One of the activities that keeps me busy these days — other than teaching, of course — is applying to grant programs. This is a long, tedious, and painful process that I submit to only grudgingly. It’s also, unfortunately, a necessary one. As part of the application process, I’ve been forced to cobble together a storyboard for my proposed animation project. This is yet another ‘necessary task’ that I perform grudgingly — being a naturally lazy creature, I’ve never done one before — though the benefits of having a storyboard are immediate and the process certainly worthwhile.
I don’t want to reveal all of my storyboard just yet, but here’s a sneak peak. Below the storyboard sample is my artist’s statement/project proposal, which might prove insightful to those of you who follow the development of my animations.
My current series of stop-motion animations entitled Domestikia developed directly out of a previous sculptural-installation project, in which I constructed a three-dimensional dollhouse from paper and lithographic prints. This project, entitled The Disobedient Dollhouse, employed the setting of a Victorian-themed dollhouse as a means to critique the sentimentality of nostalgia, as well as the tiny, precious model of perfect domesticity that the dollhouse itself proposes. A dollhouse is a gendered space, one specifically codified as feminine – it is therefore a highly suitable space in which to focus attention on women’s roles within the home. Furthermore, the strange, hybrid creatures and giant insects that populated my Dollhouse hinted at a dark, secret fantasy world churning just beneath the veneer of domestic perfection.
As previously stated, the Domestikia animation series began as an expansion of the narratives that originally appeared in The Disobedient Dollhouse project. For instance, the bird-headed children and Nanny (a self-portrait) featured in Domestikia: The Incident in the Nursery first existed as a paper diorama inside The Disobedient Dollhouse. The medium of stop-motion animation enabled me to — quite literally — bring that nursery scene alive. In addition to the scenes and narratives, the look and style of my Dollhouse has also carried over into my animations. Like the hand-drawn lithographs I created for the Dollhouse, the paper cutouts and articulated paper puppets from Domestikia possess the same grainy, textured quality of the lithographic crayon.
Similar to the other Domestikia films, the proposed project Domestikia, Chapter 3: The Little Death will employ the technique known as ‘cutout animation’, one of the earliest forms of stop-motion that uses flat characters and backgrounds cut from paper. The technical limitations of paper puppets, with their characteristically stiff and unnatural movements, make cutout animation particularly well suited to animations whose themes involve fantasy, surrealism, dreams, and that which otherwise lacks realism. Rather than being a technical limitation, the anti-realism of the paper cutout serves to amplify the strangeness of the events that happen throughout Domestikia – which is precisely why I’ve chosen to work with this technique. In Domestikia, Chapter 3: The Little Death, my plan is to further expand the technical and aesthetic possibilities of the paper cutout.
The storyline of Domestikia traces a series of strange, otherworldly events that take place within an imaginary dollhouse. The connecting thread between each narrative is the continual appearance of a butterfly, a creature that acts as a sort of ‘agent of chaos’, disrupting the daily domestic routines of the miniature household. In Domestikia, Chapter 6: An Unfortunate Incident Involving Her Hat, the appearance of the butterfly in the opening scene foreshadows the strangeness of subsequent events, in which the morning routine of dressing goes terribly wrong when a hat decides to grow out of control. The butterfly departs the scene, and in Domestikia: The Incident in the Nursery, it appears once more to disrupt the daily proceedings – this time, rousing an infant recently rocked to sleep by the Nanny, creating a cacophony of screams. The butterfly is once again featured in my proposed project, entitled Domestikia, Chapter 3: The Little Death. In this latest installment of the Domestikia series, the ‘little death’ of the title refers simultaneously to the metamorphosis process of the butterfly, as well as to ‘la petite mort’ of orgasm, as the butterfly is shown to have originated from an amorous encounter between Madelaine and her octopod lover. The ‘little death’ also refers to the literal building up, and subsequent dismantling of the Madelaine paper puppet when she is ‘lovingly dismembered’ by the octopus. Ostensibly, Domestikia, Chapter 3 is about shifts in identity that occur as one’s role in life changes: from individual, to couple, to parent. In short, sometimes it is necessary to ‘die’ in order to reinvent oneself.
