Invented civilizations are generally considered the stuff of science fiction novels and video games, not museums.
However, in 1972, the Andrew Dickson White Museum of Art at Cornell University exhibited “The Civilization of Llhuros”, an imaginary civilization of the Iron Age. Created by Cornell art teacher Norman Dalydied in 2008, the show was like a real archaeological exhibition with more than 150 exhibits.
Unaware of Llhuros, I started making and documenting my own imagined ancient culture using ceramics and printmaking for my undergraduate thesis in 1980. The following year, as a graduate student, I discovered Llhuros and began a decades-long correspondence with Daly.
A culture created from scratch
Daly’s project was truly revolutionary. The exhibit included a map of the dig sites, ancient tools and religious artifacts that Daly had made, all dating to distinct periods of the culture -“ancient archaic,” “Archaic,” “Late Archaic,” “Average Period” and “Decline”.
There were translations of lhuroscian poetry that Daly had written; soundtracks with reconstructions of lhuroscian ceremonies and songs performed by a women’s church choir; audio interviews with false Llhurosian scholars; and a 56-page exhibition catalog with an invented bibliography and glossary of lhuroscian terms.
To the casual viewer, Llhuros seemed to be real. Artifacts and tools were often made from found objects – an ivory dish soap bottle made into a terracotta figurine, or a “nose flute found in the early excavations of Lamplö” made from a burner of metal stove. Many objects were cracked and broken, with patinas and encrustations making them appear as if they had survived centuries. The tension between right and wrong was palpable.
Testing the viewer’s understanding of reality
Before creating “The Civilization of Llhuros”, Daly made paintings and sculptural reliefs influenced by Native American and prehistoric art.
His earlier work had much in common with other 20th century artists, from Pablo Picasso to Max Ernst, which drew inspiration from art outside the European canon. These artists challenge Western academic traditions and value the direct and expressive forms of African and Native American art. This way of making art can be problematic, since there is an element of cultural appropriation. But it also demonstrates a desire to connect with the universal aspects of human culture.
So why would Daly shift his creative practice to the form of mockumentary, creating a whole fake culture in the form of a museum exhibit?
A few key moments cultivated the idea.
One of his great sculptural works had been exhibited in a faculty dining room. But people continued to confuse it with a hat rack, which frustrated Daly: he assumed that the value of a work of art was self-evident and that it should be able to “speak for itself”. Obviously, this has not always been the case. So, by creating an exhibition – replete with a catalog, visual guides and explanatory labels – he was able to extend the meaning of his visual art. If the art object does not speak for itself, why not create a narrative within the framework of the exhibition?
Another realization came to Daly while attending a contemporary music performance. During the concert, he observed that the audience worked hard to resist the random interference of auditory distractions, from program thieves to foot-beaters. Daly considered ways in which a visual artist could use what he called “planned interference” to bring about deeper audience engagement with the work.
This insight compelled him to use a variety of ironic cues to disrupt the credibility of the museum’s narrative and test the viewer’s understanding of whether Llhuros was real or made up. He could assemble a massive bronze temple door from foam plastic packing cartons or create an oil lamp that looks like an orange juicer.
For Daly, stories about the Llhuroscians are also about what it is to be human, with themes of guilt, desire and faith appearing in many works. With its recurring “stilt walker”, it depicts a religious pilgrim who carries a bird on his head, walking on stilts of different lengths. The struggle that man imposes on himself, which appears through several works, comes from the guilt he feels.
The art of fraud
Like Daly, I was interested in using documentary forms to present works of fiction. My fictional documentary exhibits have moved from archaeological themes to include anatomical impressions, a collection of contemporary folk art, a 1920s creationist organizationand an early 20th century circus. I’m drawn to this art form because I’m inspired by the idea of inventing works of art that seem to have the authority of history.
In his 2021 book, Sting in the Tale: art, hoax and provocationartist and writer Antoinette LaFarge describes Daly’s approach as a form of “fictional art”, arguing that fictional documentary uses of historical forms, as well as “self-disclosure” through ironic cues, have significance for a contemporary culture saturated with disinformation.
There are, of course, precedents: in his 1917 work bathtub prankjournalist and satirist HL Mencken presented a manufactured history of bathtubs in America. PT Barnum became known for his creative pranks, which included his Feejee Mermaid Specimen, consisting of an orangutan and a salmon. Where Mencken sought to teach the American public about his gullibility, Barnum wanted to make a quick buck and didn’t care whether his audience believed in trickery. Fictional art draws on this history to create relevant contemporary works of art.
To mark the 50th anniversary of “The Civilization of Llhuros”, I organized a free one-day virtual symposium which will be held on October 8. An international roster of presenters will discuss Daly’s exhibit and his legacy as a teacher. It will also feature contemporary artists who work with Llhuros as a paradigm.
Today, fact check points and algorithms help people spot deception and misinformation. But art that tests your perceptions of what is real – allowing you to suspend your disbelief, while also giving you the ability to recognize the tools of deception – can also play a part.
This article first appeared on The conversation.