Earlier in your career you took a specific interest not only in archaeology but in the classical tradition. There was one project where you built Rome in a day, another revolving around Troy, a third that looked at the Getty’s Greek collections…
It really happened by accident. I’d taken high school Latin, but nothing more than that. But I went to grad school during the George W. Bush presidency, and the classics, at that point, offered this back door to American politics, and a way out of the ossified binaries that surrounded Bush and Cheney and the Iraq war, which just felt like a dead end. There are such striking parallels between America and the Roman empire, and it would be interesting to restage some of those early pieces now.
In Boston, where I grew up, every red brick has a history. When I came to California, none of the materials that I would find on the side of the road were anything but garbage, really. Performance became a way to invest those objects with a history — and here, too, we don’t have this piety around history that one so often feels on the east coast or in Europe. I mean, the Getty Villa is paradise, but it’s also utterly fake.
Greek and Roman art is supposed to signify some apogee of human civilization, and yet in the art market it’s relatively cheap. For the price of just one contemporary painting in an auction evening sale you could buy hundreds of bronze helmets or painted vases.
You know how they try to get around that? By assigning authorship.
Oh, right, of course. You group a bunch of drinking vessels together and attribute them all to someone like the “Berlin Painter.”
Instead of thinking about the development of style, you come up with individual artists — painters, not potters. The classics really show how value is inherently declarative. Particularly in the instance of Heinrich Schliemann, who excavated Troy. He was digging for years, and he was out to prove that the Iliad and the Aeneid really happened, historically. Which is just so wrong-headed; a really beautiful idea, but just wrong.
And when an oddball with less wealth somewhere in the United States does that, people don’t take him very seriously. But Schliemann, this well-heeled entrepreneur, does it with this large crew working under him, and suddenly it becomes the gold of Troy. He just kept walking around and pointing at stuff, and shouting, “This is King Priam’s wall!” What I’m interested in is if more people can take on that power of conferring value on objects. And if it’s possible to upend value, because value is never inherent in the objects themselves.