to the collections and archives of the Pitt Rivers and Ashmolean Museums in Oxford. During the course of her research, Price became particularly interested in the work of British archaeologist Arthur Evans. After holding the position of Keeper of the Ashmolean, Evans achieved fame for the excavation of the Cretian palace of Knossos at the turn of the 20th century. He set about restoring the site with what Price calls ‘a kind of energy that is unreserved and febrile and exciting’, adding concrete pillars and filling in frescos with an ‘extraodinary’ creative license.
Price’s own Restoration begins with images of these frescos from the Ashmolean’s Evans Archive, along with a synthy soundtrack and computerised female voice representing a ‘chorus’ of fictional museum administrators. Accompanying this narration is a box of text that moves in exact synchronicity with the voice, appearing and receding letter by letter. Sometimes the soundtrack drowns out the voice, and the text is all we have to go on, suggesting that these are not merely subtitles –text comes before speech, administrating its own story.
Price describes her method of working as a process of ‘saturation’, rather than the ‘reductive’ method favoured by her contemporaries. Where the latter aim at succinct and minimalist conceptual statements, Price creates maximalist immersive pieces that combat the senses; she is adamant that her videos are to be experienced in specific environments.
A Restoration is tucked into a corner of the Ashmolean’s first floor, in a darkened gallery that previously displayed artefacts from Mughal India. Despite some sound proofing, the video’s bassy soundtrack leaks out into the neighbouring galleries, reverberating through Ancient Greece and the Music and Tapestry gallery directly above. Price admits there was a certain pleasure in bringing such chaotic loudness into the usually quiet and somewhat austere museum setting, and this sense of recklessness and imposing over boundaries reverberates though the video itself. As the Telegraph’s Alastair Sooke has suggested: ‘Archeology has never looked this sexy or exhilarating’.
Elizabeth Price was talking at a lecture given on Wednesday 23rd of March, 2016, at the Ashmolean Museum. A Restoration runs from March 18 until May 15 at the Ashmolean, free admission. Price’s work is also on display at Modern Art Oxford (until April 16th) and the Pitt Rivers Museum (until May 29th)
Text by Miranda Stuart