Writing Plato’s Republic in the 21st century

Plato’s Republic might seem to be the ur-canonical literary and philosophical text. It is regularly reported to be one of the most frequently assigned literary works in US undergraduate education (as in this Washington Post report; there’s also a lively debate as to whether that place is merited). But assuming that the Republic is a timeless text with a timeless status turns out to be something of an anachronism, albeit one that has proved extremely productive for those responding to it.

Plato’s Republic hasn’t always been the top text. For many centuries, his other works, notably the cosmogony of the Timaeus, were more cited and central. When Raphael wanted to identify Plato in his School of Athens fresco, he showed him holding a copyof the Timaeus, while pointing upward to show his focus on the divine and the cosmic. Political and educational reforms in the nineteenth century led to the re-evaluation of Plato’s works and a new role for the Republic (including taking its place in a reformed syllabus for ‘Greats’, the final exams taken by students of Classics); increased citizen participation in politics, as democratic reforms were extended, and calls for women’s right to participate, made Kallipolis, with its equal roles for men and women, look all the more interesting. For Plato and reform advocate Benjamin Jowett, the Republic’s advocacy of a political role for women made it an important addition to the Oxford curriculum.

Any assertion of the timeless validity of the Republic and its argument for the role of knowledge in ordering society has to contend with its inherent strangeness, and the huge presence of aspects of Plato’s own society within it. Even in antiquity, the Republic needed explanation and reframing to address the political concerns of different societies, from the pseudo-Platonic Seventh Letter applying Plato’s political thought to monarchical Sicily to Cicero applying it to the Roman republic in his own De Republica. In the present day, however, the role of philosophy has been challenged, often by scientists working in branches of science that have replaced Plato’s Timaeus as guides to the cosmos. Hasn’t empirical scientific knowledge replaced the abstract speculations of philosophers?

Book covers for Alain Badiou's Plato's Republic, Rebecca Newberger Goldstein's Plato at the Googleplex, and Jo Walton's The Just City.
Three recent books which use Plato to think about contemporary political and social issues: Alain Badiou’s Plato’s Republic, Rebecca Newberger Goldstein’s Plato at the Googleplex, and Jo Walton’s The Just City.

A paradox emerges in which Plato’s text is revered for containing timeless truths and for heading a philosophical canon, but requires constantly changing exegesis to render it comprehensible or useful. Part of the reason for undertaking the work of updating it is to gain access to those truths, and to participate in the continuation of that canon. Seeing how authors address this, and which issues they feel need attention or change, can itself be a productive exercise.

Three writers working in very different genres have addressed the problem by writing works which draw heavily on Plato’s dialogues, in some cases to the extent of rewriting the Republic. Alain Badiou’s La République de Platon uses the dialogue form, adapts some of the characters, and tweaks Plato’s politics and philosophy. Badiou introduces a female interlocutor, Amantha, modernises Platonic metaphysics into mathematical theory, and updates political references so that recognisable twentieth-century events and leaders replace the wars and rulers of Plato’s Greek world. Badiou described his rewriting as a form of ‘hyper-translation’ and explained its necessity:

he is the one we need first and foremost today, for one reason in particular: he launched the idea that conducting our lives in the world assumes that some access to the absolute is available to us … because the materiality of which we are composed participates … in the construction of eternal truths. (Badiou, Plato’s Republic, Preface, xxxi)

Philosopher and novelist Rebecca Newberger Goldstein departed further from Platonic structure in her Plato at the Googleplex, but tackled the question of philosophy’s continuing relevance (under assault from scientists who see their discipline as replacing it). If philosophy has anything to offer, Plato is a limit case; she argues that he could attend present-day graduate philosophy seminarsand understand what was happening:

[Plato’s] antiquity removes him to a time and a sensibility that some have argued are all but irrecoverable to us. And yet, despite the historical distance, Plato could stroll into almost any graduate seminar in philosophy, seat himself at the elliptical table around which abstractions and distinctions would be propagating with abandon, and catch the drift in no time at all. (Goldstein, Plato at the Googleplex, p.18)

In our seminar discussion, it was suggested that this table might be the ‘Harkness table’ associated with a Socratic method of teaching in US schools and colleges; Goldstein might be subtly suggesting that Plato belongs to an elite. However, she does not place Plato in a conventional academic setting in her book, but imagines him on a book tour, presenting his ideas as a public intellectual, in ten chapters which alternate between exposition and dialogue, and very loosely follow the argumentative structure of the Republic. We first meet him as a guest lecturer at Google’s headquarters, about to give a talk to the assembled staff. The dialogue we read is narrated by Rhonda, the friend to whom book publicist Cheryl unloads the details of her eventful day; the conversation is between Plato, Cheryl, Plato’s publicist, and Marcus, a Google programmer. The replication of Socratic dialogue in this structure, even down to an interruption by Rhonda reminiscent of Crito’s in the Euthydemus, is a delight:

I could tell… how traumatic this whole business with his friend Socrates must have been for him.
So I asked him: How long ago did this happen to your friend?
Oh, it’s ancient history, he said. I was a young man, not yet out of my twenties.
That’s interesting, I said, breaking into Cheryl’s narrative, which she doesn’t exactly encourage. It’s rare for a man to care so much for a friend, I said. (pp.64-5)

Goldstein’s point, in both this dialogue and the closing, is to assert that philosophers still have something to offer. Marcus aims to program an ‘Ethical Answers Software Engine’ which will crowd-source answers to ethical questions; but Plato points out that his ranking of the information gathered and control over the algorithm that develops the answer puts him in the position of being a philosopher king.

Novelist Jo Walton has had a life-long fascination with Plato’s Republic. Explaining how she came to write her version, she wrote:

Writing about Plato’s Republic being tried seems to me an idea that is so obvious everyone should have had it, that it should be a subgenre, there should be versions written by Diderot and George Eliot and Orwell and H. Beam Piper and Octavia Butler. Of course, it simultaneously seems like a crazy idea that makes people roll their eyes when I describe it.

