Chimera (2016, 13’42”, UK)
Author: Alex Ressel and Kerri Meehan
Format: Three-channel video
Published: October 2017
‘Chimera’ explores three figures; a merman, a platypus and Flint Jack. These three figures are chimeric, as is the museum in which they can be found. Chimeras are both mythical beasts made from parts of various animals and illusory or impossible desires. Chimerism is the modality the film uses to show a human past consisting of entangled cultures, creatures and objects and the impossibility of representing a totality of history.
‘Chimera’ examines the stories that have unfolded around the figures, in their nascent locations and explanations in the museum. The first platypus to be described by Western science was sent to George Shaw by John Hunter in 1798. The creature appeared so strange it was thought to be a taxidermy forgery. We used a voice over to recount Shaw’s description and to tell an indigenous Australian story about how the first platypus came to be. The story from Wiradjuri country in central New South Wales has striking similarities to George Shaw’s scientific description of the animal (‘The Naturalist’s Miscellany’ 1799), as both refer to the platypus’s curious slipping between category of duck and mammal. Shaw questions the veracity of his own perception rather than to believe in the platypus. The Wiradjuri story places the platypus as an arbiter of animals, able to understand and appreciate the qualities of fish, birds and mammals.
The British Museum merman exhibit states the object was made to fool European collectors, as evidence of mythic creatures. Following the opening up of Japan to Dutch merchants in the 17th Century, ningyo were traded with other Western nations and found their way to cabinets of curiosity and freak shows in Europe and North America. Ningyo are important in Japanese Buddhist and Shinto religions. Some ningyo are over 1000 years old and are used to tell tales that warn against overfishing. These stories arise from animism, where the natural world has agency. In ‘Mermaids Uncovered’, Paolo Viscardi et al. discuss the manner in which ningyo have been interpreted by Western cultures. They suggest the lack of provenance and cultural understanding of ningyo has lead to their display being framed with questions around authenticity. Describing ningyo as hoaxes establishes the museum’s authority in distinguishing between fake and authentic objects as well as disregarding the original mythological significance of the object to the culture they originate from.
Flint Jack was a 19th Century experimental archaeologist, he was part expert and part trickster. He rediscovered the ancient technology of flint knapping through collecting and cleaning prehistoric artefacts found in fields. He travelled Britain selling his duplicates to museum curators and collectors as authentic prehistoric implements. Flint Jack demonstrated knapping techniques to the Geological Society in 1862. Archaeologists subsequently realised that they had been buying forgeries. Through rediscovering an ancient process Flint Jack revealed a truth whilst creating a lie.
The formal presentation of the work is chimeric, enacting an enmeshing of bodies and subjects over three channels of moving image. We were excited to juxtapose histories presented in museums and show how interpretations of objects are not fixed. The platypus, merman and Flint Jack are sedimented in museum displays. The archaeological method of moving through time is to dig into the earth, each millimetre removed shifts focus further from the present. We were inspired by the notion of sedimentary spatialisation to layer three channels on top of one another. We conceived of the work being installed immersively. We adapted montage theory, thinking across three channels of screen space and linear time. Each channel offers a different perspective on the subject. There is no repetition of footage. We edited the work considering movement, form and colour across channels and between clips. By using three channels we hoped to complicate linear film time and suggest at non-linear histories.
Critiques of museum history exist within Museum Studies. Tony Bennett’s ‘Exhibitionary Complex’ (1988) describes the historical movement of collections from private to public spaces. From the 19th Century, museums taxonomically displayed art, science, technology and colonial exploits in architectures of surveillance and spectacle. Museums made objects, and metonymically the nations and peoples from whence they came, governable. Categorisation and typological sequencing separated culture from nature, with ‘primitive peoples’ being placed in the category of nature. ‘Chimera’ undermines the Enlightenment idea of teleological progression by layering knowledge from Australia, Japan and Britain. Museums aim to display the state’s totality of knowledge, both past and present and its power over objects. The chimeric objects in our film disrupt the order of the museum. ‘Chimera’ is set in museums that are classified according to 19th Century theories, as a means of exploring historical modalities of ordering knowledge.
