Wednesday, June 17, 2015

Breezy Euschēmosunē: Flailing Socrates, Upright Eudicus & Prickly Hippias


SOCRATES But at this point I’m suffering an episode of brain fever, so to speak, and those who of their own free will go completely wrong in some way in fact seem to me to be more fitting persons than those who do so unwillingly. The blame for my present suffering I place on the arguments set out before, with the result that at this point it’s plain that those who unwillingly do each of these things are a more worthless sort of people than those who act willingly. Therefore, do me a favor and don’t begrudge putting my character in a better state. It’s really a more excellent piece of work for you to relieve my character of this ineptitude than to relieve my body of disease. If you wish to deliver a long speech, however, I warn you that you wouldn’t heal me that way, because I couldn’t follow you. But if you wish to answer me as you did just now, you’ll help me comprehensively, and I don’t think it will harm yourself either. And with justice I appeal to you, child of Apemantus, as you induced me to have this exchange with Hippias: so now, if Hippias doesn’t want to answer me, ask him on my behalf.

EUDICUS Oh, no, Socrates, I don’t think the situation demands, or maybe I should say, that we demand this of Hippias. What he said beforehand wouldn’t indicate that: on the contrary, he said that he wouldn’t run away from any gentleman’s questioning. Isn’t that right, Hippias? Isn’t that what you stated?

HIPPIAS I did indeed. But Socrates is always making trouble in the course of discussions, and it’s almost as if he’s up to no good.

 - Plato Hippias Minor, 372d-373b - translated by Sarah Ruden for the book Hippias Minor of the Art of Cunning. Badlands Unlimited and DESTE Foundation. 2015. 

Thursday, June 11, 2015

Good Form: Paul Chan's Hippias Minor or the Art of Cunning

Opening this weekend is Paul Chan's new exhibition Hippias Minor at the DESTE Foundation project space, the Slaughterhouse on the Greek island of Hydra.

I have been honoured to have been a part of this exhibition in the form of the new book Hippias Minor or the Art of Cunning, published by DESTE and Chan's Badlands Unlimited press.

My work as one of the editors (along with Paul Chan and the brilliant Karen Marta, who has been involved in several of Chan's previous projects) and as contributor (my essay is called 'Socrates 420') for this book has been one of the proudest moments of my career so far, especially in terms of my exploration of the dynamic between Classics and Contemporary Art. In many ways, this project is precisely what I set out to achieve with Minus Plato and my general approach to collaborations with contemporary artists. The fact that an artist of the stature and significance of Paul Chan decided to work with me on a project involving a deep and novel reading of a Classical text is, to my mind, ample proof of the importance of the dynamic I work hard to promote and engage. Furthermore, by inviting the incredible talents of renowned translator Sarah Ruden to create a new version of this under-read dialogue, in terms of Chan's innovative and fresh reading of the text, we now have an English edition of the text for the contemporary world (and one that is slightly more classroom-friendly than Chan's previous project on Plato's Phaedrus - Phaedrus Pron!).

While such a scale of engagement and commitment to ancient philosophy and literature on the part of a contemporary artist is unprecedented (see my earlier posts on Chan's work, especially the monumental New New Testament), I very much hope that this is only the beginning of a rich and exciting collaboration between the Classical and the Contemporary.

As we editors note in our Acknowledgments to the book, one of the key points of reference for the project - and a major (if rather covert) presence in my own essay - was the radical television series by the late, great Chris Marker called The Owl's Legacy.

Marker's 13-part series of 1989 explore the legacies and complexities of ancient Greece in the modern world with this artist's well-known devious skill and intellectual flair in creative documentary-making. Paul Chan made direct homage to Marker's dual avatars - the cunning cat and the wise owl - in his recent exhibition Selected Works at the Schaulager in Basel with his new work Teh Cat n teh Owl (here is a very brief clip of the two-screen installation):


In the Hippias Minor project, Marker's influence permeates Chan's conception of art as a form of cunning and the cat and the owl fight it out on the specially created logo of the project:

