Site_Seal_Gesture POST 3: Our Toolkit.

After having introduced the terms of our collaboration, we want to say a bit more today about which ways, which theoretical stands or traditions we felt we were following or wished to renew through this project. These include:

  • Concerns about intellectual property and developing a consciousness of the field’s limit, coming from 2 PhD students.
  • Sharing methodologies between disciplines and practices.
  • The Subproducts/derivates of our academic research, recycling research data through creative practices.
  • A cross-cultural and cross-temporal questioning of our respective disciplines.

Stepping into each others’ field

Rupert’s PhD research was focused upon the relationship between artists and urban margins, looking at the ways in which artists and urban margin become entwined in the processes of their creative practices and their movements through these landscapes.

I focused especially on two artists’ work, Stephen Gill and Michael Landy and framed the empirical analysis through an autoethnographic study of East London. The urban margins are discussed as an oscillating process where distinctions and indistinctions between landscape and the artist-subject are continuously made and unmade. The phrases urban margin or marginal urban landscape also bring with them similarly ambiguous boundaries between ideas of nature and culture, the built environment and nature, the ordered city and the abandoned city, the rural and the urban. Landscape is central to my concerns, as it is through key trajectories in contemporary landscape theory – materiality, embodiment and practice – that I interrogate this relationship.

Rupert Griffiths RHUL

Stephen Gill, Archaeology in Reverse, 2007

Stephen Gill, Archaeology in Reverse, 2007

Lia’s present doctoral research at the School of Oriental and African Studies, London, as an art historian and archaeologist, focuses on anthropic traces at the scale of the land, such as rock-cut architecture or epigraphy on riverside cliffs.


Rock-cut burial caves, SW China (2nd-3rd century CE)

We chose to participate in conferences with a range of disciplinary backgrounds, so as to put our work alternately into contexts that would be familiar one but not both of us – such as archaeology, visual urbanism and landscape architecture – and also contexts were unfamiliar to both, such as law.

Exchanging Fieldwork

Fieldwork is an important part of both of our academic and artistic practices. Collaboration brought these practices together and developed a hybrid way of thinking about and physically engaging with the field.

We don’t represent sites and landscapes; this is about the processes of engaging directly with the material environment.

Accessibility and transgression are crucial elements. We chose sites that are theoretically off limits to the public, but which nevertheless are accessible and often behave as informal commons for local people.

In China, we were able to inhabit a 18th century Qing Dynasty residency of a wealthy merchant now derelict, and not yet, but about to be turned into a heritage site. We were able to survey sites and conduct an experiment in replicating a rock-cut cave in sandstone thanks to the support of local cultural relics offices in Banan County, Chongqing Municipality.

彭氏民居 (Pengshi minju, Peng Family of salt merchants residence)

彭氏民居 (Pengshi minju, Peng Family of salt merchants residence)

In the UK, Site_seal_gesture ended up getting a van, and this is the vehicle we have used up until now for our outdoor activities. Also, we are now equipped with a kayak, with which we were able to access the sites in Dungeness, and with which we will be reaching the fort of Hoo on the River Medway, on the 5th of October (If you don’t hear about us after that day, call coastal police).

stitched 2b resized and shad highltmoss lady

Developing a common methodology


My PhD work deals with visual art, in particular Stephen Gill’s photographic work, Michael Landy’s etchings of weeds and my own photography and video practice. The approach I take to interpreting these works is however focused very firmly upon the practices and processes from which the work emerges, rather than the visual ‘meaning’ of the work.

Landy’s etchings and Gill’s photographs are not approached as representations, but as performances of practice. The interpretation of visual material is approached as evidence of the artists’ own methods, as a trace, residue or distillate of their embodied, material and imaginative engagements with landscape. So, employing standard visual methods such as compositional analysis, content analysis, semiology, psychoanalysis or discourse analysis for example, does not adequately address this kind of qualitative information. The visual in this project is not approached in terms of its visuality, but rather through the movements, gestures and performances of body and the practices from which the image emerged. This is the reason that I used autoethnography as a device through which to interrogate the practices of Landy and Gill, developing a similarly close material and embodied relationship to marginal landscapes. This approach also emerges in our SSG collaboration and has strong links to Lia’s antiquarianist toolkit.


Each cultural history has its own tradition of reinventing the Past.

Similar in many ways to the Antiquarianist practices that stretched from Renaissance Europe to the early 19th century, the discipline of Metal and Stone Studies remained the main access to Chinese Antiquity from the 10th (Song Dynasty) to the early 20th century, when modern archaeology was introduced. Scholars in Metal and Stone Studies collected and studied mainly inscriptions on bronze or stone, extracting characters, patterns and textures from material artefacts through rubbing techniques, leaving a record in ink on paper, thus translating matter into sign. The artefacts depart from their original context and gain a new, intertextual existence on paper.

What you see here is a collage of rubbings, including bronze mirrors, moulded bricks, inkstones, fragments of steles, coins, etc. Calligraphic colophons and seals, two forms of art that remain intimately connected with the study of past styles and gestures, were added to the composition by Huangyi (1744-1802), entitled ‘Picutre of a hundred years/Picture of a Century’ (Bai sui tu 百歲圖).


The figure of the scholar in Metal and Stone Studies is that of a humble student of the past, interacting with ancient artefacts, deciphering their inscriptions and attempting to reconstruct the gestures or rites that surrounded them. This autoportrait of Huangyi (1744-1802) studying a rubbed bronze lamp illustrates such role, while also suggesting the great freedom of expression of such scholars, and the highly personalized interpretations of the Past they produced.


There is currently little reference to Metal and Stone Studies in Contemporary Art, but Contemporary Ink Painting and Modern Calligraphy are two areas where this direction can potentially be explored. Here is an experiment in Contemporary Metal and Stone Studies by Lia Wei and Zhang Qiang: a rubbing of a three-dimensional rock-cut pillar was taken from a 2nd century AD sandstone cave in Qijiang, Sichuan Province.


Rubbbing of a central pillar in 2nd-3rd cenury AD rock-cut cave, Sichuan. by Lia Wei and Zhang Qiang 2009.

The motivation behind such intervention was to solve the divorce between matter and sign, by looking for alternative sources of symbols, patterns and textures, and restoring rubbing to its three-dimensional possibilities. A bridge was thereby created between the negative space of rock-cut architecture, and the antiquarianist’s two-dimensional toolkit. The 1:1 scale rubbed copy of the pillar pushes the antiquarianist into taking the full measure of the sculptural object and mimics the gesture of the stonemason.

I believe Antiquarianism is a valid cross-cultural tool to re-ground our understanding of Heritage by:

  • Revisiting the Past.
  • Replicating objects.
  • Speculating about their use (re-inventing rituals, and usage).
  • Re-injecting meaning in objects of the Past.
  • Sublimating past shapes and gestures and recombining them to establish one’s own practice.
  • Dissecting architecture, easily done with ruins because they are already fragmentary, and re-assembling architectural elements.


Time is seen here at two scales: longue durée and lived experience.


Heritage is thought here as the process of transformation of the past into the future, rather than as static preservation of the past. We thus think of heritage as a mode of production rather than a record.

Our interest resides in the wealth of information that remains invisible in artefacts.

Repetition, or rhythm and process, are loops and patterns in time that allow us to counterweight the idea of linear history and the inexorability of chronology. Within this more versatile understanding of time, heritage is the cyclical reinvention of the Past.

Thames tidal meter

Thames tidal meter turned into a century-scale sundial.


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