The dog days of Summer are now upon us, but don’t let those increased hours of daylight discourage our mutual reveling in the dark & macabre. Summer is the perfect time of the year to relax, disengage your critical thought and wallow in the raunchy, gory, completely tasteless absurdity of horror & exploitation films. For the bookish crowd, there are “Summer Reading” lists offered annually by media sources such as Toronto Life and CBC Radio. Now, don’t get me wrong — I do love to curl up with a good book whenever the opportunity presents itself. Film geek that I am, however, I derive greater enjoyment from seeking out and viewing obscure, bizarre and, um, not-exactly-high-brow films — such as the films I list below. If your taste in film is rather like mine, then track these films down as a “Summer Viewing” project. You probably won’t find these titles in your local Blockbuster video store, though. If you’re successful in locating any of these, then cue the DVD, pull the curtains, and embrace their insanity. Then tell me what you thought in the Comments section at the end of this post.
1. Valerie and her Week of Wonders (Czech: Valerie a týden divů) is a 1970 film from the former Czechoslovakia, directed by Jaromil Jireš. This is the most “artful” of the films that appear on this list and, even though the print I viewed was of very poor quality, the stellar cinematography clearly stood out. The film is a dark, coming-of-age fairytale as only the Czechs could envision. The titular heroine, 13-year-old Valerie, grapples with her burgeoning sexuality, as well as the many priests, vampires, men and women who attempt to seduce and/or kill her. Fortunately for young Valerie, she possesses magical earrings which, when placed in her mouth, rescue her from impending death — which happens with great frequency throughout the film. Disjointed and surreal, you’ll hurt your brain if you try to make sense of the proceedings. Characters often change appearance and, as in the case of the ‘Polecat’, occupy shifting and ambiguous roles. Is he a priest? A vampire? Valerie’s father? A weasel? All of the above? Yes. Don’t worry about it, just enjoy the many beautiful images and the hazy, dreamlike pace of this film.
2. Thriller — A Cruel Picture (Swedish: Thriller – en grym film, also known as They Call Her One Eye, Hooker’s Revenge and simply Thriller) is a 1973 Swedish exploitation film. The film follows the typical Rape-Revenge formula: the heroine suffers tragedy and physical degradation until the latter half of the film, when she exacts bloody revenge on those who’ve abused her. (Read my earlier post on the Rape-Revenge film for my thoughts on this exploitation subgenre.) The teenage Frigga — who has been rendered mute by the childhood trauma of sexual abuse — is kidnapped by the local pimp and forced into both heroin addiction and prostitution. When she is initially non-compliant, Frigga has one of her eyes cut out with a scalpel in a brief but grisly scene that reputedly employed an actual cadaver as a body-double. From then on, she silently endures abuse from her clients while she saves up her portion of the financial transactions. She packs her Mondays (her one day-off work) with karate class, rifle-shooting and driving-really-super-fast class, as she secretly plots her revenge. Montage after long montage, she finally dons a black leather trenchcoat, matching eye-patch, and a sawed-off shotgun, and pays a slow-motion visit to each of her (soon to be former) clients.
The film was marketed as the first film ever to be completely banned in Sweden, although the one that actually was first was Victor Sjöström’s The Gardener from 1912. It has received a cult following and was one of the inspirations behind Quentin Tarantino’s Kill Bill, specifically the character of Elle Driver (Daryl Hannah). In Daniel Ekeroth’s book on Swedish exploitation movies, Swedish Sensationsfilms: A Clandestine History of Sex, Thrillers, and Kicker Cinema, it is revealed that the producers took out a huge life insurance policy on star Christina Lindberg, as real ammunition was used in the action sequences, and that she was asked to inject saline solution during the drug scenes. — from Wikipedia.
3. The Living Dead Girl (French: La Morte Vivante) is a 1982 campy classic from French fantastique director Jean Rollin. Reanimated by the spillage of a toxic waste goop on her corpse, the aristocratic Catherine discovers she has a new-found taste for human flesh. Like all of Rollin’s films, the aesthetics play a much more crucial role than the story or, indeed, the acting. His films are as gorgeous as they are completely ridiculous. The absurd plot devices — toxic goop dumped on (surprisingly well-preserved, two-year-old) corpse interred in family crypt — exist only to furnish Rollin with an excuse to create his signature erotic-grotesque imagery. Rollin’s The Living Dead Girl is splatter gore-meets-arthouse, served up with a little Jean-Paul Sartre on the side. The existentialist exchange that occurs between Catherine and her childhood friend Hélène is thoroughly hilarious:
Hélène: You were never dead. The dead don’t come back to life. You were put to sleep, drugged, driven mad or I don’t know what. I don’t understand. I never saw you dead, Catherine. They put an empty coffin in this crypt.
