An Artist in the Lightbox

October 19, 2016
Index Magazine

An Artist in the Lightbox

Ben Rivers, The Shape of Things (detail), 2016. Nine-channel installation (digitized from 16mm). Courtesy of the artist and Kate MacGarry Gallery, London.

How do artists use the Lightbox Gallery, our space dedicated to digital research and development?

Visitors can find out this fall. Ben Rivers, a 2015–16 Radcliffe-Harvard Film Study Center Fellow, is the first visiting artist invited to create an installation in this experimental space, which hosts work that responds to the museums’ collections. Rivers’s project, The Shape of Things, is on view through October 25, 2016.

A patchwork of different films, one on each of the gallery’s nine flat LCD screens, the installation presents ancient sculptures, landscapes, and a 16mm educational film, as well as the audio from a 1956 poetry reading. Rivers, a London-based artist and filmmaker, is diving into the aesthetic and political work of documentation. His project asks: what kinds of stories are told by the reproductions—films, photographs, and other recordings—we make of our objects?

Inspired by Tradition

In researching the Harvard Art Museums collections, Rivers became intrigued by the museums’ tradition of photographing individual objects. The Fogg Museum hired its first full-time professional photographer, August C. Boecker, in 1927. Boecker was charged with documenting both the new building on Quincy Street (which opened that year), as well as the expanding collections, loans for exhibition, installations, and interior spaces.

For decades, Boecker and his successors documented each of the museums’ objects, using black-and-white film. These thumbnail images were a quick visual reference, but were often of poor quality, with washed-out, high-contrast representations. Like many of the objects they depicted, these photographs were not kept on public view, but rather, were attached to object files and kept in storage.

Fascinated by this history, Rivers began to consider how these archival images related to his ongoing interest in cinema, fiction, and constructed worlds. Last year, Rivers explored that idea when he began his Lightbox Gallery project. He brought his 16mm camera to the museums’ Art Study Center and filmed a number of ancient Chinese and Byzantine objects that he selected from the online collections database. The scenes he filmed were not entirely static; in one clip, a miniature cup with legs from ancient China is gently held by a conservator. In others, sculptures of the human form from ancient Europe and China stand on their own. All of the clips have a flowing, “handmade” quality to their appearance, a result he achieved by developing the film in his kitchen sink.

The installation features these clips alongside others that highlight different forms of making, including the cave drawings he filmed on recent trips to Nevada and Utah. He also incorporated footage from the 16mm educational film Cave People of Old; Rivers reprinted portions of the film specifically for the installation. Finally, all of the clips are accompanied by a striking audio component: a recording of poet William Bronk’s reading of his 1956 poem At Tikal (recorded in 1956 at Harvard’s Woodberry Poetry Room).

Charting New Territory

The overall effect is cinematic and surprising, prompting viewers to think through the process of making, and what becomes lost or added as objects are translated and reproduced. Through Rivers’s project, the images of the museums’ collections again become material objects: physical, rough items that carry with them the hands and process of the people who made them.

Seeing The Shape of Things evolve has been an exciting process, said Chris Molinski, the Rabb Curatorial Fellow in the museums’ Division of Academic and Public Programs, who curated the installation.

“Since we opened this building, part of our opportunity with the Lightbox Gallery has been to expand the possibilities for collaboration on campus,” Molinski said. “At first, we thought a lot about data: how can we use data and new technologies to see our collections in new and different ways? Ben has accomplished another long-term goal: involving artists in this process. Artists always challenge us to think differently. We needed to ask, how can an artist like Ben Rivers work with the Lightbox to expand or frustrate our process of thinking about collections? Rivers has opened this up for us. This experience—of working with an artist and encouraging cross-disciplinary collaboration—is claiming new territory for the role of digital media at the Harvard Art Museums.”