In 2016 we organised a speculative tour of the first site of the Pitt Rivers Museum with Dan Hicks, the Curator of Archaeology. Walking around the façade of the Bethnal Green Museum of Childhood, Dan presented a history of the relocated museum and the theories that govern the collection. In ‘The Oxford Handbook of Material Cultural Studies’ (2010) Dan Hicks’ essay ‘The Material Cultural Turn’ states that in 1875 Augustus Henry Lane-Fox Pitt Rivers expounded a theory of culture inspired by Darwinian ideas of evolution. Pitt Rivers later applied his theory to the public display of his collection. The Pitt Rivers Museum, now in Oxford, has a fantastic collection of Flint Jack’s artefacts, many of which are shown in ‘Chimera’. Flint Jack’s forgeries demonstrate the slipperiness of objects and the benefits of creative experimentation developing knowledge.
‘Chimera’ follows a long history of artists working to critique museums. The 1953 work by Alain Resnais, Chris Marker and Ghislain Cloquet, ‘Les statues meurent aussi’ critiques the placing of African art within the context of the Musée de l’Homme, an anthropology museum, rather than the Louvre, a museum of fine art. ‘Chimera’ develops the methodology used by Resnais, Marker and Cloquet, shifting focus to objects that resist catergorisation. Simon Starling’s ‘Blue Boat Black’ 1997 uses a de-accessioned museum display case to create a functional object that is returned to the real world and then returned again to the museum. The inversion of museum apparatus into a twice-used object outside the institution brings the contingency of collected objects to mind. ‘Chimera’ also repurposes museum artefacts, bringing their mythological life to the foreground.
Tino Seghal’s 2007 ‘This Success’ or ‘This Failure’ at the ICA in London had performers take the audience around the back rooms of ICA offices. In 2011, Mark Dion worked with the Oakland Museum in California to create fictional curators offices, show the public the storage room, and display objects from the collection inside travel frames and storage boxes. Galleries and museums are also bringing their back offices to the foreground in order to reveal ‘behind the scenes’ institutional mechanisms. Govett-Brewster gallery in New Plymouth currently has a gallery room full of art objects being restored by conservators. Tate Modern Switchhouse has placed its conservation and restoration workshops near public stairwells with glass windows. The act of bringing forward the backrooms of museums and galleries does not necessarily lead to a critique of museum curation. It could also be understood as an assertion of the totality of institutional knowledge and a celebration of curatorialism. ‘Chimera’ contrasts objects locked in cabinets and stored in archives with histories external to the museum. The truth of objects doesn’t just exist in the institutional display cabinet or archive, but in the way that they are thought of outside of these places.
Bennett, T. (1988) Exhibitionary Complex, New Formations, Volume 4.
Ricoeur, P. (2004) Memory, History, Forgetting, Chicago & London: University of Chicago Press.
Hicks, D. (2010) The material-cultural turn: event and effect. In D. Hicks and M.C. Beaudry (eds) The Oxford Handbook of Material Culture Studies. Oxford: Oxford University Press
Shaw, G. (1800) General zoology, or, Systematic natural history, vol 1 part 1, Mammalia, retrieved from https://archive.org/stream/generalzoologyor11shaw#page/n383/mode/2up accessed 31/1/2017
Resnais, A., Marker, C. and Cloquet, G. (1953) Les statues meurent aussi, retrieved from https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=hzFeuiZKHcg accessed 22/9/2017
Thornton, P. (2002). Edward Simpson, or, a Search for ‘Flint Jack’, The Geological Curator. Volume 7, No.8, retrieved from http://www.geocurator.org/arch/Curator/Vol7No8.pdf accessed 31/1/2017
Blacking, J. (1953). Edward Simpson, alias ‘Flint Jack’. A Victorian Craftsman. Antiquity, 27(108), 207-211. doi:10.1017/S0003598X00025060
Viscardi, P. (2014) Mermaids Uncovered, Journal of Museum Ethnography, no. 27, pp.98-116, retrieved from https://paolov.files.wordpress.com/2014/04/jme27_viscardi_et_al-finaldraft.pdf accessed 31/1/2017
We were keen to develop a modality of artists moving image that would correlate to the contested histories we were researching. We intended to make a piece of work that points to the complexities of history and museum curation. ‘Chimera’ is purposefully dense. We were trying to find a way of translating research into a narrative in which our audience can discover for themselves. We included moving images made in museum exhibitions, archives and re-enactments outside the museum. We filmed rivers from the perspective of the platypus, the sea from a boat and followed the same route that Flint Jack took when he searched for flint and made stone tools. By including fictional and documentary modes of filmmaking we were interested in foregrounding the narrativised nature of museological history rather than undermining the veracity of the documentary form. We filmed, edited and coloured the fictive and documentary elements in the same style, so that they didn’t break through the structure of the work as a whole. We tried to mirror the structure of each character’s story to hint at the crossovers between the different characters in order to link them. The objects were filmed extremely close up so as to make them alien and animated. We utilised a subjective filming style to subvert the idea that viewing can lead to objective knowledge.
