… Art and archaeology alike remind us of both the irreducible materiality of the world in the age of its purported dematerialization and the nonnegotiable historicity of all life in the age of forgetting.
This is from The Way of the Shovel: On the Archaeological Imaginary in Art by Dieter Roelstraete (2013):
… Crucially, the point is not necessarily, or not always, recovery of some long-forgotten artifact; much of the work in this vein is in fact often preoccupied with disappearance, with the trauma of irreversible loss, of dispersal and dissolution — hence the pervasive atmospheric presence of a certain melancholy mellowness throughout this field (the whirring of 16mm film projectors and other trademark sounds of obsolete technologies obviously help quite a bit to establish such an ambiance).
[line break added] For what cannot be recovered can at least be remembered — or, more ambitiously as well as more ambiguously, reconstructed, reenacted, repeated. … Indeed, if the past truly is a foreign country, as British novelist L.P. Hartley famously put it, it is certainly one many artists feel called upon to rediscover from afar — the only terra incognita left to map, perhaps, in a world of total transparency in which everything is always immediately “known” (again, the emphasis here is very much on whatever is incognito).
… here we must qualify our grand sweeping statement with regard to these artists’ interrogation of history as a monolithic whole (or one unmapped continent), for more often than not what they are interested in are, above all, those facts and fictions of the past that have mostly been glossed over in the more official channels of historiography, such as, indeed, the so-called History Channel itself.
[line break added] The primary interest here is in an “other” history, or a multitude of other histories, and in this sense the global art world could be viewed either as an alternative History Channel or as an alternative to established History Channels — not so much a site for mere memory as the home-away-from-home of what Svetlana Boym, in her discussion of samizdat intellectual life in Soviet Russia, has called a countermemory.
… what many of these works either want or try to remember is often that which mainstream historiography either asks or compels us to forget. And the more forceful the demands made upon us to forget or otherwise outsource our memory (and not just to ever-expanding external memory drives), the greater art’s passion for remembering, for digging up a past everyone else seems in a suspicious rush to leave behind.
… If “progress” in contemporary culture is predicated in part on accelerated oblivion, it is typically art’s role to go against the grain of such dominant, homogenizing trends and slow down the spiral of forgetfulness, and even to occasionally turn back the clock.
… A great many artists refer to their work as a labor of meticulous uncovering, unearthing buried treasures and revealing the ravages of time’s passage in the process; works of art are construed as shards, fragments of an unknown, irretrievable whole (once again, acting as the Benjaminian ciphers of a revelatory truth), as traces preserved in sediments of fossilized meaning no longer legible to the present.
[line break added] In a great many of these cases, that which is dug up appears more “real” and therefore also more “true” than all that has come after, accruing to form the fallacious delusion that is the now. The current project’s titular shovel, in other words, provides privileged access to historical truth — one that is entangled in the messy business of matter, of stuff, the ever returning “real.”
… Finally, and most importantly perhaps, art and archaeology also share a profound understanding of the primacy of the material in all culture, the overwhelming importance of mere “matter” and “stuff” in any attempt to intuitively grasp and read the cluttered fabric of the world, the cuneiform of things. Art and archaeology alike remind us of both the irreducible materiality of the world in the age of its purported dematerialization and the nonnegotiable historicity of all life in the age of forgetting.
[line break added] It is in this tangle of tropes — the “haptic” method of close-up viewing; the researcher’s laborious, time-consuming scrutiny; and a base materialist take on the facts of historical life — that art and archaeology meet to produce one of the defining metaphors of our time: the way of the shovel.