Walton’s Thessaly trilogy imagines Kallipolis as Kallisti, a real rather than thought experiment, set up by the goddess Athena. In the trilogy’s opening novel, The Just City, some of the problems of Kallisti are caused by the reception of Plato itself; the masters are those who’ve prayed to Athene for Kallipolis to be real, which means many old men from pre-modern times. We see the city largely through the eyes of two female characters, Maia (formerly Ethel), rescued from a life of superfluity and intellectual frustration in Victorian England, and now chafing at the gender politics of Kallisti, and Simmea (once Lucia), one of the children bought by the masters in time-travelling raids on ancient slave markets, in her case from the northern Africa of late antiquity. Women masters are handed responsibility for maternity matters, as a new generation of citizens is bred from the children; at times the city starts to seem a little like Margaret Atwood’s Gilead.

Like Goldstein, Walton uses encounters with technology to examine issues of identity and personhood – while Goldstein gives Plato an MRI brain scan, Walton’s Kallisti is serviced by futuristic robots, which her Socrates engages in conversation (Walton’s descriptions somewhat resemble this prototype robot from the University of Osaka in Japan).

Yellow robot with caterpillar tracks and two arms, developed by the University of Osaka
This prototype robot, developed at the University of Osaka in Japan, features the arms and tracks of the robots in Jo Walton’s The Just City.

Although all three works operate within different literary genres, they suggest that Plato’s Republicrequires the updating Badiou identified, at which point it might help us to understand the problems of our own societies. These works also suggest that any dialogic encounter with Plato’s text which applies it to a specific situation could generate a similar transformative rewriting. Acknowledging the need for such a transformation, and the productive forms it might take may offer a fruitful way to read current academic scholarship on Plato, inevitably engaged in similar if less explicit or imaginative reworkings of Plato’s ideas.

  • I will be considering the political implications of engaging with Plato’s Republicin my talk at the Anachronism and Antiquity panel at the FIEC/CA conference in July.
  • Observant readers will have noted scenes from Raphael’s ‘School of Athens’ on two of the book covers featured; it also makes an appearance in these blog posts on Scholarly Communities and Anachronistic Communities, as well as in our forthcoming book Anachronism and Antiquity.

References

  • Badiou, A. (2012) Plato’s Republic, trans. S. Spitzer (Cambridge: Polity).
  • Burnyeat, M.F. (1998), ‘The past in the present: Plato as educator of nineteenth-century Britain’, in A. Rorty (ed.), Philosophers on Education: historical perspectives (London: Routledge), 353-73.
  • Goldstein, R. (2014) Plato at the Googleplex: why philosophy won’t go away (London: Atlantic Books).
  • Walton, J. (2015) The Just City (London: Corsair).
  • Weinberg, S. (1993) Dreams of a Final Theory (London: Hutchinson Radius), ch. 7 ‘Against Philosophy’.

 

Anachronism and Antiquity: Trinity Term 2019 seminar series

View of Oxford's High Street in 1810 by Turner
View of the High Street, Oxford, JMW Turner, 1810. Ashmolean Museum, Oxford WA2016.48.

Convenors: Dr Carol Atack, Dr Mathura Umachandran.
Venue: First Floor Seminar Room, Ioannou Centre, 66 St Giles’.
Time: Mondays,  14.00–15.30.

Week 1 (April 29)

Tim Rood, University of Oxford: ‘Anachronism and Antiquity’
Carol Atack, University of Oxford: ‘Writing Plato’s Republic in the twenty-first century: Jo Walton’s The Just Cityand Rebecca Newberger Goldstein’s Plato at the Googleplex’.

Week 2 (May 6)      

NO SEMINAR (faculty meeting)

Week 3 (May 13)

Miriam Leonard, UCL: ‘Time and Revolution’.

Week 4 (May 20)

Tom Phillips, University of Manchester:  ‘Shelley’s Antiquities’.

Week 5 (May 27)

Mathura Umachandran, University of Oxford: ‘Theorising Anachronism with Theodor Adorno and Erich Auerbach: “Late Style” and “Figura”’.

Week 6 (June 3)

NO SEMINAR (Faculty meeting)

Week 7 (June 10)

Catherine Darbo, CNRS Paris/Maison Française d’Oxford: ‘Anachronism in Ancient History of Greek medicine. Galen’s claim to be Hippocrates’ and Plato’s direct disciple’.

Week 8 (June 17)

John Marincola, Florida State University:
‘Polybian Temporalities’

Banal Antiquity: Koons and Anachronism

Jeff Koons at the Ashmolean

Ashmolean Museum, Oxford

February 7 – June 9, 2019

Team Anachronism recently took some time to gaze into Jeff Koons’ highly polished surfaces, oversized steel trinkets and eye-wateringly expensive blue balls. The show comprises seventeen artworks from one of the most notorious figures in the contemporary art-world, split up into three rooms – “Banality”, “Antiquity” and “Gazing Balls”. Across these sections is a fairly idiosyncratic selection from Koons’ back-catalogue. There is none of the controversy-courting “Made in Heaven” series,[1] though “Rabbit” (1986) is here, Koons’ first major foray into the steel balloon aesthetic for which he is best known. For viewers, looking at the brilliant reflection of a shiny bunny and seeing themselves, it’s hard to fight a sense that the only responses possible here are ennui, hermeneutic and historical.

Screenshot 2019-04-08 13.36.46
“Rabbit” stainless steel
41 x 19 x 12 inches 
104.1 x 48.3 x 30.5 cm
© Jeff Koons
1986

In 2019, the art world loves to hate Jeff Koons.[2] As the living embodiment of its bad conscience and the man who has most successfully exploited the irreconcilable logic of turning art into commodity, Koons is all the more irritating because he appears to sleep soundly at night undisturbed by the nightmarish contradictions of such an existence. His practice might be best described as Warhol on steroids, and the kind of critiques of Warhol are ramped up accordingly when directed at Koons. He is the investment banker turned artist who sells art to investment bankers and the rest of the one percent. He is the maverick who either exposes the worst contradictions of capitalism or just materializes them to make a quick buck. If we take the holy marketing doctrine that “sex sells”, what better realization of that reasoning than to make explicit and phenomenally unnecessary art featuring you and your pornstar wife? All surface, no depth – good clean post-modern fun. And yet, in a dawning age of new global fascism, Koons’ erotics of nihilism make him the artist of the age. It is this apposite distillation of culture (one kind of timeliness) together with an on-going interest in the materials and aesthetics of classical antiquity, that make Koons a particularly choice artist to think about under the rubric of anachronism.

