Nestled in a pocket neighborhood in Echo Park, Daniel Small’s studio is quite the kaleidoscope of thought—adorned with jacquard tapestries, a partially assembled Ikea desk, and various pieces of pseudo Egyptian antiquities from his latest installation, Excavation II—featured as a part of the Hammer Museum’s biennial Made in L.A. exhibit. If the walls of the artist’s studio could speak, I imagine they would sing beautiful hymns in unheard of languages, whisper sweet nothings, and demonstrate a refined taste in wine and cheese, clearly au courant by nature.I am here to chronicle Small’s investigation of time and memory in Excavation II, an archeological excavation of the film set used in Cecil B. DeMille’s The Ten Commandments in 1923.
An alum of Rhode Island School of Design (BFA) and San Francisco Art Institute (MFA), Small is clearly a renaissance man with an impressive CV to show for it. From curating art forgeries in collaboration with the FBI to collecting looms generated from lost JPEG images, his oeuvre surely speaks for itself. These works have been featured in the Biennale de Lyon, and in exhibitions across the globe including San Francisco, Utah, and Los Angeles—stretching as far as Kanazawa, Japan.
For the young artist, the 200 square miles of land dubbed California City cultivated his interest in “the ruins of modernity” as an aerial geoglyph of the misguided optimism of the early 1950s. Meant to rival Los Angeles in size and promise, the site was planned, but never built—a ghost grid of suburbia today. This fascination with the course of time and changing perception has led him to his latest project, Excavation II—an unearthing of artifacts that have been forgotten and reclaimed.
Small offers me a seat in front of a widescreen computer beside an exceptionally large printer, stacked with what I would later discover to be FBI classified files. He sets the scene with a black and white photo of DeMille’s 1923 film, located at the Guadalupe-Nipomo dunes on the Central California Coast and modeled after the Egyptian city of Pi-Ramesses. Concerned that other directors might use it, DeMille had the set blown up and secretly buried subsequent to filming.
Nearly a century later, Small rediscovers the ruins of the imagined Egyptian city preserved beneath layers of sand. The pseudo antiquities displayed in the installation create a pastiche of memories from ancient Egypt. “These memories raise an awareness of the many layers that take on new meanings and new histories that form with each given representation,” Small tells me. The first excavation of the site in 2012 was initiated by Peter Brosnan, along with the Guadalupe-Nipomo Dunes Center and Santa Barbara County.
The assemblage includes bizarre historical rewrites of myths in paintings and pseudo hieroglyphic sculpting from the Luxor hotel in Las Vegas. He shows me one painting in particular by Sir Edward John Poynter that is cinematically referenced in the opening sequence of the film; the only difference being the direction that the sphinx is being pulled. Small recants DeMille’s famous words without a moment’s hesitation, “If 1,000 years from now archeologists happen to dig beneath the sands of Guadalupe, I hope they will not rush into print with the amazing news that Egyptian civilization extended all the way to the Pacific Coast of North America.” I ask how the words have spurred the project, and he reminds me of a sense of self-awareness foregrounded in perpetuating memory into the future. Small is alluding to the uncanny parallels between what the 1923 filmmaker is discussing and the awareness of the pharaohs in perpetuating their memory into the future by building temples—the first instantiations of taking ownership and branding.
Like most art today, his work is often cast under the umbrella of “projects.” However, Small prefers the word “investigation,” for that better embodies what he is trying to do. Addressing the reliability and changes in representation that result from layers that develop overtime, Excavation II addresses a playground of invested memory, myth, and imagination. As he shows me more photos from the Hammer, Small and I discuss the concept of originality and representation. “We’re so estranged from original means, what do we even talk about when we’re talking about original.” The investigation is memory—and how it unfolds over thousands of years. For Small, representations and re-representations are constantly at work in reclaiming a past that never occurred in the first place.
He refers back to the original story of the exodus book of the Bible as an example; allegedly occurring 3,500 years ago, there are so many layers that continuously evolve with each passing year. We revisit the concept of memory and the ways in which it colors history. Small’s fascination lies in the human tendency to fill the spaces and gaps in history with imagination and speculation that contextualizes us in the present.
He tells me of the numerous projects he constantly has on the back burner, listing a few—from another pending exhibition with the FBI that is forthcoming in Los Angeles to an exploration of a petrifying well in Yorkshire. Making our way to the door is a gradual process, as I am intrigued by the many unopened, concealed cardboard boxes that are scattered throughout the room. I ask him how he has time to build a desk, referring to the half-finished piece of furniture in the middle of the room.
“That’s a great question.”
The archaeologist within me digs deeper.
“Is that why it’s unfinished?”
“That is absolutely why it’s unfinished. Maybe I should leave it that way, it makes for better art.”
Small reminds me that it is important to maintain “the confluence of history, myth, and archeology, and imagination.” An excavation of not solely objects, but present desires and intentions at the time, the site is illuminating in the sense that it tells us much more about ways of thought in the present than it does about the past.
Written by Jasmine Ashoori