THE CENTAUR EXCAVATIONS AT VOLOS
The University of Tennessee, Knoxville is internationally renown for its research on centaurs. The Jack E. Reese Galleria in the Hodges Libary includes one of the finest adult male centaurian specimens yet discovered, and the library includes the most extensive collections of centaurian epic literature in the southeastern United States. From 1998 through 2001, annual panel sessions were sponsored by the UT University Studies Program to present the research by noted centaurian scholars at the University of Tennessee.
CLICK HERE TO VIEW IMAGES FROM THE CENTAUR EXHIBIT.
"Do You Believe in Centaurs?"
by Beauvais Lyons, Professor of Art
Observations on the process of bringing "The Centaur Excavations at Volos"
to the University of Tennessee, Knoxville's Hodges Library (June 1994)
A myth is defined in the modern desk edition of Webster's New World Dictionary as "any fictitious story, person or thing." Mythic creatures such as mermaids, unicorns, bigfoot, minotaurs and a host of other zoomorphic monstrosities, often combine human and animal attributes. Creatures such as these, which generally appear in works of art, can be understood as fantastic archetypes which fulfill a basic human need to express the unconscious through symbols and metaphor. From this perspective, the ancient Greek myth of the centaur, a half-human, half-horse creature which inhabited the forests of Thessaly represents a potent combination of human intelligence and animal desires. The centaur becomes even more loaded when it is presented as a scientific fact.
These issues make "The Centaur Excavations at Volos," a permanent display installed three years ago in the John C. Hodges Library at the University of Tennessee in Knoxville engaging. Like other works of archaeological fiction [see end note #1], this display uses the conventions of scholarship to present a work of fiction as authentic. The only clue that the viewer should be skeptical is the showcase title plaque, which includes the question "Do you believe in centaurs?"
"Of course not," you (and every other college educated viewer) responds. But here, in an elegantly constructed showcase, complete with a faux marble base and simulated wood panels are the skeletal remains of a centaur burial along with various inscribed clay tablets. On the back side of the showcase is a screen printed text panel in which this specimen is described as "one of three centaur burials discovered in 1980 by the Archaeological Society of Argos Orestiko eight kilometers northeast of Volos, Greece." The text panel includes a map of Greece, a 16th century woodcut and a drawing depicting centaurs, a photograph of a relief sculpture of a centaur from the Parthenon and a print showing the anatomy of an adult male centaur. The text and the visual data are presented in the dry, scholarly manner common to archaeological exhibits
"Do you believe in centaurs?" I asked one student who approached and seemed perplexed with the display. "I'm not sure" he responded, "but it sure looks authentic." Looks are, of course, deceiving. As a culture, we are constantly bombarded with fictions represented as fact by the tabloid press, simulations of reality in docu-dramas and countless examples of what Umberto Eco calls "hyper-realities;" from shopping malls to theme parks. If the experience this display engenders is authentic, maybe it is real?
After further discussion with this student I finally revealed that the display is a work of art, and hence fiction. The centaur (made from the tea stained bones of a pony and a deteriorating human skeleton) was originally constructed by Bill Willers, a Professor of Biology at the University of Wisconsin-Oshkosh who is also an artist. Willers exhibited the project at the Madison Art Center as well as several college galleries in the mid 1980's before putting the work in storage in a friend's barn. In 1992, Neil Greenberg, from the UTK Department of Zoology and I undertook a campaign to raise funds to purchase the display for the university. We were able to secure a prominent location on campus for the exhibit with a commitment from the library and generated support from a variety of campus organizations. I designed the showcase and exhibition text and Bob Cothran from the UTK Department of Theater painted the fake marble and wood panels.
While presenting a work of fiction as fact may be construed as counter productive to the educational mission of the university, Paula Kaufman, Dean of the UT Libraries endorsed the exhibit as a valuable object lesson on importance of skepticism. Many students are conditioned to believe the word of authorities, whether they be academic, political, scientific or religious. This work of academic parody functions as a conscious form of self-critique, deconstructing the authority of the library itself.
For Al Burstein, (former) chair of the UTK University Studies Program and a primary supporter of the project, the centaur underscores a key heuristic issue; that the experience of having a deeply held belief disconfirmed (as in the hoax dehoaxed) is critical to self-conscience epistemology and thus the educational process. In this respect, the exhibit functions like the professor, who after a persuasive lecture on a particular topic concludes by informing the students that 90% of the lecture is bogus. The students are then assigned to write a short essay which sorts out the lecture's facts from fictions. When a colleague of mine was subjected to this teaching method as a student at the University of Michigan, she recounted that her never again took anything for granted.
