Skip to Content

Reviews & Articles

‘May the earth in chaos come to us for light’: Deep Time in Daniel Boyd’s Pediment/Impediment
at 3:40pm on 13th March 2022


1. Detail: Plaster cast of frieze from Temple of Apollo at Bassae. Greeks fighting Amazons. Date unknown. Manufacturer: D. Brucciani Ltd, London, England Purchased 1910; Nicholson Collection

2. Model of the Acropolis at Athens and surrounding area c 1895. Manufacturer: Heinrich August Walger, Berlin, Germany, plaster, paint, wood

3. & 4. Plaster casts of two metopes from frieze of Temple of Apollo at Bassae. Greeks fighting Amazons. Manufacturer: D. Brucciani Ltd, London, England Purchased 1910. Nicholson Collection. (British Museum catalogue numbers, BM533, BM534) 

5. Plaster cast fragment of North frieze, Siphnian Treasury, Delphi, early 20thC. Nicholson Collection



May the earth in chaos come to us for light’: Deep Time in

Daniel Boyd’s Pediment/Impediment


“Consider the darkness and the great cold /In this vale which resounds with mystery”[1]

May the earth in chaos come to us, for light.[2]


When you enter Pediment/Impediment - Daniel Boyd’s installation at the University of Sydney's Penelope Gallery of the new Chau Chak Wing Museum[3] - you have already descended four levels into a subterranean space of darkness, as if you have passed through several geological layers of time. Here, you encounter a series of objects covered in what at first looks like a net or a veil – or even perhaps a layer of camouflage. You are tempted to have a momentary Indiana Jones fantasy, uncovering long hidden treasure - the antiquarian’s dream of riches, hoarded in a secret and forgotten place.


You can’t immediately grasp the perspective. It’s as if you have launched yourself ‘into the vague immensity of space and time’, hovering ‘above the fathomless abyss of the past’ – as Balzac imagined the effect of reading Cuvier’s geological works[4]. The immensity of time – ‘ indefinitely dilated time’ as Maria Stavrinakis puts it[5] – is brought into the comprehension of the human species and its more limited individual lifespan.


In Boyd’s work, you are already grounded by language, firstly by the title of the installation: Pediment/Impediment –simultaneously registering classical architecture and the immediate and deliberate complication of any comfortable relation to it[6]. Then, you are redirected – again, through language – to a different place and a different intellectual tradition:

‘Don’t come this way /You will find no monuments …

(Don’t sing our land, its song / Is enclosed in these ditches.) …[7]


Édouard Glissant’s ‘On a deficiency of monuments’ – a short piece, foregrounded for the very force of its title – cuts through the reverence that Western culture affords its past to ask why the antiquities of a relatively recent past can overshadow the overlooked remains of more ancient civilisations: ‘In what you call History, between the ditches in which our nameless heroes were interred, I see nothing but the trace of our feet.’[8] The richness of this source serves as a challenge, precisely in a contemporary art installation in this new museum within a university, that has brought together its existing collections of classical and scientific materials, compiled in the rigorous and totalizing pursuit of knowledge.


In Glissant’s writing, the monumental exists in the very landscape itself and in Caribbean Discourse, he makes this explicit: ‘Our landscape is its own monument: its meaning can only be traced on the underside. It is all history.’[9] Glissant’s archipelagic thought – from the Caribbean perspective of his origins – crosses the space of the classical archipelago (the Grecian world), intersecting with Boyd’s own Pacific islander and indigenous heritage. Boyd’s astute evocation of Glissant’s thought remaps in a more oceanic way the localized spaces of the museum, inviting us to reimagine the objects of his ingenious assemblage.


A model of the Parthenon is at the centre of the installation, echoing the original Parthenon’s place at the centre of the Acropolis – but the monuments selected here (and their embodiment as models and casts) enter Western museums at a point of civilizational disarray in that period when classical Greece exists only as ruin and the fragments of its former greatness are traded as spoils of military conflict prior to Greek independence from Ottoman rule. The scalar diminution of the Parthenon here reduces the weight of history attached to the original, making it instead ‘toylike’ – a tendency that continues in the Museum’s Lego models of Pompeii, the Colosseum and the Acropolis (the latter of which the museum donated to the Acropolis Museum in Athens.[10]


Archeology provides a veneer of objectivity with which the physical structure of temples, the marble friezes and the material culture are revalued in Western museums in fresh exchanges that legitimize the widespread and systematic theft of objects from archeological sites.


