Figuring It Out: What Are We? Where Do We Come from? the Parallel Visions of Artists and Archaeologists

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Where do we come from? What are we? Where are we going?
These questions were posed by Paul Gauguin in a famous canvas painted in Tahiti that heralded the beginning of the modernist era. But they are also the questions asked by modern prehistorians in their quest to reconstruct the human story. In Figuring It Out, Colin Renfrew investigates the profound convergence between the two disciplines, drawing illuminating parallels between the way the modern artist seeks to understand the world by acting upon it, and the way the archaeologist seeks to understand the world through the material traces of such actions.
What does the "sapient paradox"—the fact that 30,000 years passed before anatomically modern humans began to change their world—have to tell us about the unfolding of the history of our species? Why do we now find Cycladic sculpture beautiful when, merely a century ago, such work would not have been thought suitable for display in an art museum? And how is it that, in the light of Marcel Duchamp's revolutionary gallery-based gestures, the prehistoric footsteps at Laetoli have been admitted as art too, albeit of an involuntary kind? Professor Renfrew uses these questions as a springboard for his examination of the history of the human condition, a subject that can only be properly understood, he argues, through the idea of process, of Homo sapiens' active material engagement with their world.
Central to his exploration is a group of leading contemporary artists, including Richard Long, Mark Dion, Antony Gormley, Eduardo Paolozzi, and David Mach, whose works are notable for just such an engagement with their physical surroundings. Figuring It Out takes sculpture off the plinth and archaeology out of the trench, and situates the contemporary artist and archaeologist together at the center of an active endeavor to re-evaluate what it is to be human.
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Editorial Reviews

Library Journal
Distinguished British scholar Renfrew (archaeology, Univ. of Cambridge) compares the thought processes of 20th-century artists to ancient peoples-a subject that might surprise readers familiar with Renfrew as the author of archaeology texts and the groundbreaking work that shifted the chronology of Neolithic monuments, The Radiocarbon Revolution and Prehistoric Europe. Based on a lecture series he gave in 2001 to the Society of Antiquaries of Scotland, this illustrated book reflects Renfrew's fascination with the ways contemporary artists interact with the world around them and how that might be relevant for archaeologists in understanding earlier material culture. He focuses mainly on artists working in England and Scotland, highlighting the sculptural and land art works of Antony Gormley, Richard Long, Eduardo Paolozzi, and others. Ancient British and Mediterranean artifacts involved in the discussion include ceramics, stone tools, molds of the Pompeii dead, and larger monuments. The thought-provoking questions of the subtitle derive from an inscription on an 1897 Tahitian painting by Paul Gauguin; Gauguin's third question, "Where are we going?" is addressed in Renfrew's ending postscript. Recommended for the cognitive anthropology, archaeology, or modern art sections of larger academic libraries.-Anne Marie Lane, Univ. of Wyoming, Laramie Copyright 2003 Reed Business Information.
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Product Details

  • ISBN-13: 9780500051146
  • Publisher: Thames & Hudson
  • Publication date: 3/19/2003
  • Edition description: New Edition
  • Pages: 224
  • Product dimensions: 7.60 (w) x 10.30 (h) x 1.00 (d)

Meet the Author

Colin Renfrew is Disney Professor Emeritus of Archaeology and former Director of the McDonald Institute for Archaeological Research at the University of Cambridge. He is the author and editor of many books, including Before Civilization, Archaeology and Language, and Prehistory and co-editor (with Paul Bahn) of The Cambridge World Prehistory. He is a fellow of the British Academy and a life peer in the House of Lords.
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Table of Contents

Preface 6
Introduction: What are we? 10
Ch. 1 Encounters: Art as archaeology, archaeology as art 26
Ch. 2 What is art? The tyranny of the Renaissance 50
Ch. 3 Off the plinth: Display and process 78
Ch. 4 The human condition: Being and remembering 108
Ch. 5 The (al)lure of the artefact 136
Ch. 6 Baneful signs: The archaeology of now 158
Postscript 190
Acknowledgments 196
Notes 197
Bibliography 210
Sources of illustrations 219
Index 220
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