Catherine: No. I’m dead, Hélène. I know I am. Don’t you understand? I know I am!
Heady stuff, people. Heady stuff.
I wanted to revisit a film I’d mentioned in the previous post on Walerian Borowczyk. This blog entry introduced the work of Polish filmmaker Borowczyk and offered a brief analysis of his softcore films created in the mid-1970s. His most notorious and controversial film La bête (‘The Beast’, 1975) was released shortly after Contes immoraux (‘Immoral Tales’, 1974) and was, in fact, an expansion of a sequence originally shot for the earlier anthology. This sequence consisted of a rather cheeky retelling of the Beauty & The Beast fairytale as only Borowczyk’s ribald imagination could envision. An aristocratic woman in a powdered wig is roused from her harpsichord by the sudden disappearance of a lamb outside the window of her country manor. She ventures into the nearby forest in search of the lamb, only to discover its carcass being gnawed on by an enormous, bear-like creature. Presumably fearing for her life, the woman screams and runs through the forest in a frenzied manner that quite effectively removes all of her clothing save for her corset and stockings. In close pursuit, the Beast appears visibly aroused by the semi-nude woman, as evidenced by the absurdly large phallus it sports. The woman is eventually captured by the creature, who performs oral sex on her whilst she hangs from a tree branch in a futile attempt at escape. Her wild protestations soon vanish and she surrenders to the erotic attentions of the Beast in one of cinema’s most bizarre, and hilarious, sex scenes.
If the text on the DVD package is accurate, La bête was banned for the past 25 years in the UK on the grounds of its depictions of bestiality. If true, this would strongly suggest that the British censors possessed neither imagination nor a sense of humour. The sex depicted in this sequence lacks any sense of realism and is clearly meant as a darkly comedic farce of the romantic relationship typically found in the traditional Beauty & the Beast fairytale. Borowczyk’s penchant for the grotesque also shapes the scene. A man in a bear suit touting an enormous prosthetic penis is grotesque, ridiculous and not-so-vaguely perverted, but it’s certainly not bestiality.
Now that La bête is available on DVD, my advice to the British censors is to slip a copy into the player, decant the wine, plant themselves on the couch and enjoy this sexy and thoroughly absurd film. Heck, I’m willing to bet that they were doing this in secret, all along.
The last (I promise) of the grad school essays I shall inflict upon you. In this one, my task was to compare my work with that of another contemporary visual artist. I chose Shary Boyle. The astute among you will recognize a passage or two from my Master’s thesis in this essay. Hey, it’s not plagarism when you cannibalize your own writing.
Throughout history, visual artists have fleshed out mythological subjects and generated images based on traditional, time-honoured stories. Myths supply an accessible and universal narrative to which the artist can attach a personal story. Renowned scholar and mythologist Joseph Campbell describes one of the goals of myth as “…effecting a reconciliation of the individual consciousness with the universal will.” Similarly, in his essay “The Expressive Fallacy” Hal Foster cites Nietzsche’s discussion of an artist’s use of myth to express an interior world: “The whole notion of an ‘inner experience’ enters our consciousness only after it has found a language that the individual understands – i.e., a translation of a situation into a familiar situation…” The “language” to which Nietzsche refers can be interpreted as “mythology” which provides a universal narrative to which all cultures, no matter how disparate, have access. The “inner experience” may be read as the personal, psychological or emotional world that the artist seeks to materialize through the use of myth. In short, myths connect us to each other by anchoring the idiosyncrasy of the individual to a universally shared point of reference.
In my own art practice, I frequently make use of myths and archetypes as cultural ready-mades into which I insert my own personal history and meanings. Myths are reinterpreted in my work from a feminist perspective that considers gender representation in these mythological narratives. Another contemporary Canadian artist who employs a similar creative, feminist tactic is Shary Boyle. A commonality in our work is the use of female mythological subjects that evoke the traditional, allegorical link between women and nature. Rather than simply offer a critique of the feminized concept of nature, however, both Boyle and myself use motifs derived from nature in a subversive manner that transform our female subjects in strange, fantastic ways. The transformations and mutations that our mythological heroines experience provide the visible, external evidence of their inner psychological and emotional world.