Yet, beyond the tribute to The Owl's Legacy, perhaps the most satisfying aspect of this project for me, as a Classicist, was how Paul Chan's work and thinking about the idea of cunning (polutropia) between Homer's Odyssey and Plato's Hippias Minor not only generated his conception of art's cunning (following Marker mixed with Adorno's Aesthetic Theory), but also allowed me to consider the striking possibility that Hippias Minor has more to say about aesthetics than has previously been thought by scholars. During the writing of my essay, I discovered the significance of Socrates' use of the term 'gracefulness' (euschēmosune) when discussing the athlete's body amid a general account of whether the superior athlete is one who performs badly willingly. This term, which could be translated 'good form' or 'elegant figure' became, in Plato's Republic, a key term for the philosopher's discussion of art. And it was thanks to Paul Chan's insistence of the aesthetic quality of cunning that allowed me to make this connection.

As part of the exhibition in Hydra, Chan has installed three 'breezies' (first seen in his recent exhibition at the Guggenheim in New York) to represent the three participants in Plato's dialogue: Socrates, Hippias and Eudicus.

I cannot wait to see them in the flesh and in action first-hand and, when I do, I will be thinking of this concept of euschēmosune and about the endless possibilities for an engagement between ancient thought for contemporary art.

For more on the exhibition in Hydra, visit the DESTE Slaughterhouse website. For the book, see this page on Badlands Unlimited.

Sunday, May 17, 2015

Petrifying Danger: Chris Burden's Medusa

On hearing the sad news of the artist Chris Burden's death, I wanted to dedicate a post to his work and, for obvious reasons, his monstrous 1990 sculpture Medusa's Head seems to be the most fitting choice for Minus Plato.
Chris Burden, Medusa's Head, 1990. Plywood, steel, cement, rock, model railroad trains and tracks
Margalit Fox's obituary in The New York Times begins by listing the various ways in which Burden has put himself in all kinds of danger for the sake of his art:

Chris Burden, a conceptual artist who in the line of duty had himself shot, pierced, starved, crucified, electrocuted, cut by glass, kicked down stairs, locked up, dropped from heights and nearly drowned, though by no means all at once, died on Sunday at his home in Topanga, Calif. He was 69.

Chris Burden, Trans-Fixed, 1974, performance.
It is this element of danger in his performance work that, back in 1991, Roberta Smith (also writing in The New York Times) alluded to as a way of making sense of his 'turn' to sculpture via the specific case of Medusa's Head:

"Medusa's Head," which took two years to make, is one of the few to meld the sense of imminent danger of his performance pieces into a truly powerful sculptural form.

Smith locates the danger of Burden's sculpture not in its representation of the snaked-haired Gorgon of mythology (her review is called 'Medusa's Head, Without the Snakes'), but in how it replicates the effect of Medusa's petrifying gaze.

As with the Medusa of myth, the sheer ugliness of Mr. Burden's new sculpture may stop some viewers in their tracks. 
Caravaggio, Testa di Medusa, 1597, oil on canvas mounted on wood.
It is no mistake that Smith folds her description of the effect of the work on the viewer with the description of the work itself, as she makes clear the precise difference between the Classical myth and the contemporary artwork: 

You almost can't get close enough to it. Instead of snakes, this Medusa sprouts yards of model-railroad track crisscrossing its ravaged surface with ferocious industriousness....On the tracks are dozens of model trains hauling all kinds of raw and refined materials, from wood and iron ore to steel girders, across numerous bridges and in and out of soot-covered tunnels. The trains, which come in five different scales and use seven gauges of track, are not actually moving, but they create an illusion of ceaseless activity. The suggestion of a big festering skull encouraged by the work's title never entirely disappears. Nonetheless, once the myriad railroad details pop into focus, the work's scale jumps from the merely enormous to a panorama of Spielbergian proportions. Suddenly the crags and crevices become mountains, valleys or man-made roadbed cuts. The meteor becomes a planet being strangled by an unsettling combination of human ingenuity and human neglect, and both are enumerated with the technical flair of a movie set designer. One almost expects black smoke to rise from the surface or to hear a thunderous crack of Dolby-driven doom. 

