Unbelievable part 20: Performing Violence

20 March 2020

*As is indicated by the title, there is unpleasantness ahead including mentions of rape and child-murder*

In the previous post on sculpture as performance, I edged into specifically thinking about violence and sexuality as types of performativity embodied in many of the works in Treasures from the Wreck of the Unbelievable. I’ve looked previously at the impending violence in Hydra and Kali and Andromeda and the Sea Monster, as well as the aftermath of violence across several versions of The Severed Head of Medusa. Here I want to focus on the sculptures in which the figures are stilled while in the throes of violent acts, for example, The Minotaur and Cronos Devouring his Children, both of which include the perpetrator and victim(s).

The guide description for The Minotaur reads (p. 33):

This depiction of the half-man, half-bull of Greek myth raping an Athenian virgin presents the violent threat of unfettered male sexuality. Greek and Roman myths abound with brutal stories of the sexual assault of women by men and gods alike. Classical art often aestheticized such scenes, sanitising any explicit reference to intercourse. In myth, such assaults were partly rationalised by claiming that the god Eros was capable of overpowering male bodies and wills at any moment. This pre-Freudian distinction between the conscious and unconscious suggests the Minotaur – which has remained a symbol of sexual violence and male lust, most prominently in the work of Picasso – might here be read as a horrific embodiment of the sleep of reason.’

The closing suggestion conjures associations with Francisco Goya’s etching from the late 1790s El sueño de la razón produce monstruos, a title with a deliciously ambivalent meaning: The Sleep/Dream of Reason Produces Monsters. With its implication bearing similarities with William Blake’s The Ghost of a Flea, it depicts the artist surrounded menacingly by many animals while asleep at his desk, mainly owls and bats with glaring big cats for good measure. More recently, the phrase ‘the sleep of reason’ has taken on more sinister connotations in its use as the title for a book detailing the torturous murder of two-year-old James Bulger by two ten-year-old boys in 1993. A few years later it was also the title of a novel drawing together the themes and issues raised by the etching and real-life murder cases to explore the sadistic abuse of children. I’m reading and viewing as many source texts as I can in my research on Treasures, but I hope you’ll understand that I’m leaving these aside.

With these associations, the sexual violence exerted by the mythical being on a young woman in The Minotaur is more palatable than that on a very small child. That’s not to say that it’s palatable at all, and it was a difficult piece to encounter; it presented one of those ‘so grotesque, I can’t look away’ experiences. What struck my friend and I was that while we were looking at The Minotaur and making quiet observations about it, another woman came over and started photographing it in close detail, seeming to try to capture the instance and specific area of penetration. Our focus moved from the work to what came across as an act of voyeurism, although with the benefit of the doubt this could have been some sort of research about the subject matter. We had wanted to examine the piece further for our own reasons, but our view became obstructed by the relentless photographer, so we moved on.

As the guide text asserts, it is striking to see a depiction that lays bare the violence and distress experienced by a powerless victim. I still don’t know how I feel about The Minotaur, and perhaps that’s the point. It’s important to show and convey the coercion, but it is potentially re/traumatising. Life doesn’t come with trigger warnings and the act, albeit featuring a mythical creature, is all too real. Another view is that not all rapes look like this; coercion is often psychological and emotionally manipulative and not just an act of physically overpowering another person. The Minotaur story as a work of fiction and everything the notion of a bull crossed with a man can represent could probably be transferred to the range of necessary metaphors to illustrate more shades of controlling behaviour together with the resulting victimhood.

Where the Lion Women of Asit Mayor, as I wrote about last time, evoke control over nature – and women’s power over male creatures – figures like The Minotaur and Medusa suggest monstrous fusions created from violence, for example, externalisations of our baser animalistic tendencies often involving a lack of informed consent and as also exuded by Demon with Bowl. As the text quoted above indicates, the Treasures Minotaur references a 1993 drawing by Pablo Picasso entitled Minotaur in Love with a Female Centaur. The woman in the black granite Hirst version is fully human, and writhing in horror and pain as the victim of sexual assault, an act that links her with Andromeda in her impending doom and the head of Medusa in the aftermath of her violent death. But what of the Minotaur? Is it as simple as the sleep of reason?