In her work prior to 2008, Boyle’s use of fairytales and mythological subjects tended to be global rather than specific. Her phantasmagoric imagery suggested the realm of dreams and myths without representing a particular legend or cultural tradition. Her two pencil and gouache drawings that we shall examine, both dating from 2003 and simply called Untitled, are evidence of her generalized incorporation of myth. Both drawings involve remarkable incidents in which a single female figure, isolated on the white void of the paper, quietly experiences a magical transformation. In Untitled (fig. 1) we are confronted with a woman in a bright red dress sitting contentedly in the grass, hands resting peacefully in her lap. The drawing is linear and economical; the grass on which the woman sits is minimally drawn. Two long, yellow plant stalks topped with white blossoms grow outwards from the eye sockets of the woman, a strange phenomenon that has not managed to disturb her serenity. The very fact that the woman appears unconcerned by this fantastic event seems to suggest that this transformation is metaphoric as the flowers are a manifestation of an interior psychological state. Equally, the woman may have simply acquiesced to the inevitability of this strange transformation. The subject of Boyle’s second drawing Untitled (fig. 2), a prepubescent girl whose rigid stance and sideways glance suggests that she’s somewhat more alarmed by the tangled bush growing out from her mouth, nevertheless seems to accept the strangeness of this event as normative.
In her essay entitled “Ornamental Impulse”, art writer Josée Drouin-Brisebois comments on Boyle’s surreal transformations as a manifestation of the emotional and psychological worlds of her subjects. “Boyle’s [figures]”, says Drouin-Brisebois, “express the inner life of the emotions materially.” Drouin-Brisebois cites the review of art critic Robin Laurence for Boyle’s paintings Companions (2004), wherein Laurence states: “Boyle’s portraits suggest that what looks outwardly freakish in others is the metaphorical equivalent of inward aspects of all our characteristics and circumstances.” Thus, the plant life that blooms from the bodily orifices of these female subjects is emblematic of their interior states, though what precisely those states would be remain vague and mysterious.
The mythology to which Boyle attaches her idiosyncratic narratives serves to anchor the work in tradition and provide the viewer with visual clues as to how one might interpret her dream-like imagery. For instance, the otherworldly flora of these drawings reference allegorical and mythological associations of women to nature. Rather than challenge the traditional dichotomy of women and nature, Boyle embraces it in a subversive manner. According to Drouin-Brisebois, Boyle’s women “become…nature in unsettling ways – verdancy out of control or a parasite that takes over the body…” Boyle acknowledges the allegorical tradition while at the same time engaging a sinister playfulness that alters it.
Similar to Boyle, otherworldly flora plays a prominent role in my 2006 intaglio print entitled An Abundant Supply of Milk (fig. 3). Whereas Boyle rarely identifies her female subjects as aspects of herself, my work makes frequent use of self-portraiture and is characterized by an autobiographical content. This particular self-portrait shows myself standing in profile, naked save for a pair of underwear. With my hands I squeeze my breasts and produce an exaggeratedly large spray of breast milk. This cloud-like spray of breast milk, in turn, blossoms into a soggy mass of flowers. Like the drawings of Boyle discussed earlier, this print recognizes the mythic association between women and nature, and in particular the concept of a nurturing “mother nature”, while at the same time subverting it. The nourishing food that is breast milk has transformed into a bizarre floral mass that, rather than natural, appears inexorably alien. Created in the months that followed becoming a first-time mother, this image addressed my response to the strange transformations enacted upon my body as a result of pregnancy and childbirth. The milk-flowers that spring forth from my breasts represent an externalization of the estrangement I felt from my own body.
A second, earlier self-portrait speaks not to a feeling of estrangement but to the human impulse towards creation, both in art as well as in procreation. The coloured pencil drawing entitled Genesis (fig.4) illustrates the growth of a leafy, magenta and orange plant stalk out of my opened mouth. This fanciful stalk terminates in a perfectly round, ripe pomegranate fruit. Similar to the heroines of Boyle’s drawings, my visage appears untroubled by the unconventional growth of this fruit as if this were the result of a natural, internal process. In contrast to Boyle’s 2003 Untitled drawings, however, the magical vegetation of Genesis recalls a very specific mythological story while at the same time evoking the women-nature dichotomy. The appearance of the pomegranate in this drawing is highly significant as it is a direct quotation from an earlier body of work in which I assumed the role of Persephone, a tragic heroine from Greco-Roman mythology. This role-playing allowed for the insertion of personalized content within the larger context of a universal narrative. Or, as Nietzsche expressed, the myth of Persephone provided “…a translation of a situation into a familiar situation.” We will return to this discussion of Persephone after an introduction to Boyle’s latest works, one of which, coincidentally, deals directly with this same myth.
