Dig, Daniel Silver’s Artangel installationOne Stop Arts magazine
In a just under three decades Artangel has become one of the most innovative commissioners of artwork in the country. Specialising in partnering artists with a curious and meaningful locations they seek to discover new approaches to site-specificity and mass-audience. They now entrust an abandoned plot in London, with overgrown modern ruin, to Daniel Silver for his sculptural project Dig.
Archaeology has long been a topic of concern in contemporary art, especially in sculpture which shares many qualities; sculptors speak of working at their material, slowly revealing the an existent concealed form. Archaeologists, in their own careful extraction, also expose objects from depths; clay, china and metalwork from a previous generation's craftsmen. Silver drew upon Sigmund Freud's deep interest in and vast collection of totems and icons which acted as instigators of forays into myth and vehicles for timeless truths of the human condition. The archaeological process by which these disparate objects were dug up provided Freud with valuable metaphors for reaching into the unconscious to reveal secreted wishes and phobias.
The site has stood empty after the initial construction of a hospital building, which occupied the space of an earlier demolished large Odeon cinema, was abruptly terminated a decade ago and is ripe for psychological and physical interrogation. On entering there is a glimpse towards a mass of intriguing objects arranged across an array of trestle tables sited on the middle of three floors dense concrete slab levels. It's often the case with large construction sites that initial works are held up while archaeologists mine the historical resource emergent beneath - is it possible that this unearthed archive is the cause of stalled construction, seemingly abandoned by the builders before reaching to the sky?
On closer inspection the objects are more curious. They aren't typical Roman coins, Mediaeval timbers or Victorian porcelain as usually litters the capital's soil, but are a mix of modern forms referencing ancient sculptural elements – here a shattered arm, there a torso – all rendered in crisp white. Further into this archive are rows of figures carrying large erections and busts sporting Freudian beards.
This repeating arrangement of near-identical objects looks less like an archaeological dig's sorting area and more like souvenir simulacra found outside ancient ruins of Egypt, China and Greece. This raises interesting questions about the role of the original within a world of mass reproduction, a topical area of discourse for art in an emerging digital age, and also about fetishisation of the constructed capitalist object within modernity.
This floor is only one part of the archaeological discovery, a scaffold staircase descends to the crypt - an architectural subconscious from which it's implied these artefacts may have emerged. A pathway raised above the damp ground assigns a route and offers vantage towards the larger-scale sculptures inhabiting the space. Eight totems, modelled on the same Freud-face miniatures upstairs, guard and at the far end a small melted,bust of the psychoanalyst sits addressing an interpretation of the famous couch. It is also the space where my stubborn disappointment sets in; I have no belief in the conceit that any of the displayed objects have emerged from anywhere other than a pristine artist studio and I don't accept that this lower space was ever a site of digging or discovery.
Artangel, which has for so long taken people on curious journeys of discovery, have offered me nothing other than the experience of feeling like I am in a concrete shell surrounded by an artist's retrospective. The path around this lower space is so prescribed that there is no unfolding or narrative between the initial entry and the deepest point. The space is open with light and noises from the city flooding in - any feeling of entering the other or a site of exploration is constantly disrupted by the banal realisation of standing in a building site.
There is little sense of mystery or spatial engagement, no evidence of disruption or digging, no scars of archaeology. The space itself has unintended proportions of an Egyptian tomb or Grecian temple but there is no effort to relate the arranged sculptures into this architectural form other then having them uniformly facing the delineating pathway.
A huge disconnect exists between the objects laid out upstairs and the supposed chamber of their excavation beneath. No trace is visible on either the sculptures or the earth that one emerged from the other and the different scale and aesthetics between the works in each space only serves to amplify a disjunct between connection of levels – psychological or physical – rather than inviting relationships between.
The most frustrating element of the experience is that there exists the topical and physical ingredients for a rich and powerful work. There is scope for exploration of the notion of contemporary capitalist ruin, a study of mythical architectures existing within a mundane modern frame, the opportunity to take the visitor on an unfolding and exciting exploration through a psychoanalytically questioning journey in relation to iconography and exploring the notion of sculptural artefact as permanent counterpoint to fluidity and complexity of personal existence. Yet here the overwhelming feeling is of coldness and a void of inventiveness.
Contemporary art's use of archaeology is rich and the concept of archaeological uncovering and its aesthetic lends itself profoundly to contemporary artistic concerns. Simon Fujiwara's Frozen (2010), slowly revealing the art industry's sordid history underneath the capitalist extravagance of Frieze Art Fair, and Mark Dion's archaeological digs are just two examples. This location, Artangel's proved history in developing unique experiences and Daniel Silver's sculptural approach really could have been – should have been – a profound addition to this ongoing field.