Talks by museum guides are often a distraction, getting in the way of directly experiencing the work itself. But in Thai artist Pratchaya Phinthong’s exhibition, the guide’s talk is the work. Every visitor is given a fascinating explanation about virtually the only object in the gallery – a fossilised fragment of the so-called ‘Broken Hill’ human skull.
Both the guide and the skull have been flown over from Zambia, where the exhibit has pride of place in the Lusaka National Museum (the completed ‘Export Permit for Relics’ form is pinned to a wall nearby). The guide describes the skull’s history: how it was discovered in a zinc mine in the 1920s in what was then Northern Rhodesia; the way it provides a crucial evolutionary link between the species of homo erectus and modern homo sapiens; and the story behind its loan to the Natural History Museum in London for study, where it remains to this day, the subject of determined repatriation attempts by the Zambian government.
In other words, the ‘relic’ on display here is actually a fake, a plastic replica. It’s a ‘real’ fake, though, one that attracts crowds in Zambia precisely because it signifies the country’s desire to have the original returned. Conversely, a second replica, bought by Phinthong online and sent to Lusaka to stand in for the loan to the Chisenhale, is a cheapie – a ‘fake’ fake. As for the guide and his talk, that’s wholly genuine, in that he’s duplicating his usual professional spiel. The whole event thus functions as a kind of complex, Möbius loop of artifice and authenticity, histories within histories – the kicker being, as the guide happily reveals, that the original skull is still on display elsewhere in London.