“Excavating Contemporary Archaeology”, a European cooperation project
Mucem, Centre de conservation et de ressources—
(Belle de Mai—1, rue Clovis Hugues 13003 Marseille)
From Friday 20 September 2019 to Friday 7 February 2020
Open house Thursday, September 19, 2019 from 4pm to 7pm at the Conservation and Resource Centre
The exhibition "Behind us" is the result of the encounter between three parties: the Portuguese artist Francisco Tropa, a class of 11 and 12 year old school students from Marseille’s Louis Armand College, and the collections of the Mucem.
Invited to develop an interest in archaeology and to apply its methodologies, the Marseilles school students' academic year saw them work in both in the museum's storerooms and their classroom. Supervised by the artist Francisco Tropa, who places history and the great myths of civilizations at the heart of his practice, they observed, selected and then drew 18 objects from the Mucem collections, from which they finally composed the imaginary story of a lost society.
The exhibition presents part of their works, a midpoint between poetic creativity and the report of an archaeological dig. These are accompanied by five original silkscreens designed in a dialogue with the guest artist. The printing process, which was used, superimposed coloured layers and can be read as a nod to archaeology – a process of discovering the world "layer by layer".
This exhibition is part of the European cooperation project "Excavating Contemporary Archaeology", which aims to explore the diversity of Europe's cultural heritage. This project brings together the Mucem, Kunsthal Aarhus (Denmark), POINT (Cyprus) and AIR Antwerpen (Belgium).
"Excavating Contemporary Archaeology" is a project co-financed by the European Union's Creative Europe programme and part of the "2018 : European Year of Cultural Heritage".
Interview with the artist Francisco Tropa
For several months, you worked with a class of Marseille school students as part of the "Excavating European Archaeology" project. What did you learn from this experience?
Francisco Tropa (F.T.)
It was a great pleasure for me. You know, I taught for 13 years. I was a sculpture teacher at an art school. But before that, I began in a middle school where I taught plastic arts to children who were exactly the same age as the ones I met for this project in Marseille. I have always kept a good memory of this period. Especially for the quality of the exchanges we can have with children and the freshness with which they see things.
I think that artists can have a role around passing on knowledge. Beyond their creative work, they should be able to pass on their experience in an educational context to the very youngest. In other words, artists should sometimes go back to school! This type of work involving children is as an enriching experience as it is inspiring. I am very attentive to everything that can arise and appear in them. In a project like this, there is an exchange going on. When you teach, you learn from the experience of the other.
Your artistic work combines sculpture, drawing, performance, installation, video, and is often combined with a reflection on History, science, philosophy ... It could not have been easy to present this to youngsters!
On the contrary, it's easy with children ... it's with adults that everything gets complicated! I think they do this naturally. They touch everything and don't complicate things by putting up barriers. There is a naturally formed freedom in them. And I really like to see this in action.
As for knowing what I do, or what my practice is ... In fact, I believe that the role of the artist is to walk away ... to take a step back in relation to the work, and simply let the artistic object come to life.
Don’t leave just yet!
Don't worry, I'll try to answer your question! So how do I summarize my practice? I studied drawing, but my work is more closely aligned to sculpture. I came to it quite late. Gradually, my drawings began to take on other dimensions. This comes first of all from a fascination with certain crafts and processes related to sculpture: the foundry, casting, ... Previously, I created objects with a rather poetic intention, but on the formal level, they were more related to the world of science and mechanics; they were closer to an outdated scientific apparatus than to sculpture in the more traditional sense of the term. And it is through the techniques of sculpture that I was able to discover many things that still inform my work today: the body, the representation of movement, ...
What link do you make between sculpture and the body?
Art is linked to death. We make art because we know we will die one day. Every artistic object speaks of this, of this awareness born in Prehistory. The first artistic representations, the first statuettes and the first engravings are linked to this; they probably had a religious dimension. Even today, sculpture is still very much linked to death and therefore to the disappearance of the body.
Art always explores the same theme; and ancient sculptures generated all the others. In my work, what interests me is to go and research some of these forgotten archaic figures. They are, I believe, generators of the forms and art of today.
This is in line with the aim of the "Excavating Contemporary Archaeology" project, which establishes a bridge between contemporary creativity and archaeology ...
A few years ago, in my project "Submerged Treasures of Ancient Egypt", I put forward a fiction about an archaeological dig. I used the metaphor of archaeology as a process of discovering the world "layer by layer". This analogy, if reversed, comes very close to the common idea that artistic creation develops in a stratified way. For example, an artist would build an object "layer of meaning by layer of meaning" and, to understand it, the audience would have to go in the opposite direction. The work of art would therefore be a kind of millefeuille containing several meanings, several levels of understanding, some of which would only be perceptible by the initiated. I don't believe much in this idea: as I said earlier, I believe that the work, once created, functions autonomously. It is not necessary to "dig" to find any hidden meaning. By proposing this analogy between contemporary art and archaeology, I was able to construct an allegory of how people today believe they are discovering the supposed "mysteries" of the work of art. I used the archaeological dig as an allegory of our relationship to contemporary art. It is a very easy symbolism to explain to a child.
