In the first of a series of interviews with artists based in the city of Los Angeles I spoke to Daniel R. Small, whose work ‘Excavation II’ was featured in the Hammer Museum’s exhibition Made in LA 2016 this Summer. The installation at first appears at odds with its contemporary art gallery setting: a series of cabinets containing mysterious, seemingly ancient artefacts, presented with colourful didactic paintings of ancient Egypt straight from the pages of a history textbook. All is not as it seems: Small’s work in fact presents parts of the carefully excavated remains of the original set of Cecil B. DeMille’s 1923 silent ancient Egyptian epic ‘The Ten Commandments’, destroyed after the film wrapped and left scattered across the dunes of the desert in Guadalupe-Nipomo, Southern California. Through his art Small analyses history and it’s intermingling with memory and mythology with the precision and awe befitting of an archaeologist. He questions the notion of the ‘original’, and the Chinese whispers effect of history seen through a series of lenses that ultimately distorts the initial image beyond recognition.
Small’s work strikes a particular chord in LA, where the film and TV industries dabble freely in artifice and anachronism. His work is part of a wider new narrative being created by artists in LA who question our perceptions of objective truths and our undiscriminating consumption of media. The artist explained more about his work and the meaning behind it:
Could you tell me about how you first began work on your ‘Excavation II’ piece?
The project ‘Excavation II’ started with my interest in the ruins of modernity and how they might be looked at in the future. I was originally casting a much wider net than just movie sets to encompass other sites like California City, a city which was planned but never built and which today is a vast ghost grid of suburbia about 100 miles from Los Angeles.
I moved to Los Angeles in 2010 once I heard that Cecil B. DeMille built an entire ersatz Egyptian City along the coast of California which he blew up and buried to keep other directors from using it because the more I looked into the site and researched it the more I knew there was something almost haunting about the parallels between the original sites in Egypt and the way this uncanny history had unfolded in California. Beyond the fact that many consider the film to be the beginning of what Hollywood has become today, it is also a site of historical artifice that is an anachronism.
What really drew me to this particular site was that the artifice contained within its other anachronisms and the way it becomes a kind of mise en abyme of historical representation where there is no real beginning or end to its representation. To me it is so fascinating because it seems like there is something more real in this illusion than there is in its reality. Even just looking at the artefacts that have been buried and blasted by the sand and the high winds in the Guadalupe-Nipomo dunes is like looking at something ancient that was etched into these plaster tablets. In the present knowing that it is an artefact from a film which is itself a reproduction, a pastiche of memories from the Bible or from ancient Egypt, we become hyper aware of the many layers and the multitude of pasts and presents that take on new meanings and new histories with each representation.
Your works mix fact and fiction and interrogate the notion of an accepted set of events, could you explain what role history plays in your work?
History is open to all possible meanings in my work and I’m interested in it as a practice and how it unfolds and evolves. It does not mean there are no objective ways in which to derive meaning from experience or that there are no facts, but the bigger question today is whether or not historical objectivity is even possible and beyond that whether it is even desirable in a mass media abyss of representations and narratives.
For instance in the exhibition at the Hammer Museum there were artifacts on loan from a local Napa Auto parts store that has become a repository for the town of Guadalupe’s local history. There were some shards from an owl that were found by the owner’s son in the dunes that he believed was used in the filming of The Ten Commandments and has since been displayed in the Napa Auto Parts for around 30 years, and as customers and locals have visited the store the story of the owl being used in the film has been told and passed down many times. It is an objective fact the owl was never used in the filming of The Ten Commandments but the story and the myths that have grown up around it are as important if not more important than the reality. This is why I chose to include items like this because they are just as much a part of the history of the film as the actual remains of the film.
Hollywood tampers with history, do you think this is harmful, or do you think that all history to some extent is a narrative that we fabricate?
In many cases I think it is harmful and reveals the biases and whitewashing of mainstream film making, but I think history is a kind of feedback mechanism where we feed into it what we want to get out of it. It is, after all, bound up with ideology and only changes and morphs into other iterations based on the intentions and desires of the present. However easily we dismiss Hollywood film making as being all illusion, it is important to be aware that the narratives told through Hollywood are just as real if not more real than whatever actual events have taken place because now they are a part of that lineage. We are already so estranged from whatever really happened that film-making can be considered very similar to archaeology: it is always riddled with holes and gaps and both fields involve a kind of perverse desire to fill them, but this is of course all imagination, speculation, and projection and has little to do with factual events.
By taking these abandoned props and displaying them as ancient artefacts are you questioning the function of museums? Do you think there is an arbitrariness to our positioning of certain objects within museums and galleries?
