It rarely occurs to people that most of the present day’s significant archaeological artifacts were, in their own day, garbage. The majority of important archaeological sites giving us clues to former civilizations were burial grounds for discarded bodies or ancient trash dumps.
It perhaps occurs to even less people that goods manufactured today only to end up in landfills will be the artifacts of the next centuries. How can one help but wonder if, in the year 2211, a broken IKEA teacup scattered meters beneath the earth will be an archaeologists’ key to cracking early 21st century culture?
What will future archaeologists understand of us? Will urban graffiti be “our” cave paintings? If written history was rendered indecipherable and material objects were the only evidence of today’s civilization, what story would they tell? How would they be coherently strung together? Could they be?
And, is the archaeology of today perhaps just as arbitrary?
(Image: Maarten Vanden Eynde, Contemporary Cave Drawings, 2007, Hand marks with white spray-paint. Courtesy of the artist and Meessen De Clercg, BE)
These are the kinds of questions that concern Maarten Vanden Eynde (Leuven, Belgium 1977) in his Art Brussels exhibition “The Museum of Forgotten History.” Part of a comprehensive body of research on “Genetology,” the “study of first things,” Vanden Eynde fabricates objects and arranges situations that envision how the present will look as an element of the past in the future.
In the words of the artist, “The Museum of Forgotten history consists of remnants of a possible future past. They play with misinterpretations or 'false' pieces of the puzzle filling the missing links that come about due to the constant evolution of history.”
(Image: Maarten Vanden Eynde, Modern Menhir, 2010, Brick and concrete, 200x60x50 cm. Courtesy of the artist and Meessen De Clercq, BE)
For example, in a 2010 work I Want That You Want What I Want That You Want, Vanden Eynden commissioned a Cameroonian artisan to copy a Stihl chainsaw in wood in exchange for the chainsaw itself. The concept of a tool evacuated of its proper use is reminiscent of the fate of myriad archaeological artifacts: many prehistoric objects are legitimate mysteries to their present-day discoverers. Clueless as to what their use in proper context would be, archaeologists often declare ancient tools to be “art” or “ritual objects;” if their utility cannot be determined, they are “useless,” i.e., “art.”
The work also is a deft, graceful comment on the relative nature of value in the so-called “developed” and “less-developed” world. In most places on the planet, it would seem clear that a real, working chainsaw would be more valuable than a wood one. Yet of course there are also places where evolution has “progressed” to such a batty degree that a “useless,” conceptually charged art object has the potential to have exponentially more value than a “useful” but mundane one.
(Image: Maarten Vanden Eynde, I Want That You Want What I Want That You Want, 2010, Wood, 24x70x21 cm. Courtesy of the artist and Meessen De Clercq, BE)
When looking for a parallel to this among the wonders and irrationalities of evolution in the animal world, visions of moose antlers too heavy for their bearers and elaborate but burdensome peacock feathers come to mind. That is, by 2011, history has clearly selected exaggerated meta-physical traits over physical ones. But who knows: These too may lose their context, their use, and go the way of the Dodo-bird.
Only time will tell.