Pity the poor Art Director, for if there’s a book in all of us, so too is there a set, a look, a unifying vision.
But little can it be denied that a long history of artist-and-theatre collaboration has yielded some fascinating results. In collaboration with the Royal Ballet, the National Gallery continues the tradition this summer by inviting three artists to respond to three of Titan’s genre paintings.
In themselves a response to Ovid’s poem, these pictures – Diana and Callisto, Diana and Actaeon, and The Death of Actaeon – tell the story of a voyeur whose indiscretion is punished by his transformation into a stag. His ‘inner beast’ thus externalised for all to see, and the irony completed when his own dogs tear him to pieces.
This Romantic interpretation is nuanced by the many spears and arrow-shafts that abound in the images. In Titan’s age, such imagery may have been understood to allude to the insult and effrontery of viewing something forbidden; the idea that light was projected rather than received by the eye held considerable currency, and the sharp-edged weapons threaten to injure.
Today, under the influence of Freud, these symbols carry the baggage of psychoanalysis, and are more likely to resonate with the iconography of the penetrating gaze. The artists exhibiting in Metamorphosis have linked these concepts, and it’s a snug fit.
By generalising cognitive responses on the basis of gender, psychoanalytic theory promoted a model of spectatorship rooted in biological determinism. This is not to belittle the achievements that feminist scholars et al have won in the application of its tenets; rather, it is to supplement them with a masculinist interpretation – one in which the figure of the woman is not only ‘bearer of the look’, or a portent of castration, but a site of powerlessness grounded in potency.
The ostensible theme of Mark Wallinger’s Diana is voyeurism, but its most affective aspect is its foregrounding of the darkness that surrounds it. A naked girl bathes in a replica bathroom, accessible to the gallery via a single pair of peepholes. She cannot see us. Startlingly-lit, she performs her role as if alone. In stark contrast, the black space on our side of the partition assumes a theatrical character – and as such this piece is more about sublimation than guilt. The performance is not about being caught out. Nobody can see us as we squint – not even those queuing right behind us – and there is great comfort in anonymity; we realise too that the actress consents to our scrutiny.
By making the structured nature of representation so clear, we begin to understand just how capable the arts are of capitalising upon our physiological circuitry. We can tell that we are being manipulated. We sense ourselves being positioned as desiring subjects. But at the same time, we detect a certain inevitability about our being so; the act of desiring something is reflective rather than coercive. By revealing an ‘unfree’ dimension to comprehension, we begin to see how art can hold up a mirror to the stag in all of us.
Packed with innuendo, Chris Ofili’s paintings capitalise on these predispositions. In one, a shard of moonlight illuminates a distant hill. Surrounded by darker hues, the rivulet confounds our sense of perspective by appearing, in our initial encounter, as a mighty penis. Our superego quickly kicks in and puts things back in their correct place –pretty and respectable. It was a close call, be we caught it alright: a glimpse of our innate nature as it retreated into the landscape, its progenitor.
In another picture, a dancing couple is split at the waist. Below their eveningwear the figures dissolve into a drooping pillar of breasts and arses. The point of dance as a ritual is thereby construed as a surrogate for intercourse – but the very act of sublimation is obvious, redoubling attention unto itself and rendering the act conspicuous by absence. Olfili underlines this idea in the design for his set, where a mass of bulging, throbbing branches evoke naked bodies and naughty crevices.
But why fuss over a dirty mind? The answer lay in the threat this poses to our notion of autonomy and selfhood. As any fifteen year-old boy will tell you, the sexual organs are quite capable of independent action – they are physiological mechanisms par excellence. We are quite able to regard ourselves as organic machines, devoid of even token responsibility for our actions.
Sci-fi has long proffered a link between biological and technological determinism. The constraint we may feel is imposed by our subconscious, genetic makeup, or mortality finds a ready metaphor in the ‘unfreedom’ of the machine. Examples abound in popular culture. If Johnny Five taught us nothing else, it’s that there’s a certain something about consciousness that transcends materiality; Japanese comics such as Akira, Ghost in the Shell and Neon Genesis Evangelion invariably feature pubescent teens learning to control their emerging sexuality in mechanoid form; the Terminator films externalise horror at the sight of our innards – Arnie’s endoskeleton being almost indistinguishable from the plasticized figures of Gunther von Hagens, or Michelangelo’s famous anatomical studies.
Along these lines, the centrepiece of Conrad Shawcross’ ballet – and, indeed, of the National’s exhibition – is a dancing industrial robot. Its gestures are delicate and measured, concealing considerable weight and power. A seducer and predator, the machine is at once beguiling and frightening.
Herein lay the key to Metamorphosis’ new Actaeon. He is less to be reviled than he is pitied, because we share in his weakness; moreover, the weakness itself is the punishment. When the hunter is transformed and set upon by his dogs, it is animal nature in pure form – in a fashion, the content of his gaze – that consumes him.