Rethinking the Irretrievably Lost in Analog and Digital Spaces

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A recent installation by artist Rayyane Tabet raises interesting questions about historical memory and its vulnerability to cycles of excavation, destruction, and resurrection. Tabet traces the trajectory across borders and generations of a 3000-year-old Neolithic basalt sculpture of a goddess from Tell Halaf, Syria.   Excavated by Max Oppenheim in 1911, it was destroyed, along with many similarly excavated pieces, in the 1930 bombing of the Tell Halaf Museum in Berlin. The basalt sculptures splintered into thousands of pieces and for years were consideredto be “irretrievably lost".  In 2001 a team of archaeologists began the process of reassembling the 27,000 surviving fragments. Using photos and detailed descriptions, they were able to reconstruct many figures, including what Oppenheim had called his “beautiful Venus.”

Tabet’s 2017 “Ah, My Beautiful Venus” consists of eight foil pressings made from Oppenheim’s plaster mold of the original sculpture. Each piece represents a small section of the figure.  The only depiction of the full statue appears in the brochure that accompanies the exhibit. Underlining the absence of the actual statue, the installation rests on 6.5 tons of basalt tiles imported from Syria. These are meant to equal the volume of the original Tell Halaf goddess. Tabet thus commemorates an absence. He conjures a vision that exists more as symbolic object than as physical presence. He encourages us to consider the contingency of historical memory and its dependence upon acts of commemoration as much as the persistence of physical artifacts.

I recognized a similar dynamic when I recently read about an exhibit that includes the crushed hard drive containing unfinished works by the writer Terry Pratchett. This object also commemorates an absence. According to his friend Neil Gaiman, Pratchett requested that his computer and whatever he was working on at the time of his death be destroyed by a steam roller.  Pratchett’s hard drive was accordingly crushed by a vintage John Fowler steam roller at the Great Dorset Steam Fair. Pratchett’s friend Rob Wilkins tweeted before and after photos of the drive and suggested that it had contained at least 10 titles and many fragments. The smashing of this hard drive and its subsequent display are acts of commemoration. And both seem to underline The Guardian’s claim that, Pratchett’s “unpublished works are [now] lost forever.”

But are Pratchett’s works any more lost than the Tell Halaf sculptures that exploded into thousands of pieces as a result of the 1943 bombing? Technology has enabled the recovery of innumerable “lost” texts and artifacts. What does the crushing of a single drive mean when Pratchett said in an April 2000 interview “Well, yes, there’s always a newer computer. This house has computers like other houses have mice.”

Even if Pratchett’s unpublished writings were confined to the one crushed drive, can we declare with absolute certainty that they are irretrievably gone? Given newly developing techniques of reconstruction, it is important to ask what it means to be destroyed or suppressed. Its display suggests that Pratchett’s words still somehow inhere, even if only symbolically, in the crushed hard drive. To me, this echoes the story of the burnt papyrus scrolls that survived the eruption of Vesuvius in 79 AD but could not be unrolled or read for almost 2000 years until the development of x-ray imaging techniques.   These cases raise the question of how our sense of history is affected by the restoration of artifacts previously thought to be lost forever. Although the particular vulnerability of digital objects to erasure and distortion is the subject of much contemporary investigation, equally important is the exploration of the long term implications of recovery and reconstitution and the role of objects that prompt us to rethink what it means to be “irretrievably lost.”