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Artist digs into the past to celebrate SA history festival
Out of Context' is on show this month as part of the SA History Festival. This exhibition is more than an artistic interpretation: it presents a quirky window into the past, as well as a testament to the passion, patience and scientific precision that all archaeologists need in order to make sense our past. And it also represents a partnership between an artist and an archaeologist.
A few years ago, Jorji Gardener was invited to be artist in residence on the Flinders University dig at Baker's Flat in Kapunda, by the director, Susan Arthure. Jorji says she was enchanted: "Being out on the dig is really very exciting… it's fascinating watching the team painstakingly brush, scrape and sieve away at the layers, and the discovery of the artefacts … …well, there is something so universally appealing about these little time capsules that give us a glimpse into another world."
some of the equipment used by archaeologists - seives and trowels - next to Jorji's linocut
There is a very special reason for the exhibition's title. Susan Arthure explains: "In archaeology, the term 'context' is another name for layer, or more specifically, the stratigraphic layers that we dig down through during an excavation. These contexts are given numbers as we dig. When we talk about, for example, context 004, we mean that particular layer in an excavation which was different from context 001, 002, 003, 005, 006, etc. We can also talk about the context of an artefact, meaning the specific area that it was found, its exact place in the world.
And more broadly, context can also mean the culture and time that a particular excavation or artefact belongs to. So, if we consider 'context' as a way of describing the layers and artefacts of archaeology, 'out of context' means a thing that is lost, or misplaced, or that doesn't have the cultural cues to understand or define its exact place. Much like migrants who come to a new place and have to figure out where they fit and how they adapt."
Jorji's works address both of these themes. She assembled two intriguing photo collages that represent the painstaking work that's required of both trowelling the layers away and sieving the soil afterwards.
There is a series of drypoint etchings of bent and broken forks and spoons, juxtaposed with the trowels, spades and pickaxes associated with the dig.
There are also collages of broken pottery, pieced together like a jigsaw to recreate the original plates, cups and teapot. The cutlery and broken pottery are all that remains of the Irish settlers who lived in the cottage at Baker's Flat.
Most intriguing of all is the centrepiece of the exhibition: a distressed dresser, that Jorji herself salvaged from Gumtree, in exchange for a jar of her own home-grown honey. The inspiration for this was a quote from Susan: "The Dresser is at the heart of the Irish home, unique because of its decorative & functional role" which gave Jorji the idea of a dresser acting as a metaphor for the dig itself, "with its hidden compartments and layers", as well as being naturally associated with the artefacts that were being found.
You will love Jorji's artwork but you will fall in love with the dresser, which is the perfect marriage between a genuine archaeological artefact and an artist's creativity. Some of the distressed surfaces are the result of mistreatment over the years, such as being left out in the weather and having pots of leaking paints and chemicals on the shelves.
Jorji has added her own graffiti with a specific purpose in mind, directly transferring notes and drawings made during the dig; but she has also recreated the Irish family in the form of a doll's house installation on the bottom shelf.
The dresser probably dates back to the early twentieth century. The two original drawers with their dovetail joints have been put to an intriguing new use (Jorji replaced them with a new pair of drawers fashioned from vintage wood). They now hang on the back of the dresser, creating an hourglass, so that both the passing of time and the stratified layers that archaeologists trowel through are symbolised by a continually falling stream of fine sand (it takes 25 minutes for the sand to pass from the first drawer into the second one!)
If you are at all interested in history, archaeology, or art or just prepared to be amused and have your imagination gently tweaked, then this exhibition is a must see. Jo Harris' little gallery is the perfect setting as well, as Jo and her shop are a little piece of history: before it became a gallery, it was a general store run by two previous generations of Mrs Harris. So it might very well have had a dresser installed as part of the shop fittings!
Mrs Harris is only open at weekends from 11am-3pm, and the show continues until the 26th of May. So make sure you get there soon!