The dot pattern of light that is cast across the installation is doubled in a mirror surface above the Parthenon model, reflecting it upside down above us. It’s as if we are under water here, entering the mythic space of the ancient city buried by deluge. Boyd has spoken of this dot patterning – variants of which he has often used in his work - as a means of bringing different perspectives to bear on the objects that are brought into focus in the lens-like lighting that is used.[11] We might see it as a form of reversed ‘enlightenment’ as the objects float in space and we among them.


Surrounding the miniature Parthenon, a series of plaster casts of metopes or panels from the originally marble friezes of Greek temples are lit from above, their surfaces dappled by the overall dot patterning. Having spent a lot of time working on museum collections, Boyd knows well the nefarious pathways through which objects enter collections and there is a precision in the selections he makes here that exceeds the hollowness of the objects as pedagogical tools, opening them out for richer speculation.


His choice of plaster casts is in itself a miniature survey of the fate of the objects that the casts represent. Take, for example, the two casts of a section of the frieze from the Temple of Apollo Epicurius at Bassae, one of the most studied of Greek temples. The casts depict mythological battles between Greeks, Trojans and Amazons, with the Amazons losing.


It’s claimed that the original temple was erected at the time of the Great Plague of Athens in 430BC,[12] an event that contributed in no small part to the decline of the city-state. The temple’s rediscovery in the late eighteenth century and subsequent excavation – and sale of the marble metopes to the British Museum – is an Indiana Jones adventure of its own. A British gunship was despatched to collect the panels after their sale[13], in an early instance of what Jannis Hamilakis has called ‘the military-archeological complex’.[14]


Facing the Parthenon model in Boyd’s installation is a cast of another British Museum ‘original’ – a section of the Parthenon frieze, (in the British Museum catalogue it is identified as Section XXXI of the South Frieze) – in other words, one of the Elgin marbles. The controversy around these marbles has existed since the panels were taken at the beginning of the Nineteenth Century. Although the 7th Earl of Elgin apparently lost money on the original deal, this did not deter his son, the 8th Earl of Elgin from continuing the family tradition. It was he who authorized the looting and destruction of the Yuanmingyuan, the Old Summer Palace, in Beijing in 1860 – coincidentally the year that Charles Nicholson donated his collection of antiquities to the University of Sydney to establish the eponymous Museum[15].


If you imagine a narrative connection between the works in the suite Boyd has deployed, you can see the installation coming to a kind of conclusion with casts of two sections of the North Frieze from the Siphnian Treasury at Delphi, depicting a battle between gods and giants.


This is the only one of the ‘sacred sites’ in the Boyd assemblage where the bulk of the materials forming the temple complex remains in the location where it was erected, although plaster casts from this and the other sites used in the work have travelled far and wide into museums[16] and onto the facades of public buildings, spreading the greatness of Western civilisation as teaching tools into its colonial ‘outposts’.


Boyd’s shrewd use of these materials reactivates the narratives they contain, newly recasting the stories, bringing them into the present, reanimating the continuities that exist globally on the margins of imperial conquest. His triangulation of classical Mediterranean ruins, the work of a colonized /cosmopolitan Caribbean poet and intellectual and his reflections on his own island/oceanic story opens out these shared histories. Fresh links are forged between different traditions, recolouring the bleached whiteness of bodies originally rendered in marble. It turns out that this was a myth too, mistakenly fostered by Winckelmann’s art history, and more recently the original polychromy is being acknowledged and restored to objects.[17]


Speaking of myth, in the very name of the gallery where the Boyd work is shown, Penelope was the wife of Odysseus, who remained faithful, resisting all suitors while waiting the ten years it took him to get back home to Ithaka after the Trojan Wars. Today the same journey could be made in under 24 hours, but that is not as interesting a story. Troy, by the way, is at the mouth of the Dardenelles strait, quite close to the modern city of Çanakkale – better known in Australia as Gallipoli.[18]


© Helen Grace, Oct. 2021    *All photographs by author

[1] Brecht, The Threepenny Opera- Benjamin’s appositely-cited epigram to the Seventh Thesis on the Philosophy of History, Illuminations: Essays and Reflections, Shocken Books, 1968, p256

[2] Édouard Glissant, ‘On a deficiency of monuments’ in Poetic Intention, Nightboat Books, 2010, p208

[3] Daniel Boyd, Pediment/Impediment, curated by Ann Stephen, Penelope Gallery, Chau Chak Wing Museum, University of Sydney, Australia, 18 November 2020 – 27 June 2021. The Chau Chak Wing Museum which opened in November 2020 combines all the collections of the University of Sydney – from the Nicholson Museum, (antiquities) the Macleay Museum (scientific collections) and the University’s art collection. The Boyd installation is the first of a series of specially commissioned contemporary artist projects in the Penelope Gallery, named after museum benefactor, Penelope Seidler. The project is the result of a two year process, involving the museum, the artist and the curator.

