The Institute for the Study of the Ancient World, a branch of New York University ensconced in a townhouse off Fifth Avenue, is an academic institution that welcomes doctoral students and visiting scholars and hosts small, concentrated exhibitions of antiquities from Greece, Rome, Byzantium and Persia. It is not where one usually comes to encounter contemporary video art, still less a work featuring complex 3D graphics, a pulsing electronica score, and captions in hot-pink Helvetica.
But for a few more weeks, this discreet uptown institute is playing host to the British artist Elizabeth Price, who has brought to its stately galleries a burst of music and images. Ms. Price, who was awarded the Turner Prize in 2012, spent two years in residence at the Ashmolean and Pitt Rivers museums at Oxford University. There she became engrossed by watercolors from an early-20th-century archaeological mission in Crete, led by Arthur Evans, who excavated the ruins of the ancient Minoan civilization. The video Ms. Price produced in Oxford forms one half of an engrossing exhibition here, “Restoring the Minoans: Elizabeth Price and Sir Arthur Evans,” that explores the slippages of archaeology and how easily we project present-day expectations onto the mystery of the past. (Jennifer Y. Chi, who was recently named the Brooklyn Museum’s new chief curator after a decade at the institute, led the show’s curatorial team.)
You’ll want to start with the historical half of “Restoring the Minoans,” which features which features both millenniums-old antiquities and early-20th-century impressions of the site made during Evans’s expeditions, before you sit down to watch Ms. Price’s witty reconstitution on video. Arthur Evans (1851-1941) was the keeper, or curator, of the Ashmolean in the Victorian era, and with his own cash he bought a large plot of land on Crete, which he began to excavate at the turn of the last century. He unearthed the material heritage of an Aegean civilization, predating classical Greece by a thousand years, and historians today still rely on his research and efforts to make sense of the early ancient world.
But Evans also had a dreamy streak. Like his German predecessor Heinrich Schliemann, who bounced around Turkey proclaiming that every rock came from the walls of Troy, Evans became convinced that the myths he’d read as a child had really happened, and that he was uncovering the remnants of a peaceful, glorious kingdom. (The name “Minoan” comes from King Minos, a mythological king of Crete.) He proclaimed he had found the birthplace of Europe, and at Knossos he “reconstituted” a ruined palace with frescos and architectural detailing that were, to put it kindly, imaginative.
At the Institute for the Study of the Ancient World, watercolors of Cretan friezes by artists in Evans’s employ have an Art Nouveau ornamentation more appropriate to London’s Liberty department store. And this show includes both actual Minoan artifacts, such as a frowzy female figurine dating to 1600-1450 B.C., lent by the Metropolitan Museum of Art, and forgeries Evans acquired on the site. The most indecent fake is the one Evans proclaimed “Our Lady of the Sports,” an ivory statue whose bare breasts are subtended by a gold bustier, and whose hips are framed with a gender-blurring codpiece. As the Getty curator Kenneth Lapatin writes in an illuminating catalog essay, forgers in Crete knew how to satisfy Evans’s expectations. The site being excavated was to conform to his dreams of a pacifist, matriarchal, free-spirited civilization, nothing like the Europe outside tumbling into world war.
Intrigued by both Evans’s overreaches and his team’s visual invention, Ms. Price created the two-screen video “A Restoration” (acquired by the Art Institute of Chicago.) It begins with a riot of vegetal imagery, sprouting from the darkness against a percussive score as a narrator — her voice provided by a text-to-speech engine — details the recreation of Knossos’s botanical decorations. “A graphic foliation has put forth bold new leaves on the stems’ ancient design,” she speaks. Imagery from the Oxford museums gives way to digital renderings of flowering plants, symbols of Evans’s creative, even out-of-control archaeological fecundity.