A Restoration by Elizabeth Price

2017’s only masterpiece has quite a lot in common with 2016’s only masterpiece. With Project X, Laura Poitras used her unique position in the intelligence community to manipulate the language a stolen dossier in a chilling portrait of a building with no reason to exist and with A Restoration, Elizabeth Price is interested in the same form of reconstruction. This motif is present in all nine of her shorts but with a Restoration she goes as far as the basic premise will allow and creates her magnum opus in the process.

“We are cultivating a garden in the remote corner of the server” bellows the voice confined to a blue text box over guiding through an array of artefacts in this two-screen installation. A point of view informs the images through their creation (This film was originally designed as an installation of the Ashmolean Museum in Oxford at the behest of its curator although it seems anything but complementary) while their spectres seemingly dance on the screen. A synthesised choir accompanies a rapid description of each object in the hypothetical gallery, like a child running through a museum out of boredom. The information is there but nothing is being taken in, epochs of history converted to jpegs cluttering up an out of date hard drive. Associations are made between collections as the percussion threatens to overwhelm the narration.

Previous films of hers had Image and Text working in harmony. The Woolworths Choir Of 1979 was most famous for this with its irregular sound of fingers snapping disturbing the balance of the floor plans of a cathedral construction with the details of each object. Here the presentation of the information is deliberately low tech, it’s narrative structure emulating that of a power point presentation and while this has been a dominant criticism of all of Price’s works this is the first to directly critique it with Image, Text and sound at perpetual war with each other. The diptych technique here gone from exploring variations of an image to extensions expanding her canvas even further allowing for some remarkable compositions yet even this is interrupted with the asymmetry of a colour changing text box in the bottom left side of the right screen. If this wasn’t clear enough a textual disturbance intrudes the composition in the most artificial conceit of the whole film and yet despite this these elements still allow to synchronise with each other.

Price refuses to stop at something as simple as the authenticity of Art As Objects, a subject Magritte fully mined nearly a century ago, she then begins to insert her own interpretations of the work. However, unlike her contemporaries who also deal with the abstraction of classical art (Peter Greenaway deals with the same concepts with temperamental success) she instead aims at its reproduction. The CGI recreations have a monochromic flat look to them. The details are there and their animated in a way that replicates the artwork perfectly but it manages to also be somehow perfunctory. Who does this art exist for? Who replicates in a way that contorts out of the Z axis? And why does anyone care?

It turns out the answer to these questions is no-one, as the royal We turns from a collection of historians explaining their findings to an inhuman mechanical sentience. The human connection to art is now fully automated. Even Walter Benjamin was only able to see as far as the realism of art being easily falsified and not removed from existence altogether. An AI gives insight into how it’s neural network chooses which images are of more value and we the viewer learn how human subjectivity has led to the dissolution of anything that made these artefacts useful discoveries in the first place. The juxtaposition of Object and Creation of Object that in Woolworths Choir was such a novel idea has now become sinister in the same way Project X used the by-lines of an NSA document to show the breach of our own free will.

Even these observations about art go further as the AI makes its own connections. Data’s taken from folders and a narrative through line is drawn through the creation of Knossos in Crete. Wells are established as water sources. From water, farms can be cultivated and food is grown. This leads to cities being born as trade and culture is established, the entire Bronze Age reduced to a computer simulation in the span of less than a minute. There then comes the reflection, an attempted justification for its work that spirals to a descent of self-doubt as the “humanity” creeps back into the project.

The final third questions where the real object ends and the restoration begins. The Ship of Theseus dilemma continues over into the digital world as objects are pilfered without thought of their curation and exploited into the culture of the museum. An observation is made that these utensils were not to made to exist outside their eras and that our cultivation is solipsistic (not a single year is mentioned in the entire film and entire eras are only vaguely alluded to). A bitter tone is taken throughout. Price has gone on record talking about its relevance to inebriation as these researchers become unfocused and disoriented with their work but a less optimistic reading can also be inferred as the Voice takes over all else.

The impact their work will have on future generations is scrutinised as they make the same mistakes the ancestors did millenniums ago, billions of reconstructions teetering like a glass goblet on the edge of a table. I’ve always been an ardent supporter of Price’s unparalleled editing techniques and attention to detain that manages to make an eighteen minute film that this as bountiful as a Homerian epic but with A Restoration she taps on the nerve that informs art and one that proves to be a bountiful exploration into the inner workings of a culturally dead mind some thirty-repeat viewing later. This doesn’t even begin to touch on the concepts of an overworked culture that maybe did doom itself to intoxication as she herself suggests or how Price manages to simultaneously critique the masculinity of a typically male dominated environment (A particularly non-descript reading of how stone tablets were formed is presented with terracotta statues of voluptuous women giving a glimpse of a collective unconscious distracted by objects important to them over important to the world) and that’s not even counting the anti-monarchist symbolism of a goblet celebrating the most sought after form of government made out of the most fragile material there is! That these readings are even possible in a work as focused as this is a herculean magnitude of construction and a true testament to her skills as an artist that makes me wonder where she can even go after this but regardless from the strength of this alone I expect to be amazed.