The aim of the audio was to construct a space of possibility in the minds of the audience slightly outside the diegetic space of the film. We used a mixture of analogue instruments and digital audio manipulation to create a mythic sound field that gave colour to the narrated text. The layers of sound also perform a kind of chimera, with layered meanings performed through music, narrative and diegetic sound. The narration speaks to the histories hinted at in the objects on display in museums. George Corrie, the narrator was chosen because her voice works in a mythic register. She speaks in an animated way that brings the story to life. We were aware of the trope of ‘voice of god’ documentary narration and hoped to transmute the authority from fact to fiction by using the voice of a storyteller. ‘Chimera’ hybridises historical facticity within the mythic realm of storytelling.
We ran a series of workshops at Open School East, a year long art residency programme. The workshops arose out of a methodology of learning through doing and thinking through making. We combined theory and practice, research and production, by inviting people to participate and learn new skills. The participants were of all ages and from a wide range of backgrounds. At the ceramic workshops called ‘Making History’, we encouraged participants to make objects that would fool future archaeologists into thinking our society is somehow different. We presented slides of slippery objects such as Roman Dodecahedrons and speculative fictions like Codex Seraphinianus and Hieronymus Bosch. These objects were a way of activating new futures and encouraging participants to imagine other possibilities. We also ran a flint knapping session called ‘Remaking History’ facilitated with Theo Shields, parts of which were used in the film as re-enactments for Flint Jack.
‘Chimera’ performs its subject by incorporating a range of different modalities in its production. Complicated accounts of different histories and epistemologies can be woven together in a manner that is not universalising.
‘Chimera’ was funded by Open School East. It has been shown in a group exhibition in December 2016.
The impact of the work is hard to tell so far, although it is easier to discern a contribution from the workshops used to develop the project. Participants in the workshops found the experience to be enjoyable, challenging and engaging.
Our practice began with the founding of a pirate television station that broadcast in the frequencies left fallow following the digital switchover. We invited artists to screen work and made our own programming for the station. We continue to work collaboratively. Our practice is broadly concerned with time, production, materiality and communication. Alex was a 2016 Associate Artist at Open School East. Whilst at OSE, we programmed public events, reading groups and workshops. Public events are an important aspect of our practice as they provide a way that a public can engage with art and making, alongside critical ideas of history and culture. We are currently researching nuclear culture and storytelling. In order for future generations to be warned of the dangers of nuclear waste, living stories that last as long must be told. We have just returned from a research trip visiting contested areas in Australia where uranium is mined and nuclear waste is stored. In the Northern Territory of Australia, Jawoyn paintings of people with signs of radiation poisoning and dreaming stories that have been passed on for more than 20,000 years continue to warn against digging in “sickness county”, a part of the land with radioactive minerals. We ran workshops in Australia and UK to collaboratively create stories that could communicate with future generations about the environment.
All reviews refer to original research statements which have been edited in response to what follows:
Review 1: Accept work subject to minor revisions of statement
I really enjoyed looking at the work, which I agree is most fitting for a 3-screen installation. It was interesting to watch as a single-channel work, although the 90-degree turn in orientation was somewhat frustrating, particularly as there was no discussion of this in the statement. The most obvious reference point is archaeological stratigraphy, but turned 90 degrees.
The film presents a nice essay about forgery, practice and the museum. The voice over is perhaps not quite poetic enough given its wordiness. It sits somewhere in between the expository and Marker- or Varda-esque film essay. The camera work is, however, sound and there is something interesting about transposing a broadcast heritage aesthetic into a multi-screen version. Although some of the elements are not always tied successfully together – the trowel seems a strange intervention as it seems to point to a different set of practices to the museological or curatorial – the grotesque forgeries the recur work well as formal motifs.
