Fighting Histories

Tate Britain, London by Tony Hisgett

Tate Britain, London by Tony Hisgett

Last month I attended a panel discussion at the Tate Britian in London inspired by their recent Fighting Histories exhibition. The event prompted interesting questions around notions of history, cultural memory and asked how history is made.

I was pleased that the discussion set out to explore the themes I find myself pondering, such as whose histories are recorded for posterity and what are the ways in which artists might work with historical materials and cultural memory?

Working with found objects myself, I am inspired by the stories behind the materials I find washed up on our coastline and wonder how these objects will be interpreted in the future. It is my belief that the longevity of plastic will reveal our everyday tastes and fashions to future generations. The throwaway fragments we discard today will contribute to our own history in the same way artefacts lay suspended in the earth, patiently waiting for the archaeologist to uncover. Will our plastic strata indicate our obsession with mass production, consumerism and an over reliance on oil?

Flotsam finds - April 2014

Hidden in plain sight

During the panel discussion, artist Uriel Orlow explained that he views history as a latent resource existing within the landscape. This was a comment that particularly resonated with me. To walk the tideline is to interrogate traces of our existence, which are largely ignored for their unsightly appearance as litter. It is only time which elevates everyday discards such as broken clay pipes, pottery shards and glass bottles to rarefied objects to the cabinet of curiosity. These items are not made with valuable materials. They were not uncommon at  their time of production, and would be prevalent in most people’s lives. I like to think that the single use items we see littering the shoreline are the modern equivalent of these treasures, only they hide in plain sight; we choose not to see them. 

When dealing with these objects, I think it is important not to be too prescriptive or offer closure, as room for interpretation allows multiple voices to be heard. By encouraging the viewer to orientate themselves through the collection or display, they can begin to construct their own narrative. This offers room for interpretation and to celebrate how we extract different meaning from the same things.

I am working on creating encounters that will cause the audience to consider the zeitgeist through orphaned objects, and imagine how we might be represented by these artefacts of the future.



  1. Fascinating post, interesting ideas, I never really think about our flotsam and jetsam as being future history I think of it as a shameful example of our throwaway society and lack of consideration for our environment. That of course is not how we tend to think when we find shards of pottery or sea worn pieces of brick on our beaches, to us they are exsamples of how people lived in past times.

  2. Hi Jo…I agree completely with the idea that today’s trash is also tomorrow’s history. It is really interesting to me how much we interpret other cultures through the fragments they left behind. Why would our culture be seen in hindsight any differently? I suspect that we will ascribe a greater sense of purpose to our artifacts than they simply were made and consumed as quickly as possible.

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