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

Tuesday, March 24, 2015

The Ancient Photograph: Looking Twice at Sara VanDerBeek's Roman Women

At the bookshop in the Tate Modern last weekend I picked up this curious book:

Scattered throughout the book I came across several photographs of ancient sculpture (all women).

Some were frontal views of well-preserved busts: 

Others were frontal views of broken figures:
 Some were side-views of well-preserved busts:
 Others were side views of broken figures:
 Some were broken busts on the right-hand page:
 Some were well-preserved figures across two pages:
 Others were broken busts on the left-hand page:
On turning back to the contents page, I discovered that all of them were the work of Sara VanDerBeek from a series called Roman Women.

I left the Tate Modern bookshop wanting to know more about these strange ancient photographic sculptures and when I was finally able discover more online by searching on GoogleImage, I was startled to find that those I could find were all, in some way, the colour blue.

Some were blue frontal views of broken figures:
Others were blue frontal views of well-preserved busts:
Some were blue frontal views of blurred broken figures:
Others were blue blurred close-up views of (broken?) figures:
Some were double blue portraits facing the same directions:
Others were blue double portraits facing slightly different directions:
Both my experience with the book in the Tate and the GoogleImage results online had the same effect: I want to see these photographs in the flesh.

For more on Sara VanDerBeek go here.

Sunday, March 15, 2015

2003 - the year of Ovid by José Antonio Suárez Londoño

I have just visited the Colombian artist José Antonio Suárez Londoño's brilliant, bright and colourful retrospective exhibition Muestrario ('Samples') at La Casa Encendida in Madrid. Here is the catalogue, with a substantial and representative selection of Londoño's intricate and surreal sketches throughout his career:

Since 1997, Londoño has kept drawing notebooks based on reading a particular book or author during that year. Authors have included Franz Kafka, Rainer Maria Rilke, W. G. Sebald, Blaise Cendrars, Patti Smith and Brian Eno. Back in 2003, it was our own Ovid who had his year in the limelight, with his masterpiece the Metamorphosis (sic). You can see how his tales generate weird and wonderful drawings by flipping to pages 64-67 of the beautiful book produced for the 2012 exhibition of Londoño's work at The Drawing Center, New York, below:

If you look at page 62, you can even see how Londoño annotates Ovid's Book 11 account of Peleus and Thetis to pave the way for his diary of remarkable drawings (from underlined words like 'snares' to the notes of his daily activities in the margins). Although I guess we have Kafka's English translators to blame for the fact that Londoño and his exegetes refer to Ovid's Metamorphosis, right?

For more (in Spanish) on Londoño's current exhibition in Madrid, go here.