Unbelievable part 11: Ishtar

17 January 2020

In parts 8 and 9 of these posts on Damien Hirst’s Treasures from the Wreck of the Unbelievable exhibition in 2017, I worked through some issues and points raised by its central mythology of a freed slave who became an excessively wealthy art collector whose attempt to ship his collection for display in a custom-built temple met with disaster. I want to turn now to the notional temple and the Mesopotamian goddess in whose honour it was said to be built: Ishtar. This is a gap in the plot filled out by the film that shares the exhibition’s title. At least I hope that’s from where I understand this detail as it is not in the guidebook and the film’s license on Netflix has expired, so for now I cannot double-check. Let’s assume until I can that my memory is correct and have a look at relevant aspects of the show and their possible significances.

Hailing from an area that is now part of Turkey, the collector in question, Cif Amotan II, is said to have lived roughly sometime between 40 and 130 CE, coinciding with the emergence of Christianity and the Roman Empire’s conquering (115–117 CE) of parts of the diminishing, much changed and always varying empires of Mesopotamia. Looking at the history to fill in the gaps in the story, Amotan may have wished to honour the prior deities attached to his homeland, perhaps in an act of resistance to his Roman former owners and traders, perhaps in an air of nostalgia, or perhaps in defiance of the growing dominance of monotheism and its (geo-)political implications.

His favoured deity was Ishtar, the goddess of fertility, love, sex and war whose identity was entwined with the city of Babylon. The guidebook’s summary closely matches descriptions of Ishtar I’ve found in encyclopaedias (p. 50):

The Mesopotamian goddess Ishtar is one of the most complex and elusive figures of the ancient Near East. Worshipped as the goddess of fertility, sexual love and – from the second millennium BCE – warfare, Ishtar embodied numerous dualities. In doing so, she demonstrates the importance of oppositional pairings to Mesopotamian conceptions of the world.’

According to the Encyclopaedia Britannica, Ishtar was additionally associated with stormy weather, which may have led to her later association with war, and ‘she was characterized as young, beautiful, and impulsive—never as helpmate or mother’. Although largely forgotten today, she was one of the most significant of the Mesopotamian pantheon of over a thousand gods, and was actively worshipped for longer in antiquity than the Judeo-Christian mono-diety, Yahweh (or Jehovah), has so far been believed to exist. Alongside the likes of Hindu goddess Kali, who also requires attention in this study, Ishtar is just one female ancient-world deity the exhibition highlighted and gave space to to reclaim former characteristics and significances while also harking back to a time when women were almost equal citizens and were permitted to have autonomous sexuality, as reflected in these goddesses and the contemporary icons used to depict them in the Treasures works.

Ishtar and Mesopotamia are mentioned throughout the Treasures guidebook, and Ishtar appears in a bust entitled Aspect of Katie Ishtar ¥o-landi, which embodies a kind of celebrity holy trinity that mixes ancient and contemporary evocations of female-centred sexuality and conflict. With a shrine to Ishtar as the central premise, the bust resembles British model Kate Moss while sporting a distinctive hairstyle and face-shape like those of rapper and actor Anri du Toit from the east coast of South Africa (a link to the Azania discussion in part 10) whose stage name is Yo-landi VI$$ER – the unsubtle clues being in the bust’s title. 
Aspect of Katie Ishtar ¥o-landi, Damien Hirst, 2017, Palazzo Grassi

Amongst many other types of artistic impressions of her, Moss’s image has been captured in sculpture before, mainly in the white-painted bronze Sphinx series by Marc Quinn (2006–10) depicting her in various contorted yogic poses which examine the idealised body (and which were produced when Moss was facing drugs charges for alleged cocaine use). As well as the mysteriousness evoked by the Egyptian sphinx, each has a subtitle drawn from Greek mythology that draws further nuances to the fore. For example, Laokoon was a priest of Apollo at Troy who warned the Trojans not to accept the Greeks’ gift of the wooden horse and was ignored (March pp. 373–4). He was also supposed to remain celibate, but had married and had children. For one or both of these acts, he and his two sons were brutally killed by a pair of sea serpents. The Laocoon subtitle for the sculpture of two Kates in mirrored poses and linking arms seems, then, to concern duplicity.

