by Manu SharmaSep 22, 2021
It has been nearly a hundred years since the discovery of the tomb of Tutankhamun and through this period the face of the young pharaoh has come to be the most recognisable from the ancient world. While most tombs in Egypt’s Valley of the Kings had already become subject to looting and plunder through the ages, the complex Howard Carter dug out in November of 1922 was still largely intact, and this allowed for its contents to be presented in countless exhibitions around the world before Tutankhamun: Treasures of the Golden Pharaoh found its way into the halls of the Saatchi Gallery in London. It is the third in a series of 10 exhibitions that are to happen until 2022 to commemorate the 100 year anniversary of the excavation.
The civilisation of ancient Egypt is known to have maintained cultural continuity for over two millennia, and this was achieved by their capacity to channel natural resources effectively to meet their needs and excesses. The reign of king Tutankhamun falls between a period of immense prosperity, and the artefacts found in his tomb - beyond being signifiers of a certain time and place - are imbued with the same spirit of human ingenuity and progress that is celebrated today. As trans-temporal mirrors they can be reflective of the vainglorious trappings of the civilisation and in their cracks, we might augur our own teleological complexities. Cyril de Commarque’s Artificialis, as it had been placed alongside Tutankhamun since November 2, 2019, heralded such a vision.
You can listen to the soundscape of Artificialis by Cyril de Commarque here.
Alongside Kate Daudy’s It wasn’t that at all, which explored the interconnectedness of human beliefs and thought through the ages, Artificialis was part of the gallery’s artist-in-residence programme, which sought to reflect on the historical exhibition through contemporary lenses. Unlike Daudy’s work, which was more a response to the exhibition, Artificialis was already a work in progress when de Commarque was invited to present it at the gallery and was selected so as to present a futuristic counterpoint to Tutankhamun's historicity. According to de Commarque, “I am talking about the end of a type of civilisation… The new civilisation (is one) where the artificial is penetrating our private sphere and the environment is partly in destruction. I think what they (Saatchi Gallery) were interested in was… a parallel to the greatness of the Egyptian civilisation and the way it also disappeared, and so it is a line to put towards a future”.
The most prominent feature of the exhibition, and what unifies its various figural elements, is the sea of recycled flakes of plastic that covers the floor. These pellets are not unlike the many micro-particles that are formed when the wastes from our cities are churned against the ocean, and though outwardly attractive, they are a reminder of the devastation caused by the debris of human activity. Amidst this ocean of unassuming chaos are statues carved from recycled black plastic, each taking symbolic cues from various streams of art history.
Le Marseillais uses the image of the hanged-man from Tarot, which is simultaneously a symbol of condemnation and revelation. Oro, which is named after the artist’s daughter, features a little girl in a partly destroyed labyrinth of metal poles on a crumbling terrain, speculating on what modes of meditation might nurture one’s inner world as the artificial intelligence progressively infringes upon our notions of personal space. The pregnant lady towards the centre is The Goddess of Everything , emerging out of the cosmic egg, a symbol of creation and fertility whose significance is being continually redefined in an ever-changing world, and Lovers of Pompeii, which jestingly recalls the preservation of private moments in the Roman city beneath the layers of dry lava, reflects on what images of endearment might survive our passing.
Other parts of the exhibition look more closely at how humanity has imposed itself on the environment by perceiving nature through utilitarian lenses and the immediate devastation that this has caused. “So, this whole game, if you want, is a language in which I am preparing my next series, which will be part of this work," says de Commarque. Beyond our present condition, de Commarque is acutely interested in the 'where we are going' and Artificialis is an invocation of the next stage in human evolution - ‘Homo Artificialis’, as he calls it - which is to be stimulated by the overwhelming presence of artificial intelligence in our lives. “We have somewhat the power of god (with control) of artificial creation and artificial death in a way we never had in human history. So, how can we play that? How responsible can we be?” reflects de Commarque “…and I think in a period of crisis, with the coronavirus now… it is a good moment to also start thinking.”
Due to the impact of COVID-19, the exhibition Tutankhamun: Treasures of the Golden Pharaoh will not reopen in London. The other two exhibitions were on display until May 3, 2020.