A still from Derek Brunen's Plot
A still from Derek Brunen's Plot Credit: Courtesy the artist

A few years ago at a Portland performance festival, a couple of local guys, Dutes Miller and Stan Shellabarger, dug two side-by-side graves for themselves, with a tunnel in between so that they could hold hands. Partners in marriage as well as art, the pair bring a real sex-death thing to work that often explores queer identity; in a public performance project this month at the Museum of Contemporary Art, they crochet opposite ends of a long pink tube they’ve been working on now for ten years.

Miller and Shellabarger aren’t the only artists bringing a legacy of grave digging to the MCA this season. Life, loss, and the possibility of early interment are in the air: See also “The Way of the Shovel,” a new exhibition curated by Dieter Roelstraete, which sprung forth from Roelstraete’s observation that contemporary artists rely increasingly on archival research and obsess increasingly over historical questions. They’ve even adopted the language of archivists and archaeologists, Roelstraete says, and begun to refer to what they do in terms of “digging,” “mining,” and “excavating.” This show, then, is about excavation, conceptual and literal, and includes video from a 2007 piece in which Derek Brunen, like Miller and Shellabarger, digs his own grave.

Roelstraete writes approvingly of Brunen’s project in the exhibit catalog—”This is The Way of the Shovel at its most literal and inevitably also at its most gripping”—though in context the work comes across as both obvious and a bit ponderous. “The Way of the Shovel” is a strange and cold show, concerned less with history than with a sort of high historiography, a self-consciously ironic approach: consider Siebren Versteeg’s three-dimensional representation of the History Channel logo, which relates to Roelstraete’s observation that “the global art world” nowadays resembles “an alternative History Channel.” (Italics emphatically in the original.) If Roelstraete likes Brunen’s Big Questions, it’s because this collection is most directly inspired by a couple recent Big Moments: the fall of the Berlin Wall—the “end of history,” in Francis Fukuyama’s famously ill-considered opinion—and the attacks of September 11, the “violent return of it,” as Roelstraete put it in a gallery tour last week.

This framing, though, puts “The Way of the Shovel” at odds with the idea of excavation, which implies digging up a history that hasn’t previously been uncovered, or that’s previously been obscured. It places the artists’ anxieties, rather than the art—or, as importantly, the history—in the focus. In the first room of the exhibition a giant Stan Douglas photograph of a musty used bookstore in Vancouver faces a mock-up of the work space of the artist-excavator Mark Dion, emphasizing the tools of the dig (shovels, among other things) rather than what’s dug up—and what’s surely the more vital content. Likewise Tony Tasset’s tribute to the “earthworks” artist Robert Smithson, in which Tasset photographs himself reenacting a Smithson scene in Smithson dress, digging, like Smithson, in the Nevada desert. Or Zin Taylor’s chronicle of his difficulty finding Smithson’s famous Spiral Jetty installation in Utah. The artists are talking to one another. Are they talking to anyone else?

Elsewhere, a room with work by Rebecca Keller, Shellburne Thurber, and Jazon Lazarus is devoted to Sigmund Freud, himself a collector of antiquities who, more to the point, believed heartily in the possibilities of psychiatric excavation. Lazarus’s picture Above Sigmund Freud’s Couch shows just that, but this room is too reverent, and the work in it feels like an empty tribute. (That’s Freud’s ceiling. Cool!) Many of the pieces in the exhibit rely on repetition or recursion, as in Moyra Davey’s grid of 100 photographs of copperhead pennies at various stages of degradation, or a photo series by Susanne Kriemann of a limestone quarry. The way the rocks have settled on top of one another echoes Douglas’s bookstore photo: history stacked atop history, a record of itself.

A lot of this work is in black-and-white; a lot of it, for that matter, feels exceedingly white, and refers almost exclusively to historians and chroniclers of the global north. The lack of diversity is a perennial criticism of museum shows—and a relentless truth—but the omission is especially glaring in a project that wonders how history is made and, presumably, repressed, or obscured, or written over. It calls into question the point of these proceedings—what exactly, if not history buried under the weight of politics, is being uncovered here? Whose history? It comes as surprising to encounter a series in which the African-American photographer LaToya Ruby Frazier depicts economic devastation in postindustrial Braddock, Pennsylvania, where she’s from. A couple of the (black-and-white) photos portray abandoned homes; the other few concern the political rhetoric surrounding a campaign to save a community hospital. These are mostly devoid of people. Within the context of Frazier’s work they make sense, but they read here as inert, determinedly intellectual but finally heartless.

There is more color, literally, in Mariana Castillo Deball’s Uncomfortable Objects, for which the Berlin-based Mexican artist embedded stones, shells, wood, fabric, and other materials into a riotous textured spiral that cascades upward, looking like a bright landscape in aerial view; but it’s flat on its backside, suggesting the limits of archaeological ambition. Another bright spot is The Invisible Enemy Should Not Exist, a fascinating project by Michael Rakowitz to recover 7,000-some artifacts looted from the National Museum of Iraq in the wake of the U.S. invasion there by re-creating them, piece by piece, using Middle Eastern newspapers and food packaging. Rakowitz’s sculptures pay tribute to what was lost and bring it vibrantly into the present, while the materials he uses offer a contrast between mass-market modernity and what is, ultimately, the irrecoverable past.