In the Greek myth, as a ‘tribute owed by Athens to Minos, king of Crete, for the death of his son Androgeos […] seven youths and seven girls [were] shipped periodically to Crete and fed to the Minotaur in the Labyrinth’ (March p. 242). The Minotaur’s existence came about, unsurprisingly, from a long string of harmful transactions between gods and kings, namely brothers Zeus and Poseidon and the almost as lascivious King Minos, whose wife Pasiphae falls victim to their vengeful plots and is of course saddled with the blame when she produces ‘her monstrous offspring’ (March, p. 247). The master-craftsman Daidalos, exiled to Crete for murdering his even more ingenious nephew, is charged with constructing the Labyrinth in which the Minotaur is shut away (March, pp. 246–7).

As with Andromeda and the Sea Monster, for the young woman in The Minotaur, there is no sign of the hero Theseus coming to the rescue, and even if he is, it’s much too late. I wonder if she is Ariadne, one of the seven young women sent to Crete on the same ship on which Theseus sails to kill the Minotaur. Minos takes a shine to her and makes advances, upon which Theseus steps in and protects her. After his successful mission, they are betrothed to marry, but Theseus abandons Ariadne. All turns out well for her with Dionysos later, though (March, pp. 248–51).

While the image in the sculpture indicates unbridled, coercive male-on-female violence, beneath the surface is there something to be learned about cycles of abusive relationships? While never an excuse, is the Minotaur’s maltreatment by all who brought him to life what’s behind his violent acts? Given the youth of his victims who are sent to him by these same abusers, is there a deeper message about a life of exile, repression and deprivation causing a depraved need for young flesh, a need both caused and met by an uncaring authoritative system?

There is a lot more to be said about the depicted actions of male violence and patriarchal control with Cronos Devouring his Children presenting a strong example, and one in which the coral on the sculpture buffers the horrifying image of children being ripped apart while at the same time red spots of coral evoke blood and tearing flesh. 

My photo of the coral on the side of The Monk, beyond which is Cronos Devouring His Children, Punta della Dogana, 2017
In the Greek myths, the youngest and most savage of the Second Order of Gods (the Titans), Kronos is the son of Gaia (Earth) and Ouranos (sky). It is he with his sister Rheia who spawns many of the Olympian gods, including Zeus and Poseidon. Already familiar with patricide (to save his mother, but with sociopathic glee [March p. 27]), with the prophesy from his parents that he too will be overthrown by one of his sons, Kronos takes matters drastically into his own hands, or rather, stomach. Whereas his father imprisons Kronos and his siblings inside their mother, Kronos devours whole his immortal children with Rheia as soon as they are born (March pp. 39–40). On her sixth pregnancy, a distraught Rheia on the advice of their parents gives birth to Zeus in Crete and hides him well, then hands over a stone in swaddling to Kronos who, again, swallows it whole. While gruesome enough, such a description does not quite conjure images of the crazed, ripping cannibalism depicted in the sculpture or the paintings it references.

Again by Goya, Saturno devorando a su hijo / Saturn Devouring His Son (c. 1820), shows Kronos as his Roman equivalent eating one of his infant children. This was in turn likely inspired by Peter Paul Rubens’s earlier baroque interpretation from 1636, also known as Saturn Devouring His Son.

When the grown Zeus later confronts his father and makes him purge his siblings, the new King of the Gods punishes Kronos to an eternity of measuring out all of time, hence the image of Old Father Time forever treading the Earth with a sickle (the one used to castrate and depose his own father, Ouranos) (Fry pp. 55–6). This brings us back to the notion of time-based art and materials, and to considering the layering of different measures of time throughout the Treasures show. Things are old but they are not, and yet they are, but really, in terms of the cosmos, happen in the blink of an eye. Human time, geological time, cosmos time. Holding, consuming and pausing time, yet still it moves on. I have much to think about as I pull together a draft of this whole study.

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