Medusa's 'big festering skull' becomes Burden's 'meteor/planet' in which the 'strangling' railroad tracks replace the Gorgon's head of snakes. Yet the most consistent correlation between the myth and the sculpture seems to be that of how the danger of viewing (being literally petrified by the returned gaze of the myth) is exacerbated by the semblance of movement within the object itself. Smith's allusions to cinematic fanfare aim to make sense of how Burden's seething object creates 'an illusion of ceaseless activity', not just from the trains, but from its depiction of the explosive activity of 'human ingenuity and neglect'.

It is precisely this association between danger and activity that permeates ancient accounts of the myth. For example, consider the appearance of Medusa's head in painting described in the ancient Greek novelist Achilles Tatius in his work Leucippe and Clitophon. The painting depicts Perseus saving Andromeda from the terrifying sea-monster, using the Gorgon's head as his weapon:

In his left hand he held the Gorgon's head, wielding it like a shield. Even as a painting, it was a frightening object, with eyes staring out of their sockets, and serpentine hair about the temples all writhing and erect: a graphic delineation of intimidation. 

Wall painting from Pompeii found in the Casa Dei Dioscur, c.50CE.
Here Achilles breaks the frame of his ekphrasis (a literary description of a work of visual art) by conflating the danger of the object (Medusa's head) with the painting itself. Furthermore, like Smith's review of Burden's sculpture, it is precisely the unnerving sensation of movement that creates this effect. Classicist Helen Morales, in her brilliant study of vision and narrative in Achilles Tatius' novel, points out that, even though Medusa's head (and, by extension, the painting depicting it) is lifeless, the language of the description is suffused with movement, not only of the 'writhing' snakes, but of the Gorgon's eyes.

Morales notes that the word that Achilles uses to describe her eyes (exepetasen), meaning 'spread out', 'unfurl', 'stretch out':

is a gestural term, connoting movement and protrusion...[giving] the impression that Medusa's eyes are actually penetrating through the painted plane of the picture's surface. Breaking through the two-dimensional structure which houses her, Medusa's gaze ruptures the fundamental boundary that the surface of the picture constitutes and invades the viewers space.

When read back onto Burden's sculpture,we don't necessarily need make the direct identification (with Smith) of the mythical snakes and the sculptural trains. Nor do we need to see the later sculpture as somehow 'petrifying' the danger embodied in Burden's earlier performance works. Instead, with Achilles, in Morales' reading, we must take responsibility for the way an artist intervenes in the space of the viewer (or reader) to the extent to which their perception of the world around them is changed in the process.

My favourite example of this, back in Columbus, Ohio, where I live and work, is Burden's subtle but devastating installation of the building of the Wexner Center for the Arts:

Whenever I see the building now, I cannot help but recall Burden's playful additions that, like Medusa's Head, make the viewer both think about the past (i.e. the Medusa myth and the architecture of the castle) and understand the ambiguous claims of human progress and industry (i.e. the railroad strangled planet and Eisenman's deconstructive architecture). For Burden, there may not be a better description of his pioneering vision than Achilles' phrase: a graphic delineation of intimidation.

Tuesday, April 28, 2015

'I remember Plato told me and I didn't pay attention': Two Pseudo-Classical Drawings by Roberto Bolaño

Post Credits:

Title: from Roberto Bolaño 'The Robot' from The Unknown University (New Directions, translation by Laura Healy), to read the whole poem, visit here

Images: from visit to ARCHIVO BOLAÑO 1977-2013, Matadero, Madrid, April 2015, for more information, visit here.

Disclaimer: for why these drawings are 'pseudo' Classical, read Bolaño's The Savage Detectives and 2666.

Monday, April 27, 2015

Overreaching Rome: Welcome to Club Caligula

So much for Caligula as emperor; we must now tell of his career as a monster...

