A self-mythologizing practise

2 Oct 2019 - 12:45

A self-mythologizing practise by Jonathan Goschen

A refelction on Norman Daly's Civilization of Llhuros


For the Istanbul Biennial to include the work of an American artist who died in 2008 seems an unusual choice for a space usually reserved for the most contemporary of works. 

Norman Daly’s decades long work, Civilization of Llhuros, includes the archaeological findings from a fictional civilization for which he has developed a considered history, lore, mythology, social system and material culture. The installation exhibits these artefacts, mostly constructed of wood, ceramics and wrought iron, with delicate patinas and smooth, rounded finishings. Each artefact contains detailed descriptions about what they mean within Llhuroscian scholarship, and how their symbolism reflects the mythology, beliefs, and daily life of Lhuroscians. Many of the objects were categorised as votives – an object offered in fulfilment of a vow – most commonly referenced in the candles one offers in a cathedral.

Civilization of Llhuros is considered one of the first examples of archaeological art. Its inclusion in the 2019 Istanbul Biennial, covers the entire third floor of the Pera Museum, and is the largest installation of the work since its first exhibition in 1974. The Pera Museum, founded in 2005, holds a particular focus on Orientalism in 19th Century Art.

Daly’s attention to detail and consistency is perhaps what comes across most powerfully in his work. It allows for the exhibition to be both ironic and appreciative of its dealings with archaeological practise. His method of working and display is consistent with typical anthropological display. Daly also invented a rich world of scholars, archaeologists, translators, researchers, institutions, curators and publications which all serve to advance the penetration of Llhuros into the contemporary world.

The viewer, with little introduction to this vast body of work's fictitious nature, finds themself trying to locate these pieces through the timeline: from the Early Archaic, Archaic, Late Archaic (Lampö), Middle Period, through to the eventual Decline. One is tempted to buy into the hoax through the familiar, academic modes of writing, but is suspicious of frequent mentions of the Llhuroscian phallic preoccupations, and claims such as “the fall of these people has been ascribed to the infallibility of the Llhuroscian menstrual chart”.

Fragmented pieces of (invented) history collide in his exhibition to give the viewer a new perspective on the civilization in which we currently find ourselves. How would our Anthropocene civilization be recorded by future anthropologists? Furthermore, how certain can we be about what has been presented to us about civilizations and cultures in the past? The scientific approach feels like a justification to the viewer, but if it can sometimes be undone, and replicated as seamlessly, as exemplified by Normal Daly, then it cannot be as accurate as it purports to be. 

As these questions are raised, one also wonders as to the mechanisms of parody. Daly’s parody of anthropological, or archaeological, exhibitions is so sustained that it seems to begin to parody even itself.

"There is a danger of over-theorizing in attempting to present a chronological survey of the relatively unknown civilization called Llhuros."

Moment’s such as these strike the viewer on reading the introduction to the exhibition. The project took Daly years to realise and became a preoccupation for the last few decades of his life. To what extent can one be devoted to a sustained joke without the joke falling on oneself, or extended itself out to become an absurd world itself?

"Our ever-increasing exploration and knowledge will, we hope, one day produce a clearly delineated and sharply focused picture."

It is clear that no matter how prevalent or potent our knowledge and exploration is; it will never be possible to present a pointed picture of this fictional Llhuroscian culture. Even less so with Daly’s passing in 2008. But again the joke creeps in – did Daly ever really think it would become that clear? – perhaps one might reanimate his imagination with some future mind-reading device.

Unsure of what to do or think of this immense body of clearly thought out work, the viewer ultimately becomes, in some way, alienated from his present society, and is encouraged to reflect up it.

The anthropocene, which in geological time refers to the epoch during which human activity has been the dominant influence on climate and environmental change, has been the focus of this year’s biennial. The title of the Biennial curated by Nicolas Bourriaud, The Seventh Continent, appropriately references the build-up of plastic waste in a few large ocean gyres, covering a land mass around one third of the United States.

Accordingly, in invention (and creation) of this continent, is not unlike the invention of Llhuros.


Words and photos (of Civilization of Llhuros by Norman Daly, as part of the 16th Istanbul Biennial, taken at the Pera Museum) by honours in curatorship student Jonathan Goschen.