Antiquity has become a core part of Koons’ practice: the works in the second room are mostly drawn from a series in 2008 called “Antiquity”. In addition we have the works in the third room, the “Gazing Balls” pieces. So Hal Foster is quite right in his observation that “classical statuary” is one of Koons’ three categories (the other two being “kitsch” and “porn”)[3]. Antiquity is primarily an aesthetic in Koons’ practice of radically transforming ancient form into modern medium (as in his “Balloon Venus (Magenta)” take on the Venus of Willendorf) or superimposing antiquity as collage (as in his Aphrodite riding a dolphin, in which a Bettie Page model is rendered as the goddess straddling a dolphin about to fellate a blow-up monkey).

Koons does, however, engage conceptually with antiquity too, particularly around the idea of representation and authenticity. In a recent interview, he comments on the transcendental in his practice: “If I’m working with a copy, I’m doing it as reference because what I’m really interested in is the Platonic idea of the piece”.[4] Koons deals with the concept of aesthetic originality through the extreme practice of reproduction. He is deeply invested in the copy: for example, the painting of an Old Master that appears identical but is not quite to scale or the ancient sculptural group that is reproduced from its Roman copy in place of the original. These are copies that revel in drawing attention to their iterability. Koons’ mimetic practice constitutes a transcendence of sorts, but that is a term so featherweight in its critical purchase that it sails out of the window. This practice is glib:  you can barely construe this as a response to the nexus of problems that have accumulated around mimesis in the history of philosophy in the last two thousand years. Walking out of the cave might make you very rich indeed.

Screenshot 2019-04-08 13.33.44.png
“Ballon Venus” mirror-polished stainless steel with transparent color coating
102 x 48 x 50 inches
259.1 x 121.9 x 127 cm
© Jeff Koons
2008-2012

Antiquity is the loose thematic unity of the second room. It has several large canvasses displaying almost exact replicas of oil paintings on which Koons has enacted his collage of art history techniques. You are confronted immediately however with three enormous steel statues. Two are oversized replicas of ballet dancer figurines, the kind that might appear on a suburban mantelpiece. The third figure is Koon’s response to the Venus of Willendorf in “Balloon Venus (Magenta)” (2008-2012). The accompanying signage for “Rabbit” indicates what steel means as a medium for Koons, and why he might have chosen it to represent Venus: “The surface of my stainless steel pieces is pure sex and gives an object both a masculine and feminine side: the weight of the steel engages with the femininity of the reflective surface”. The totalitarian undertones of purity as the rubric for sex is evident in this zero-sum of erotic relations. “Balloon Venus (Magenta)” transforms the ancient stone fertility symbol from a handheld talismanic object of sexual meaning into a larger than life, multi-ton steel structure. Her highly polished reflective surfaces throw the viewer back on themselves a hundred times, perhaps so you might avoid thinking how neutered the goddess herself has become. Here is Venus translated for the twenty first century: she could have been a gloriously vital magenta sex symbol – but she’s cold to the touch.

Venus and satyr
“Antiquity 1” oil on canvas 108 x 84 inches/274.3 x 213.4 cm © Jeff Koons 2009-2012

In the same room as these sculptures are selected parts of the series called “Antiquity”. On some of these, Koons and his army of technicians have recreated almost stroke for stroke the oil paintings of a little known early twentieth century painter Louis Eilshemius, over which various images of Greek sculpture are placed. Other canvases have landscapes, as gaudy and generic as a screensaver, serving as the background to the same jumble of ancient images. On top of some of these are diagrammatized female genitalia, recalling Gustave Courbet’s frank and full-bushed “The Origin of the World” (1866). All these canvasses display a statue group in which a Venus is about to strike a groping satyr and raises her shoe in consternation.

Balloon Venus in front of painting from Antiquity series
Balloon Venus and Antiquity series on display at the Ashmolean. Photo C. Atack.

Koons scours his own back catalogue for inspiration for the collaging, providing a monkey and the dolphin for the final canvas. “Antiquity 2 (Dots)” shows the model Gretchen Mol, made up as the early twentieth century pin-up Bettie Page, astride the dolphin and about to seduce an inflatable monkey. In the corner of this canvas is the image of another satyr, ithyphallic and menacing behind the central three figures. Does this rockabilly Aphrodite disinter given logics of sex? Did it matter that Koons only found out after the making of this piece that the ancient myth included this scene or is the sum total of what’s on display here just a fluency with the visual idioms of mainstream porn, ancient and modern? Koons’ mixing of media and imagery is bold – the point could perhaps be construed as a parallel between sexual ethics, ancient and modern, and thus anachronistic. But in Koons’ world, sex, and antiquity for that matter, appear exclusively in the commodity state with no room for the messy realities of (desiring) the past, people, and things.

Screenshot 2019-04-08 13.42.08
Gazing Ball (Belvedere Torso) plaster and glass 
71 1/2 x 29 7/8 x 35 1/8 inches
181.6 x 75.9 x 89.2 cm
© Jeff Koons
2013

In the next room, “Gazing Balls” has replicas of iconic paintings and sculptures from the history of Western art to which Koons has added polished balls in electric steel. Any pun one could make about blue balls is anticipated by Koons – it is so knowing of the irony, it has already undercut itself a thousand times. The overall visual statement that Koons makes with the addition of these balls is so self-congratulatory that he has almost no need for a viewer to gaze into them. Once more the attention to detail in making replicas advertises technical mastery. The reproduction technique of the ancient sculptures is particularly disturbing. Koons gives us replicas of the plaster casts in all their un-patinated white purity – even if he was aware that the original sculptures were colorfully painted, it is not clear to me that this would trouble his vacuous fetish of the replica. The sheer laziness of this practice is breathtaking given the contemporary scholarly and public conversations around the politics of colour and race in the aesthetics of antiquity. In the virtuosic display of reproduction, Koons’ aesthetic calculus of purity implicates race as well as sex.

Among the replicas of Theodore Gericault’s “The Raft of Medusa” (1818-19) and an everyday American postbox, Koons makes his blue ball steel additions to the Belvedere torso and Praxiteles’ Silenus with Baby Dionysus. It could be anachronism in action: the familiarity of ancient artworks thrown into disarray by being re-positioned and re-situated. Or, the gazing balls could invite us to reconsider how our relationships with antiquity are mediated by subjective notions of value. Or they could require us to review the ideological frameworks of spectatorship of which we might be more of less aware. There’s nothing here though to prompt such critical thinking – this is art that armours itself against theory.

Koons would like us to walk away with the idea that history of art is radically democractic – open to all, no prior knowledge needed. And yet in the market place of value, the ideologically suspect parts give the game away. His uncritical porno-historiography allows us to understand that cultural value is not under examination here, however bold the juxtapositions of ancient and modern artworks seem to be. In an aesthetic worldview where sex is pure, and reflections provide insight only into yourself, history runs exclusively in one direction. Koons might appear to be the anachronic artist par excellence. Anachronism and Antiquity has sought to construe relationships between past and present in surprising and critically energizing ways. We have paid attention to works of art that create relationships across time that challenge expectation or arrest assumptions about the linear flow of time. In Koons’ sterile world the multi-temporal potential of art points only to history as glossy abyss. Here, only the logic of the commodity reproduction is untouchable.

  • Images sourced from jeffkoons.com, except for installation shot.

[1] http://www.jeffkoons.com/artwork/made-in-heaven

[2] https://www.dazeddigital.com/art-photography/article/43261/1/jeff-koons-ashmolean-review

[3] https://www.lrb.co.uk/v36/n15/hal-foster/at-the-whitney

[4] https://032c.com/berlin-review-jeff-koons/

 

Down with anachronism: March 29, 2019

The good news: Team Anachronism aka RAP aka Tim Rood, Carol Atack, Tom Phillips (with much help from fellow member MU aka Mathura Umachandran) has today submitted a full draft of Anachronism and Antiquity to Bloomsbury Academic: on time in our internal chronology (mental deadline: March 2019); four weeks late had we read the small print in our contract. Call it timely or untimely, the book will be published next year.

One indication of the topic’s timeliness might be thought to lie in two uses of the word ‘anachronism’ in the New York Review of Books in the month in which our project began. The Irish novelist John Banville wrote that the character of Raymond Chandler’s Los Angeles-based private detective Philip Marlowe ‘appears to us now an anachronism’, owing to his ‘unflagging decency’ as well as ‘the insouciance with which he shows off his chauvinism, his racism, his contempt for “fairies”, and of course his misogyny’. In branding Marlowe an ‘anachronism’ for displaying what are in fact generally seen as the dominant masculine attitudes of the time of his creation, Banville uses the word in a way which (though not uncommon) extends conventional dictionary definitions of the word. The language of anachronism is most commonly applied to people who cling to attitudes and practices that have gone out of fashion, or to those attitudes and practices themselves. Applied to works of fiction, it is still generally used with a historicizing sensitivity, in relation to the period described within the fiction. Since John Banville wrote that review, however, revelations of the mores of contemporary Hollywood have raised the question of just how much of an anachronism Marlowe is.

Humphrey Bogart (as Philip Marlowe) and Lauren Bacall (as Vivian Sternwood Rutledge) in The Big Sleep, 1946.
Humphrey Bogart (as Philip Marlowe) and Lauren Bacall (as Vivian Sternwood Rutledge) in The Big Sleep, 1946.

In whatever domain it is applied, ‘anachronism’ implies a judgement on the direction of history. The politics of anachronism are laid bare with particular clarity when, in the same issue of the NYRB, the historian Keith Thomas observes that subscribers to the ‘resurgent nationalism’ that lay behind the Brexit vote ‘seemed not to appreciate that the idea of an absolutely sovereign nation-state is an anachronism’. Subscribers to that nationalism have clung to their delusion with such insistence that Keith Thomas’ judgement on the course of history itself might seem anachronistic (witness the cover pages of today’s UK tabloids). And in the meantime the period of our project has seen an upsurge of the sort of appeal to ancient exemplarity that some philosophers of history regard as an anachronism in the age of historicism: Thucydides is drawn on for insights as Britain sets out on its Sicilian Expedition, as the chances of staging another vote à la Mytilene Debate are discussed, and as patriots are called traitors.

There is a wood-panelled pub near Anachronism Headquarters which prides itself on a rather old-fashioned ambience: it is not unknown for customers to be told the price of their pint in guineas and shillings. It has a small but pleasant and leafy outdoor area at the back, a pleasant place to meet for a drink (especially on balmy days such as today). Two or three days before 23 June 2016, I met a MSt student there to celebrate his result. Someone at the bar asked the landlord how he was going to vote in the coming referendum. “OUT” was the loud reply.

50 'Brexit' coin
Proposed 50p coin to mark 29 March 2019.

I will not be going to this pub to celebrate the submission of the book manuscript (the term ‘manuscript’ thankfully being an anachronistic survival); indeed I have not set foot in the pub since that day. The features that seemed quaint now seem grotesque, smacking of the worst sort of nostalgia. So on this of all days ‒ b******s to Brexit, down with anachronism, long live Anachronism and Antiquity.

