Ceramic Arts & Perception — Ceramics Technical
Ceramics Art & Perception

Collective Traces

Christie Brown responds to the work in the Petrie Museum.


MY PRACTICE AS AN ARTIST has evolved over many years from lyrical decorative work to sculpture and installation, through a gradual engagement with discourses from other disciplines such as anthropology, archaeology and psychology, which deal with the way human beings live their lives. In an academic context the Arts and Humanities Research Council is a major source of exhibition funding and in applying to them for a Small Grant in the Creative and Performing Arts, I was obliged to focus specifically on a key issue that concerned me, to identify my interest in archaeology as a major influence in my work, and to connect this to the broader context of contemporary artists’ responses to museum collections.

In my exhibition, Collective Traces, shown at the Institute of Archaeology in London in March 2006, I aimed to explore the relevance of an archaic collection by responding to certain aspects of the Petrie Museum, which is significant in the context of archaeology as a source of information about the more ordinary aspects of life in ancient Egypt and also provides a contrast to the grander monuments of the Pharaohs. The Petrie Museum of Egyptian Archaeology, housed in University College London, was set up in 1892 by a bequest from Amelia Edwards. It contains some 80,000 artifacts. The collection is largely made up of objects from William Flinders Petrie’s extensive excavations of burial sites in various parts of Egypt during the late 19th century.

Over the years, my practice has largely been inspired by ancient artifacts and archaic figures from museum collections. I respond to their worn condition, their incomplete narrative and their fragmented state. They present a history about which we know little, which connects to my interest in the fragmented narrative, the glimpse, the incomplete picture. I work with the human figure from a desire to reflect the interior world, the world of the imagination and self knowledge, and the struggle to comprehend mortality and loss. Recently my work has also been informed by an interest in the parallels between archaeology and psychoanalysis, disciplines which engage with literal and metaphorical fragments, where layers are carefully stripped away to reveal hidden truths in order to understand more about ourselves and our ancestors.

I use ceramics as my main material because it is a transformative one that relates to ideas of change and metamorphoses. I am interested in the mythology and symbolism associated with clay and its relationship with other materials such as wax, bronze, plaster and, more recently, found or ready-made materials. I mostly use the processes of casting and moulding to make the work, which connects to ideas about repetition, mimesis and the mould as representative of a transitional state. Ceramics can be seen as a symbol of permanence. A ceramic shard is a permanent remnant of the past which provides some reassurance of continuity in a world full of impermanence and transience. Archaic objects from burial sites had huge significance for the people who made and used them and they played a major part in their cultural and social lives. I am interested in the history of how human beings dealt with death, the significance of the ancestors who came before and the link to those who will come after, and in what history can teach us through an understanding of the continuity between past and present.

Since the mid 1990s I have tended to work around a theme or series and the exhibition that most clearly helped me to begin to understand the relevance of archaeology in my work was the show entitled Fragments of Narrative at Wapping Hydraulic Power Station in the spring of 2000.1 This specially commissioned exhibition, which took more than two years to make, required me to respond both to the scale of a space and to its history as an industrial building where steam power was produced to animate lifts and bridges.

The theme of the exhibition centred on a group of characters from a variety of myths of origin such as Prometheus, Pygmalion and Galatea and the Golem which had associations with animation, power and control but I also included references to archaeological digs in such works as The Heads from the Glyptotek which paid tribute to a collection of classical heads in the Glyptotek in Munich. Lurking in corners or gathering dust in rows on the rafters, I wanted to convey the impression that they had been there for a long time. A large scale wall piece Resource – Clay, paid tribute to the workers who once contributed to the past life of the space and made reference to the fragment as a way of learning, established in the 18th century Academies of Art where collections of antiquities were used as the ideal models for students of painting and sculpture. Another reference here was to the ancient ritual of votive offerings to the gods, where representations of an ailing body part demonstrated a belief in the healing power of mimesis.

The exhibition at Wapping changed the way I approached my work. Although financial considerations sometimes oblige me to produce small separate works, the main direction or focus of my thought process is towards creating work within a theme and made of many components. This change from single works to several related objects, through repetition or groupings, presents a challenge regarding new areas of display beyond a traditional gallery. After the Wapping show, an ongoing body of work has emerged which has developed alongside the Petrie project and continues the connection with archaeology.

Ex Votos in some way resembles an archaeological dig or a burial site. The male and female heads are filled with shards, those pottery fragments that provide archaeologists with scraps of information about the past, symbolising histories and memories. These shards came from previous artworks of mine that have been rejected or damaged. The broken fragment of fired clay once formed part of a whole form. That form is lost but the fired fragment remains indestructible and permanent. The heads are documented with a number in reference to museum systems of categorisation, and some numbers are prefixed by dollar or yen signs to demonstrate their timeless priceless status. Despite the echo of a burial place, the title suggests that the psychoanalytic process of uncovering layers of narrative can lead to an experience of healing.

Another work, Insignificance, was shown at the Fragmented Figure exhibition accompanying the conference at the University of Wales Institute Cardiff in 2005. Here the bodies make reference to ancient human remains and also to the 15th century so-called transi-tombs where the carved figure of the deceased aristocrat in full finery is echoed by the cadaver below. The bird’s eye view can be read as a map of a landscape, and the structure of the bodies refer to geological strata, implying nature’s indifference to the human condition.

The Problem of Communication charts the difficulty and sometimes near impossibility of bridging a divide. The ceramic heads are placed in two vitrines as a way of emphasising their alienation and separation. They are preserved and contained, and the viewer is unable to engage directly with them. The heads come from a few basic moulds but they all vary in expression, emphasising the paradox of sameness yet difference. Communication between them seems remote if not impossible and the lack of it is perceived as a source of continual discord.

