Last year, a number of news sites reported the discovery by archaeologists of a giant sphinx head unearthed from the sand dunes on the coast of central California. Alas, this was not some transposition from the Valley of the Kings, but part of the giant lm set that had been built for Cecil B. DeMille’s 1923 Hollywood blockbuster The Ten Commandments. Once shooting was completed, and as a money-saving gesture, DeMille ordered the entire set to be buried in situ: a site of excess turned hidden dumping ground, until its re- emergence several decades later. Can a replica ever hope to acquire the material and symbolic value traditionally reserved for the original on which it is based? And how is this value conferred? This is one among many questions put forth by Pat- rick Hough across the videos and objects that make up his first institutional show in Ireland, which, when taken together, broach the uncertain and slippery nature of the relationship that binds reality to history and to fiction.
In False Starts (2014), from which the exhibition borrows its name, an archival image of Howard Carter from 1924 shows the archaeologist peering through the open door of Tutankhamun’s tomb. As argued in the accompanying audio text, compiled by philosopher Alexander García Düttmann, the composition and lighting of the black and white photograph turn it from documentation of a historical moment to a theatrical image that would not be amiss on (you guessed it) a DeMille studio epic. Does the real ever return, it asks. And, if it does, then what role does the fake – or, in other words, its representation – have to play?
Return it does, though, in the form of one of DeMille’s enigmatic sphinxes, whose ghost rises from the depths of the Californian dunes to stalk the small-town environs of the museum that houses its plaster body in And If in a Thousand Years (2017), Hough’s most recent film. Originally commissioned for the 2017 Jerwood/FVU Awards, the piece assembles CGI animation, laser scanning and live-action footage with images of the original props, bringing together technologies new and old to further complicate the criteria by which we read an object, an image or a story as a manifestation of truth – or only its semblance. The cryptic utterance of the replica-of-a-replica in And If in a Thousand Years, ‘I’m a myth half-consumed by other stories’, is mirrored in Hough’s earlier Object Interviews (2015): a series of three videos in which specialists from different fields interpret the merits and failures of a range of lm props. For an Egyptologist, they are nothing but crude simplifications of an ancient culture, the latter’s complexity lost in the act of transmutation. For the prop makers and cultural theorist who comprise the other ‘interviewees’, they are symbolic containers for our own belief systems, from which a multitude of histories and mythologies emerge, not necessarily limited to the original from which they borrow their form.
The crux of Hough’s work, then, is to be found in the show’s title, which suggests it is our all-too-hasty assumption that the prop – or fake – has nothing to o er beyond its immediate and intended use as a stand-in that demands re- evaluation. What could be the head of an Ancient Greek sculpture, were it not rendered in polystyrene and plaster, lies on its side by the exhibition’s entrance/ exit. It reminds me of the calls to recon- struct culturally significant artefacts (think of Palmyra’s Temple of Bel) using computer imaging. Sometimes, it is only via the replica that we have access to civilizations and cultural histories long gone.
Patrick Hough, 'False Starts' was on view at Solstice Arts Centre, Navan, from 16 September until 26 October 2018.
Main image: Patrick Hough, And If In A Thousand Years, 2017. Courtesy: the artist and Jerwood/FVU Awards; photograph: Paul Gaffney