A highlight of the Hammer Museum's Made in L.A. biennial, Small's work spins history from cultural leftovers, false starts, and simulations.
Los Angeles-based artist Daniel R. Small assumes the roles of curator and collector—among other guises—to investigate the systems of knowledge and representation by which we know the past. Starting in 2012, the artist participated in several archeological excavations in the dunes of Guadalupe, California, on the site where Cecil B. DeMille's 1923 biblical epic, The Ten Commandments, was filmed—with the American desert standing in for ancient Egypt. At DeMille's behest, his ornate reconstruction of the lost city of Pi-Ramesses was blown up and buried once production wrapped, preventing other filmmakers from making use of his set. Still littered with faux-ancient Egyptian artifacts nearly a century later, the Guadalupe site performs a pantomime of the ancient ruins its reconstruction was based on.
Much of Small's work proceeds from storytelling and the relaying of anecdotes—specifically the power of apocryphal narratives to manifest latent intentions and desires. In Excavation II (2016), which was presented at the Hammer Museum's Made in L.A. 2016 biennial, he presents artifacts exhumed from the Guadalupe site in combination with paintings procured from the Museum of Natural History, Las Vegas that depict an ahistorical ancient world. While Small didn't create Excavation II's paintings, sculptures, and found objects, his bringing them together subverts their respective contexts and usage. The criteria used to determine which type of cultural production belongs in what kind of museum is interrogated here, along with the boundaries between what's considered art and what's not, and between a "serious" historical representation and kitsch.
David Matorin Since there's so much to the story of Excavation II, I'm interested in hearing what you typically emphasize and what you tend to leave out. For instance, is "Old Hollywood" a particular inspiration of yours?
Daniel Small Not particularly. I usually try and strategically leave out any mention of homage to Hollywood, or facts and figures about how much plaster was needed or how many horses were used in the chariot scene. That sort of interest in Hollywood memorabilia is pretty separate from my own. About half of what composed my exhibition was material never seen in the film, like artifacts from the interior of a temple that was out-of-shot—those anomalies or leftovers. I'm more interested in things that seem out of place, even for this ersatz Egyptian city, than things that end up at the Museum of the Moving Image or the Academy Museum of Motion Pictures. I'm interested in anachronisms held within this anachronistic film set.
DM Can you tell me about your experience with the archaeological digs at the Guadalupe site?
DS Well, I visited the set's burial site many times before the official excavations occurred. They began in 2012, though there were some surface excavations and surveys prior to that. Peter Brosnan, a documentary filmmaker, spearheaded the main excavation along with the county of Santa Barbara. Since it was a registered archaeological site with the state of California, no one but archaeologists were allowed to dig and remove the artifacts, so it was carried out by Applied Earthworks, led by Colleen Hamilton. The next official excavation took place in 2014, also conducted by Applied Earthworks. And there is hope for another in 2017, given proper funding. There's still plenty out there.
DM It must have been a very technically difficult dig, given how delicate all the wood and plaster pieces are. After all, these objects were never intended to be anything more than provisional.
DS It was, and it's very uncanny that plaster and wood were used. The wind—really quite extreme out there in the dunes—have uncovered parts of the set, leaving it to be sun-blasted. I'm sure things look more "authentic" now than they ever did during filming. It's like they've become the kind of artifacts they were pretending to be. It's so interesting—all the little ways time has distorted them. Their texture is like they've been etched with some kind of drawings or hieroglyphs. They also used horsehair as a binder in the plaster, so that DNA from long-dead horses just adds to the experience of contact with something gone.
DM What is it that material culture can communicate that narrative histories cannot?
DS I think of material culture as a primary source for the narratives that are written in their wake. No matter how ancient or contemporary an artifact or object might be, the materiality of the past can only be viewed and written about in the present. So, history can be viewed as the difference between the past and present narratives we make of the artifacts. As a practice, I think history should place more attention and emphasis on the ruins of modernity. It's entirely possible that what emerges may no longer be considered "historical" in the way we've traditionally used the term, but what we get instead is a much more useful reflection on our present.
DM In your conversation with archeologist Jack Green at the Hammer Museum, you mentioned the roots of Excavation II were in an earlier project.
DS Yes, when I first got to Los Angeles I became interested in California City, this urban planning project for a city in the desert that never happened. It was started in the early 1950s by a developer named Nat Mendelsohn and would have rivaled Los Angeles in size and economic presence. They graded the land for streets and named them all, but it never took off. There's a small area where people live today, but nothing like what was intended. It was basically desert with the idea of a city etched into it—unpaved streets with street signs, many stolen over the years. They were named for the fetishized cars around at the time, like "Cadillac Boulevard" or "Chrysler Drive." I was interested in finding whatever material remains there might be, and I ended up going out there and triangulating where the street signs would have been. I just started digging and found these concrete bases the signs were stuck into. They kind of look like volcanoes or handmade Native American artifacts. But just imagine if someone stumbled upon this site in the future and found this etched grid of a city stretching out into the desert for 200 miles. What would they think it meant?
DM That sounds like the Cecil B. DeMille quote you use in the wall text for your show: "If a thousand years from now, archaeologists happen to dig beneath the sands of Guadalupe, I hope they will not rush into print with the news that the Egyptian civilization extended to the Pacific Coast of North America."
DM It seems the desert is a theme or a starting point for your work. Are you particularly invested in the potentials that come from that landscape?