The group, Between the Dog and the Wolf is completed by a work which is still in progress, entitled Entre Chien et Loup. It is inspired by the phrase which describes the twilight hour, when the tame safety of the day is supplanted by the wild uncertainty of the night. In this evolving group a metamorphoses occurs as the girl doll takes on the characteristics of the instinctive animal world. This liminal period of change is a kind of healing, a liberation, a personal journey with universal resonances, and the references to the human/animal relationship has inevitably been influenced by my study at the Petrie Museum.

I visited the Petrie collection regularly over a period of several months, becoming familiar with many of the 8000 objects on display until I had narrowed down a selection of specific ones that appealed to me. The small scale and everyday nature of many of the artifacts within the collection can draw us into a close relationship with the people who used them and I wanted my work to respond to this aspect. My immediate attraction was to the figurative objects such as the seated figures, the carved limestone heads, the fragments of statuary and the shabti figures. Other objects that appealed to me were the ostraca, a kind of message pad or shopping list; soul houses and offering tables; the vast range of amulets in various materials, as well as the representation of several animal/human deities which demonstrated the importance of animals to the ancient Egyptians in their rituals and religions. All these objects were made from a range of materials including ceramics, bronze, plaster, wax and stone and I decided to reflect this variety in the finished exhibition.

Several artifacts from the Petrie collection were displayed alongside my own which reflected my main areas of inspiration. The importance of continuity is emphasised in the contrast between two seated figures, one rough and simply carved in limestone, the other detailed and finely modelled and cast in bronze. Their pose remains fundamentally the same despite being made several centuries apart. Press-moulded Shabti figures were mass produced in Egyptian paste for many centuries, an important group of figures which helped provide food in the afterlife through their labours in the fields. Everyday objects ranged from arrowheads, gaming pieces and weights to hairpins, beads and bangles. And a group of amulets were especially significant, demonstrating the human need to invest an object with some power, to make it special and protective against the trials of life.

In the final installation Collective Traces, the images of the ceramic figures retain the pose that lasted many centuries in Egyptian culture, but the context I have given them is familiar and their grave goods relate to the modern world we live in, objects that we find significant in our society today. Age Concern Enterprises recently conducted a survey in which they asked random members of the public what they would like to have placed with them in their graves. The top 10 included a photo of a loved one, a memento of a favourite pet and their mobile phone. Other articles were a can of lager, a light and an ancient Egyptian artefact, demonstrating the power this culture still holds for us. Lucky horseshoes, wishbones and teddy bears also feature as sources of comfort in our contemporary culture and the mobile phone gives us a dubious sense of security by allowing us to feel we are never alone. Using a balance of familiarity and humour in these modern amulets my intention was to convey the overlap between the ordinary and the ritual, the everyday and the special within the world of objects.

If objects from burial sites can embody transformation though rites of passage, I suggest that objects which reference them can be seen as exploring a similar transformation through the contemporary rite of passage known as psychoanalysis. Sigmund Freud was an avid collector of antiquities and compared his practice to that of an archaeologist, considering the unconscious to be literally stratified. The process in this discipline is often likened to the archaeological process where layers of earth are carefully removed to uncover traces from the past and to discover certain information which may contribute to some kind of enlightenment.


Significant in a greater understanding of ourselves, is our relationship with the objects around us and our need to collect, categorise and store them. During the 16th to 18th centuries this interest was the domain of antiquarians and natural historians who collected large numbers of objects, both natural and man-made and placed them in settings of display referred to as Wunderkammer or Cabinets of Curiosities. These rooms pre-empted our contemporary museums and the treasure hunters were the forerunners of modern archaeologists.

Objects are unstable; they change their meaning over time and in different contexts. We project important feelings into them and what we reject or cherish holds significance. An artist can explore this by giving objects a different context and a different identity. What interests me is how we turn an ordinary object into one of curiosity and enquiry. We can reinvent the objects through art practice, for example by the use of repetition which implies a ritual use that is available to all, or by making several different objects in the same material or colour. We can give them an unexpected context, for example a non-art space or an exterior space, or perhaps a new arrangement within a museum vitrine or by placing the ordinary object next to something extraordinary. Many artists have drawn on museology for inspiration in their practice, appropriating museum principles and structures and, more recently, museums have begun to invite artists into their spaces to create site-specific responses to a collection asking them to create work that interacts with it or examines the museum’s role.

The main part of the exhibition Collective Traces, was first shown at the Institute because space in the Petrie Museum was limited, but I was pleased to have three extra figures seated amongst the ancient objects in the museum. It is a rare privilege to be able to place work within the cases to engage in a conversation with the museum and its artifacts and to address how cultures borrow and learn from each other, as well as how we learn from history. Egyptian culture may not be mine but as the Age Concern Enterprises survey and endless popular television documentaries prove, ancient Egypt exerts a power on our postmodern Western world because of its mystery, its beauty and its engagement with the need for some kind of spiritual meaning. By displaying some work within the collection my own need for continuity is addressed and hopefully the ancient objects are brought to life. I am no longer placing a single figure on a plinth, as I have done for many years, but engaging with many strands of thought about relationship, context, media and arrangement through an interest in the connectedness between things and the significance of their narratives in our lives. A museum contains all this.

REFERENCE: 1. See ‘Fragments of Narrative’ by Edmund de Waal, Ceramics Art and Perception 46.



This text was originally given as a talk at the seminar Collective Traces that accompanied the exhibition at the Institute of Archaeology in March 2006. Christie Brown is a ceramist and Professor of Ceramics at the University of Westminster, UK. Caption title page: Collective Traces. 2006. Ceramic and mixed media. 88 x 70 x 70 cm. Photo: Phil Sayer.

Ceramics Art & Perception — Cermaics Technical
Ceramic Arts & Perception — Ceramics Technical
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