Louise Hervé and Chloé Maillet

The Drachenhöhle, or Dragon’s Cave, near the village of Mixnitz in southeastern Austria reportedly takes its name from the large bones found there, formerly thought to be dragons’ bones. Artifacts in the deep sediment at the bottom of the cave suggest a human presence dating back to 29,000 bc. In their exhibition “The Dragon’s Cave or the Burying,” Louise Hervé and Chloé Maillet channeled the legends surrounding the site, as well as its archaeological and museological treatment, through installations, films, a typed manuscript, and a performance.

The presentation devices of the earliest museums and cabinets of curiosities were adopted in the gallery’s ground floor space, which featured a wooden display cabinet, Francis (all works 2010). Its tiled interior contained three cards with explanatory texts and a numbered display panel. But the objects so carefully numbered and captioned were missing. Like in the opening pages of a mystery novel, would-be sleuths were given their case. As the exhibition unfolded, each clue and misstep was revealed to be woven into the artists’ larger narrative.

Nearby, illustrated pages of the artists’ unique typed manuscript La Caverne du dragon provided hints concerning the contents of Francis. Open on a wooden lectern, with white cotton gloves on hand for paging through, the text described a visit to “the old museum of S. . . .” The description of the site, particularly its architectural details and flock of peacocks, suggested the Schloss Eggenberg Museum, in Graz, Austria, which owns some artifacts from the Drachenhöhle. Hervé and Maillet’s document brings to mind the old museum’s archives: dark and dense, but bound by an underlying system of order, “a room without windows, cramed [sic] from top to bottom with carefully labeled cardboard boxes and coloured plastic cases.” Within this text, a fragment of a second document is contained—a “hastily transcribed” section of another manuscript. The artists write, “Since we had some time to spare; we opened idly another manuscript on a pile,” stumbling across the tale of the archaeologist who discovered “the bronze hoard of Mixnitz . . . buried under the soil of the dragon’s cave.”

Projected on facing walls, two Super 8 films, Hippolyta and Manfred (both part of a longer film, A Recess and a Reconstruction, which Hervé and Maillet will show for the first time this month), loosely evoked two key figures from Horace Walpole’s 1764 gothic novel, The Castle of Otranto. In Walpole’s tale, Manfred, driven to paranoia by the bizarre and tragic death of his son on his wedding day, locks his wife, Hippolyta, away in order to pursue his son’s bride. In Hervé and Maillet’s films, Manfred might be the archaeologist referred to in the typed manuscript, while Hippolyta incarnates the artists’ searching spirit as a veiled woman, torch in hand, attempting to shed light on an elusive subject. A gothic spirit permeates both films: Hippolyta is shrouded by a dark and cavernous space, while Manfred, filmed in the storage rooms of the Museum of London, summons the scene of a mad professor’s laboratory.

The gallery’s two-level basement, accessed by a rickety set of wooden stairs, was the site of the installation Pythagore. For this work, the artists neatly wrapped every last object in the gallery’s stores (mops and brooms included) in brown paper and created a method of inventory based on the Museum of London’s cataloguing cards. Noting site, context, and “description of find(s)” in a coded language, the simple indexing provided sparse clues as to the contents. But the utter lack of detail sparked speculation. Hervé and Maillet’s work is about the creation of myth, the variegated paths of imagination and suggestion, and how objects can become more visible when they are not.

Lillian Davies