Aesthetically, "The Centaur Excavations at Volos" employs camouflage techniques, as it is perfectly integrated into its surroundings. The design of the showcase, its proportions, color and prominent position in the "Jack E. Reese Galleria" make it appear as if the library is built around the display in the same manner that a mausoleum is built around a sarcophagus. These formal attributes, like the content of the exhibit reinforce its apparent authority.
The centaur also obscures the distinctions between art and science. While modern science is generally thought of as a systematic knowledge derived from observation, study and experimentation, science may also be thought of as akin to art; a skill or technique applied to a particular discipline. For this reason we might use the expressions "the science of boxing" and "the art of boxing" interchangeably. As a work of art created by a scientist, the centaur provides a unique bridge between the scientific and artistic camps which comprise the modern university.
This leads one to pose the question; what is the role of art in a university setting? Should art provide aesthetic backgrounds, (what one might call "visual musak") for the more important task of scientific research and cultural critique? Or can art play an active role in the academy?
While the University of Tennessee has had a highly successful sculpture tour for more that a decade, the function of art in a public setting has undergone a significant transformation in the recent past. This shift, initiated by the controversy surrounding Richard SerraÍs "Tilted Arch" at Federal Plaza in New York City has seen the artist attempt to meet his or her audience half way, often working with architects and citizen groups to ensure public artworks will serve a beneficial role in the community. While Serra's brand of modernism represents the artist standing alone, often against the public, recent public art projects, even those which critique institutions and cultural practices, are more often intended to work with, rather than against their audience. This exhibit, having the imprint of an interdisciplinary committee of faculty is similarly conscious of its social and pedagogical purposes.
The process by which the exhibit was brought to campus was by no means direct, and provides an interesting case study for interdisciplinary public art projects in a university setting. At a lunch hour forum sponsored by University Studies in the Fall of 1992, I presented the proposal to a group of thirty faculty and students from across campus. While many attending the forum were interested in the project, some felt that it should only be funded through private donations. ñWhat would the tax payers of Tennessee think if we purchased a centaur?î claimed a former Faculty Senate President from the Department of Economics. Just as Jesse Helms tried to rally support against publically funded works of art, it was felt that this project would be subjected to similar criticism. In response, I contended that the university should have the academic freedom to allocate resources in any way that enhances its educational and research mission [see end note #2].
In the end, student organizations on campus were a major source of revenue for the project, particularly the Cultural Affairs Board and the Student Exhibits Committee. Additional funding came from University Studies, the Office of Student Affairs and private donations.
In January 1993, in association with our efforts to bring the display to campus, University Studies sponsored a forum on the topic "Hoaxing in Science and Teaching" which included presentations by myself and faculty from various disciplines as well as a guest appearance by the media con artist Joey Skaggs. Skaggs is a major figure in the field of media jamming, as he has created imaginary events and other phenomena for media consumption for over twenty years. Among his various media hoaxes, he once fooled UPI into running a story about a fictitious Colombian entomologist who developed a dietary supplement derived from cockroach hormones which cured everything from menstrual cramps to acme and arthritis. The presentations for the forum covered a wide range of approaches to hoaxing, from parodies in which ironic signals may be clearly discerned to outright deceptions for financial gain or to lend credibility a theological or philosophical point of view. One pedagogical benefit of the hoax is its capacity to cultivate a healthy sense of skepticism, which is, after all, a primary goal in teaching.
While this event was important in generating more interest in the proposal, the issue of presenting a work of fiction under the pretext of non-fiction was still a problem for some faculty. One person asserted that a convincing display on centaurs would imply that the library endorsed the existence of centaurs. This argument assumes that the library can verify the authenticity of every "non-fiction" text in its collection. Instead, the library serves a descriptive rather than prescriptive function. Exhibits such as the centaur critique the institution of the library and the assumptions behind its practice. In so doing, it helps to remind all of us that we must be critical of authoritative claims to truth.
Given the need to bring together a wide range of disciplines to make the exhibit useful to the whole university community, I assembled a "Centaur Installation Committee." The display had already generated objections from faculty in the Department of Classics due to two errors in the Latin inscription on an etching by Willers showing the anatomy of an adult male centaur. With the prospect of over 1,000 high school Latin students coming to campus for a conference the following summer, it was important to make sure the fiction was as convincing as possible. The committee was composed of eight faculty from a variety of disciplines, all of whom made valuable suggestions regarding the particulars of the display, the showcase and the exhibition text. However, at our first meeting on July 8, 1993 we opened a whole new can of worms; state regulations regarding the display of human remains.
The human portions of the centaur were acquired by Willers from his department at the University of Wisconsin. For many years the department had a human skeleton from India which had been used for class exercises and was starting to deteriorate. Willers replaced the departmentÍs classroom skeleton with a plastic version so that he could appropriate the older, authentic specimen.