[4] at that point in the Nineteenth Century when the idea of the earth’s deep time is being applied as a way of rethinking the long durée of geology as a model for historical narrative itself. See Honoré de Balzac, The Magic Skin, George Routledge and Son, 1888, p25, French edition cited in Maria Stavrinaki, ‘We escape ourselves’: The invention and interiorization of the age of the earth in the nineteenth century, RES: Anthropology and Aesthetics, 69/70, 2018, 20-37

[5] Stavrinaki, p20

[6] ‘There is no document of civilization which is not at the same time a document of barbarism. And just as such a document is not free of barbarism, barbarism taints also the manner in which it was transmitted from one owner to another.’ Benjamin, op cit

[7] Glissant, Poetic Intention, p208

[8] Glissant, Poetic Intention, p207

[9] Édouard Glissant, Caribbean Discourse, Trans J. Michael Dash, University of Virginia Press, 1989, p11

[10] Paulina Karavasili, ‘University of Sydney gifts Lego Acropolis to Acropolis Museum’, Greek City Times, Oct 31, 2020, ‘“The British Museum may refuse to return the Parthenon sculptures and marbles to Athens, but we will donate an entire Acropolis to the Acropolis Museum,” Michael Turner, curator of the Nicholson Museum at the University of Sydney, said jokingly.’

[11] Daniel Boyd, speaking at a forum on the work, held at Chau Chak Wing Museum on May 21st, 2021

[12] William Bell Dinsmoor, ‘The Temple of Apollo at Bassae’, Metropolitan Museum Studies, Mar., 1933, Vol. 4, No. 2 (Mar., 1933), pp. 204-227

[13] For the racy details of the adventure, see Samuel Pepys Cockerell (ed) Travels in Southern Europe and the Levant, 1810-1817: The Journal of C. R. Cockerell, R.A. Longmans, Green and Co, London, 1903

[14] Yannis Hamilakis, The ‘‘War on Terror’’ and the Military– Archaeology Complex: Iraq, Ethics, and Neo-Colonialism, Archaeologies: Journal of the World Archaeological Congress (2009) p39-65

[15] The adventure is available to us to read in Henry Brougham Loch’s Personal Narrative of the Occurrences During Lord Elgin’s Second Embassy to China, 1860, John Murray, London, 1869. (Loch was Elgin’s private secretary) Internet Archive link to work:’s+Second+Embassy+to+China%2C+1860

[16]Peter Wilson refers to what he calls ‘the pathos of plaster’ in discussing the use of plaster casts in classics teaching (Panel on the Boyd work, Chau Chak Wing Museum, May 21st, 2021) For a useful account of the deployment of casts in one location, see Mary Beard, ‘Casts and Cast-offs: The origins of the Museum of Classical Archeology’ Proceedings of the Cambridge Philological Society , 1993, No. 39 (1993), pp. 1-29. For a detailed historical discussion see also Emma Payne, ‘Casting a New Canon: Collecting and Treating Casts of Greek and Roman Sculpture’, The Cambridge Classical Journal (2019) 65, 113–149

[17] See, for example Margaret Talbot, ‘The Myth of Whiteness in Classical Sculpture’, The New Yorker, Oct 22, 2018. For a well-illustrated account demonstrating that the debate about polychromy is not new, see Gisela M. A. Richter and Lindsley F. Hall ‘Polychromy in Greek Sculpture’, The Metropolitan Museum of Art Bulletin , Apr., 1944, New Series, Vol. 2, No. 8 (Apr., 1944), pp. 233-240. See also Lasse Hodne (2020) Winckelmann’s Depreciation of Colour in Light of the Querelle du coloris and Recent Critique, Konsthistorisk tidskrift/Journal of Art History, 89:3, 191-210

[18] This connection has been explored more fully by Sidney Nolan, who in 1978 presented to the Australian War Memorial the 250 paintings and drawings from his Gallipoli series, made over a twenty year period from the 1950s, when he was living in Greece. An exhibition of the work was held at the Australian War Memorial in 2009 and toured nationally between 2009 and 2012. (Sidney Nolan: The Gallipoli series - )

Search by Writer: