Wednesday, October 29

Orpheus, Hetairai, and Sirens, Oh My...

There is an interesting new exhibition opening at the Villa this week. While the subject of the Getty Villa's collection is Classical antiquity, this new exhibit features contemporary art. This is a particularly interesting and challenging teaching opportunity for me because I am by no means a fan of contemporary art. The exhibition I'm referring to is "Jim Dine: Poet Singing (The Flowering Sheets)." The concept of the exhibit is that Jim Dine, a contemporary artist, created an exhibit after being inspired by objects in the Getty Villa's collection. In particular, he took his inspiration from "Poet as Orpheus with Two Sirens," "Statuette of a Dancer," and "Statuette of a Dancer Playing the Lyre."

All of these are ancient Greek artifacts made out of terracotta and are believed to come from southern Italy. The Orpheus and sirens are large, semi life-sized figures, but both dancer statuettes are less than twelve inches high. All of them at one time were brightly painted. The dancer figurines were possibly votive offerings to deities or funerary offerings to the deceased. The Orpheus group, according to the Getty, came from an ancient Greek burial in southern Italy. It has been suggested that the Orpheus figure is the deceased dressed as Orpheus, thus identifying himself with Orpheus's musical abilities and--maybe more likely--Orpheus's return from the gloomy Underworld. (Orpheus was one of a very few ancient Greek heroes that returned to earth after venturing into the Underworld.) Sirens, of course, are strange bird-woman creatures of Greek mythology who sing a "siren song." The sirens' song was so beautiful it was said to hypnotically seduce sailors and lure them to their deaths by causing them to shipwreck on the rocky shores of the island on which the sirens perched.

Statuette of a Dancer
Greek, 330-200 BCE

Statuette of a Dancer Playing the Lyre
Greek, 200-100 BCE

Poet as Orpheus with Two Sirens,
Greek, 350-300 BCE

This Orpheus group evoked in Dine's mind the idea of a poet surrounded by his muses. (This was his creative inspiration, but remember sirens are not muses.) The dancers took the place of the sirens surrounding the poet, and from that image he created his own artistic arrangement. You can see the images of his work installed at the Villa and a short film of Dine discussing the project here. Dine's artistic vision manifests itself in four eight-foot-high painted wood female figures modeled on the dancer figurines arranged around a seven-foot-high self-portrait head. The walls are covered in a poem by Dine, handwritten in charcoal. An audio recording of Dine reading his poem plays in the background. His poem wasn't written explicitly for this project, but it was written while he was working on it. As hallucinogenic as most contemporary art seems to me, I get this exhibit in the sense that I see that Dine is expressing a connection and communion with ancient artists.

In this instance, I think my perspective is disadvantaged with the archaeological truth behind the objects which inspired him. I've already mentioned that his central inspiration for the project, the Orpheus group, is a poet flanked by sirens--malevolent creatures that lured men to their deaths--not muses. Also, all of the objects he took as his creative focus are made of terracotta, and were created from molds. So, the idea of "communion" with the ancient artist loses its romanticism if you know Dine's counterpart 2,000 years ago (or so) was just slapping clay into a mold and firing the figurines in a kiln. Add to that knowledge the fact that these dancers do not at all represent muses. They likely represent hetairai--high-end, courtesan-type entertainers--who danced and played music as a way to demonstrate their cultured talents to their elite clientele. So, you can see how this knowledge kind of takes me out of the artistic mind-set...

However, I understand that Dine is separated from a detailed knowledge of the archaeology of these objects, which allows him to simply let his creative impulses carry him to his vision. For me, instead of seeing a contemporary artist communing with ancient artists, I see a twenty-first century man looking at this ancient artifacts completely through the lens of his own creative experience. The poem jotted on the walls of the exhibit is largely autobiographical, and in this literary expression as in the artistic expression, he sees himself as Orpheus, a poet: "Once brightly painted/I am a southern Italian singer and prophet/Listing to the left of my companions."

Dine's work is visually intriguing, and I can find some meaning in it (unlike a lot of other contemporary art), so in that sense I enjoy it. I was thinking about my own response to his work, and interestingly, I think I would be more accepting of his artistic license if his creative expression was limited to the poem. For some reason the added visual element narrows my window of artistic appreciation.

I didn't intend for this entry to be quite so long, but this has actually helped me clarify my own reaction to the exhibit, and I feel better now about presenting this show to the public. Attempting to assign any meaning for Dine's work for someone else would be doing the visitor and his art a disservice. Besides, as I think I've established here, the central meaning I find in it is the artist's unfamiliarity with the history of the artifacts that inspired him--and the average visitor isn't going to find such information all that helpful in their attempts to understand Dine's work. That being the case, all I can do is present them with the history of the project and then step back and allow them to gauge their own thoughts, reactions, and opinions.

All things considered, I think there is enough creativity in archaeology without contemporary artists adding to the mix. If you have an opinion about contemporary art being shown at a museum dedicated to antiquity, leave a comment--I'd like to hear what you think...

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