Wednesday, 4 July 2012

Elephant No. 276: Excavation Collage

Today I felt like something relatively straightforward, so I settled on this paper technique.

Invented in 1985 by artist Richard Misiano-Genovese, an excavation collage involves gluing together layers of printed material, then ripping through the layers to create a new image. The artist can tear through either one or multiple layers, and can take either large amounts of material away each time, or pick at it in bits.

The idea behind excavation collage is to create a new and perhaps jarring image—in the words of one commentator, "visual poetry"—using a random process.

ES Excavation postcard
by Richard Misiano-Genovese, 2006.
Source: http://collageassemblagecentennial-1912-2012.

Similar techniques include d├ęcollage, d├ęchirage and lacerated poster, although there are subtle differences, and some overlap, between each.

For today's elephant, my excavation collage wouldn't be entirely random, since I was creating a representational image. But I could at least be random in my choice of material. I pulled out a bunch of magazines and catalogues, and tore out pages I liked because they were colourful or otherwise visually interesting. It probably wouldn't make much difference in terms of the final piece, since I wouldn't be able to see the underlying pages, but it was a place to start.

I decided I would probably make two excavated collages today, and thought that eight layers for each was a good number, so I tore out 16 pages in total.

I glued them together loosely with a good-quality glue stick, alternating the direction of each page so that any words would run in opposite directions. I then flattened the two sandwiches under a pile of heavy books to dry. I left them for about a couple of hours while I went off to do errands, but a half-hour or so would do it.

To begin excavating, I used a sharp craft knife to give myself something to dig into with my fingernails.

 I started with this blank, which I decided to orient horizontally.

I couldn't really tell how to do an excavation collage from any of the pictures I looked at—other than that you tear into layers of paper until you get something you like. So I made up my own method, which involved putting the very tip of the knife under the first layer of paper, and lifting up a tiny tab to begin tearing. The picture below shows my first tear.


Right away, I could see that this wasn't necessarily going to be easy. The first issue is the grain of the paper. While paper tears quite nicely along the grain (which runs vertically on most pieces of paper), it doesn't tear cleanly at all if you try to go across the grain.

The second issue is that you can't see what's underneath your working layer. It could be pink, mottled, bright turquoise, or have nothing but lettering.

The third issue is the glue. I ran my gluestick around the edges and in an angled grid across the rest of the paper. This meant that I had no idea where the glue was. Some of the paper was really stuck down, and some peeled away easily.

At first I tried to think of ways around all of these things, then just decided to deal with them as the limitations of the medium. I mostly just scraped with my fingernails and peeled things in various directions with my fingers. If I wanted to stop a strip from peeling too far, I tore against a fingernail pressed into the surface. I thought about using more precise tools such as rulers or knives, but I thought that might be cheating, so I went with ripping and peeling using only my bare hands.

I started by trying to rip an exact elephant shape, then thought it might be more interesting to peel away a sort of background area first. The jury's still out on this idea.

When I came to a layer that I didn't think was the right colour, I peeled it away, hoping to find something better underneath. 

I continued peeling and tearing, until I thought it was about as good as I could make it. I think I tore through about six of the eight layers, but figured I should leave well enough alone, just in case the next layers weren't what I wanted.

I thought this looked okay, but I didn't love it, so I decided to try another one. This time I decided to work vertically.

I used the same method as before, ultimately going through all of the layers. I almost pierced right through the final layer, because I didn't really like any of the layers and eventually ran out of options.

I almost stopped at the image just above, except for the human face in the middle. So I continued.

I liked this second one well enough, except for the weird lightbulb in the middle of the elephant's upper trunk. But this black layer was the final layer, so I was more or less stuck with the lightbulb.

The two images took me only about an hour to produce, with an extra hour to find magazine pages, glue them together and trim the edges. It's not a difficult technique by any means, but it wasn't really my cup of tea. I think I would have liked it more if I'd made a sandwich of solid colours instead of magazine images. That being said, I don't hate the final results, and may even try it again sometime.

Elephant Lore of the Day
During the 2000 digging season at Hierakonpolis in Egypt, archaeologists came across a set of elephant molars.

The site being excavated was a massive funerary complex dating to about 3500 B.C., and right away archaeologists were mystified. Elephants were not indigenous to the area, and it appeared that the tombs contained the remains of not one, but two of the exotic creatures.

Thinking that perhaps one elephant had been cut apart and its bones distributed throughout the complex, archaeo-zoologists and archaeologists set out to discover just how many elephants the complex might contain. Partial remains of an elephant had been discovered on the site in 1990, and some assumed that this new find was just more of the same elephant.

The team's task was made more complicated by multiple lootings of the site from antiquity all the way through to the present day. It took a while to decide where to dig for the bulk of the elephant—or elephants, as the case might be. Settling on a smallish pit, archaeologists began uncovering bone after bone.

When they came across a full jaw, they realized that there had indeed been two elephants on the site, since a jaw also existed for the elephant discovered in 1990. As the team continued to dig, they were faced with a new mystery. Why weren't the bones buried in a single grave? And why were most of the bones found in such a small hole?

Elephant in fresco of Rekhmire, Governor of Thebes, Egypt, ca. 15th century B.C.

When the team finally reached the floor of the main elephant grave, they were faced with an astonishing sight. Most of the elephant's largest bones had been laid between two layers of fine linen fabric. In addition to the fabric, there was also a thick layer of blackened elephant skin, often still stuck to the bones.

Other discoveries in this tomb made it clear that the elephant had been buried with honours, rather than left as a food offering to the gods. Not only was it covered with a massive amount of high-quality linen, but it was also provided with grave goods such as red ochre and green malachite eye makeup, a stone mace head, an alabaster jar, an amethyst bead, and perhaps bizarrely, an ivory bracelet. Pottery offerings included fine black-topped beakers, a bowl decorated with white paint, and an imported jar. According to archaeologists, no expense had been spared.

Archaeologists also noted the presence of a number of arrowheads; but whether these were grave goods for the elephant's afterlife, or the cause of its death, was not clear. Also unclear was why the elephant's head was not found with the rest of its body. Perhaps, it was thought, the elephant had been decapitated to make the unpredictable animal less dangerous in the afterlife.

The fact that two elephants had been buried in the complex suggested the status, wealth and power of the people whose tomb it was. In fact, it is likely that the elephants were part of an exotic menagerie that included hippos, baboons, wild cats and hartebeest—comprising what may be the world's oldest zoological collection.

Artists' interpretation of above fresco.
Illustration: © Alessando Mangione/Marco Masseti

To Support Elephant Welfare
Elephant sanctuaries (this Wikipedia list allows you to click through to information
on a number of sanctuaries around the world)
Wildlife Trust of India

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