Elizabeth Price: A Public Lecture and Exhumation

Artvehicle 6/Review

30th November 2006 — 14th January 2007

A Public Lecture and Exhumation is a complex artwork. In a 25 minute video it presents a forgotten bequest to the Borough Council of Stoke Newington and documents aspects of its enactment by the artist. The will and bequest (1927), that of a certain Alexander Chalmers, leaves money for seemingly innocuous cultural enrichment such as the purchase of paintings or bronzes, annual dinners, and essay writing competitions for local schoolboys. In executing the bequest Price has inserted its instructions into the district's new cultural regime, inviting art-scene familiars to involve themselves in the services it offers. There are, for example, photos by Neil Cummins and Marysia Lewandowska, schoolboy essays by Dave Beech and Nathan Coley while Iain Sinclair is listed as the guest of honour at the dinner party.

Little of this detail though can be gleaned from watching the video. Indeed the video itself has deliberately been constructed so as to confuse rather than make clear. Vital narrative information is withheld. At the beginning there are stills of the town hall in Stoke Newington but no accompanying history that they might be supposed to support. When the context does make the subject matter clear, for example that we are being shown a vault containing artworks, the images are too dark, too quick or too out-of-focus to get a sense of what they are of. Even when we have reason to believe we have made sense of what we have seen, a Victorian effigy, a wrapped painting, the end credits to contemporary artists cause us to doubt our understanding. So despite its promise of slick, corporate clarity (there is even a Microsoft Power Point style "Welcome"), and all the trappings of good communication (subtitles, cinema-style surround sound, photos, video), little about the archive, its benefactor or its purpose is revealed. Instead, in the video at least, the past fuses with the present and the historical precedent becomes indistinguishable from its enactment.

If Chalmers's will has been acted upon it is because it is deemed relevant now. In his Theses on the Philosophy of History Benjamin observes: 'Every image of the past that is not recognised by the present as one of its own concerns threatens to disappear irretrievably.' (1) Benjamin advocates a now familiar historicism in which the past is revealed as present and contemporary pageant provides a crucial reminder of lessons to be learned. Thus, images of Vietnam have seen something of a revival during the recent stages of the Iraq war and there is an art-world appetite for the restaging or remaking of avant-garde artworks in the face of increasing institutionalisation. But it is unlikely that Price is serious about reviving oil painting or schoolboy competitions. Indeed many of the commissioned artworks wisely stay clear of carrying out the instructions too literally and offer their services as a critique of Chalmers's misguided ambitions. The value systems, arbitrary choices and distasteful hierarchies of Chalmers and the collaborating institution come under scrutiny so that the contemporary additions are easily distinguishable from earlier ones. But the 'Lecture and Exhumation' goes beyond this in its consideration of redundancy. For where the past is indistinguishable from the present and the past is in ruins, it cannot have escaped the notice of the artists involved in this collaboration their humorous condemnations of Chalmers's cultural aspirations must also be made of the present.

(1) Benjamin, Walter "Theses on the Philosophy of History" in Illuminations, ed. Hannah Arendt. Pimlico.1999.


Studio Voltaire
1a Nelson's Row
London SW4 7JR

Thursday-Sunday, 1pm-6pm

Elizabeth Price: A Public Lecture and Exhumation — Elisabeth
            Price  A Public Lecture & Exhumation  Video Still  2006  Courtesy
            of the Artist

Elisabeth Price
A Public Lecture & Exhumation
Video Still
Courtesy of the Artist