Two others of the series are subtitled Nike and Victory, both referring to the Greek goddess of victory, speed and strength (a 2010 addition to the series is called Stealth Kate), attributes not normally associated with Moss’s brand of skinny. The association with Nike more likely stems from the goddess’s diminutive stature and Moss’s fame in the 1990s at the forefront of ‘heroin chic’ in reaction to the tall, curvy look that previously characterised female fashion models. Indeed, another 2006 piece by Quinn entitled The Road to Enlightenment sees an emaciated vision of Moss in a meditative pose, coinciding with conflicting concerns over the health of size zero models and social pressure to be the ‘correct’ weight. The piece subtitled Caryatid sees the yogic pose form a shape in which Moss’s feet are held above her head flat enough to set something on top of the sculpture; a caryatid is an architectural support in the shape of a woman.

Finally, a version of the first Sphinx cast in 18-carat gold called Siren (2008, named for ‘the singing enchantresses who lured men to their doom’ [March p. 153]) was shown in the Greek gallery at the British Museum in an exhibition to which Hirst also contributed work. Whether intended or not, Aspect of Katie Ishtar ¥o-landi is loaded with Quinn’s prior work, with Siren perhaps being directly referenced in the gold leaf gilding on the Ishtar bust said in the Treasures guide to be ‘applied by devotees in the manner of temple offerings in Southeast Asia’ (p. 50) – geography we’ll have to come back to. Given the levels of Moss’s global and enduring fame and financial success, her case epitomises the similarity between the worship of deities in the ancient world and the enthral of globalised celebrity culture in the twentieth and twenty-first centuries.

I am, admittedly, much less aware of Yo-landi Visser, and only discovered her existence when searching for the meaning of ¥o-landi in this sculpture’s title. I was in late childhood when Kate Moss became famous and featured regularly in intensive ad campaigns for many recognisable brands, so her appearance has been an unconscious cultural presence, it seems, throughout my life. Not being much of a rap fan and the rarity of South African cultural figures breaking into western/northern hemisphere culture (concentrating on celebrities rather than political figures, the only example coming to my mind is Charlize Theron), I had no real reason to encounter Visser before, and perhaps that’s the very scenario the exhibition relied on if it hoped to successfully maintain the plausibility of its authoritatively toned claims to exhibition visitors. If anyone has seen Chappie (dir. Neill Blomkamp, 2015) from the same director as District 9, then you might be more aware. Clearly, I have not, but I’ll need to when I come to think about the ancients at the movies (or movies at the ancients?) section of this study.

While Moss has had her share of public altercations, Visser, from what I’ve read, more clearly brings the war side. Her public fights, though, come across as embedded in racist and homophobic actions and words that may not sit well with the characteristics of Ishtar. That said, searches of her also link to pages (which I have chosen not to view) boasting photos she has posed for nude or in bikinis. Both women have had a child, both contribute significantly to culture, and both seem to regularly cause a stir with potentially criminal actions. Still they are hero-worshipped in celebrity culture, one of today’s equivalents of the ancient myths. Complex indeed.

As for temples dedicated to Ishtar, one of the best known examples in twentieth-century archaeology is that found by Sir Leonard Woolley’s excavations from 1936 to 1949 at the site of the ancient Syrian city-state of Alalakh, now Tell Atchana in Turkey. Nadav Na’aman presents textual evidence that suggests that the seventeen temples discovered during Woolley’s expeditions were dedicated to the cult of Ishtar who had been adopted as the city’s goddess. (Interestingly, the passages Na’aman translates and analyses involve Ishtar punishing men by turning them into women in what seems to be a threat or fear of castration.) Perhaps in the Treasures story, Amotan intended to establish a renewed cult of Ishtar in southern Africa, or Azania, the implications of which might need more teasing out, particularly as Ishtar has been imaged here in the guise of white women. For now, Aspect of Katie Ishtar ¥o-landi provides just one example that the works in Treasures referencing contemporary popular culture have more substance than the surface-level postmodern mash-ups they at first appear to be, more of which is to come as this research progresses.

Further references

Jenny March, The Penguin Book of Classical Myths (London: Penguin Books, 2008)

Nadav NaŹ¾aman, ‘The Ishtar Temple at Alalakh’, Journal of Near Eastern Studies 39.3 (1980), pp. 209–214


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