British Archaeology, no 19, November 1996: Essay

Time that links archaeology and painting

The artist Simon Callery reflects on working with archaeologists at a hillfort this summer

The idea of a collaboration between an artist and the Institute of Archaeology at Oxford was born during a conversation about the White Horse at Uffington. For me, this famous site was a route into archaeology and the point from which I began to see links between the practices of contemporary painting and archaeology.

The White Horse is not only a symbol of British landscape and history, but also of British art. For an artist it is easy to misinterpret the facts, and tempting to see it as an example of a pure and uninfluenced early art form in this country. The challenge was to avoid misinterpretation and to work close to a discipline less subjective and more scientific than my own.

At the suggestion of Gary Lock of the Institute in Oxford, I was invited to an excavation this summer of Segsbury hillfort, 5 ½ miles SE of the White Horse on the Ridgeway in Oxfordshire. The archaeological retracing of a `Celtic' past to a specific location encouraged me to think about the roots of my own artistic identity, retracing them to a studio in a 5th floor flat in East London overlooking the Docklands Enterprise Zone in the late 1980s, where I made my first mature works.

In these paintings, according to the writer Sarah Kent,

Architectural details play an integral part in structuring images whose function is more evocative than descriptive, in which a parallel is established between the language of architec-ture and the grammar of drawing. Lines may delineate forms, but they also function physically, as marks made in charcoal or pastel. Dribbles of paint evoke rain-soaked concrete, but they also make one conscious of the artist's actions - of paint trickled down a canvas. (Catalogue for Young British Artists III, Saatchi Gallery, London 1994)
The excavation at Segsbury consisted of three trenches. I was interested in the largest, which measured 40m by 20m. The removal of the topsoil, a mantle about 1 ½ feet thick, revealed a white chalk bedrock where signs of a settlement were evident. As work advanced, it was possible to see the gully where a roundhouse once stood, storage pits of various sizes, and an array of stake and post-holes.

For my purposes I was not hoping for, or reliant upon, finds. My main concern was with the activities and processes involved. I felt affinities with the careful uncovering of surfaces, the painstaking removal of material, and the apparent absurdity of working with tiny brushes and tools over such a vast site. The processes seemed to reflect many of those which I undertake while making a painting. My canvasses, frequently large-scale, are worked over with drawn line and with many layers of paint thinned down with pure turpentine to semi-transparency. The painted surfaces are worked with a surgeon's scalpel to reveal the mark-making that lies as traces underneath a skin of oil. During the excavation at Segsbury, as each layer of material was removed a progressively more distant past became accessible. As in a mirror image, the painter, with the addition of each successive layer of paint, moves towards the completion of a work. This finished work is experienced in the present yet is also a witness to the history of its making. Both disciplines, art and archaeology, are witness to a tangible sense of time.

The following statement, from a textbook on archaeology, seems to provide an astute way to experience my recent painting:

Very broadly, we can say that contemporary activities take place horizontally in space, whereas changes in those activities occur vertically through time. (Renfrew and Bahn: Archaeology: theories, methods, and practice, Thames and Hudson, 1996)
My absorption in the work at Segsbury led me first to drawing, but ultimately to reject drawing as unviable for accommodating the wealth of information, and the sheer physical scale and material quality of the site. With photographer Andrew Watson, we decided to document the entire site in 1.5m square sections. This photography has produced 378 frames on a medium format, giving us the possibility of making scaled or life-size images of high resolution and detail. These will be completed as the year-long project continues.

At a time when many artists are turning to science for solutions, and many scientists are aware of the possibilities inherent in creative thinking, I am aware of how my approach to painting has been enriched by thinking in archaeological terms. It will be interesting to see if the archaeologists, in turn, benefit from my way of thinking as the project goes on.

The collaboration at Segsbury was organised by the Laboratory at the Ruskin School of Art in Oxford and is supported by the Calouste Gulbenkian Foundation and by Southern Arts. New work by Simon Callery can be seen at `About Vision' at the Museum of Modern Art, Oxford, from 10 Nov 1996 to 23 Feb 1997.

Return to the British Archaeology homepage

Return to the CBA homepage

© Council for British Archaeology, 1997