References

  • Banville, ‘Philip Marlowe’s revolution’, New York Review of Books, 27 October 2016, 38-9 at 39.
  • K. Thomas, ‘Will they really leave, and how?’, New York Review of Books, 27 October 2016, 40-1 at 41.
  • 50p Brexit coin from the Royal Mint‘, Numismag, 30 October 2018.
  • Royal Mint Brexit coin page.

Magdalene Odundo’s anachronic journey

In the first gallery of ‘Magdalene Odundo: Journey of Things’ at the Hepworth Gallery in Wakefield, is a case containing three objects, an anachronic assemblage of vessels in dialogue across time and space. On the far right is a beaker from the Kerma culture of Nubia, almost 4000 years old, which the potter saw in Cambridge’s Fitzwilliam Museum. In the centre, a tiny dipper vessel from archaic Cyprus of similar antiquity, once owned by the sculptor Barbara Hepworth, whose studio Odundo visited, and now part of the Wakefield permanent collection. On the left is an example of Odundo’s own work, a glass ‘Drinking Vessel’, made in the year 2000, its shape, twin handles and name recalling, for classicists at least, a Dionysiac kantharos, associated with ritual.

Three drinking vessels: from left to right 'Drinking Vessel', Magdalene Odundo, 2000; dipper bowl, Crete, c. 1900-1650 BCE; beaker, Kerma culture, Nubia (Egypt) 1173-1650 BCE.
Three drinking vessels: from left to right ‘Drinking Vessel’, Magdalene Odundo, 2000; dipper bowl, Cyprus, c. 1900-1650 BCE; beaker, Kerma culture, Nubia (Egypt) 1173-1650 BCE.

These three objects and their histories exemplify the connections across time and space that the exhibition’s reference to a ‘journey’ suggests. Odundo’s selections of pots and other artworks for the exhibition, and the connections she makes between them, represent a post-colonial perspective in which there is no simplistic conflation of the ancient and the traditional. The objects she has chosen to complement her own pots illuminate both the aesthetic and technical influences on the physical form of her work, her standpoint as an artist of colour understanding her own lived experience of colonialism and its relation to her training and work, and her appreciation of the crafts of many cultures. Each piece on display contributes to telling the story of her discovery of objects and craft techniques from different cultures and times during her studies in Kenya, Nigeria and the UK (where she is now Emerita Professor of Ceramics at the University for the Creative Arts), as well as her developing understanding of the socio-political conditions under which she gained access to those techniques. She recently told Apollo magazine:

‘Whether I’m looking at what is contemporary, or looking at the world while I’m walking, or looking at other art, landscapes, or whatever’s in front of me, I’m looking at history – and at the human need to make things and to become part of a history of being human.’

Some of the objects Odundo has chosen come from studio artists, others from makers ; some from the distant past, others contemporary. Those from classical antiquity connect with the allusions to that past in her work – from the shapes of vessels and their handles, to the severe and minimal figurative elements of Cycladic sculptures.

Vase by Magdalene Odundo
Magdalene Odundo, untitled; the mixed red and black surface is characteristic of her work.

While the techniques of modern studio potters are distinct from those of ancient ones, Odundo’s use of strong red and black colours, generated by oxidising or carbonising the surfaces of her pots in the firing process, offers a strong visual echo of Roman and pre-Roman pottery, of red terra sigillata and black Etruscan bucchero ware. In her re-use of classical elements combined with her other influences, Odundo’s work exemplifies a post-colonial engagement with the material cultures of classical antiquity, in which they are not valued above elements from other cultures of the past and the present, but set in a productive dialogue.

Black and red vases
Two untitled vases, Magdalene Odundo

This combination of influences contributes to a highly recognisable aesthetic, particularly grouped forms of red and black vases. Odundo has connected the angled and flared openings of vases like this pair to the costumes and head-dresses of Mangbetu women of the Democratic Republic of Congo; Odundo has said ‘You can imagine when you’re coiling that clay on to a vessel this woman laboriously binding her head’. The complex relationship between contemporary art and the colonial history of African peoples is also represented by ‘Janey Morris’, a clothed figure by Yinka Shonibare which uses African printed textiles to create a dress as if for the Pre-Raphaelite muse and craftswoman.

The story of how Odundo came to incorporate all these elements in her work is a case-study in the intersection of colonial history with an individual life. Odundo, born and educated in Nairobi, did not set out to be a ceramicist, but a graphic artist. But her initial experiences as an art student led her towards less commercial art and design. During a year studying graphic art at the Cambridge College of Art, she got to know the classical holdings of the Fitzwilliam Museum and the modernist collection of Kettle’s Yard, both represented in this exhibition along with modern art responding to the ancient world, such as Henri Gaudier-Brzeska’s Wrestlers (1914). The ancient and contemporary ethnographic collections of the Museum of Archaeology and Anthropology introduced her to the artistic traditions of the Americas and Australasia.

Wrestlers bas relief, red vase by Magdalene Odundo, archaic black-figure Athenian amphora
Objects with a Cambridge connection shown with Magdalene Odundo’s work (right): above, Henri Gaudier-Brzezka’s ‘Wrestlers’ bas relief, 1914, Kettle’s Yard; below, black-figure neck-amphora from Athens, with Ariadne between dancing satyrs, c. 550-540 BCE, Fitzwilliam Museum.

Studying art at the West Surrey College of Art and Design brought Odundo into contact with teachers from the British studio pottery movement. One might perhaps have expected her work in ceramics to have settled into the styles and practices of makers in that tradition, but the potter Michael Cardew (himself an Oxford Classics graduate, before making his career in craft) encouraged her to explore the pottery heritage of African peoples, particularly those of West Africa. Odundo then studied at a training centre Cardew had earlier established in Nairobi on behalf of the colonial government, intended to preserve and disseminate African pottery techniques. Here Odundo learned the traditional Gbari techniques for hand-building rather than throwing pots, from teachers such as Ladi Kwali, whose work is also on display in the exhibition.