Installation View: CLUB CALIGULA
Stefania Batoeva, Club III, 2015, Oil on canvas, 230 x 180 cm
After he had assumed various surnames (for he was called "Pious," "Child of the Camp," "Father of the Armies," and "Greatest and Best of Caesars"), by chance overhearing some kings, who had come to Rome to pay their respects to him, disputing at dinner about the nobility of their descent, he cried:
Installation View: CLUB CALIGULA

"Let there be one Lord, one King."
Stefania Batoeva, Club II, 2015. Oil on canvas, 230 x 180 cm

And he came near assuming a crown at once and changing the semblance of a principate into the form of a monarchy. But on being reminded that he had risen above the elevation both of princes and kings, he began from that time on to lay claim to divine majesty;

Ilja Karilampi, Bcoz I haven´t reached the pinnacles I´m supposed to reach, 2015, Adhesive vinyl, Dimensions variable
Installation View: CLUB CALIGULA

for after giving orders that such statues of the gods as were especially famous for their sanctity or their artistic merit, including that of Jupiter of Olympia, should be brought from Greece, in order to remove their heads and put his own in their place

he built out a part of the Palace as far as the Forum, and making the temple of Castor and Pollux its vestibule, he often took his place between the divine brethren, and exhibited himself there to be worshipped by those who presented themselves; and some hailed him as Jupiter Latiaris.

Stefania Batoeva, Club IV, 2015. Oil on canvas, 230 x 180 cm
He also set up a special temple to his own godhead, with priests and with victims of the choicest kind. In this temple was a life-sized statue of the emperor in gold, which was dressed each day in clothing such as he wore himself.

Installation View: CLUB CALIGULA
 The richest citizens used all their influence to secure the priesthoods of his cult and bid high for the honour.

Detail: Leslie Kulesh, Snuggie - The Gray Escape, 2015. Quilted nylon fabric. Dimensions Variable.
Ilja Karilampi, Riffing SB, 2015, Adhesive vinyl, dimensions variable, Chair installation by Stefania Batoeva.
Installation View: CLUB CALIGULA
The victims were flamingoes, peacocks, black grouse, guinea-hens and pheasants, offered day by day each after its own kind. 

Installation View: CLUB CALIGULA

 At night he used constantly to invite the full and radiant moon to his embraces and his bed, while in the daytime he would talk confidentially with Jupiter Capitolinus, now whispering and then in turn his ear to the mouth of the god, now in louder and even angry language; for he was heard to make the threat:

Stefania Batoeva, Club I, 2015, Oil on canvas, 230 x 180 cm

"Lift me up, or I'll lift you!"

But finally won by entreaties, as he reported, and even invited to live with the god, he built a bridge over the temple to the Deified Augustus, and thus joined his Palace to the Capitol. Presently, to be nearer yet, he laid the foundations of a new house in the court of the Capitol.
(Selections from Suetonius Life of Gaius Caesar (Caligula) Chapter 22 and installation views of Stefania Batoeva's Club Caligula at Supplement, London (with Ilja Karilampi, Leslie Kulesh, Isaac Lythgoe) - for more information, click here.)

Tuesday, April 21, 2015

Coming Spring 2016: Myths of the Academy

Plato's Academy in Second Life from
A few months ago I was interviewed by Victoria Ellwood for the Spring 2015 issue of the OSU College of Arts & Sciences magazine ASCENT about my winning one of the inaugural Ronald and Deborah Ratner Distinguished Teaching Awards last year. The generous award included a fund to help develop innovative teaching projects at Ohio State. You can read the article by clicking here, but due to space constraints, it could not be published in full. Nonetheless, I thought Minus Plato would be a good place to share the missing section:

Said Richard Fletcher, “I was truly honored to receive one of the inaugural awards, not only because it recognizes my general dedication to teaching but also because it acknowledges the significance of a new direction my teaching and research have taken -- focusing on the dynamic relationship between ancient Greek and Roman culture and modern and contemporary art.” He said the award is a timely validation of his new initiatives and new collaborations with entities including the Wexner Center for the Arts, the Departments of Art and Art History, the Humanities Institute, the Urban Arts Space and the Arts Initiative, as well as COR&P (Center for Ongoing Research & Projects) and the Columbus College of Art & Design (CCAD).

“The Ratner Award not only confirms the importance of my crossover work between classics and contemporary art, but also enables me to deepen and strengthen this engagement in vital and exciting ways,” he added.

It seems fitting to announce here the project that I will be using the Ratner Award funds to support. It is called Myths of the Academy and will take place in Spring 2016.

Watch this space!

Plato's Academy in Second Life from