Ancient Symbols in Contemporary Art:
Outlining Some Basic Topics of Comparison
We’re shaky beings, we sensitive readers. We spend time finding links between eccentricities nobody else notices. We’re self-critical when we can’t find the right words to express our sightings. And when we’re frustrated, we question the source of our distress, dig up its origins in history and science, and let the cool grasp of reason clash with our rage. Yeah, making it through the LAC is tough; we just need the right role models to guide us. The works we study are century-old wellsprings of creativity, built-upon models of a different way of seeing, and they prove crucial to our emotional survival in difficult moments. Let’s take a look at why this may be.
In 2009, an exhibition organized by RAM radioartemobile took place in Milan as a part of MiArt, the international fair of modern and contemporary art. It presented a handful of prominent artists and was titled La Memoria del Mito, or “The Memory of Myth.” The following text by curator Viktor Misiano accompanied the show.
Art’s origins lie in myth; this has never been forgotten. Although Nietzsche was persuaded that oblivion generates innovation, he nonetheless came to this conclusion through his study of ancient myths, and the invention of new ones. It was precisely this reminiscence of myth and mythology that appealed to Joyce, de Chirico and Artaud, all riveted Nietzsche readers who radically transformed European notions about art. Today’s innovative creators of myth – Kounellis, Pistoletto, Pisani and Atabekov – mindfully consider this recollection.1
The “innovative creators of myth” he refers to are the artists of mythopoesis, who create the ancient myths that have been passed on for generations, and fashion them into a single work.2 Mythopoesis, or the process of mythmaking, comes from the Greek mutho, myth, and poiein, to create.
Where mythology presents its stories as though they had actually occurred, mythopoesis, it is held, transposes them to a symbolic meaning. An American scholar attributes the innovation in mythmaking to the “periods of crisis, of cultural transition, when faith in the authoritative structure was waning, when the literal account of the legend could no longer be accepted.”3 In applying this concept to the visual arts, we are led to assume artists in the last half-century have been radically conscious of the role of mythmaking in times of social crisis.
Take Michelangelo Pistoletto. It was 1967 when he first pushed together a heap of brightly coloured rags from his studio with a concrete cast replica of a statue of Venus he had purchased from a garden center. He covered the surface in glittering mica and placed the figure before the pile. Like a graceful middle pillar of a triangular rag-mound making up the height of the apex, the goddess’ back faced us, her front pressed lightly into the pile. He called her the Venus of the Rags, and created a marble version against a drop of second-hand clothes five years later.
Critic German Celant called this poor art or impoverished art, coining the term “arte povera” and assembling exhibitions of the artists involved in such work in Genoa and in Turin.4 That the first official shows of the emerging Arte Povera movement coincided with the ongoing socio-political turmoil that seized Italy from 1967-1968 is not surprising when one considers the history of mythopoesis. If mythology provides answers to the question, “Where do I come from?” then mythopoesis dares reply, “And what if we took those answers for granted?” The artists created with rudimentary materials and techniques in a time of instability, as though concretizing ideas when the ways of the people were threatened to be forgotten.
Pistoletto’s work is characteristic of mythmaking because it seems to have overturned the long-maintained ideals of culture and society, and fixed new ones into place. In turning around Venus, he flipped an ideal of contemplative beauty and overthrew commodities, capsized a mastery of sculptural technique and sunk a heavy history of Italian art which began with Roman heritage, all the while pointing unabashedly to the waste of consumerism, the convertible quality of ready-made art and the novel intellectual ideas appearing on the horizon. The effect? One of myth at the dawn of civilization, like an organizational metaphor for art, philosophy and the social currents of the time.
The RAM show recalled the origins of art in 2009. A year after the stock market crash and the re-elections of charismatic despots like Putin and Berlusconi, Misiano introduced the other themes and their corresponding artists at the exhibition, linking them to the conceptual territories embarked on by the ancients. The refutation of history, with its attempt at creating “that which has never been, and never can be;” the “cult of pure absolute forms and signs,” bereft of any historical reference; the notions of “the elements and energy – air and fire, sound and movement,” and man’s propensity to measure. He noted: “life without myth would be unbearably dull, its sole consolation being the perceptive and contemplative gaze.”
… After all, admitting that from the dawn of time we have been relating the same stories over and over again is both soothing and dispiriting. Indeed, the myth of the ‘eternal recurrence’ is also an idea that Nietzsche revived.
Good grief, dear students, we will survive. We have precarious myths as our examples, and artists and thinkers as our guides. Plug your noses and dive in.
1. Viktor Misiano, La memoria del Mito: MiArt 2009, (Milan: Zerynthia 2009). Accessed 25 August 2014.http://www.zerynthia.it/ram.asp?id=274
2. Misiano, The Memory of Myth.
3. Harry Slochower, Mythopoesis: Mythic Patterns in the Literary Classics, (Detroit: Wayne State University Press), 14.
4. Andrea Bellini “Gianni Piacentino a retrospectve,” Centre d’Art Contemporain Genève, published by JRP/Ringier 2013. Accessed 25 August 2014.
By Nathalie Agostini de Francisco