Unbelievable part 19: Sculpture as Performance

13 March 2020

For a while now I've been thinking about sculpture in relation to performance, turning on their head my studies of performance as an extension of sculpture in space and time. All sculptures are one way or another the documents of a series of performative acts. They also often depict performative acts, including the pose. Viewing them is a performative act on the part of the viewer; we must move around them, take them in from different angles, resist the urge to touch unless permitted, and can usually take as much time as desired to regard them. Imperceptible to those of us stuck in human time rather than epochal time, sculptures are in states of flux. Their chemical make-up, as with all things, gradually changes with every turn around the sun. Theirs is a performance that outlasts us all.

With this in mind it is useful to rethink our relationships with art media. Normally video art is regarded as a time-based extension of sculpture, but sculpture itself embodies time. As discussed in the previous post, many are made from materials that have taken what for humans is an unfathomable duration to form. Imagine the journey of the marble works throughout Treasures from the Wreck of the Unbelievable: the remains of prehistoric creatures deposited on sea-beds and compressed and tectonically shifted and pushed into mountain formations over millions of years to then be found and mined by a recently evolved species known to themselves as humans, then shipped by other humans to still more humans who today are often helped by robots designed by humans to knock and cut, chisel and polish until the ancient stone depicts a stilled moment of often human action, an arrest of time, a memorial to life past and gone.

This last point in particular is embodied in the intimately detailed pair that were displayed in room 16 of Punta della Dogana, namely Dead Woman in black marble and Woman’s Tomb in white Carrera marble. The guide text for the former reads (p. 28):

This monument is a copy of an earlier funerary sculpture (Woman’s Tomb), also recovered from the wreckage. Roman art collectors were not driven primarily by the desire to acquire originals. Displaying multiple versions of the same work together would have invited admiration of the replica, its status enhanced by the association with an antique sculpture.’

This is an example that could just as easily refer to Hirst’s collecting of, for instance, replicated work by Jeff Koons. Although the woman depicted is dead, the sculptures themselves play roles in assisting the ancient-world narrative that equally reminds contemporary audiences of the value of the copy. The wry suggestion that the black version is a copy of an antique and that their dual display adds value may yet come true. They are also performative in that a model will have lain in the funereal pose for the carvers to copy – and the bulk of the carving could well have been completed by the performative labour of robots programmed with 3D scans of the scene before being finished by hand.

The death pose, in whichever cultures adopt a version of it, is a performative act of the body that remains after consciousness ends, and around which further memorialising performances are enacted. We could say it is the final performance, but recalling the formation of the marble and even its future as a very slowly degrading work of art, the body is far from done changing states, and never will be. Our memories of a death pose will act like photographs, freezing in time and space the image of something there but not there.

In a similar way to the photographs throughout the show, many of the Treasures sculptures played the part of stilled moving images as indicative snapshots of larger narratives. The divers were photographed mid-act, and those acts were at once actual and staged. Although models may have been posed and cast as, for example, Andromeda and Kali, the characters in the final works are captured mid-action like a freeze-frame in a film. The many characters stage, enact and embody motion in impending fights, while walking, while raping or being raped, while diving, while transforming, while waving, while playing, while squirming in fear of their lives, while dying and while posing.

On posing, in my earlier post about Ishtar I talked about the bust of the Mesopotamian goddess being a mash-up of Kate Moss and Yo-landi Vi$$er. Having since come across Hettie Judah’s review of the exhibition, I realise I got the wrong Katie. The Kate Moss lookalike in the show is actually Hathor, a small gold and turquoise statue, which, given the materials, my argument made on that front at least still stands. Largely because I don’t care and it’s none of my business, I tend not to look into the romantic lives of people whose work I’m researching or the rich and famous in general. In a slightly tabloid moment and what I imagine was an editorial decision, inserted into Judah’s review is a photo of Hirst pictured with his partner, model Katie Keight. Naturally I can only assume she is the body to Vi$$er’s face in Ishtar, and perhaps even for other figures in the show.

