'Myth, Truth, and Archaeology' at the ICA Philadelphia

This past weekend, I had the honor of leading a conversation called 'Myth, Truth, and Archaeology' at the ICA Philadelphia. The talk was inspired by Becky Suss' work, which focuses on the spaces and objects of her late grandparents' now-extinct mid-century home. Paintings and sculptural works (re)present the books, photographs, and artworks that her grandparents collected in spaces both real and imagined. 

Becky Suss, Living Room (Yogi 2), 2013, oil on linen, 72 x 96 inches. Becky Suss and Fleisher/Ollman, Philadelphia. 

Becky Suss, Living Room (Yogi 2), 2013, oil on linen, 72 x 96 inches. Becky Suss and Fleisher/Ollman, Philadelphia. 

The conversation focused on the archaeological process of self-reflection and image-making, which resulted in the creation of new myths and truths. Archaeology is a method to understand past societies by excavating sites that have either been forgotten or abandoned. As a method of research, archaeology is at once destructive but also creative and productive because it offers alternative memories, new traditions, and compelling narratives of the past for the present. The objects and artifacts that are excavated must be re-inscribed and re-contextualized by the archaeologist. The moment of unearthing is both contingent and ephemeral, and the degree to which one can fully recover the narratives of the deep past is limited. This limitation parallels our own imperfect abilities to revisit our memories, a theme that runs through the entirety of Suss' work. Moreover, both Suss' artistic process and archaeology as a discipline are place-making practices with cultural, political, and social ramifications. By uncovering material remnants of the past, a new place of collective cultural heritage and wonder is simultaneously created. Similarly, Suss' (re)presentations of familiar interior spaces offer a version of a place entrenched in familial narratives, political struggles, and memories. 

Becky Suss, 2015, installation view, Institute of Contemporary Art, University of Pennsylvania. Photo: Aaron Igler/Greenhouse Media

Becky Suss, 2015, installation view, Institute of Contemporary Art, University of Pennsylvania. Photo: Aaron Igler/Greenhouse Media

As Suss has explained, her work tells a version of her grandparents' story--the descendants of eastern European Jewish immigrants whose leftist politics clashed with the implications of the financial wealth that they gained later in life. While the paintings offer a picture of the American suburban Dream, they comment on how utopic visions of socioeconomic stability often clash with those constituting progressive, left-leaning ideologies. Suss not only attempts to (re)create the spaces of her grandparents' home, but also struggles to negotiate these different regimes of belief. 

Becky Suss, “Bedroom (Rubáiyát of Omar Khayyám)” (2015), oil on canvas, 84″ by 60″. Courtesy the artist and Fleisher/Ollman, Philadelphia, Photo by Claire Iltis.


Becky Suss, “Bedroom (Rubáiyát of Omar Khayyám)” (2015), oil on canvas, 84″ by 60″. Courtesy the artist and Fleisher/Ollman, Philadelphia, Photo by Claire Iltis.

While Suss' work is clearly object-centered and draws attention to interior spaces of "culture," almost all of the paintings on display at the ICA depict exterior spaces of "nature." In some of her paintings, nature functions as a decorative motif, while others offer views of lush landscapes through fictive window frames:

76 Meadow Woods Road, oil on linen, 72 x 120 inches, 2012

76 Meadow Woods Road, oil on linen, 72 x 120 inches, 2012

In this painting, several objects with eclectic provenances sit against a window that frames a verdant, lush, and 'wild' garden space. The garden as an ecological utopia is an important literary and visual trope that consists of themes of fertility, death, and rebirth. Thus, the themes of place-making and archaeology as well as the persistent dualities of nature/culture and utopia/dystopia provided an opportunity to bring Suss' exhibition in dialogue with three artists of the 20th century in particular: Moyra Davey, Ana Mendieta, and Robert Smithson. Moreover, by approaching Suss' through object-oriented and ecocritical frameworks mobilized to discuss land art of the late 20th century, Sunday's conversation productively offered additional readings of the exhibition's focus on the object, the ephemeral, and the importance of place. I present some highlights of our discussion: 

The Object: Moyra Davey's Copperhead Grid (1990, chromogenic photograph) questions the value attributed to the material world, and in this case zinc pennies. The fetishization of various states of deterioration call to the natural processes of decay of objects that collectively and culturally hold material value but are inherently worthless. By photographically reproducing the coins, Davey questions how and why we value objects.   

The Ephemeral: While Mendieta's body sculptures and photographs of the 1970s (Siluetas, Ana Mendieta, Imagen de Yágul (Image from Yagul)) demonstrate that only photographs and human memory can re-narrate specific bodily sensations, they nevertheless essentialize and reduce the experience into one image. 

Place: Robert Smithson's nonsite, or the indoor earthwork, (Franklin, New Jersey, 1968) signals particular places by bringing in rubble and earth into the gallery spaces, ultimately altering the specific place/site. Through repeating geometric forms and modernist materials, Smithson objectifies nature's roughness and primitive aesthetic, thereby highlighting the contrast between "high art" and unshapely piles of rock and dirt, bringing the nature/culture divide to the surface. 

Although I have only provided a few important points from this past weekend, the conversation demonstrated the potential for further exploration and analysis of Suss' work in the context of the past 40 years, and in ways that may not be apparent at first glance. Suss' exhibition will be on display until December 27, 2015, and I look forward to comments and responses!