In Reverse at the Pitt Rivers Museum

A testament to the incredible lifespan of a well-crafted object, this exhibition spotlights the understated artistry of the Pitt Rivers Museum artefacts that inspired it. The way along the narrow first-floor passage to the In Reverse display is a sensory riot in itself. But ‘seeing’ was not enough for Royal College of Art students on a visit to the museum. An invitation to showcase their artwork here led them to bridge the void between the past and potential present-day roles of objects. By creating their own version of a chosen relic, they revived age-old artefacts and fed unique meanings into the museum’s material.

The students’ response-pieces are housed in a cabinet tucked in a corner – this is no art gallery and the artworks must compete for attention amidst the surrounding horde of relics. Victory is theirs: the display’s striking arrangement draws in even inadvertent passers by. No particular piece takes centre-stage, as the students sought a designedly egalitarian presentation. Of course, viewers will still have their favourites: Sofia Winberg’s reaction to a man’s necklace is ingenious. Echoing Punk, Gothic, and New Romantic elements of our world, she plants her version of the necklace in a thoroughly modern context, transforming the imitation tiger teeth hanging from the original brass wire into a neck-collar studded with cast molar teeth. The whole display reverberates with idiosyncrasy: subjectivity is a key ingredient in the cumulative vigour of this exhibition.

The project is far-reaching in many respects. A wealth of research was carried out by the students in the process of rejuvenating their artefacts, and interest did not stop at the objects’ corporality. Eunice Kuo’s choice of chain-linked wooden spoons gave rise to a film that documented the interaction between pairs of people using her replica instruments. She says of the piece: “This coming together represents harmony, a collaboration and a supportive relationship.” The lasting significance of this artefact is not merely historical, nor aesthetic. The intimacy induced by such an object has not diminished with the passage of time: the project really does signify a meeting of eras.

Another student’s curiosity was (unsurprisingly) caught by an artificial beard tied to a plant-fibre string. Joanne Wardrop caught on camera the ability of her 21st century version to affect human behaviour, particularly the feeling of masculinity in certain activities. In doing so, she accessed a greater understanding of the customs represented.

Much is made of the students’ formation of the artwork, with accompanying blurbs and even some step-by-step outlines. This is perhaps where their similarity to the original models nosedives. This divergence is really driven home by Youjin Nam’s use of a computer-driven haptic arm’to recreate a fishing basket. The project did not come cheaply for this individual, with a not-so-measly £200 spent on replicating traditional weaving using a sensor. The cabinet is a beacon of modernity in this otherwise antiquated space. Rather than a reversal, this exhibition fast-forwards the objects into our times.

The students’ rejoinders to the original makers’ ingenuity are well worth a glimpse. There is something beautiful about the idea of imbuing these glass-confined, inanimate objects with contemporary relevance and vitality. Who knows, maybe the 24th century will see students teasing life out of our very own objects. Which leaves me wondering – what will be our ‘artificial beard’ counterpart?

‘In Reverse: Where the Future Meets the Past’ runs at the Pitt Rivers Museum until 2nd June.