And this one thus inspired you to set up the framework established with the school students for this project. How did the first step of this work go?
I introduced myself to the students as if I were an archaeologist. I showed them a box containing files documenting an archaeological dig. You could see all its details: the context, the discoveries, the interpretations, etc. As I revealed all these things, the children became ever more captivated, as if they were discovering little treasures ... They were all the more disappointed when, at the end of the presentation, I told them that this archaeological dig had never taken place, that it was totally fictional! The "archaeological discoveries" I had shown them in photos were actually sculptures that I had made. Thus, everything was made, everything was invented, but everything existed! It was a way for me to present my artistic work to them, while inviting them to reflect on the dialogue between fiction and reality. I finally offered to do something identical with the Mucem collection.
And regarding the Mucem collection, what does it inspire in you?
The Mucem is unlike any other museum. I was really delighted to have the opportunity to explore its "cellars" and to go and search its storerooms! What I like is that it's a museum of everything. Everything society creates is intended to be included in its collections. Everything! There are no set rules. And that interests me a lot. The idea of a "museum", first of all, is a very curious idea and one that is very interesting for an artist to explore: What is a museum? What is its role? Is it a figure of legitimization? A tomb? An exhibition space? The case of the Mucem is particularly interesting because it is a museum whose positioning is not totally clear. It is neither a history museum, nor an art museum, and yet all of these at the same time. Today's world still tends to want to define and make very specific categories. But the Mucem cannot be classified into a single category. That's what makes it so exciting.
For example, among the objects I found in the reserves, there were two stones. Why are they here? What's so special about them? In the museum, no one knew. The description sheet, over time, had been lost. So we don't know.
When it enters the museum, the status of the object changes. This is an idea that interests me a lot, and even more so in the context of the Mucem, where you can find absolutely everything. It is a collection, but its theme ("the Mediterranean") remains very broad and very vague; it goes in all directions. I don't know of any other such place. This museum is almost in itself a work of art!
For the second phase of the project, you had carte blanche to choose objects from the Mucem collection, objects that the students were then invited to draw ...
I went to the Centre de conservation et de ressources to do a first "search". I spent two days there! Among the thousands of preserved objects, I finally selected about 50: a coffee grinder, a model steamboat, a toy, a stone fragment, a weaving wheel, a lace lamp, ... In short, a completely subjective selection. I chose some of them for purely aesthetic reasons, others for their history or function, while others because they seemed somehow mysterious to me. And then there are all those I chose a little by chance. What interested me was why all these different objects are part of the same collection.
From this selection, the students made a second "search": the class went to the CCR with teachers of the Collège Louis Armand to discover the objects that I had selected and then to draw them. We must pay tribute here to the work of the teachers, whose role has certainly been more important than mine!
You then asked the students to create a collection of images from these objects ...
Yes, I wanted to have all kinds of drawings, made on several different media and in various ways: on-site in the museum, or from memory in class, in pencil or ink, etc. The aim was to create a lexicon around these objects – a lexicon of images built by high school students, and which together form a kind of collection. Indeed, the most important thing for me was to be able to discover the way each of these students saw these objects. What types of representations would they choose? What detail would attract them? What would they decide to draw? For me it was very important because it is from this type of questioning that we create an artistic object: how do we look at the world? What are we holding back? What are we taking away? In the context of this collection, which looks at the world in a certain way, it was a question of seeking out how these youngsters see.
From this collection of images, you finally created five serigraphs, which will be presented in the exhibition "Behind us"...
The different phases of the project were not decided in advance. It evolved during our discoveries, discussions, etc
In the last stage, I ended up with about a hundred drawings. My idea was to keep these drawings "intact", or to modify them as little as possible. At first, I tried to use all this material by making images from several drawings. But that didn't work. By mixing these drawings, their freshness and spontaneity were lost. To do that was to somehow destroy them.
So I finally tried to build something with these drawings that could illustrate the possibilities of building an image from a very specific technique – in this case, screen printing. I selected five drawings by focusing only on the technical constraints of screen printing: which drawing works best if I choose to make a negative image? Which one works best if it is reproduced with complementary colours? Which is the one where colour transparency would be most effective? I chose these technical constraints because I wanted these images to be strong and for the students to take pleasure in rediscovering them. In addition, screen printing makes it possible to modify the visual aspect of the image while keeping the design intact. They are still their own drawings.
We can read an inscription on one of the serigraphs ...
In the same way that I had created a story around my imaginary archaeological digs, the students also built stories around the objects presented in the exhibition. It is a less visible part of the project, which I wanted to make appear on one of the images ...
The exhibition "Behind us" is therefore the result of this long project. Why did you choose this title?
As we were all looking for a title for the project, I noticed these two words, "behind us", among the proposals. I immediately thought it would make a good title.
"Behind us" is what we don't see. It is what is in the "blind spot" of our field of vision; it is what we miss when we look at the world. In my opinion, this represents a form of simplicity that we adults have forgotten, but which remains very present in the eyes of children. They can see what we no longer can. So, we have all worked long and hard to give the greatest possible visibility to this project, but the most important thing will remain invisible. Well, fortunately so!
Du vendredi 20 septembre 2019 au dimanche 5 janvier 2020