Odundo has a particular interest in the ritual use of pottery; her thesis related Kenyan women’s pottery traditions to the use of vessels in rites of passage. Vessels are put to ritual and ceremonial use in many cultures and times – whether for serving drinks, from the mixed wine of the ancient Greek symposium to the English afternoon tea (exemplified here by a Lucie Rie tea-set), or for carrying and pouring offerings in ritual and commemorative settings. Odundo has reflected this in work which evokes the role of vessels in funerary and commemorative practices. In recent years she has made pots that echo the form of the kigango, vertical memorial sculptures which form part of the funerary practices of the Mijikenda people of Kenya. Here, three of her kigango vessels are grouped with memorial works connected to other times and cultures; a model of ‘Single Form’, Barbara Hepworth’s iconic memorial sculpture for her friend, United Nations Secretary-General Dag Hjammerskjöld, and a fourth-century BCE Attic funerary lekythos, used for funerary and graveside rituals, as well as an original kigango (not pictured). Like Hepworth, Odundo has marked personal loss through her art.

Rear left: model for 'Single Form', Barbara Hepworth; centre: three kigango vases, Magdalene Odundo; front, white-ground lekythos, Athens, fourth century BCE.
Rear left: model for ‘Single Form’, Barbara Hepworth, 1961; centre: three kigango vases, Magdalene Odundo, 2010-13; front, white-ground lekythos, Athens, c. 470-40 BCE.

Odundo’s simultaneous centring of local craft traditions from Kenya and her use of elements from Graeco-Roman antiquity, as well as other ancient cultures, in her pottery challenge ideas of the incorporation of African cultures as providing primitivist elements in art which should be displayed separately from ‘Western’ art. In her work she has established a post-colonial aesthetic in a discipline in which Graeco-Roman classical antiquity has often provided a dominant reference. Interviewed by Monique Kernan in 2003, she said:

Debating who or what culture or nation or ethnicity one is for purposes of exhibiting is a non-starter, because one is who one is. Critics are the ones who pigeonhole the art and artists by calling art “primitive,” applying an anthropology that’s fifty years out of date. [African] artists are fed up with being seen as exotics.

  • Magdalene Odundo: the journey of things, at the Hepworth Gallery, Wakefield until June 2, 2019, then at the Sainsbury Centre for Visual Arts, Norwich, from 3 August to 15 December 2019.
  • For an expert view on ancient Cypriot elements in Odundo’s work, see Anna Reeve’s post in her Ancient Cypriot Art in Leeds blog.

References

  • Berns, Marla C. (1995) Ceramic Gestures: new vessels by Magdalene Odundo (Santa Barbara).
  • Hardwick, L., & Gillespie, C. (eds.) (2007). Classics in Post-colonial Worlds (Classical presences, Oxford).
  • Kerman, M. (2017) Contemporary British Artists of African Descent and the Unburdening of a Generation (London), Chapter 2.
  • Slater-Ralph, Anthony (ed.) (2004) Magdalene Odundo (Aldershot).

 

New perspectives on Rome’s multi-temporal cityscape

The city of Rome has been identified as an ‘eternal city’ since the poet Tibullus labelled it so back in the first century BCE, and also by subsequent visitors as a multi-temporal city in which past and present offer an intoxicating mixture. Visiting the city as it is now, two millennia later, is to encounter a multiplicity of past Romes, overlying each other and competing for attention as you traverse the city, from the classical past through the heritage of the church and the visions of early-modern visitors such as historian Edward Gibbon, who was quite overwhelmed by the experience of standing in the Forum where Cicero had once stood, writing in his memoirs that ‘at the distance of twenty-five years, I can neither forget nor express the strong emotions which agitated my mind as I first approached and entered the Eternal City’ (Memoirs of my Life, p. 141).

Last month, while visiting the École Française de Rome for a workshop on the application of a modern political concept – Weber’s model of charismatic leadership – to the politics of the ancient world, I was able to do some sight-seeing of my own, and see how Rome’s museums and archaeological sites are using new approaches to connect visitors with the classical past and those who rediscovered and interpreted it, and how contemporary art contributes to this conversation.

Not all Rome’s monuments are as visible as the Forum. One remnant of ancient imperial Rome is invisible from street level, buried underground and forgotten until its rediscovery in the Renaissance. The Domus Aurea is the only remnant of the enormous palace built by the emperor Nero during his short time in power, and swiftly dismantled by his successors after his death in 68 CE. It survived the destruction of other parts of the palace complex when it became the foundations for the public baths commissioned by the emperor Trajan – the Colosseum itself, that most recognisable of classical ruins, had already been built over the palace’s ornamental lake by the Flavian emperors, starting soon after Vespasian cemented his power. To visit the underground ruins of the Domus Aurea is already to take a journey back in time, but the current hard-hat tours of the underground site use a range of audio-visual technology to give visitors a multi-temporal experience and to reveal its hidden past. As you enter, the bare brick walls of the vaulted cells supporting Trajan’s building become a screen for images of Nero’s Rome, and of the palace as it is imagined to have been in its brief heyday.

Domus Aurea video projection
Reconstruction of the Domus Aurea projected on to the Roman walls

But further inside the ruin it becomes difficult to imagine the dark galleries and passages as a light-filled golden palace, even though there are tantalising glimpses of the frescos that decorated those parts not adorned with marble, long since lost. But new technology is here to help – one chamber is now equipped with Oculus Rift headsets so that you can experience different layers of the building’s past through a virtual reality recreation.

Virtual reality room in the Domus Aurea
Virtual reality stations await visitors within the Domus Aurea

After seeing the frescoes lit by the flickering torches of the palace’s Renaissance explorers, who thought they’d found a cave, you are tumbled back in time to the full sun-lit glory of the original rooms. Then you can walk out and look across the city to the other parts of Nero’s palace on the Palatine, with no Colosseum in sight. Don’t forget to look back at the building you’ve just left… After returning to the present, and putting your hard hat back on, it perhaps becomes easier to visualise the remaining rooms, including the astonishing octagon with its dome, as they once were.