Tennessee has two statutes pertaining to the display of human remains. One, which doesnÍt apply to the centaur, bans the display of Native American remains. The second (Û 39-17-312) is loosely titled "abuse of corpse," and addresses a person who "physically mistreats a corpse in a manner offensive to the sensibilities of an ordinary person." Would the centaur be construed as abuse of corpse according to this statute?
My attempts to get the Office of the Knox County District Attorney to render an opinion on the matter were unsuccessful. In a memo to me dated July 12, 1993 they stated that their office "does not provide advisory opinions to individuals pertaining to criminal violations," referring me (instead) to the State of Tennessee Attorney GeneralÍs Office in Nashville. I quickly learned that law, like art, can provoke multiple interpretations.
To clarify the legal issue, I asked Paula Kaufman to send a memo to Beauchamp Brogan, the Secretary and General Council for the University of Tennessee to request an advisory opinion regarding the exhibit. In a memo to Kaufman dated July 30, 1993, Brogan claimed that he was aware of the proposed exhibit and had no legal concerns for the university. He writes:
"There is a specific statute which allows unclaimed bodies of persons who die at (a) publicly supported institution to be distributed among medical, dental and anthropologic institutions in the state for use in study and ïfor the promotion of science alone.Í T.C.A. Û 68-4-103, 68-4-104. This statute does not apply to the Centaur exhibit. However, it does illustrate that there are situations involving the ïuseÍ of corpses which do not violate the criminal statute. Also, there are mummies and other human remains in various museums around the state, including the state museum in Nashville. If the university displays the Centaur and uses it in a dignified, scholarly manner, it is highly improbable that someone will accuse the University of acting in an illegal manner. Also, aside from legal concerns, the University needs to be sensitive to the reaction of Indian students on our campus."
Brogan's concern about displaying the centaur in a "scholarly and dignified manner" resulted from language in a funded grant proposal to the Cultural Affairs Board from the previous Spring which read:
"Considering the excavations were conducted at 'Volos', a name which has a remarkable resemblance to 'Vols' (the common abbreviation for the Tennessee Volunteers), it is quite possible that the centaur exhibit will engender the same mythological status as (an emblem of the university) the torch bearer or our mascot, 'Smokey' the blue tick hound. It is easy to imagine a time when the image of a centaur sporting a coon skin hat and carrying a rifle will be screen printed on sweatshirts worn by thousands of UT students. In addition, the centaur could become the basis for fraternal rites of passage, a central motif in homecoming parades and the inspiration for a catalogue on the mytho-poetics of science. The impact of this project on the cultural life of our campus may be greater than any of us can even fathom."
While the language of this paragraph is a response to the typical grant application query "How many people will the project impact?" it had been my hope that the public nature of the exhibit would allow it to play a symbolic role in the popular culture of the university. Most college students do not look to art or religion for an experience of the sublime. Instead, this need is generally filled through the spectacle of college football, pep rallies and homecoming parades. While art is generally divorced from mainstream culture, if an exhibit like this elicit public involvement on par with college sports, it comes dangerously close to being too ritualistic and pagan.
The exhibit has the potential to come in conflict with status quo religious beliefs in another respect as well. The ancient Greeks, who generally represented centaurs as wild and promiscuous, used the metaphor of the half man, half horse to express the animal nature of humans. By using the metaphor of the half man, half animal ñThe Centaur Excavations at Volosî underscores a very basic truth; human nature can not be separated from its animal, and hence evolutionary origins. This aspect of the exhibit is in some respects ironic, as in 1925 Tennessee was the first state to outlaw the teaching of evolution, a law which was later overturned in the famous trial of the science teacher John Scopes. Trials such as these protect public education from religious intervention. Exhibits such as "The Centaur Excavations at Volos" as possible, in great part, because academic and artistic freedom are seen as mutually beneficial. Art can play a vital role in the academy, even in situations when you speak with your tongue in your cheek.
1. For more information on the genre of archaeological fiction see my articles "Art of the Trickster," Archaeology, March/April, forum section, p. 72 and "The Excavation of the Apasht: Artifacts from an Imaginary Past," Leonardo: Journal of the International Society for the Arts, Science and Technology, Pergamon Press: Oxford University, Vol. 18, no. 2, pp.81-89.
2. It is difficult to separate the issue of academic freedom from patronage. The modern university is a consequence of the secularization of higher education. While tax payers fund public universities under the assumption that universities enhance the economic vitality of the state, the role of art within this system of patronage is usually problematic when the work is overtly political or sexual. For more information on this subject see my 1991 article "Artistic Freedom and the University," Art Journal, Winter, Vol. 50, no. 4, pp. 77-83.