Review: ‘Elizabeth Price: A RESTORATION’

Gallery 33 of the Ashmolean Museum has been turned into a black room, where a two-screen video is projected on an endless loop. The contrast with the rest of the museum space is a stark one: entering the dark room, we leave behind the statues, metalwork, and glassware. It is striking to see a contemporary installation on the same floor as ancient Indian, Islamic, and Mediterranean art. However, this is precisely the purpose of Elizabeth Price’s work, A RESTORATION: to add something to the museum collection that may challenge and redefine it.

The 17-minute video includes musical elements – comprising catchy jingles, electronic sounds, and percussion – that alternates with a synthesised choir. These voices emerge as a collective ‘us’, a group of artificial museum administrators, with the text also provided as subtitles. The display shows drawings, photographs, and digital animations, some stretched across the two screens, others simply shown twice. The three mediums – music, text, and images – are all experienced simultaneously, in harmony with one another. Ticking sounds, for example, accompany rapid sequences of photographs.

Such multimedia interaction is common in Price’s work, recently demonstrated in Sleep (2014), the video installation included in Modern Art Oxford’s exhibition KALEIDOSCOPE: The Indivisible Present. In both cases, the approach is highly appropriate, enabling the creation of an accessible pseudo-narrative thread. The audience is able to follow and understand the route taken through the various materials used, while enjoying the interaction between the work’s different components.

A RESTORATION is the result of the Contemporary Art Society Annual Award for Museums. The award provides financial support to a UK-based public gallery or museum to collaborate with an artist of their choice and create a new artwork, to be included in the museum’s permanent collection. Price (who won the Turner Prize in 2012) and the Ashmolean and Pitt Rivers Museums received the award in 2013. The outcome of this collaboration is an artwork that responds to groups of items taken from both of the museums’ collections.

The video installation describes itself as ‘an indiscrete restoration’, incorporating a wide range of objects from Arthur Evans’s findings in the Cretan city of Knossos to Mesopotamian Prehistoric figurines. It is a journey through gardens, palaces, vessels, tablets, spears, and swords. Early on in the video, computer folders are shown as if stored on a desktop screen, only to turn into actual paper folders. Here, Price makes the point that the work is bringing the collection to life. Drawings of garden sprouts are made to bloom again and given ‘revived radiance’, plans of ancient buildings are presented as an architect’s project for a brand new edifice, and vessels are ‘taken out’ as if the museum was launching a party for all visitors.

‘We build, we raise, we paint’ the synthetic voices says, giving the impression that museum’s objects are anything but dead. A RESTORATION reflects on the transformation items undergo when they enter museum collections. Very few of the objects we see in museums were made to be exhibited: at the time of their creation, they served a distinctive, practical purpose. The video acknowledges these original functions, and celebrates the lives behind the archaeology. In the gallery adjacent to the video installation, the featured objects are displayed, which are approached with new eyes after experiencing A RESTORATION.

The one thing that is perhaps missing is an acknowledgement of chronological depth: the past, in all its complexities, seems somewhat flattened in favour of a more thematically based approach. One prominent pattern is that of ‘big to small’, with Price homing in on specific objects from larger areas. From extensive gardens and their vegetal components, we move to palace plans, to the rooms of the palace, to the items within the rooms. Sweeping across various epochs, she comments upon the way that museums arrange and categorise objects.

But all it takes for the visitor to return to a historical perspective is to step out of Gallery 33 and back into the main museum space. Here, every room showcases objects sorted by period. A RESTORATION seeks not to simply mimic the museums, their collections, and their curation, but to complement and enrich. In this respect, Price certainly succeeds.

Anna Zanetti

Elizabeth Price: A RESTORATION can be found in Gallery 33, on Level 1 of the Ashmolean Museum, until 15 May. Entrance is free. More information is available here.

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