Interview with James Putnam


Inês Mourato: In relation with ‘Time Machine’, what did inspire you to create the concept around Ancient Egyptian sculpture?
James Putnam: While working as a curator in the British Museum’s Ancient Egyptian department I was particularly researching their sculpture collection. Meanwhile I was also making art in my spare time inspired by ancient Egyptian paintings sculpture and bas-reliefs. I had artist friends who I chatted to about Ancient Egypt and gave them personal tours of the museum’s reserve collection. Since they were similarly inspired by this great ancient art form I thought it would be good to stage the ‘Time Machine’ exhibition.

IM: As you mentioned in the catalogue of your exhibition, Ancient Egyptian art is ‘magical’. Do you believe that their myths, even though not real, could teach and inspire contemporary artists?
JP: What I meant by ‘magical’ is because Ancient Egyptian is so far removed from our contemporary culture, based around complex religious beliefs and iconography, it is this very sense of other worldly ‘remoteness’ that makes it ‘magical’. Yet there is something about its aesthetic and its link with the forces of nature that makes it in tune with our contemporary sensibility. I don’t feel classical (Greek &Roman) art inspires artists in the same way.

IM: Isis was considered ‘smarter than million Gods’. According with this citation, do you believe that Isis and her feminist influence will enforce the empowerment of women and their place in an equal society?
JP: Like mother goddess’ in other ancient cultures, Isis is associated with wisdom and nurturing and is no doubt a readily identifiable symbol to empower women nowadays and to suggest social equality.

IM: In one of your interviews you mentioned how Contemporary Art is a ‘continuity’ from the past as it can evoke religion thematics . From your experience with artists, why do you think Contemporary artists are so interested in Classical Themes?
JP: I think this relates to the notion that human beings both past and present have similar aspirations and common aesthetic ideals – I also think that the ‘strange’ religious beliefs offer an attractive inspiration to contemporary artists, appealing to their imaginative sensibility that is often steeped in science fiction and filmic imagery.

IM: As a curator and Ancient Egyptian Historian, what is the one thing that most inspires you to create and produce exhibitions.
JP: I have an ongoing interest in curating exhibitions that combine both historic themes and artifacts with contemporary art as I believe that they ‘animate’ one another. Also I like the idea of subverting time which relates to both my exhibition ‘Time Machine’, the sentence I use on my website ‘All Art was Once Contemporary’ and my book ‘Art & Artifact’. I think this notion is also encapsulated in a book I was very inspired by called ‘The Shape of Time – Remarks on the History of Things’ by George Kubler Yale University Press (1962). It presents an approach to historical change which challenges the notion of style by placing the history of objects and images in a larger continuum.

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