DS Before moving to L.A., I hadn't been to a desert. I liked how indifferent it seemed to my presence, but I also felt that way about Los Angeles. When you walk through a desert, you realize that everything you see and walk upon dates from before history—eventually everything gets ground into this. It's such a contrast from where I grew up in Florida, where everything's alive and a plant can grow two feet in a day or something. In California City, I remember sitting there with the wind tearing through the shrubs. It was haunting but also contemplative. It brings you in but at a distance somehow. I think California City looks today the way Los Angeles must have looked once. We made it into what we wanted, irrigated and grew it from nothing.
DM Do you think cities in the desert have something fundamental in common?
DS There's a slapstick newness to Los Angeles that's also in Las Vegas, at least. Another part of the California City project was a video I shot of this theme park in Las Vegas, called Dig This. It's a sort of amusement park where you pay exorbitant amounts of money to play with bulldozers and excavators and other heavy machinery on this stretch of sand, off the strip. It's a fantasy playground, where you pretend you're building the next big resort casino.
DM They just sign a waiver and get into these heavy machines?
DS Exactly. They allow people to drive them around, move and grade land, and other stuff. Of course, the reason these machines are there in the first place is because of all the failed construction projects in Las Vegas. The companies that didn't want to transport their equipment back sold them to this weird theme park. (laughter) They look like mechanical dinosaurs, just moving stuff back and forth.
DM Amazing. So, what's your interest in Las Vegas itself and the aesthetics of that city?
DS In many ways, it's just about seeing everything through this Western lens—the myth of The West and everything associated with that history—but also this Western way of re-articulating different civilizations. People say you can see the whole world in this one city. It's interesting because it really does articulate, more than any place, how it views the world outside itself. As ridiculous, stupid, and distorted as that image may be, it does share that imagining in a genuine way. It wears it's projections and desires on its sleeve. Of course, it's changing too. Where it used to be more family-friendly, now it's swinging back to where it was in the '50s and '60s—more of an adult playground and a full luxury experience.
DM Someone once explained to me how the new style of Las Vegas hotel, after Steve Wynn, is less about the themes of travel and foreignness, and more about branding—just subtle variations on the theme of ostentatious wealth—but those variations still draw on the old style. Like if you look at the Wynn hotel, there's no theme there, but it's not like it isn't a themed hotel. The theme is "themed" in a weird way.
DS That's a great way to put it. And that's a turn from the kind of casinos still being opened in the late '90s. The Luxor was one those, of course.
DM Where the murals in your show originated.
DS Right. In fact, it was the Luxor's rebranding to be more like the Wynn that allowed me to get the murals. The Luxor has had a harder time with it—first off, the building's in the shape of a pyramid, so it's hard to get away from the Egyptian theme (laughter), but in the interior they've now adopted the same blank luxury Steve Wynn is interested in. All the authentic and inauthentic Egyptian pieces in their King Tut Museum and elsewhere were sold off or given to the Las Vegas Natural History Museum, who eventually decided the inauthentic pieces were too unseemly to keep around, so I was able to obtain them. There are still areas of the hotel interior where you can see remnants of the Egyptian theme—moldings along the sides of walls and things like that. Ultimately, like with most places in Vegas, it will probably end up being blown up and buried. (laughter)
DM That's perfect. Tell me about these murals.
DS My understanding is that many different artists—but largely the John Whytock Studio—were commissioned to produce these large-scale murals, I think in 1996 or 1997. What's so interesting to me about Whytock's paintings is the way they were produced. He would hire lookalike models for Elizabeth Taylor or Yul Brynner and other actors of the big Egyptian period dramas, and they would live model for him in costume. He would paint them in the foreground, then cherry-pick a temple to throw in the background or what scene to put them in. One mural scene seems to be derived from Edward Poynter's painting Israel In Egypt (1867), which was also an inspiration for Paul Iribe's art direction of The Ten Commandments, so it's a bit hard to tell which source he lifted what imagery from. But that confusion articulates a lot of what the project is about. It's clear he knows these sources. There is this obviousness about it, but the way the references are combined together and skewed in a certain direction is almost like he's reassembling his own memories of these films, but without ever being totally aware that's what he's doing. It's just the imagery in his head. His whole process also informed my decisions about the color of the wall the murals hang on. It's a chroma-key blue, like they use for compositing effects. This blue stands in for my authorship over the room, but it also serves as a placeholder for everything left out, everything that's not there.
DM So, how do the Las Vegas murals connect to the Guadalupe artifacts you've displayed in the vitrines—the recovered pieces of film set, but also the shell casings, cough syrup bottles, and other bits of debris on display?
DS The project is really about this role of the historian—what the old role was and what the new role might be. What is history as a practice? All the layers of mediation between ancient Egypt and now feel just as lost, just as irrecoverable and unknowable as what happened 3,500 years ago. So, the project's about foreshortening time, but also about the seriousness with which we could or should regard these representations. Regardless of whether academics take them seriously, we're already living with these mediated memories of history and myth. That's the same reason for including the crew's refuse with artifacts from the film set. Displaying them together puts them at the same level of consideration. Those details of the lived history of the site are as important to me as the story of the film set and it's destruction.
Small's work is included in the exhibition Mad Horizon at Index, Stockholm, through December 4, 2016.
David Matorin is an artist, writer, and filmmaker living in Los Angeles. His writing has appeared in Art in America, Flash Art, Modern Painters, Art F City, and the Wall Street Journal. His work is represented by Galerie Jan Dhase, Ghent (BE), and has screened at The British Film Institute and the Kassel Documentary Festival, among other venues.