The competing layers of the classical past are further overlaid by the city’s Christian heritage, as Gibbon noted; he was inspired to write Decline and Fall by hearing Franciscan friars singing in the ruins of the Temple of Jupiter (Memoirs, p. 143). The classical and Christian past come together in the Vatican Museums, home to a remarkable collection of antiquities, assembled over centuries from finds within Rome and gifts to the Pope. At the moment, the feeling that you are viewing antiquity through a past sensibility, when walking through its galleries and courtyards, is heightened by the museum’s celebrations of the anniversaries of the birth and death of the German art critic Johann Joachim Winckelmann (1717-68), who for the latter part of his career held a range of curatorial roles at what would become this museum. In a display spanning the whole museum, key objects across the collection, those that attracted Winckelmann’s scholarly and aesthetic attention, are marked by a large Gothic W, and his interpretations of objects and critiques of others’ views are posted on accompanying sign boards.

Belvedere Hermes and giant Winckelmann W
The Belvedere Hermes tagged as part of the Vatican’s Winckelmann display

We are encouraged to see what Winckelmann saw in the Vatican’s collections, although given the enduring influence of his aesthetic response to classical art, many visitors may already be primed to see greatness where he once saw it; of this statue, now known as the Belvedere Hermes, but then thought to represent Antinous, Winckelmann commented that ‘the head is undoubtedly one of the most beautiful youthful heads of antiquity’. Given that art historians and archaeologists of the present are often more concerned with escaping or revising Winckelmann’s views on ancient aesthetics rather than with embracing them (as is Sarah Bond in this critique of the ‘whitewashing’ of ancient sculpture), the effect of the Vatican’s intervention is to reassert a very traditional perspective on aesthetic value, as well as to highlight antiquarian debates about the identification of the subjects of statues. The placement of major works in the collection already accords with Winckelmann’s evaluation of their artistic importance – the octagonal courtyard where the Belvedere Hermes stands is crowded with letters and signs – but the reminder that we might ourselves be seeing the classical past through mediating filters such as Winckelmann’s aesthetic is an important one.

While the halls of the Vatican Museums resist change, the Roman cityscape surrounding the Vatican is not timeless, but subject to renewal and to new interventions. In Largo Goldoni, a small square on one of Rome’s prime luxury shopping streets, the installation of Giuseppe Penone’s sculpture Foglie di Pietra (‘Leaves of Stone’), raises questions about the relationship between the city and nature and about change over time.

Giuseppe Penone, Foglie di Pietra, Rome, 2017
Giuseppe Penone, Foglie di Pietra, Rome, 2017

The sculpture was placed there in 2017, with sponsorship from Roman fashion house Fendi, outside whose flagship boutique it stands, an intriguing location for a work by a sculptor who emerged from the Arte Povera movement of the 1960s. In this monumental work, two bronze trees support apparent sculptural fragments in their branches; one stone fragment recalls the reuse of Roman decorative elements in Renaissance buildings, while a huge marble block contains a Corinthian capital entwined in tree roots, suggesting both the grandeur of Rome and the temporal distance of its classical past.

Penone, Foglie di Pietra, detail of marble block with Corinthian capital and tree roots
Penone, Foglie di Pietra, detail of marble block with Corinthian capital and tree roots

The sculpture contains familiar elements from Penone’s artistic practice (there’s still time to catch a major retrospective exhibition at the Yorkshire Sculpture Park, which closes 28/4/19), especially his interest in natural materials and fragmentation. Its placement in the Roman cityscape underscores Penone’s interest in revealing change over time through natural processes; at the installation of the sculpture, he commented:

“In Foglie di Pietra, archaeology and ruins, history and biology are grafted one on the other, creating a permanent bond between nature and culture, and celebrating a deep synthesis between the flowing of natural and human time where a sense of longing and a romantic nostalgia for lost civilizations are brought to the surface.”

Penone’s complex construction materialises the experience of the encountering the multi-temporality of Rome and incorporates it into the fabric of the city. Even outside the formally curated spaces of its museums and monuments, artistic interventions like Foglie di Pietra negotiate Rome’s continuing relationship with its classical past and the long reception history of that past.

  • Gibbon, Edward (1990), Memoirs of my Life, ed. Betty Radice (London: Penguin).
  • Winckelmann, J. J. [1764] (2006). History of the Art of Antiquity, tr. Harry Francis Mallgrave (Los Angeles: Getty Publications).
  • Coulson, S and Lilley, C. (2018) Giuseppe Penone: A Tree in the Wood (Yorkshire Sculpture Park).

Performing ancient epic: Shikandi’s anachronistic revenge

Until the Lions

Roundhouse, London January 11-17

Akram Khan Company

screenshot 2019-01-17 11.58.46In my previous post, I considered how a recent performance of Memorial, Alice Oswald’s retelling of the Iliad, creatively negotiated dynamics of temporality and how it represented the suffering of those about whom the poem remains silent. This post takes a lateral step, considering these interleaving issues in light of a performance of Karthika Nair’s Until the Lions: Echoes from the Mahabharata (2015) a retelling of the ancient Indian epic. The poem is attributed to the sage Vyasa and tells the story of the world-shaking struggle between two branches of a single family. A narrative that dwells on and in violence, intimate and epic, the Mahabharata is thought to have such perlocutionary force that it is customarily kept out of Hindu households to ward off the possibility of inviting in such familial strife. Comparative study of the poetics of the Mahabharata (and the Ramayana) with Homeric epics is by no means a new scholarly activity. If one of the main advantages of reception studies is the ability to approach traditions critically, then comparison of the contemporary performance reception of these poetic traditions might be a way of circumventing the worst orientalist impulses that were historically part and parcel of the comparative method.

