Art Exhibit Explores Myth
In conjunction with the Department of Theater and Dance's staging of Mary Zimmerman's award winning play Metamorphoses, the Colby Art Museum is opening an exhibit that features works depicting stories from Ovid's Metamorphoses. The exhibit opened on November 3 and runs through January 17.
The play and the art exhibit are part of the Metamorphoses Project, a campus-wide, semester-long intellectual engagement with the theme of transformation and the role of myth in contemporary life. The art exhibit portion of the Metamorphoses Project resulted from conversations between Lynne Conner of the Theater Department, Kerill O'Neill of Classics and Lauren Lessing, the Mirken Curator of Education at the Colby Art Museum, who brainstormed activities that could be planned around the play and could engage both the Waterville and Colby communities.
Julian D. Taylor Associate Professor of Classics Kerill O'Neill and his Latin 271 class acted as the curators for this exhibit, selecting the art and preparing it for exhibition. The objects displayed are drawn from the Colby Art Museum's collection and from Bowdoin's Museum of Art collection. Lessing, who helped O'Neill and his class manage the technical aspects of the exhibition, said Colby's art museum specializes in contemporary and modern art, while Bowdoin's specializes in historical and European art, so the two collections complemented each other.
The exhibit represents a vast swath of history, from ancient Greece to the twentieth century, revealing "the lasting relevance of these mythological themes, how they have been adopted in different cultures and in different times," Lessing said. The works vary from prints, copper plate engravings and bronze plaquettes to sculptures and paintings. The pieces deal broadly with the theme of transformation: transformation to escape, transformation to achieve a goal (usually lustful), transformation in response to tragedy, the danger of transforming into what one is not and (temporary) transformation through intoxication. The exhibit also asks us to ponder the cultural capital of myths: why do we return to these stories? "Myths present cautionary tales," O'Neill said, "both of human possibilities and human limitations."
Among the myths presented in the art exhibit are the related myths of Phaeton and Icarus. Icarus we all know, the boy who flew too close to the sun and fell to his death when the wax holding his wings together melted. Similarly, Phaeton, in wanting to prove his immortal parentage takes his father, the Sun god Helios' chariot and loses control, dying and charring a portion of the world (this was the creation of the Sahara desert). "The fall of Phaeton illustrates the dangers of excess," O'Neill said. This is especially relevant as we consider "the effects of excess on our economy" O'Neill said, recognizing Icarus' same hubristic disregard for limits in our current predicament.
There are multiple objects detailing different aspects of these myths. Among these are two rondelles by Goltzius, a master engraver during the Renaissance. One depicts Icarus' fall, the other Phaeton's fall and are meant to be seen in tandem. Both capture the moment of being suspended in a liminal space. "They are suspended in that horrible moment," O'Neill said. "They are neither in the heavens nor on earth." Their bodies twist futilely and their faces fill with horror as they grasp desperately at the skies and crash down towards the earth.
The role of liminal spaces is a major motif connecting the art works together. As with Icarus and Phaeton, who are suspended between the sky and the earth, liminality represents "being on a threshold, it's a moment of transition, when you're going from one world to another, from one state to another...you are both and neither at the same time," O'Neill said. We may value these liminal spaces because they act as "crucial moments in our lives, as markers of periods in our lives" he continues.
In the play and in many of the works in the art exhibit specifically, and in a vast swath of myths, water represents this liminal space. This is why flood stories are found all over the globe and in a series of engravings (also by Goltzius) depicting the great flood Neptune sent to earth which will be on display at the art exhibit.
These myths, though ancient, still carry a cultural immediacy. "Myths are a type of traditional tale, and we set up our own traditions," O'Neill said. In point of fact O'Neill cited the American dream. "You're so proud of the America where anyone can do anything, which is America's myth. Dream has a sense of hope but also a separation from reality...we never stop creating myths."
So when you go to the museum over the next three months and look knowingly at Picasso's fauns' drunken debauchery, and Icarus' youthful recklessness, examine critically why these are familiar to you, and why they make you smile.