As previously stated, Boyle’s work is frequently characterized by a global adoption of mythology, her imagery an amalgam of different mythic traditions synthesized with her own idiosyncratic symbolism. The recent unveiling of Boyle’s latest porcelain sculptures at the 2008 grand reopening of the Art Gallery of Ontario, however, provides an exciting and atypical exception to this aspect of her work. Boyle was commissioned by the AGO to create work that responded to the gallery’s permanent collection. She selected two 18th-century Italian bronze statuettes by Giovanni Battista Foggini with which to engage in a conversation across history. The subjects of Foggini’s sculptures are two commonly depicted Greco-Roman myths: Perseus slaying Medusa and The Rape of Proserpine. Boyle’s porcelains offer feminist reinterpretations of these myths while simultaneously maintaining her characteristic surreal imagery that hints at the internal, psychological world of her subjects.
Boyle’s response to Foggini’s The Rape of Proserpine re-imagines the Greco-Roman myth upon which it is based and addresses the violent and sexually problematic subject matter of the original Baroque bronze. Her delicate porcelain sculpture entitled The Rejection of Pluto (fig. 5) casts the titular deity as a hideously yawning monster and not the sinewy, handsome abductor of Foggini’s statuette. In her 2008 interview with art critic Sarah Milroy featured in The Globe and Mail, Boyle discussed the responsibility she felt as a feminist artist in rendering an alternate version of this classical myth: “I guess I just felt that this subject matter had to be engaged. I had been asked inside the museum, and I felt a kind of responsibility to interrupt some of those narratives, to propose some other kinds of stories.”
Proserpine is the Roman goddess of springtime, wife of Pluto and mythological equivalent of the Greek goddess Persephone. Her story is one of great emotional power: an innocent maiden abducted by the lustful god of the Underworld and forced to become his bride. In the Globe and Mail interview, Boyle related the version of this Greco-Roman myth that inspired her reinterpretation:
“…Pluto, the Lord of the Underworld, fell in love with Proserpine, the beautiful daughter of the harvest goddess. Lust incarnate, he emerges from Hades through a pond in the glade of the water nymph Cyane, wreaking havoc on this sacred sylvan spot and seizing Proserpine by force, making her his bride in Hell. Cyane, who protects the natural realms, weeps tears over this loss, so much so that her tears replenish the landscape Pluto has devastated.”
The scene of Boyle’s The Rejection of Pluto is the idyllic glade of the water nymph Cyane, decorated with exotic flowers, seashells and fairytale toadstools. The monstrous head of Pluto emerges from the water, his cavernous mouth yawning open as if to swallow his intended victim. Bright red-orange light, suggestive of the flames of Hell, flickers inside the mouth and eyes of the hollow, chasmal head. The water that immediately surrounds Pluto’s head appears brown and putrid and the vegetation bleached white, all vitality having been drained out by its proximity to the god of the Underworld. The female characters of this story – the girl-child Proserpine, her mother Demeter, and the nymph Cyane – are all gathered in a group at the opposite end of the glade. The amphibious water nymph Cyane glowers fiercely at Pluto, defending Proserpine whom Boyle has cast as a small child wounded by mirrored shards. According to Boyle, these three female figures “represent emotional, mental and physical resistance under siege.”
The crucial role that nature plays in The Rejection of Pluto can be likened to that of Boyle’s 2003 Untitled drawings, although the correlation between women and nature in the sculpture have been further strengthened. The landscape of The Rejection of Pluto reflects the violation suffered by Proserpine through its transformation from lush verdancy to polluted wasteland. This transformation of the landscape symbolizes Proserpine’s psychological and emotional turmoil in much the same manner as the mirrored shards that have pierced her flesh represent her physical violation. Boyle’s shrewd interpretation of the Proserpine/Persephone myth emphasizes the allegorical link between women and nature in her analysis of the mistreatment of both women and nature in the world.