screenshot 2019-01-17 12.13.10

Akram Khan has toured his soaring, visceral dance adaptation of Until the Lions around the world and brought it back to London for a limited run. Khan is one of the foremost choreographers and performers of his generation: he innovatively marries his early training in the classical north Indian Kathak tradition with the forms of contemporary choreography. His style is arresting and thrillingly kinetic. A raised stage intentionally recalled a cross-section of a felled tree with its concentric circles, across which Khan himself as Bheeshma, Ching-Yien Chien as Shikandi and Joy Alpuerto Ritter as Amba work out this slice of the Mahabharata in the frequently non-mimetic idiom of contemporary dance. Unlike Brink productions’ of Memorial in which singers and performing chorus of hundreds were physically separate, here the three dancers and the five musicians interacted, telling the story together, whorling around the tree-trunk stage or using the stage as an enormous percussive instrument in its own right.

screenshot 2019-01-17 12.32.05

 

A central observation for Nair and Oswald is that power operates at the core of ancient epic narrative. Moreover both writers share a concern with radically revising the structure of the epic poems in their creative responses. In this interview, Nair demurs from a direct comparison with Oswald, citing not only her lack of direct access to the Vedic Sanskrit (where Oswald could get inside the Homeric Greek) but also the difference in their creative methods. If Oswald seeks a kind of ‘poetic archaeology’, Nair insists that her retelling of the Mahabharata is a process of ‘refracting’ the ancient material. This difference of method emerges in the way that Oswald preserves the omniscience of the narrator, where Nair fractures the narrative into eighteen different voices. As Nair says in an interview with Tishani Doshi : “My real concerns when I began working on Until the Lions revolved around structure. I fretted about chronology. I was anxious about channelling the Mahabharata through eighteen sets of narrators without turning it into a kaleidoscope of voices.”

Khan deals with the anxiety about kaleidoscoping voice by choosing one narrative on which to focus: the story of Bheeshma and Amba. As Madhavi Menon reminds us (2018:117-9), this narrative tangles up desires multiple and celibate, temporalities elastic and ruptured. Bheeshma was a warrior who undertook a vow of celibacy (Bheeshma means ‘he of the terrible oath’) in return for which he was granted the boon of choosing the moment of his death. In the course of the war, he took Amba as a ‘spear won bride’ to give to a male relative, to use a euphemism straight out of the Homeric primer. On discovering that she was in love with someone else, Bheeshma attempted to release her back to her beloved but failed because Amba was now ‘soiled goods’ because of her contact with Bheeshma. Unwanted and unloved, Amba undertook severe penances and threatened to throw the whole cosmic order into disarray with her grief (not unlike the scale of Demeter’s grief for Persephone). Shiva therefore intervened and granted her the boon of killing Bheeshma in her next life. Amba became Shikandi, who though born a woman is eventually transformed Tiresias-like into a man on a mission to revenge himself on Bheeshma. They met on the battlefield where Bheeshma recognized his enemy as Amba/Shikandi – he laid down his weapons and allowed Shikandi to take vengeance, though invoking his boon, he delays the actual moment of his death till after the war.

screenshot 2019-01-17 12.36.52

This is how Nair imagines Shikandi’s mother (an unnamed woman in the original epic) dreaming of her child’s sex-change and unnaturally over-long desire to kill:

In these dreams, Shikhandi crushes
both breasts and unwraps sinewed legs,
casts shoulder and pelvis in male
mould then carves muscles till they shine—
bronzed, blood-soaked, a warrior’s shield.

Is that past or future? He slips
into Bheeshma’s sleep, a land he
has owned for thirty-six thousand
nights and days. Honour lies in wait,
a quivering, tongueless, wild beast.

For they who’ve never tasted love
cannot know hate, and Shikhandi
has hated longer and better
than most on earth. He borrows rage
from the sun, endurance from stars.

Nair’s methodological ‘fretting about chronology’ point us towards looking at how time is organized, particularly around the figure of Amba/Shikandi. In the passage cited above, we see that fretting has morphed into the existential terror of a mother struggling to understand her dream-child, a malevolent figure whose motivating rage extends beyond a single human life. No wonder she asks: ‘Is that past or future’? The figure of Shikandi is rage as embodied anachronism, unsettling the normative accounting of human life in time or in flesh. This puts me in mind of the conversation between Solon and Croesus (Hdt 1.29-33), an episode that we on the Anachronism and Antiquity project read as a crucible of anachronism. It is not at the end of a life that Shikandi and Bheeshma get their respective satisfactions. Rather happiness is forestalled, long after the allotted moments of their biological death, thus causing creating complexity for how we think humans experience time – memories are carried over into differently gendered bodies, hearts hum with ancient misery, arrows pierce a hero made invulnerable by his celibacy.

screenshot 2019-01-17 12.13.29

Watching this adaption of Until the Lions made specifically for the Roundhouse’s circular performance space, I was struck by how these conflicts in desire and temporality were distilled in the staging and the physical space of the performance. For the entire performance until Bheeshma’s death, a cast of a severed head is mounted on a pole as a memento mori governing the action, placed there by Shikandi at the start. At the moment of the climactic encounter between Bheeshma and Shikandi, the seemingly solid ground gives way. Amba has previously drawn attention to this deep crack in the earth in her desperate clawing at it, an attempt to hide her shame and rage under the ground perhaps. As Bheeshma realizes, Hector-like, that the gig is up and the scales have always been divinely tipped agains him, he turns and walks slowly to the mounted severed head. As he moves, the stages rises in uneven pieces, Shikandi standing triumphantly on the highest jagged outcrop. The lighting and smoke from below give the sense of Shikandi standing on top of a lavafield, or in the smouldering aftermath of an apocalyptic event. The normal sequence of time has been disrupted by Shikandi’s triumph, and so the orderly rings of the tree stage which fitted neatly together, have given way under the pressure of the cosmic proportions of one person’s despair and revenge.

 

References:

  • Nair, K. (2015) Until the Lions: Echoes from the Mahabharata (Harper Collins India)
  • Menon, M. (2018) Infinite Variety: A History of Desire in India (Speaking Tiger Books)
  • Udumudi, S. (2017) Indian Studies After Indology: An Interview with Vishwa Adluri and Joydeep Bagchee

Images from http://www.akramkhancompany.net/productions/until-the-lions/  and http://www.roundhouse.org.uk/whats-on/2019/until-the-lions/