Maeve Brennan

An Excavation

Onsite 5 May - 9 July 2022

Launch Event: Wednesday 4 May 6-8pm / All Welcome

In 2014, 45 crates of looted antiquities were discovered at Geneva Freeport in a warehouse belonging to disgraced antiquities dealer Robin Symes. They contained tens of thousands of archaeological remnants worth around £7 million. Three of the crates were sent to forensic archaeologist Dr Christos Tsirogiannis (Aarhus Institute for Advanced Studies) and Dr Vinnie Norskov (Director of Aarhus Museum of Ancient Art) for research.

An Excavation consists of a new body of work derived from Maeve Brennan’s long-term research project The Goods. Carried out in collaboration with Tsirogiannis, the multidisciplinary project is concerned with the international traffic in looted antiquities. Brennan’s works trace the circulation of objects through layered temporalities, focusing on figures such as restorers, joyriders and smugglers whose material actions and practices tie them to wider networks, histories and economies. Brennan has an ongoing commitment to working slowly with people to allow complex narratives to form, attending to the thick and entangled nature of her chosen subjects.

Since 2018, Brennan has observed and documented Tsirogiannis’ investigations, mapping the illicit antiquities network from looters and smugglers to auction houses and museums. By some estimations, antiquities form the largest trafficking economy after drugs and weapons. Using data from police raids, Tsirogiannis has compiled a digital archive containing documentation of over 100,000 looted artefacts which he uses to identify objects of potentially illicit origin when they appear in auction houses, museums and galleries, often leading to the repatriation of objects.

Central to Brennan’s exhibition is a major new film commission An Excavation (2022). The film documents Tsirogiannis and Norskov’s investigation into a series of vases from the Geneva Freeport crates. Made in the 4th century BC by Apulian artisans, these vases remained buried in tombs for 2500 years before they were clandestinely excavated from their now irrecoverable contexts. The objects’ journeys through the hands of looters, smugglers, restorers and dealers are counterpointed by the hand-painted stories that adorn them. Made for burials, the vases depict scenes from the underworld – forensic and mythological narratives start to intertwine.

In 1995, illicit antiquities middleman Pasquale Camera was killed in a car crash. Inside his glove compartment, the Italian police force discovered a stack of photographs of looted antiquities. This evidence led to a series of raids during which the authorities discovered a hand-drawn diagram by Camera, indicating the routes of looted artefacts from tombaroli (tomb robbers) to international markets. This diagram was the basis for a large-scale criminal investigation into key figures within the network, including notorious dealers Giacomo Medici, Gianfranco Becchina and Robert Hecht. In The Glove Compartment (Renault 21) (2022) the internal cavity of Camera’s glovebox milled into a block of limestone, his casual hiding place made visible.

Taking Camera’s organigram as its starting point, Illicit Antiquities Network is an ambitious digital project, developed throughout Brennan’s Fellowship, which follows a series of artefacts through the trafficking chain, from looters to museums. The data from each case feeds a centralised map that visualises connections across time, location, individual and institution.

An Excavation continues Brennan’s interest in forms of repair and reparative histories. Her film The Drift (2017) focused on three figures preserving objects in contemporary Lebanon, mapping converging lines between protected ancient temples, smuggled antiquities and traded car parts. This led her to an interest in subsistence looting as a form of livelihood in ‘source’ countries sustained by a demand in ‘market’ countries. The exodus of cultural heritage through underground trafficking chains can be viewed as a continuation of colonial and imperial extraction. The actions of looters and launderers become part of a tangible material process that pulls at the distinction between licit and illicit cultural traffic. Ariella Azoulay writes of museums ‘For these institutions to be transformed or reformed, it is essential that looting be acknowledged as their infrastructure.’ The Goods aims to make this infrastructure visible, focusing on the patient and meticulous work of Tsirogiannis and others to hold institutions to account and make some small repairs to the damage done by an extractive history.

Maeve Brennan is an artist and filmmaker, based in London, appointed to the Stanley Picker Fellowships at Kingston University in 2019. Working with moving image, installation, sculpture and printed matter, her practice explores the political and historical resonance of material and place. Brennan is currently participating in British Art Show 9 and was a recipient of the Paul Hamlyn Foundation Award 2021. Solo exhibitions include Chisenhale Gallery, London; The Whitworth, University of Manchester; Spike Island, Bristol; Mother’s Tankstation, Dublin; Wäinö Aaltonen Museum of Art in Turku, Finland; Kunsthaus Bregenz, Austria and OUTPOST, Norwich. Her films have been screened internationally at festivals including International Film Festival Rotterdam, Sheffield Doc Fest and FILMADRID (Official Competition 2018). Brennan was a fellow of Home Workspace Program, Ashkal Alwan, Beirut (2013 -14) and was the recipient of the Jerwood/FVU Award 2018.

Thank you Dr Christos Tsirogiannis, Dr Vinnie Norskov, Museum of Ancient Art & Archaeology Aarhus, Toby Christian, Black Shuck, Ben Rivers, Ali Roche, David Falkner, Rebecca Moss, Faith McKie, Somerset House Studios, Alex Stillwell, Guillermo Rodriguez Lopez.

An Excavation (2022): Film Credits

A film by Maeve Brennan
With Dr Christos Tsirogiannis and Dr Vinnie Norskov

Producer: Ali Roche
Associate Producer: Victoria Tillotson
Cinematographer: Jamie Quantrill
Editor: Ariadna Fatjo-Vilas
Supervising Sound Editor: Tom Sedgwick
Colourist: Jason R Moffat
Score: Beatrice Dillon
Kanun Player: Konstantinos Glynos

Additional Percussion: Morgan Buckley
Assistant Camera: Frida Martinsen
Production Sound Mixer: Tom Sedgwick
Camera Equipment: SLV, Minitech
16mm Film Stock and Processing: Kodak Film Lab, London
Credits Design: Fraser Muggeridge Studio

With thanks to Anders Bjerggaard, Jack Brennan, Toby Christian, David Falkner, Eloise Hawser, Therese Henningsen, Faith McKie, Rebecca Moss, Imran Peretta, Philomene Pirecki, Paul Purgas, Sophie Richmond, Ben Rivers, Somerset House Studios and James Wreford.

Commissioned by Stanley Picker Gallery, Kingston University.

With support from Arts Council England and Museum of Ancient Art and Archaeology, Aarhus.

Illicit Antiquities Network (2022): Website Credits

Produced in collaboration with Dr Christos Tsirogiannis.

Built by Black Shuck and designed by Rory Gleeson.

With support from Stanley Picker Gallery, Kingston University; Arts Council England and The Elephant Trust.