The tragic heroine Persephone has also been depicted as a prepubescent girl in my 2000 mixed-media drawing entitled The Bitter Seed. In this drawing, I combine an image of myself as a child with the myth of Persephone as a means to address the difficult territory of childhood sexual abuse. By adopting the role of the mythological heroine, I translate and universalize my personal experience. Through the use of this metaphor, I strive to make an emotional state palatable and thus more easily approachable by the viewer.
The Bitter Seed takes its name from the pomegranate seed that Persephone was forced to eat, thus sealing her fate as the goddess whose annual death and rebirth would usher in the changing seasons:
“Persephone was the daughter of Zeus and Demeter, the goddess of agriculture. Hades, the lord of the Underworld, surprised Persephone one day while she was picking flowers and carried her off to be his bride. Demeter, the distraught mother, threatens to destroy all mortal men by causing an endless drought unless her daughter is returned. Zeus, who is the king of the gods at Olympus, commands Hermes to fetch Persephone from the realm of Hades. The wise Hades chooses to obey the command of Zeus; however, before Persephone is returned, he tricks her into eating a seed from a pomegranate. This deception is later revealed when Demeter asks her daughter “…have you eaten any food while you were below? If you have not, even though you have been in the company of loathsome Hades, you will live with me and your father…but if you have…you will return again beneath the depths of the earth and live there a third of the year; the other two-thirds of the time you will spend with me…”
To the ancient Greeks, the myth of Demeter and Persephone served to explain the death and regeneration of plant life each year. The metaphoric link between women and nature is quite overt: Persephone personifies the cycle of the seasons through her annual sacrifice.
In The Bitter Seed, my childhood self stands thickly outlined in black against a brightly coloured background reminiscent of a stained-glass window. One of my hands holds aloft a pomegranate, above which hangs the phrase “dirty girl.” I stare quizzically at both the fruit and the phrase, my child mind unable to fully grasp their meaning. Like the pomegranate in the Persephone myth, the fruit I hold represents violation and entrapment. Similar to the girl-child Proserpine in Boyle’s sculpture, who displays her wounded arms for the consideration of the viewer, my child-self in The Bitter Seed holds the pomegranate up as a symbolic manifestation of inner “wounds”.
The victimization of the girl-child Persephone in The Bitter Seed is later redressed in my 2002 drawing St. Ursula and the Gorgon’s Head (fig. 6) in which I assumed the role of the Catholic Saint Ursula, the patron saint of schoolgirls. In a manner similar to The Bitter Seed, this drawing blended autobiographical elements with mythological role-playing in order to universalize personal experience. The heroine of St. Ursula and the Gorgon’s Head assimilates two divergent mythological traditions: the hagiography of the Catholic saint with the Greco-Roman myth of the Gorgon Medusa. More avenging angel than saint, St. Ursula is shown adorned with angel wings and holding aloft a sword and the severed head of Medusa. The mouth of the snake-haired Medusa gapes open in a silent scream while a magical bloom of red flowers bleed from the wound of the severed neck. In the background, graphic and highly stylized red flowers also appear to bleed. Much like the strange, sinister flowers of Boyle’s 2003 Untitled drawings, these violent blossoms subvert the traditional woman-nature dichotomy and the association of women with a passive and nurturing feminine principle.
Women are frequently cast as the prize at the end of the hero’s quest but are seldom depicted as the active, adventurous hero themselves in mythology. This gender-biased tradition was best summarized by Joseph Campbell in his 1982 interview with Rozanne Zucchet from his collected writings entitled “The Hero’s Journey”:
“I was teaching these courses on mythology and at the end of my last year there this woman comes in and sits down and says, ‘Well, Mr. Campbell, you’ve been talking about the hero. But what about the woman?’ I said, ‘The woman’s the mother of the hero; she’s the goal of the hero’s achieving; she’s the protectress of the hero; she is this, she is that. What more do you want?’ She said, ‘I want to be the hero!’ So I was glad that I was retiring that year and not going to teach any more [audience laughter].”
While Campbell’s anecdote evidently amused his audience, it also underscores the gender discrimination inherent in mythological models. The sword-wielding heroine of St. Ursula and the Gorgon’s Head constitutes my feminist response to Campbell and this gender-biased tradition. My heroine adopts the stance traditionally occupied by the male hero Perseus who, as the Greek myth tells us, beheaded the female monster Medusa. Additionally, the gender of Medusa in my drawing has been switched from female to male as the image of the severed gorgon’s head my heroine holds is, in fact, a direct visual quotation of a painting by Caravaggio where Medusa is uncharacteristically portrayed as male.
