Ancient mummy coupled with latest medical technology produces stunning contemporary art at the Ashmolean Museum, Oxford
After walking through centuries of ancient Egyptian history at Oxford’s Ashmolean Museum, the visitor is finally confronted with a strange, disconcerting – and oftentimes difficult to fathom – box containing 111 vertical panes of glass. Closer inspection reveals it to be not only a challenging and innovative piece of contemporary art, but also the start of a journey – one that will shake-up your entire perspective on the old-hat Egyptian exhibitions that we have seen in so many institutions.
Angela Palmer, the contemporary artist best known for her work Ghost Forest in Trafalgar Square, was the pioneer of this journey. Her piece Unwrapped: The Story of a Child Mummy, haunts the final gallery of the new Egypt and Nubia wing, and is currently complimented by a temporary exhibition documenting the story of the artist and her muse – a mummified and beautifully preserved two year old boy.
The piece consists of 111 panes of glass, with each pane bearing a single layer of a CT scan taken of the mummy, so that, together, they produce a 3D image of the ‘internal architecture’ of the child. This structure has been placed next to the original mummy in a haunting comparison: given the ethereal quality of the piece, with no one angle providing a coherent or even visible representation of the subject that lies so peacefully and solidly next to it, the visitor would be forgiven for thinking that they were looking at the soul of this tiny being, flitting in and out of vision.
It is the joining of two worlds – with the lost techniques deployed by ancient Egyptians to preserve their dead melded together with the clean, glossy and somewhat cold world of medical CT scanning technology. This amalgamation of two technologies and two historical epochs has created something new for present, forcing the audience to wonder what else lies under the wrapping, beyond the simple outlines Palmer has created.
The temporary exhibition at the Cast Gallery documents the making process, and ultimately tells the very human story of the artist’s connection with the child – when, upon seeing inside his sacred bindings, she was inspired to learn more about him as a living being. The gallery presents us with three other CT scans, enabling us to see the mummy from many angles, along with casts of the child’s skull and toes – allowing the visitor a glimpse of the face that they had begun to construct for themselves in the first gallery. The Cast Gallery also houses a video of the artist’s journey to the isolated village of Hawara and beyond, to find the burial site of the child using only a 19th century map made by famous archaeologist Flinders-Petrie, with no precise location or guarantee that there would even be a tangible site for Palmer to view. The genuine warmth felt by the artist towards her subject is illustrated by the bottle of sand that sits next to the cast of this child’s skull: transporting it all the way from Egypt by Palmer, she wanted to bring him closer to his homeland.
Unwrapped: Story of a Child Mummy bravely and enchantingly moves the study and display of Egyptian objects into the future, providing the perfect counterpoint to the Ashmolean’s ancient Egypt and Nubia galleries with it’s clean, minimalist aesthetic. It provides a rare human insight into one particular story as opposed to the intertwined and complex history of the pharaohs. It is perhaps a shame that the two parts of the exhibition are so far apart from each other, but it could, of course, be argued that the long walk from the Egypt wing to the Cast Gallery enhances the pilgrimage-like quest for the story of this child. It is particularly inspiring to see contemporary art taking cues from the past, and that, in taking these cues, the familiar concepts and themes from history can be expanded upon to move our interpretation of a particular era forward. Words/Photo: Michael Philo © 2011 ArtLyst
Unwrapped: The Story of a Child Mummy @ Ashmolean 26/11/2011 – 04/03/2012
The Egypt and Nubia gallery @ Ashmolean opens on Saturday 26 November 2011
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