A colleague sent me a fascinating little article in the Norwegian Archaeological Review by Stein Farstadvoll titled “Vestigial Matters: Contemporary Archaeology and
Hyperart” (h/t to Derek Counts). The article applies the concept of Hyperart, developed by the Japanese artist Akasegawa Genpei, to the archaeology of the contemporary world.
Akasegawa defined hyperart as “material vestiges, things that have become detached from their intended purpose and function.” Farstadvoll’s article proposes that a red polypropylene snow stake found in the vestiges of the 19th century landscape garden fit this definition. The snow stake was out of place from a functional standpoint as it was not marking a road edge or feature that needed to be visible during deep snowfall. It was also out of place temporally standing in a landscape otherwise defined by abandonment. The rupture between the snow stake and its surroundings in both the time and the place render the object meaningless or at least profoundly ambiguous. Anyone who has done archaeological work – particularly archaeological survey – has invariably happened across these kinds of Hyperart.
Two little scenes from my work in the Western Argolid may well qualify as Hyperart. One is a Greek coffee cup that hangs from a nail in a wood cabinet in another wise ruined seasonal house (kalyvi) at the settlement of Chelmis.
It’s not so much that the resident of the house wouldn’t enjoy a cup of Greek coffee from time to time so that the object is out of place. It’s that the cup remains hung by its delicate handle from the nail in the wooden cabinet even after the roof of the house has long collapsed and the house no longer serves the function that would offer an appropriate context for coffee drinking.
The juxtaposition between the coffee cup still in its place and the otherwise ruinous condition of its surrounding has never failed to attract our attention. In fact, this past summer my colleagues and I joked about how many photos we’ve taken of this forlorn coffee cup hanging by a nail in a house that is collapsing more and more every year.
The settlement of Chelmis is connected to the nearest village not be bonds of kinship or even, necessarily, regional economy, but by a road and electrical lines. The electrical lines take a more direct route than the road which roughly follows the slightly meandering path of an east-west running ravine. The electrical lines run along a straighter line and cut through olive groves and fields and often stand some 10 or 20 meters south of the road. They provide power to one or two houses that Chelmis that continue to be used and the church of the Panayia nearby.
The posts that support the electrical lines also have street lights. These are strange because in many cases the electrical poles are not near the street. These lights do not light up the street. The might, of course, serve another function, for example, to show whether the power lines have current, but this seems unlikely. Perhaps at some point the road ran closer to the electrical poles. Maybe the electrical poles were supposed to be installed along the road, but for whatever reason were not. We know that during the spring when the Chelmis was occupied for threshing grain and in the winter when the flocks were present, children from would have walked from the settlement to the village for school. Perhaps they would have left in the morning when it was still dark the the streetlights, though misaligned, would have shown the way through the countryside.
Today, they don’t seem to serve any purpose and we’ve never been in that area at night, so we don’t even know if any of them work. Maybe they’re vestigial. Maybe they’ve always been out of place.