The representation of gender also plays a crucial role in Boyle’s second porcelain sculpture commissioned by the Art Gallery of Ontario. Entitled To Colonize the Moon (fig. 7), this sculpture encapsulates her response to Foggini’s bronze statuette Perseus Slaying Medusa as well as to the traditional Greco-Roman myth that she “has interpreted in light of both her environmentalist and feminist ideas.” Boyle’s reinterpretation of the myth views Medusa as a “very misunderstood monster” who suffers a number of indignities and violations resulting from the capricious cruelty of the Olympian gods. The severed head of Medusa lies atop a funeral pyre comprised of dead bats and bees, the expression on her lifeless face one of sad resignation to her tragic fate. In stark contrast to the heroic romanticism of Foggini’s Perseus, Boyle’s version of the Greek hero is a lily-skinned, rosy-cheeked effeminate boy who sits in quiet repose while he wipes the blood from his sword. This traditionally triumphal moment has been undercut by the calmness of the scene and soft, unheroic body of Boyle’s Perseus. The violence of the story is not celebrated, but merely represented in an anticlimactic manner. The death of the monster Medusa and the death of Nature – embodied by the dead bats and bees – are seen as being synonymous. There is a mournful aspect to this sculpture, as Boyle challenges the viewer to consider the violence enacted both upon women as well as upon the natural world.
Contemporary feminist artists such as Shary Boyle and myself are mining the past, revisiting the universal narratives of mythology and, as Boyle succinctly stated, “propos[ing] some other kinds of stories.” Inspired by the second wave feminists, who coined the phrase the personal is political, we disrupt the problematic, gender-biased narratives of traditional myths by inserting our own personal, idiosyncratic content into the larger framework of these universal stories. This personalized content adopts the symbolic vocabulary of myth and, through creative tactics such as role-playing, re-imagines these stories from contemporary feminist perspectives. Mythological motifs traditionally associated with women – namely the allegorical link made between women and nature – is wielded as a deconstructive weapon that knowingly acknowledges this association while at the same time playfully subverting it. The female subjects that populate our work ache, bleed, bloom and otherwise manifest their interior worlds in a number of strange and wondrously magical ways.
The popular children’s story Little Red Riding Hood began, as many such fables do, as a cautionary tale aimed specifically at young girls. The red-hooded protagonist is instructed by her mother “not to stray from the path” as she ventures forth to deliver food to her ailing grandmother who lives alone in the woods. Along the way, she famously encounters the Big Bad Wolf — and thus begins a succession of overtly sexual metaphors. In the earliest known printed version of this story, authored by Charles Perrault, the disguised Wolf tricks Red Riding Hood into removing her clothes and climbing into bed with him, at which point he “falls upon” her and she is devoured. To ensure that the moral of his tale was not lost upon his young readers, Perrault offered this sermon at the end of his text:
From this story one learns that children, especially young lasses, pretty, courteous and well-bred, do very wrong to listen to strangers, And it is not an unheard thing if the Wolf is thereby provided with his dinner. I say Wolf, for all wolves are not of the same sort; there is one kind with an amenable disposition — neither noisy, nor hateful, nor angry, but tame, obliging and gentle, following the young maids in the streets, even into their homes. Alas! Who does not know that these gentle wolves are of all such creatures the most dangerous!
Well, so much for subtlety. Thus, from it’s earliest incarnation, this was a moralizing tale that warned young girls not to succumb to wild, carnal desire. Modern interpretations of this story, however, replace the traditionally naïve heroine with an empowered one. The best known of these ‘revisionist’ versions is Angela Carter’s 1979 short story The Company of Wolves, in which the Wolf is reconfigured as a werewolf — a wolfman seducer with whom Red Riding Hood engages in consensual sex. Carter’s version of the sexually-awakened heroine was adapted to screen by Irish filmmaker Neil Jordan in 1984. Jordan’s The Company of Wolves is a gorgeous — though flawed — gem of a film. Although the narrative of Jordan’s film wanders to the brink of incoherence, the journey is a visually rewarding one. My favourite scene from The Company of Wolves is the initial meeting between Rosalind (the Red Riding Hood character) and the elegant, mysterious Huntsman whom she encounters in the forest. Admittedly, the guy who portrays the Huntsman was not cast for his stellar acting ability. But then, who’s looking at his acting…?