January 2015: Rob Irving, artist…

The idea for my project emerged out of conversations with archaeologists from the Research Laboratory for Archaeology & the History of Art, part of Oxford University’s School of Archaeology, during a magnetic susceptibility survey of a Neolithic site in Dorset over three weeks in winter 2013.

The reference to art history intrigued me, so I asked about it. I expect it referred to mainly ‘(pre)classical antiquities’, which made me think of the interpretations of earlier antiquarians such as Aubrey and Stukeley, and the stories that ancient bumps and ruins in the landscape told to them.

Of course, any true history of art would also have to consider our responses to the auric power of relics, even fake ones, and the human impulse to use physical objects to express the intangible, as well as the work and cultural impact of Marcel Duchamp and Dada. Mine would certainly include the conceptual artist Vik Muniz’ Clown Skull (1987) as a parody of archaeological finds like the 3,000 year-old elongated skulls from Paracas, Peru, which recently revived the ‘ancient astronaut’ theory of extraterrestrial intervention.

Vik Muniz, Clown Skull (1987)

Vik Muniz, Clown Skull (1987)

Muniz says of this kind of cultural object that “the real ones make the fake ones look real, and the fake ones make the real ones look fake.” (Lecture, Magdalen College Oxford 09/05/2014). Indeed, a fuller history of art-as-relic would open a Pandora’s Box of moral and cultural transgression.

This kind of talk does not go down very well in disciplinary environments where empirical methods have primacy over other forms of knowledge acquisition, where fakery is dis/regarded as anathema. Whether archaeology is also empiricist is a very different issue; the point I tried to express is that social science and the arts must, of necessity, go further: embrace the mess, and assume different significances beyond the reductive.


When we talk about creative relationships and collaboration between art and science it is important to remember that art is not merely decoration. It is an artist’s prerogative to challenge what we know. Art is not science, nor subject to scientific reason; it plays by different rules… which is what I intend to do here.

Survey hectare marker, 2013

Survey hectare marker, 2013

My research specialty concerns the processes by which modern myth is converted into legend (i.e., presented as fact, as occurring at a particular time and place), and the polemics that ensue… As they surely must when post-rationalist or ‘New Age’ ritual practices reference, and at the same time usurp, modern science. Much of the pseudoscientific practice woven into New Age belief is legend-telling by action, or to folklorists, ostension.

The New Age fascination with ‘alternative archaeology’ is first and foremost an escape from modernity. The New Age movement may be defined by its alienation from, and rejection of, dominant social ideologies (e.g., science, construed and caricatured as scientism) in favour of new ways of conceiving the world. These in turn are, paradoxically, rooted in an ancient, mythic past. It is in this sense archaeology of the future, an excavation intended to disclose and re/construct imagined futures from a ‘lost’ utopian science fiction.

Rather than dismissing this activity as superficial and irrelevant, as my esteemed interlocutors did during those chats over tea and chipolatas, I am interested in the innate confusion between experiment in search of law and interpretation in search of meaning; how ostension, through performativity and artistic interference mediates different realities, and how this affects human relationships with place.

A popular European example of this is the modern myth of ‘earth energies’, which relies on observable phenomena (the movement of dowsing instruments) to detect and validate the existence of these energies. I propose to progress this idea using archaeological surveying data to disclose and map trace evidence of subterranean patterns, implying the existence of vast shadowy sculptures that work more powerfully as art, I would argue, because they are invisible. An extension of mythogeography, this is mythoarchaeology… with data.

I hope to engage the public to the extent to which my project contributes to the continuity of popular myth, and if I find any examples of this I shall bag them and present them here along with documentation of the process, data logs and maps.


‘Ley’ line grid experiment, 2014

‘Ley’ line grid experiment, 2014

Appropriate to any occupation of a middle ground between the empirical and interpretive, I model my methodology on the mythic figure of the Trickster. The prevailing idea of the Trickster figure is of a sometimes divine, sometimes animal being, which plays tricks and breaks rules. A reappraisal of its role suggests a subtler identity than this with regard to art, where it plays a part in an interactive process. The Trickster has no particular pretension towards science, nor ‘art’ in the conventional sense. As a folk figure, it personifies latent alternatives to normative structures. As a mode of human behaviour, using antistructural ploys to subvert habitual thinking, it thrives on transgression and subversion, creating ambiguity and anomaly, in this case to articulate relations between make-believe (mythos) and ‘rational’ logos, in an effort (which often fails) to open new ontological vistas.

Drawing on Jane Ruffino’s engaging talk about anthropological approaches to data analysis, and especially with reference to how story is projected in the form of desire onto what we find (data causes problems at the storytelling stage, therefore one solution is to manipulate the data), I propose to:

  • Treat the survey data from an artist’s, not a scientist’s perspective.
  • Play with it (one universal characteristic of the Trickster is that it likes to play in and with its own dirt products).
  • In the spirit of Stukeley, make the data fit the most desirable outcome.

