Jeff Wall Fieldwork. Excavation of the floor of a dwelling in a former Sto:lo nation village, Greenwood Island, Hope, B. C., August, 2003. Anthony Graesch, Dept. of Anthropology, University of California
Jeff Wall’s ‘Fieldwork’ (2003) depicts archaeological fieldwork in British Columbia.
Two fieldworkers excavate the remains of a Native American (Sto:lo Nation) floor, now part of a field. No longer an interior, the floor has passed outside. The walls and roof have gone. There is only the floor, which is now largely indistinguishable from the ground.
What field? Has this place always been the field? Are fields always resolutely outside? Could they also contain interiors? What is the interior region of a field? How can it be conceived? And what of the forest? Is that also a field? Don’t forests lie at the edge of fields and isn’t entering a forest like stepping into a room? How is the general shadiness and interiority of a forest to be understood?
Actually the ancient floor is now a tiered hole with an archaeologist kneeling before it taking notes. He kneels on one of four mats that are arranged on each side of the square hole. The archaeologist is out in the field but immersed in his fieldwork. He fashions his own delineated space within the field – a space of private observation and writing. He attends to a discrete, excavated area within the larger field and fashions his own field of observation and description.
Another fieldworker stands at the margins. He watches the working fieldworker, while himself simply standing there beneath a lofted branch, his feet shoulder width apart, his hands in his pockets. He is immersed differently in the field – distractedly, inactively, within the prosaic tedium of slow, deliberate archaeological fieldwork.
They have a bunch of stuff lying around. They have created a little dirt track. They have colonised a little bit of the wider forest and turned it into an archaeological field. Once again, the exterior is shaped as an interior.
There is another fieldworker as well – the photographer. Wall photographs the fieldworkers each day. He conveys a sense of the culture and context of archaeological fieldwork in carefully composed formal-aesthetic terms. It is as though a painting of a Renaissance forest scene has been updated – no longer full of cavorting centaurs and nymphs, there are instead two archaeological fieldworkers; who despite themselves, despite their level of distraction or methodical calm, somehow still manage to summon up the memory of an earlier mythical field (accentuated by the subdued, meditative, untimely light). How is this enabled? It is perhaps at least partly by fashioning a relation between interior and exterior space – elaborating curious openings, borders, thresholds and rooms within forests and fields. All of this suggests the complexity of fields and fieldwork. Fieldwork involves much more than simply stepping outside.