My current work is based on research carried out in the Pitt Rivers Museum in Oxford. In 1884 General Pitt Rivers donated his collection of around 30,000 archaeological and anthropological objects to the University of Oxford. Since then the collection has grown to over half a million objects which are displayed in densely packed and dimly lit cases, some still bearing their original hand written labels.
The museum is unusually arranged according to typology rather than by geography or chronology with sections entitled music, clothing, writing, weapons, medicine, etc. Pitt Rivers’ intention was to illustrate how people from different eras and cultures evolved and found solutions to challenges they encountered in their lives and environments.
The collection chiefly deals with utilitarian objects rather than art objects. Pitt Rivers referred to them as “common objects” and believed they illustrated his theory of the “evolution of culture” more successfully than ”precious objects”. He was interested in evolutionary theory which he felt was “the greatest work of our time” and aimed to demonstrate mankind’s progress through made objects. Although progress is often characterised by increased sophistication and elaboration Pitt Rivers observed that simplification or “degeneration” was at work in evolution as the “eliminating [of] superfluous complexity”.
Pitt Rivers took an interest in many aspects of the drawing process and believed that “eye training” was vital to gaining an understanding of the world. He demanded accuracy in “depicting objects truthfully” from the staff who recorded his collection for the catalogue. He talked of the “advantages that may be derived by all by acquiring a correct eye, which will be of use to them in every walk of life. It is true that no one can form ideas in his own mind upon any subject until he has acquired the art of expressing them accurately in language, it is equally true that no one can take in an accurate impression of the world until he has acquired the power of drawing them correctly”.
Pitt Rivers’ theories on evolution and drawing are illustrated through his invention of the “Drawing Game”. This was a graphic version of the parlour game Chinese Whispers, although taken quite seriously. It intended to mimic, in a short period of time, the “process by which changes took place in the forms and ornaments of antiquity”.
A “realistic drawing” was given to the first person to copy. This copy was given to a second person to copy who had not seen the original image. This process was repeated until nine people had successively copied the previous copy. When these drawings were arranged in sequence moderate changes were observed in adjacent drawings but the final version was so “evolved” and abstracted from the original as to be unrecognisable.
Using a series of iterative drawing processes inspired by Pitt Rivers’ theories I have sought to abstract and “degenerate” the themes and forms of the utilitarian objects from the collection in order to create “art” objects. These sculptures ascribe to a hand held scale which invites the sort of haptic engagement that tools demand. Their scale, and the combination of materials and jointing methods, suggest a potential utility or meaning.
My starting point is detailed observational drawing which records the objects’ forms and manner of construction. Using photographs and the original drawings I make a series of line drawings of individual artefacts or whole group displays. The drawings use a single line weight and clarify the forms by discarding texture, colour and tone. Equal importance is given to the objects, interstitial spaces, shadows, reflections, labelling and display paraphernalia. The resulting interlocking and overlapping forms generate new forms which become the basis for “constructed” drawings using collage. These exercises are a process of regeneration, as opposed to Pitt Rivers’ “degeneration”, where the original artefacts and their drawings have evolved and been repurposed. The drawings and collages are all around 200 x 150mm and provide the basis for the form and scale of the sculptures.
As a continuation of the collection’s typological nature I use a limited palette of materials, colours and textures (including wood, horn, antler, coloured acrylic and textiles) according to a set of criteria and classifications that determine the rules for junctions or juxtapositions. The system of composition relates to the type and colour of material used with the relationship between natural and artificial materials being carefully considered. Colour is never applied to a surface but exists as part of the solid material, including the cotton thread binding of the wire elements.
There is no intention to create artefacts but to “evolve” objects though my own cultural response and “eye training” within the Pitt Rivers Museum collection. However, to ground the sculptures in the context of the museum they are titled with the accession number of the artefact from the collection that generated the process.