Figure Unknown

Gwenessa Lam in Conversation with Liz Park

Audio Introduction with Gwenessa Lam

I am interested in the uncertainty that often accompanies new knowledge. Despite the range of systems that have been used to document the artifact – photographs made by registrars at museums, illustrated drawings made by archaeologists for reference, thermoluminescent images made by scientists trying to date it – no representation seems able to contain the object’s meaning and significance. And in fact, the friction created by the presence of multiple image-making systems, seems to have further complicated understandings. I am interested in this complication, in the way various means of image-making convey distinct, even contradictory interpretations of the same object. My project cultivates this experience of uncertainty in an attempt to reveal the assumptions and hesitations we all have when met with a historical or cultural unknown.

The source material for “Figure Unknown” is based on an unidentified stone artifact, found in Ruby Creek, British Columbia (just off the Fraser River). Carved with an iron tool and chisel, confounded archaeologists hold three competing hypotheses for its discovery in the region: A) the bowl was made between the 1790s and the 1850s when iron was readily available; B) the bowl was made as much as 2000 years ago by indigenous people, who acquired the iron for the tool through trade around the Pacific Rim; C) the artifact was made on another continent and arrived via trade or a shipwreck. All three hypotheses are possible, but each one radically changes the meaning and significance we ascribe to the artifact. Until further tests are done, its status as an unknown object offers space for speculation, allowing competing narratives to exist simultaneously.

The exhibition is comprised of a series of drawings, photographs and a single painting, exploring the Ruby Creek Stone Figure. Like archaeological documentation, the drawings show side, front, and back views– the three traditional views intended to make the whole artifact evident. However, the angle from which they are drawn and their distortions do the reverse: multiple views will not clarify comprehension, but instead will cause the image of the whole object in one’s mind to fluctuate. My aim in this is to create an experience of uncertainty for viewers (not unlike the experience of archaeologists), and a space for speculation where competing narratives can exist simultaneously.

This experience of uncertainty is intensified by the fact that the drawings are rendered as film negatives: light brown protrusions in the stone appear in the drawings as deep blue glowing grooves. This inversion of colour and shadow further disrupts an immediate recognition of the object, disorienting comprehension and slowing the process of looking.

Once the drawings were complete, they were digitally scanned at a photo lab. Treated here as if they are in fact film negatives, the digital files were ‘color-corrected’ to convert the blue tones to their complimentary browns, and a set of light-jet prints of the files will are printed. Mimicking analog chemical developing, this process produces a corresponding photograph for each drawing, fixing the hand-drawn marks and remediating them through a machine. If the drawings exist as subjective interpretations of the artifact, these new inverted twins sit between imagined interpretations and verifiable documents.

This ambiguity will be highlighted by the framing of the photographs, which calls up pictures and paintings more than documents. In art, there is much discourse on the problem of conflating a document with the event or object it represents. But perhaps there is less writing on the effect of repeating this conflation thousands of times in an (exceedingly) mediated world. Missing a true sense of scale or texture in our encounters with historical objects, seeing them again and again within a homogeneous frame and surface– this viewing context shapes our understanding of history. Through translations and inversions between mediums, the proposed artwork troubles the inherent values associated with different systems of representation, and reveals the speculative space– it discriminates between– representation and its interpretation.

In the installation, the two sets of images will be juxtaposed to create moments of visual as well as cognitive dissonance. Viewers will move between competing systems of representation, highlighting commonalities and discrepancies between images, and reconciling them within larger and larger networks.