In some ways it is about questioning the hierarchical structure of museums and in the case of my project being shown as part of a regional contemporary art biennial I think it was ultimately about introducing the project in that context. I think it was more effective than if the project happened in an archaeological or ethnographic museum, although I am not opposed to seeing how it would change the project’s syntax to have another iteration divorced from a contemporary art context. I thought of ‘Excavation II’ as being a kind of museum within the museum where you walk through and see for the most part what looks like contemporary art and then are confronted with a museological presentation that could cause some confusion or disorientation with the objects and their presentation.
Could you tell me a little more about ‘Pending Cipher for the Open Present’?
Pending Cipher for the Open Present was a part of Los Angeles Nomadic Division’s manifest Destiny Billboard Project. It consisted of a series of billboards and activations that took place from Florida to California along Interstate 10. For my chapter of the project I designed and erected 10 billboards in the state of New Mexico. The billboards were constructed by culling materials from two faux-historical sites: the Los Lunas Decalogue Stone near Los Lunas, NM, and Cecil B. DeMille’s film set for The Ten Commandments in Guadalupe, CA (that was the starting point for the project ‘Excavation II’ at the Hammer Museum.) The ten billboards depicted text from the Decalogue Stone, believed by many as an attempt at writing the Ten Commandments, in a language derived from Cypriot Greek and ancient Hebrew. I then added modern day proofreading marks to this pseudo-language, creating illusory hieroglyphs superimposed on images taken by the artist in Guadalupe, CA where DeMille demolished and buried the ersatz Egyptian city set used in The Ten Commandments film from 1923.
My hope was that these marks would appear as if they were “tagged” or that locals from the community might have climbed up the billboard polls and effectively edited the writings. What did occur was far more alarming as the local newspaper the Las Cruces Sun News interviewed a local man named Craig Melton who drove by the billboards several times a week and was quoted as saying “I was beginning to wonder if it was some kind of threat or warning. You never know, we’re close to the border and you think that ISIS or some other subversives might be trying to get at us.” This quote in the newspaper along with a lot of speculation on social media then took on a life of its own and became an international news story about a reported terrorism scare on the US and Mexican border. The xenophobic reaction to these billboards seemed to be a perfectly fitting end to the project. It was also a welcome end because of the absolutely ridiculous idea that ISIS would buy up billboard space in New Mexico to announce an attack via the Mexican border. I will admit they looked sinister but at worst I would think Nine Inch Nails has a new album coming out and not go straight for border terrorism.
How does the city of LA shape you and your work? Is there a certain artistic character to the city?
Los Angeles is the best and worst of everything. I always like saying it is equal parts paradise and the apocalypse, but that is a little dramatic perhaps. It is definitively difficult to define or pin down from the people who inhabit the city, to the layout and meandering freeways, to the specific way you are supposed to interface and experience the city. It is filled to the brim with paradoxes and those who do not live here more often times than not loathe the city. It is also beautiful in a haunting kind of way. I’ll never forget seeing the black silhouettes of palm trees along the freeways at night when I first moved here. It is a very eerie and seductive image and I would drive around trying to film them.
I think ultimately it is a perfect place to operate for me as an artist since there is no real issue with following a lineage like there is in New York. Ultimately, there is no right or wrong way to live in Los Angeles and it is the most ridiculous city in this country but it works. Somehow when you are here everything precedes you right down to the tectonic plates below your feet that could seemingly swallow the city up at any moment. Los Angeles for me is a city where you confront the objective fact that you mean nothing and all of the people in the semi-public/semi-private space of their cars might as well be other geological formations. It seems like Los Angeles has an indifference to your presence, but this indifference is very authentic so artists can have a particular level of freedom.
What’s next for your work?
The main project I have been fascinated by for years is a project dealing with the Antikythera Mechanism, which archaeologists believe to be an ancient analogue computer that was an orrery or even soothsayer that could predict astronomical positions, eclipses, and other celestial events. It was found off of the island of Antikythera in Greece and is one of the most perplexing historical anachronisms maybe ever discovered: it was produced around 100-150BC, almost one thousand years before anything comparable was created.
I am in conversation with the marine archaeologists working at the site as they also recently discovered a human skeleton in the wreckage and are attempting what would be the oldest DNA test ever done on the remains of a human. While I have some loose ideas about how I will proceed I am still gathering a lot of information and research on the site and also trying to obtain 3-D scans of the Antikythera Mechanism and the wreckage of the ship. I am unsure where this will lead, but that is usually how all of my projects unfold. Maybe what I ultimately end up doing will bear no resemblance at all to the reference points or perhaps it will be a very direct link. I’m a bit schizophrenic in the way I move from one project to the next. Though there are similar threads, I always like to start at a zero point.