Until recently, many of the objects collected by the Harvard Art Museums were documented with high-contrast black and white photography. These frequently washed-out images expressively reject the easy translation of a three-dimensional object to a flat collections record. The photographs argue that documentation is material production; documentation transfers one kind of object into another, the second fluctuating between hallucination, projection, and myth.
In 2015, the museums commissioned Ben Rivers, a 2015–16 Radcliffe-Film Study Center Fellow, to produce a nine-channel installation for the Lightbox Gallery, a space for digital projects that respond to collections and collections data. Rivers, a London-based artist and filmmaker, brought his 16mm camera to the museums and filmed a number of ancient objects that he selected from our collections database. These sculptures are compared here with other forms of making: cave drawings etched into rock that Rivers filmed during recent trips to Nevada and Utah and found footage from an old 16mm educational film, Cave People of Old, that Rivers reprinted, illuminating the film during transfer with a torch light. Framing the nine screens is the voice of poet William Bronk reading his poem “At Tikal,” recorded by the Woodberry Poetry Room at Harvard in 1956.
This installation places objects from ancient Chinese and Byzantine worlds in a false context. But Rivers’s project is not rooted in the discipline of art history. Rather, like the writing of William Bronk, this project articulates the process of making: thinking through what becomes legible and what is frustrated as we translate objects into speculative and charismatic reproductions.
Ben Rivers: The Shape of Things is one in a series of projects built for the Lightbox Gallery, an experimental space for the research and development of digital tools for the Harvard Art Museums. Developed in collaboration with faculty, staff, students, and visiting artists, Lightbox Gallery projects challenge how we document, share, and examine collections and collections data. Some of these projects are responsive, allowing users to navigate and manipulate the collections; others are cinematic, transforming the museums into a landscape of digital performance. Exploration in the Lightbox Gallery is cross-disciplinary, merging a gallery experience with a digital lab.
Ben Rivers (b. 1972) lives and works in London. His recent solo exhibitions include Urth at the Renaissance Society, University of Chicago (2016); Islands at Hamburg Kunstverein (2016); Earth Needs More Magicians at Camden Arts Centre, London (2015); and The Two Eyes Are Not Brothers (2015), a commission by the U.K. organization Artangel that occupied the former BBC television studios in White City, London.
The installation of Ben Rivers: The Shape of Things is curated by Chris Molinski, Rabb Curatorial Fellow in the Division of Academic and Public Programs at the Harvard Art Museums.
Modern and contemporary art programs at the Harvard Art Museums are made possible in part by generous support from the Emily Rauh Pulitzer and Joseph Pulitzer, Jr., Fund for Modern and Contemporary Art. Audio recording of William Bronk’s “At Tikal” courtesy of the Trustees of Columbia University in the City of New York and the Woodberry Poetry Room at Harvard University. The Shape of Things courtesy of the artist and Kate MacGarry Gallery, London. Special thanks to Lucien Castaing-Taylor and the Sensory Ethnography Lab at Harvard.