The Artifact Speaks

A proposal for a show in the Marion Nichol Gallery


Paul Brown


This project involves the juxtaposition of a group of museum artifacts and a sacred space. Certain areas of the main mall will act as the museum space. The Marion Nichol gallery will be transformed into a sacred space for the remembrance of the dead. The performance of a ritual will occur in place of the usual gallery opening. The ritual will involve three main steps. First will be the removal of the artifacts from their locked museum cases and their installation in the gallery. Second will be the rite of remembrance during which candles and incense will be lit, flowers will be placed, special phrases will be said and explanations will be made. Third will be the feeding of the participants using individual bowls served from a large communal cooking pot.

The duration of the museum exhibit will be two weeks and it will start one week prior to the gallery show, which itself will last the usual week. The performance should take about half an hour to arrive at the point where the participants have been given food and another half an hour to clean up and prepare the gallery for the rest of the week.


The exact set of artifacts to be used as part of this project has yet to be determined as few of them currently exist. The intention is that each object be such that it will fit naturally into a solemn and ancient ritual such as a service for the dead. Each will also look appropriately treated when it sits in a locked museum case with a formal label. Nothing will look new; every object will look worn and stained by time. Most objects will be made of ceramic materials. I have an number of types of object in mind. There will be wall-mounted and free-standing candlesticks, incense burners, boxes, jars and vases for flowers. There will be several funerary urns [untenanted]. To provide decoration for the space a large bas-relief tile mural will be made. Gargoyles and other wall-mounted and simple pieces of statuary will be used.

The centrepiece artifact will be a box that I have almost completed after several hundred hours work. It is intricately carved with gnarled vines that twist and writhe and create the box by their intertwining. Hidden within the carving is a Latin quotation about death. The attention to detail is intended to remind one of the hours of devoted attention given by a mediaeval artisans to the creation of religious icons. The effect of this box is one of arrested organic growth - again, a reference to death.

In addition a large cooking or storage vessel will be required. I intend to make a primitive-style earthenware pot for this purpose. To feed the participants a large number of individual bowls will be needed. I have yet to choose between two alternatives for making these bowls. The first alternative is to make, decorate and fire these bowls myself. The second alternative is to make the bowls and keep them in a very damp state so they can be easily carved, stamped or otherwise decorated by any who are interested at a scheduled workshop/event to be held in the mall. I would then complete the glazing and firing of the bowls. The first alternative should be considerably less time-consuming; but the second has the benefit that the bowls would be much more individual-looking and the decorators would probably be interested enough to attend the opening in order to eat from the bowl they had made.


The museum will consist of about six locked museum cases in one or two small clusters placed in the mall. The cases will appear about one week prior to the opening. A placement fairly close to the Marion Nichol gallery will be sought. Care will be taken however not to interfere with the gallery show for that week. The artifacts will be very formally placed and labelled. Each label will describe its object in terms of materials and function. No mention of date or age will be given except to say that the object has been restored, recreated, resurrected or remade. When each object is removed it will be replaced by a formal notice that the artifact has been removed for the purpose of observance of a ritual.

In order to achieve the look of authenticity I desire, I intend to ask for some assistance from exhibit preparators at the Glenbow Museum, where I currently volunteer as a curatorial assistant.


The gallery will be transformed into a crypt-like space reminiscent of such underground halls in mediaeval European churches. This will be done using blackout curtains to shroud the front windows and the over-wall opening to the student association office. The walls will be black-draped with paper or cloth. The best way to do this must still be worked out. Very subdued lighting will be used during the ritual so that the candles can have maximum effect. Since candles cannot be burned in the gallery without an attendant, the artificial lighting will be partially raised after the ritual. It will be primarily used to highlight sets of objects and make them stand out from the surrounding darkness.

On the centre of the back wall there will be a large bas-relief mural made of individual tiles. The central subject will be that of a god or goddess who represents death. This god or goddess must belong to a culture which has been inherited into the European tradition. In front of each of the side walls will be a small black-palled table that functions as a side altar. On the walls there will be a scattering of small shrines each composed of a number of objects such as gargoyles, small statues, vases, candlesticks and incense burners. Some of the shrines will have a shelf upon which free-standing objects may be placed. Even when all the museum artifacts have been placed within the gallery there will still be surface space left for other foreign objects.


At five o'clock precisely, a solemn bell will toll slowly and funereally. I will enter, garbed in monkish robes, pushing a black-palled bier and carrying a ring of keys. I will unlock the cases, remove the objects, convey them on the bier to the darkened gallery/crypt and install them in prepared places to the muffled strains of Gregorian chant. A short formal service involving the lighting of candles and incense, the placing of flowers and the speaking of a few ritual words and phrases will ensue. I will explain [within the context of the ritual] what I am doing. I will speak personally about some of the people whom I have known who are now dead. I will suggest that any who wish to do so are invited to use this space at any time during the ensuing week to remember those among their relatives and acquaintances who have died. Then, somewhat less formally, the participants will each receive a small bowl of food spooned out from a large communal cooking pot. The service will end with the careful cleansing of the bowls and their being put away. The candles will then be extinguished and the light brought to its final state. I will disappear from the scene. The other remnants of the ritual will be left in the gallery for the duration of the installation.

Each day I intend to visit the gallery, light a candle or two, burn some incense, place a few flowers and remember. I hope we can under certain conditions extend this opportunity to others.

An additional feature of the project that I hope to be able to construct is a small "curatorial sanctum" cordoned off within the gallery. Its entrance would be unobtrusive but not completely hidden. Within it would be a chair, a desk and a computer running an Internet browser that would access a local copy of a site about this project. The site would contain this proposal together with images of some of the artifacts and further thoughts about the project - both my own and any that are given as comments by visitors. I also intend to start putting the site up on the Internet as soon as I have been given a go-ahead for the show.

PROGRESS TO DATE [Dec 11th 1996]

I have conducted several discussions with staff of the Marion Nichol gallery and previous exhibitors to discuss the feasibility of certain aspects of my proposal, such as the use black-out curtains, lighting and the burning of candles and incense. I have received provisional permission from Kurt in the Jewellery department to use their display cases. Staff at the Illingworth-Kerr gallery have agreed to my using space in the mall in late March, subject to booking an exact time.

I have chosen an mediaeval illustration of a monk's robe as a design for mine. I have lined up help to make a pattern and sew it. I have models or designs for a chest ornament and keys that my metal-working expertise should be sufficient to make. I have started preliminary research on Gregorian chant to see if there are pieces that I could learn to sing myself so that I do not have to rely on commercial recordings. My experience in various church choirs should be an asset here.

I have almost completed the making of the carved box, This has been a marathon project itself. It should be completed by early January. A photograph of me working on it is included [courtesy of the photographer, Adrienne Gradauer]. I have taken a special press-molding course to learn techniques to speed up the manufacture of carved objects. I have started the experimental production of press-molded tiles. I have made quite a lot of clay and plaster stamps for the decoration of the small bowls. I have done a trial run by making fifty bowls and carving or stamping them. I have about twenty that I will use in the show. I have proved that it is quite feasible for me to throw a hundred bowls over a two-day period and them bring them to a reasonable state for carving within another day or so.

Assuming that my proposal will be accepted, I intend soon to make approaches to several commercial businesses to see if I can induce them to donate some of the items I require for the show, e.g., the computer, software, cloth, food, flowers etc.