This conversation was made to frame the exhibition Domesticus Venus, which was exhibited at KINGS Artist-Run, on unceded Wurundjeri Country. It touches upon the shortcomings of anthropological and archeological frameworks, which is particularly pertinent and has profoundly impacted the stories, histories and mistruths told regarding First Nations people of this Country, and more broadly, First Nations and marginalised groups globally.
Throughout the late 19th century and 20th century, Upper Paleolithic statues depicting women began to be uncovered. These have been labelled as Venus Figurines with the Venus of Willendorf, dated from 25 000 BP (before present) coming to symbolise art, iconography and ritual behaviour of pre-Neolithic cultures. These figurines have extensively been researched, but are too often assigned the function of ritual object, and depicted as fertility mother goddesses.
Domesticus Venus seeks to interrogate these reductive modes of research. Playfully tracking the creation of similar statues from this period into their discovery in the late 1890s — and the demarcation of an object intended as a toy into the religious symbol of a society labelled ancient and primitive — this video work challenges modes of academic knowledge-making. This project asks us to consider the question; despite “objectivity” of scientific methods, do we ultimately superimpose our subjective perception of past behaviours and past cultures?
The edited transcription below is taken from a conversation between Victoria and Isabella. Listen to the full conversation here.
Bella: I thought it could be a wonderful place to start with the contributions that make up this work. You wrote the script, composed the score, and you largely did the filming; but you have included narration and vocal contributions by various academics. You were able to include the narration of Robert Attenborough, son of David Attenborough, would you be able to elaborate how this came about?
Victoria: When I was first thinking about making this ‘almost mock-umentary’ piece about archeologists uncovering these figurines I started delving into documentaries. I grew up with David Attenborough narrating my childhood, as well Kenneth Branagh, who did Walking with the Dinosaurs. So when developing this particular work I thought about narrators, and who I could get. I had just started my PhD in Cambridge when this happened, and Robert Attenborough was the graduate tutor of my particular department in Biological Anthropology. We got to know each other a bit more, and when the commission finally happened through KINGS I thought that I had to ask him. I floated the idea, and to my surprise he was so enthusiastic, and said yes. A week later I sent him the script and we sat down and did a recording in his office.
Bella: I think it’s so fortuitous, this connection, with you making a work like this. For people who haven’t watched the work I think it’s quite playful and tongue-in-cheek, and I was really compelled by the way that you use these tropes of National Geographic style daytime documentaries to introduce the viewer to these really reductive modes of research. I wondered if you could expand on what was appealing to you about this style?
Victoria: Aside from the BBC programs I also grew up attached to the National Geographic, which also produces a lot of dramatic documentaries, particularly when it comes to human history and archeology. When I was studying history, we would watch a lot of these programs, and I found them kind of hilarious, in a way. They would always have these scores that were unnecessarily dramatic, and have all of these unnecessary reconstructions of the past, where people would dress up as Neanderthals, and there would be these battle sound effects, and things like that. I wanted to incorporate a lot of that into this work because I think a lot of documentary film making about archeology expects that to happen. Using these methods that are already relevant in our culture and what we are used to seeing in our media, and putting them into something that was meant to be satirical, was meant to highlight that the filmmaking process of these documentaries also plays a role in our limiting and reductive reconstructions of the past as well as academia — so there’s many layers of commentary going on.
Bella: In continuation, in this work you are also asking us to question how those that are dominant in these research fields — such as history and anthropology, or biology, or archaeology — superimpose or project their perceptions, or cast judgement upon past behaviours, cultures or rituals. I wanted to ask you why you decided to rewrite this narrative of the Venus figurine from a different cultural perspective.
Victoria: I chose the Venus figurines because they are one of the most well-known ancient ‘things’. If you happen to be someone who has studied archeology or art history, it’s in your first lecture of history 101, right? As I was taking art history at the University of Sydney — and the figurines were introduced in the first lecture — at the same time I was taking archaeology, where I was lectured by Alison Betts. She writes on human history, and prompts us to think about what would happen if Barbie dolls were the only cultural remnants of our time. I reflected on the two ideas together, and thought about what if the figurines had no ritual function, and what if they were just children’s toys? There is a movement in archeology now which is about looking at objects and considering what is an adults object, and what is a child’s object, and how we can change that conversation. So I wanted to provoke the viewer to think about; what if these aren’t religious at all? What if they are just an ordinary object that we have assigned value to, in the hopes of mythologising this whole cultural past? Further, what is the likelihood of us making that mistake day to day as well?
Bella: If you feel comfortable, I’d like you to speak a little bit about your experience navigating the bureaucracy of these organisations that you have been working within, and how that plays into some of the themes that have come out in making this work?
Victoria: When I was a teenager and I first wanted to pursue archaeology I had this romanticised view of what that would mean; of going to digs, getting to travel, and do all of these things. But when I was 17 I volunteered at a museum and was working in their department of anthropology. They trusted me with the job of writing museum labels for all of these objects, and for finding provenance — which is actually a really difficult thing to do. So I suddenly found myself in the position of learning the right museum language, and how restrictive it was to be able to write that one sentence label to go with an object; which would go into the database and be used if they were ever to be exhibited. No one would ever know that a 17 year old volunteer had written that, and that was approved by the museum. I would look through these volumes of information, and have to reduce them into about 10 words, which made me realise that the job was actually quite different to what I had imagined. Then I started training as an archaeologist, and moving through the University of Sydney, working in field trips overseas, where actually for the most part I was uncomfortable excavating things and exhuming objects. Now, at the University of Cambridge I realise how entrenched some of these practices are, and sometimes I feel like we could do with some kind theory of science, or philosophy of science when it comes to culture. Part of the main issue is that when you are being trained, in any science field, but particularly in archaeology, you feel like you are part of a cycle. If you read the history, like with the Venus figurines, you will find a reference from some person, who dug up some object, maybe 200 years ago; and they weren’t really trained as an archeologist, because that didn’t exist as a field then. They made a presumption about another cultures object, without asking the local people, sometimes acquiring it without permission, and just saying what they thought it was. And that work got published, in a peer reviewed paper somewhere, and even now, 200 years later when we are looking for information about these cultures, or these objects, we are expected to reference that original thing — or our presumptions have stemmed from that original false claim that has now entered the literature of science. Trying to find out a way to break that cycle that we are embedded in, particularly as an academic, is something I’m interested in, and the Venus figurine was one way for me to provoke these questions. To ask, when we look at a female in any situation, why does it have to be about fertility?
Domesticus Venus was presented as part of STRAY VOLTAGE, KINGS Artist-Run’s iterative video program, collaboratively facilitated by Rebecca McCauley and Aaron Claringbold. Looking to the potential that exists between seemingly incompatible ideas, STRAY VOLTAGE premises an experimental program of critically engaged moving image works, fundamentally grounded by the earth. In 2022 STRAY VOLTAGE is funded through the City of Melbourne’s Annual Arts Grants Program.