A Text by Christopher Page
“It would seem that mythological worlds have been built up only to be shattered again, and that new worlds were built from the fragments.”
Ancient sculptures, archaeological fragments, scraps of text that have survived the gnawing tooth of time, whisper to us in a foreign tongue. They gesture cryptically towards beliefs and rituals that seem alien to us moderns, but more than that, towards whole architectures of thought that we can never fully reconstruct. We are led to believe that these old “mythological worlds” are childlike, and that we are grown-ups who no longer live in myth, who see the world as it is. But what if our own architectures of thought are themselves mythological worlds built from the fragments of the old?
Clementine Keith-Roach’s new sculptures—archaeological artefacts of the present—themselves gesture cryptically towards mythological worlds. We witness hands, arms, torsos, legs, bearing the weight of heavy terracotta vessels—limbs that are identifiably female, and vessels traditionally associated with domesticity. What appear to be the wounds inflicted by time’s tooth might also be read as the lashes of labour. But along with toil we feel a distinct tenderness at work—gentle caresses between entangled hands that share the burdens.
These gentle caryatids, tender sphinxes, are not the ancient gods and goddesses that loom over us mortals, personifications of forces that cohere into a pantheon. Always and already fragmentary, Clementine’s sculptures are not myths but mythemes: assemblages of part-objects, shards of myth. Lévi-Strauss described mythemes as the composite units of narrative—the king is killed, deluge comes etc.—that move through time, appearing in different configurations, new mythological assemblages under new social and theological conditions. In this exhibition we find echoes of ancient Egypt and Greece, we glimpse the Lactating Madonna, the Deposition of Christ, as well as gestures of labour, strife, mourning and care that span time and place. In the wall-mounted relief the sense of assemblage is most formally manifest, the fragmented figure held up by a multiplicity of hands against a surface studded with remnants from her studio—her own spolia, repurposed and reconfigured.
Clementine’s new ruins do a dance with time. The terracotta vessels she finds are old, used, and bear the scars of that use. The limbs that support them are new casts of the artist’s body, immaculately painted to match the patina of the urns they bear. For her, this act of mimicry opens a dialogue between the present and the past. For me, this dialogue speaks to a more general anachronism of our time, namely the obsession with old ruins—ruinenlust in German—in societies premised on the endless production of the new. Why do we revere ruins today? Is it simply because of the historical information they carry, or do these ghosts that haunt our world remind us that other worlds have existed, and offer us hope that others still might emerge in the future?
Towards the end of the 20th Century, it was said that we lived at the end of history. That was our myth: the myth of the finality and perfection of a world order built on individualism and competition. With ecological disaster looming, that mythological world is beginning to crumble. What will we build from the ruins? What bit-parts, what mythemes will remain useful in the composition of the new mythological assemblage yet to be built? These sculptures whisper to us to keep hold of those fragments of collectivity that lie scattered around us.