Another bust of a goddess is the tattooed, sun-facing Aten via Robyn Rihanna Fenty, while Unknown Pharaoh puns on the closed-eyed visage of Pharrell Williams. These are all stars used to performing in various ways, no less for photographs in which they adopt power-poses. Given the technology now available together with the excess of circulated images from which to compile composites, I’d be interested to know (or know how to find out) if ranges of images of them were 3D-scanned and the scans 3D-printed as originals from which the works were cast or copies carved. In saying that, though, Hirst and Rihanna have worked together before in the 2013 Rihanna Medusa photographs while Treasures was already taking shape, so it is conceivable that she’d have been happy to lend her body and face again.

I need to more deeply consider the presence of Rihanna depicted more as a worshipper looking up to the Aten, the sun-disc heralded as a monotheistic god in rejection of the Egyptian pantheon. For now, the clear links with her star persona inform the exhibition’s complexities in presenting gender performance. Rihanna’s persona presents a woman without a f*** to give, and a sexual and self-sexualising presence so aggressive it puts the wind up god-fearing farmers everywhere, or at least it did where I come from.

A beacon for body-positivity, I doubt Rihanna would have taken any issue with the nakedness of all sexes (including intersex), body shapes and ages in Treasures. Her level of ‘here I am’ power, particularly in light of the snake photographs (which were composited) was also exuded in The Lion Women of Asit Mayor, the guide description for which reads (p. 8):

This pairing follows an ancient tradition of presenting divine or semi-divine female figures mastering predatory beasts. The trope derives from the Near East; entrances to Hittite temples dedicated to the goddess Ishtar (around the second millennium BCE) often feature women taming fantastical beasts. The symmetry of the composition suggests they were intended as guardians to an entranceway.’

The Lion Women of Asit Mayor likely references the Ishtar gate, formerly one of the seven wonders of the ancient world and an important entrance to the Mesopotamian city of Babylon, for which Ishtar was the celebrated goddess of love, fertility, war and sex. The gates are understood to have been enamelled with lapis lazuli and lined with motifs depicting lions, dragons, bulls and flowers all representative of the city’s protective deities. The naked (and coralled) pair look stilled amid a confident stride leading their sizeable male lions on chains, the lion being the creature associated with Ishtar.

In checking details on the Ishtar gate, I came across April Holloway’s page on ‘The Ishtar Gate and the Deities of Babylon’ in which there is mention and an image of what is thought to be an aspect of Ishtar depicting her naked, winged form standing on the backs of two lions while the reliefs of lions on the walls of the processional way show the lions mid-walk just as they look in the Treasures sculptures. 

One of the Lion Women of Asit Mayor, Punta della Dogana room 2, June 2017

Such mythical fusions of human and animal appeared in Treasures in Minotaur and Metamorphosis. The former graphically depicts a male-on-female rape, that is an exertion of power and control. The latter shows a classical female form fused with the giant head and legs of a fly. In a similar way to Kali replacing Herakles (or Jason from Jason and the Argonauts), perhaps this is a gender-swap of Jeff Goldblum in The Fly. As well as what we’re seeing happening across different ancient mythologies in gods and demi-gods fusing with non-human creatures, the guide text indicates that the fusion of woman and fly could be a creative expression of performers of ‘the Greek dance of morphasmos’ imitating ‘a series of animals and [becoming] spiritually possessed by each in turn’ (p. 31).

What’s notable about Metamorphosis is the need to move around it and see it from behind, because in the back of the head is an enlarged but anatomically correct open, external female genital area – the works. This could take me down all manner of further rabbit warrens to do with headf***s, sci-fi, body horror bordering on eroticism, pleasure, female sexuality, the lot. To tease some of these ideas out further, I’m going to take the next couple of posts to look in more depth at performances of violence and sexuality.

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