View of “The Way of Shovel,” 2013–14. From left: Moyra Davey, May 7, 2001, 2003; Moyra Davey, Floor, 2003; Moyra Davey, Copperheads 101–200, 2013; Mariana Castillo Deball, Uncomfortable Objects, 2012; Scott Hocking, Rusty Sputnik, 2013. Photo: Nathan Keay.

“The Way of the Shovel”

Museum of Contemporary Art, Chicago (MCA Chicago)

View of “The Way of Shovel,” 2013–14. From left: Moyra Davey, May 7, 2001, 2003; Moyra Davey, Floor, 2003; Moyra Davey, Copperheads 101–200, 2013; Mariana Castillo Deball, Uncomfortable Objects, 2012; Scott Hocking, Rusty Sputnik, 2013. Photo: Nathan Keay.

MORE THAN MOST EXHIBITIONS, “The Way of the Shovel: Art as Archaeology” aspires to give material form to a theoretical argument. Its curator, Dieter Roelstraete, has long been interested in the relation between art and historical excavation, and the show takes both impetus and title from a polemical essay he penned in 2009. This titular echo raises fundamental questions about the relationship between text and object, writing and digging: There is, indeed, a marked difference between Roelstraete’s verbal and curatorial formulations. Whereas the essay decried what he lamented as art’s “historiographic turn” and castigated contemporary practice for forsaking exigencies of the present in favor of endlessly reproducing the traumas of history, the unflinchingly cerebral exhibition seems to wager that it can leverage these selfsame examinations of the past into discoveries about our current moment. To this end, Roelstraete has assembled works by thirty-four artists who, according to the introductory wall text, “study the past through its material traces.” In a kind of archaeological doubling of curatorial method and artistic strategy, he offers their work as a series of artifacts or traces through which we might, paradoxically, reformulate historical discourse itself as a contemporary object that tells us what our cultural obsession with the past—wryly emblematized here by the fantastically turgid form of Siebren Versteeg’s bronze-gilded, red-velvet-mounted wall relief of the History Channel’s iconic logo, History, 2003—tells us about today.

According to Roelstraete, this preoccupation with the complex interchange between past and present is a primary concern not only of most recent art (as well as its modes of exhibition), but of the best recent art—an assertion supported by the prize-garnering, critical celebrity of many of the artists in the show, among them Hito Steyerl, Joachim Koester, Simon Starling, and Anri Sala, all of whom admittedly do look quite good here. And yet, in privileging the primacy of a singular artistic concern above and beyond all other aspects of the work, Roelstraete’s approach courts a neomodernist formalism of sorts, wherein “method” replaces “form” in the well-worn dichotomy of form and content. This framework risks generating its own historicism, one that sometimes strays quite far from the “material traces” deemed so important for the exhibition, subsuming things themselves within the abstraction of the exhibition’s premise. This “archaeological” method, then, makes for some strange and sometimes strangely unified adventures in looking.

Section labels throughout the show belabor the applicability of various archaeological metaphors to each piece. They need not work so hard: Blatant thematic similarities already bind the artworks together. Having been introduced to the exhibition by display cases containing documents from Pamela Bannos’s research-based excavation of the museum’s own site, Shifting Grounds: Block 21 and Chicago’s MCA, 2013, and then shepherded into the first gallery by Mark Dion’s deadeningly literal re-creation of an archaeologist’s work space, Concerning the Dig, 2013, the visitor should get the point. And if she doesn’t, four cases displaying the teeth of “elevator bucket” equipment, presented as if archaeological artifacts or pseudorelics from the site-specific digs of Cyprien Gaillard (e.g., the excavation he orchestrated as Dunepark, 2009) will surely do the job.

If such literalism feels contrived, the show nonetheless gains strength when it moves on to more explicitly archaeological projects, works that actually engage the material study of the past rather than simply signposting it. These include the brilliant pairing of Michael Rakowitz’s ever and always more stunning The Invisible Enemy Should Not Exist, 2007–, and Jean-Luc Moulène’s disarmingly understated Le Monde, le Louvre, 2005, both of which reframe the antiquities they re-create to demonstrate the ways in which the meanings associated with such artifacts are both temporally and politically contingent. Mariana Castillo Deball’s eclectically material Uncomfortable Objects, 2012, and her cheekily humorous lithographic series based on the 1964 excavation of an Aztec monolith near Mexico City, It rises or falls depending on whether you’re coming or going. If you are leaving, it’s uphill; but as you arrive, it’s downhill, 2006; Tacita Dean’s The Russian Ending, 2001, a delicately imaginative photogravure portfolio of scavenged postcards reframed and annotated to conjure final scenes in filmic tragedies; and Moyra Davey’s 2003 sequence of steadfast chromogenic photographs of the daily detritus in her home, here printed and framed in a manner that recalls the archaic format of Polaroid snapshots—all probe the art of time itself. They suggest that art resists the norms imposed by “human” time, if not also the epistemological limits of any organizing rubric, no matter how archaeological, no matter how abstracted. These works won’t and can’t be retrofitted into conventional time-scales. Here, art triumphs as it endures—an improbable feat in a show where the actual experience of art feels secondary to its method—and we eventually glean something about the imperialism underlying the continued investment of historians and institutions in absorbing objects of the past into the timelessness of a universal cultural heritage. Indeed, by shifting its frame from human time to archaeological time, the exhibition ultimately reserves its diagnoses and judgments about the role of art in our understanding of history for the future. This is not the escapism into the past that Roelstraete originally derided, but rather a grappling with the past’s intrusion into the present that has decided implications for how we act in the here and now—for how we look forward.

Hannah Feldman is an Associate Professor of art history at Northwestern University.