At the heart of Ancient Egyptian art was the desire and attempt to understand the frailties of life and a celebration of living it to the full. The Saatchi gallery has invited the artists Kate Daudy and Cyril de Commarque to respond to the Tutankhamun exhibition and explore what it means to be human.
Kate Daudy It Wasn’t That At All
Kate Daudy has immersed herself in Egyptology, working with historians, medics and language specialists. Daudy’s work is based on an ancient Chinese literati practice of seeking to understand the universe through art and nature. She has worked in number of artistic disciplines including sound work, performance, interactive collaboration, photography, sculpture and large-scale installation. She often uses wood or felt fabric to create her writings, as well as her more characteristic ink drawings.
Daudy’s work unpicks the layers of history – micro and macro, personal and world. A poignant large scale piece called Fireworks was created in response to the passing of a close friend. His life was commemorated in a funeral service that ended with a fireworks display which scattered his ashes. In response Daudy has combined a simple image of fireworks (made of circles) joined by text from the Dialogue of man and his soul. It is life affirming and joyous in the way that grieving and mourning is.
Although the show is styled a response to Tutankhamun, it is interesting that more than Tutankhamun, the figure most examined in the show – to my mind – is Akhenaten, the heretic pharaoh and Tutankhamun’s father. Akhenaten revered the Aten, the solar disk, and his religious reforms led to changes in Egyptian society (the scale of which are still debated). A new style of representation emerged from the Armana period (named after Akenathen’s capital). One of the main policies enacted during Tutankhamun’s reign was the reversal of these reforms and the return to more traditional forms of representation. Freud was fascinated by Akhenaten.
Really the show is not an examination of particular historical individuals, but of a culture, a society and of what it means to be alive.
Egyptian art used symbols in very particular ways, partly because of the visual nature of the official script. Daudy is well placed to examine these symbols. Her art examines the limits of language. Her words reflect or contrast with the nature of the object she makes or chooses, and what she writes on for what it might evoke or represent. The symbols examined are those from the long legacy of Egypt – the images of film, the visual language of the Egyptology and the unexpressed words.
The heart of Egypt
One of her most significant interventions is that of medicine. She walked closely with the heart surgeons at the Hammersmith Hospital and witnessed four heart by-pass operations. These are very visceral.
The work of the surgeons is akin to Egyptian priests who used magic to heal ailments or to bring the dead back to life in the form of Osiris. The operations of the modern day medics are similar to that of the ancient embalmers and perhaps our responses to the operations are the same as our ancient forebears.
Medical scapels are laid next to a stylised Egyptian heart which has a video of an operation.
The heart was the seat of the soul, of thought and emotion. It was the only internal organ not removed from the body during mummification. The Ancient Egyptians believed that at death a person’s heart was weighed against a feather to measure how just the person was. Amulets were produced which words from the Book of the Dead: “Oh my heart… Do not stand witness against me.
Cyril de Commarque Artificialis
In striking contrast to Daudy, de Commarque’s work is more extroverted. It is art as world making. A response to the anthropocene, de Commarque investigates what a future world with invasive and creative technology with look like:
A darkened room covered in an unreal black sand. Repetitive sound, flashing colours and neon strip lights. Oro, a sculpture made from recylcled plastics depicts a small child couching between metal poles – a prison, a stage, a denuded post-man forest. Is this a nightmarish vision of the future or fun? It reminds me of those immortal lines of Eliot:
What are the roots that clutch, what branches grow
Out of this stony rubbish? Son of man,
You cannot say, or guess, for you know only
A heap of broken images, where the sun beats,
And the dead tree gives no shelter,
This is an interesting moment in which two major collisions coalesce. The Anthropocene where Late Capitalism is struggling to respond to resource scarcity and the climate crisis, and the emergence of machine learning and the industrial harvesting of human data. de Commarque is interested in what changes this will lead to in humans, but also what changes in creativity. He says, we were once free even in prison, because the mind is free and private. As he was working on his installation, he learnt that scientists were developing technology so that machines could connect to minds. If this technology becomes pervasive, will the mind even be free any more? For him, creativity is independence for emotional meaning in environment and to ask questions of others.
It is a powerful and impressive work. To produce the sculptures, de Commarque worked with a team of five to carve plastic using a technique that heats and chills the material.
Egypt’s place has been subsumed beneath the dominant discourse of art history. The cannon is presented as classical (“Dead, white males”) but at the very beginnings of the classical and throughout its history, Egypt (alongside other cultures) has been an important presence.
Daudy and de Commarque’s work are powerful responses and interventions in the long legacy of Egyptian art.
Kate Daudy It Wasn’t That At All and Cyril de Commarque Artificialis are hosted at the Saatchi Gallery from 2nd November as part of their artists in residence programme.
As part of her residency, Daudy has organised a programme of talks and podcasts to make Ancient Egypt more broadly accessible comes across in Daudy’s cross-disciplinary approach.
Tutankhamun: Treasures of the Golden Pharaoh presented by Viking Cruises opens at the Saatchi Gallery on 2 November. Tickets on-sale now.