The statement is more problematic, which is why I recommend accepting work subject to revision of statement. The moving image work does not really seem to be about how museums create narratives. Instead it is something about material hybridity. Nor am I convinced that this is about hierarchies of taste and aesthetics. The screenwork and voiceover explore taxonomy and the worlding of the world through making. The commentary on history as narrative, the contingency of the museum display and the vibrancy of matter seems not to engage rigorously with a significant literature, from Paul Ricoeur to Tony Bennett to Dan Hicks to Walter Benjamin to Jane Bennett. There is a somewhat weak reference to workshops in which participants would make things to fool archaeologists. Did this involve working with archaeologists? People like Dan Hicks at the Pitt Rivers would be quite interested in such a project but would help to lend it some intellectual weight and creative depth. The forgeries that the film discusses seem to be richer and more complex than simple pranks and this is conveyed successfully in the moving image piece. For the written element to be more effective, it should engage more directly with the questions that the film raises and with the means by which it addresses them. There is no discussion of the formal, aesthetic choices made in terms of the portrait images, the 90-degree turn, the selection of images, the mix of close-ups and medium shots, the use of v.o., other audio choices and so on. The statement rather falls into the trap that for the work to be practice-as-research it needs some kind of focus on content. As there is a 2000-word limit and only 1000 words have been used, I recommend that the authors evidence critical engagement with museum studies on the one hand and that they discuss more directly their filmmaking practice. Yes, there is some link to Les statues meurent aussi. However, I can see and hear echoes of Varda and Duras, too.
In short, I recommend publication following revision of the statement to evidence more research into museums and collections and also to demonstrate a more direct engagement with filmmaking as craft. A further consideration might also be to link filmmaking, forgery and museum collecting
Review 2: Invite resubmission with re-edit of work and/or statement
The most immediately striking thing about Chimera is the way in which the screen is subdivided into three vertical frames, this was not reflected on or discussed in the supporting research statement. The aim is to exhibit the film as an immersive installation or “a monitor turned on its edge so as to be in portrait orientation”. I was therefore not sure at first if I was viewing the film sideways (I was – and it was intended to be three horizontal slices) or if the authors meant to exhibit three monitors. This format needs to be clarified and justified in the statement.
The story told in the film, through voiceover, is interesting and the viewer is asked to do some useful work in connecting the different narratives that flow into one another. This is novel and there are some very poetic passages of film, though I would say the footage is a little inconsistent in quality. The film takes the now-conventional essayistic format of voiceover and images: a nod to Chris Marker perhaps, but this makes it feel as if the theory is less integrated with the practice than it could be. The authors state that the work is manifested as an artwork intended for gallery exhibition, or more specifically for museum exhibition. I don’t think for one moment that it will “subvert” the act of museum going at all, since museums these days are very self-reflexive and museums such as the Horniman and the Pitt Rivers museum are particularly so. The Enlightenment room at the British museum is already a reflexive critique of museum truth and museum history. However it will provide a useful opportunity for reflection and a different angle on the collections. In this context too, its rather meandering narrative would come into its own, as visitors will tend to wander in and out, rather than necessarily watch the full sequence unfold.
The research statement is largely well-written but it needs substantial rewriting to match the quality of the film, which is not exactly what it claims ie. a critique of museum history. The bibliography includes no texts from museum studies (where such a critique has been undertaken). The research statement should focus more on what the film actually achieves than on this larger aim (in fact the film does not need this aggrandized claim). Certainly it interrogates questions of the authenticity of museum objects, “limit cases” and fakes. Therefore, the researchers need to read and acknowledge Harriet Ritvo’s book The Platypus and the Mermaid And Other Figments of the Classifying Imagination (Harvard University Press, 1998). The research statement would benefir from addressing Ritvo’s conclusions regarding the category of the “nondescript”. This obvious omission and the rather glaring lack of knowledge of both museum studies and critical museum practice is a pity, because the historical research is good. The research process is inventive too with its accounts of public workshops (though I would like to know more about the outcomes of these workshops). Finally, since museums and galleries are the intended context of the work, the authors need to demonstrate their awareness of existing artist work in the museum context (especially the natural history context): the work of Simon Starling and Mark Dion, for example, among many others.
All reviews refer to original research statements which have been edited in response.