Naturally my project will involve some sleight of hand…


6 thoughts on “January 2015: Rob Irving, artist…

  1. The garage my dad used to work in when I was a kid is now buried under a Sainsbury’s car park. This has obvious (fast-becomeing-mythic) resonances for a very select group of people. I wonder what a map of ‘recent historical traces of things buried under Sainsbury’s car parks across the UK’ would show, and the stories it might unearthed in its construction……Just saying’.
    Looking forward to the project emerging, Rob.

  2. Hi Rob – I’m fairly new to the archaeological field so am still getting my head around the terms. I do however work between cultural geography/theatre and have been reading recently about a resurgence in ‘non-traditional geographies’, such as Songlines, where imagination is stressed above the modern geographical project (Tim Cresswell is interesting on this, and Harriet Hawkins is a good theorist for geography/art). I think extending mythogeography to mythoarchaeology is a really interesting idea and I look forward to hearing more about it over the coming months. Did you have particular location/sites in mind for your research? Anything that comes up in this area I’ll send your way – fascinating! Lizzie B

    • Thanks Lizzie. It sounds like we’re working along similar lines, for I too am a non-archaeologist. (As an artist specialising in ‘not art’ I’m used to being defined by what I’m not.) Thanks for the recommendations. I’ve heard Harriet speak a couple of times, and been to seminars she’s attended. I agree she’s a formidable theorist.
      I’m glad you mentioned Songlines. It’s a good analogy. As with aboriginal Australian songlines, the concept of ley lines (in both geographical and/or energetic contexts) relates to New Age native title as an aide d’imagined reconnection with an ancient past. I’m very interested in hearing about how this applies to your line of practice.
      By the way, I saw in your reply to James that you mentioned the mobility of garden gnomes. I happen to know something about this, as around 14 years ago I wrote an article about it. (Google ‘Irving gnomes’ and you’ll find it.) Here’s an extract:

      ‘I met “Alex” through an email list dedicated to covert mischief. His interest in garden gnomes began when he was working as a milkman, the perfect disguise for would-be gnome liberators. His undercover role began when he took two antique gnomes from a garden to decorate his own. Poor taste turned to irresistible impulse and the excitement level of his 4am shift soared. Suddenly every garden on his milk-round blossomed with artistic potential. Often he would simply swap one gnome with another elsewhere, enjoying the satisfaction of not knowing if the owners notice that the gnome fishing yesterday is now digging, and, next door, vice-versa. Alternatively he would provide gnomes for the gnomeless, much to the latter’s surprise when they collected their milk from the doorstep that morning. There is nothing like a little social engineering to extend the margins of our interaction with the world.’

      I love the idea of this kind of naughtiness recontextualised as urban regeneration.

      • Rob, thanks for the pointer to your gnome work, I’ll be sure to look it up! I’ll definitely have to include ‘Mischief’ as a category of material movement.

  3. Hi Rob,
    Great to hear about your project. It reminded me that recent geophysical survey up here in Orkney has identified loads of long linear and very magnetic anomalies which run for several kilometres, but which are not visible on the ground surface. These are igneous dykes, and have long been known to the British Geological Survey, but recent large scale landscape survey using magnetometry has picked new ones up everywhere. You can find them in the cliffs and beaches where distinctive rocks, different to the usual sandstone, were sourced and turned into polished axes and maceheads. The interesting thing is, from a more Mystic point of view, that these dykes run below many prehistoric monuments, including the chambered tomb Maes Howe and settlements such as Skara Brae (see the thick black lines in the greyscale plots here http://archeosciences.revues.org/1422?lang=en) . Of course, this is not always the case but it does make you wonder whether these slight changes in magnetism (only measurable now in very small differences in nano tesla) influenced the development of these places. I’m not sure what the geology is in your survey area, but I wonder if such variance will play a part in your grids / data? Maybe you could use a special ‘archaeology filter’ on your data, one which would remove unnecessary archaeological results and focus on mythical traces, geological anomalies and deeper earth rumblings? I wonder if there are such traces under your favourite supermarket car park? …

    • Hi Dan. That’s very interesting about igneous dykes. Thanks for the link.
      I think of the concept of ‘energy lines’ in terms of its mythical potential as a theory which pulls other seemingly disparate ideas together, unifying them. For example, it links ‘flying saucers’ and prehistoric ‘sacred’ sites such as Avebury. But of course that’s not to preclude the possibility that it has some basis in fact.
      I’m not sure about finding buried hearths for incubating mythic imagination under supermarket car-parks but I don’t doubt for a moment that if one were to draw lines connecting every Sainsbury’s in the UK it would be possible to find meaningful significance in the patterns and geometry. And perhaps physical geography, but that would depend of course on our agreeing on an accurate measurement of the width of a pencil line.

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