Nordenskiöld’s Rocks (in-progress)

This film is a meditation on a collection of ordinary rocks, unpredictably housed in the archives of the Museum of World Culture in Gothenburg, Sweden. The rocks had been gathered in the early 1900s by Erland Nordenskiöld, an ethnologist studying indigenous South American culture and history, director of the Museum between 1913 and 1932.

One of the key 20th century works inspiring our collaborations is the Surrealist art magazine Documents. Launched by George Bataille in 1929, this publication itself was an artwork, a montage of texts, photographs and essays by artists, poets, musicians, anthropologists, sociologists and other scientists. Celebrating the exotic and the mundane, the sacred and the sordid, the journal’s meanings and messages emerged through the frisson of its juxtaposed contents, deliberate collisions between the realms of ethnography, fine art, archaeology and popular culture.

In 2017, shortly after beginning our own fieldwork in the Museum of World Culture’s archives, we encountered by chance in Documents a short text by Erland Nordenskiöld, about the origins of the load-carrying balance in South America. Why would this Swedish ethnologist and scholar—someone not explicitly affiliated with the avant-garde—have chosen to contribute to this Surrealist publication? Might there be clues to Nordenskiöld’s personal motivations in the ethnographic objects he amassed throughout his career?

What we found in the archives, scattered amongst the baskets, pottery, carvings and other items from Nordenskiöld’s field expeditions, were an array of ordinary rocks. Unremarkable stones, fitting easily into the palm of one’s hand, they held no evident anthropological value or purpose. Sitting undisturbed in storage drawers for nearly a century, they were catalogued according to their geographical origin and date of acquisition. But existing labels offered little contextualizing information. What did Nordenskiöld see in these stones and why did he collect them?

Our film draws upon our research and correspondence regarding the archival documents, photographs and artifacts indirectly related to these rocks, revisiting this enigmatic and seemingly insignificant colonial-era collection to explore its tangential and affective pasts, presents and futures. Fundamentally a critique of the colonial mechanisms of anthropological accumulation, classification and interpretation, it is also an inquiry into the power of the mundane and the overlooked—the rich and multi-layered connections that everyday things like rocks can have in relation to individual narratives, cross-cultural encounters and interpersonal exchanges.