On Monday in our Classical Mythology/Contemporary Art class, we had our first session of student presentations. Ten students discussed ten art works (listed below in no particular order) in relation to the theme of ‘War, Trauma & Homecoming’. They described the work and then considered how they resonated with the ‘Epic’ Myths we had been reading (e.g. Achilles, Odysseus and Aeneas):
Tacita Dean Disappearance at Sea, 1996
Mona Hatoum The Light at the End, 1989
Lamia Joreige Objects of War, 1999-present
Jeff Wall Dead Troops Talk (A vision after an ambush of Red Army patrol, near Moqor, Afghanistan, winter 1986), 1992
Huma Bhabha Bumps in the Road, 2008
William Kentridge History of the Main Complaint, 1996
Richard Hamilton Unorthodox Rendition, 2009-2010
Tania Bruguera The Burden of Guilt, 1997-1999
Johan Grimonprez Dial H-i-s-t-o-r-y 1997-2000
Ellsworth Kelly Ground Zero Proposal, 2003
The students made some very interesting and original connections in their presentations and there was also a great potential for overlap and dialogue between the works we looked at. To choose one particularly compelling example, the same passage of Homer’s Odyssey (Book 8. 523-531 – which is lines 564-575 in the translation we used – Stanley Lombardo The Essential Homer (2000 Hackett) came up in relation to several art works. In this passage, Odysseus weeps at hearing the bard Demodocus’ song of the Fall of Troy and the Greek hero is compared in a simile to a woman weeping over the body of her husband lost in war. The juxtaposition of the song of Odysseus’ greatest hour (which, remember he asked Demodocus to sing about!) with his pitiable response, and its elucidation through the irony of the simile, shares some of the ambivalence expressed in two art works: Mona Hatoum’s The Light at the End and Huma Bhabha’s Bumps in the Road.
|Mona Hatoum The Light at the End, 1989
|Huma Bhabha Bumps in the Road, 2008
What Homer, Hatoum and Bhaba share is an acute sense of ambiguity in the euphemistic language used to describe success in war. For Hatoum, the title Light at the End evokes the hope for both the end of the war (in terms of victory, or at least the end of suffering) and the end of life (in terms of an afterlife and the end of life’s suffering). Yet as you get closer to the glowing, Dan Flavin-esque light fixtures, the emanating heat hits you and instead you are repelled. Here is no ‘light’ of hope, but instead (as Elizabeth, the student presenting on this work, put it) ‘a burning, dangerous cage’. For Bhabha, the title Bumps in the Road recalls the language used by politicians to describe the minor glitches and setbacks during a war-campaign. The two figures in Bhabha’s work are depicted as moving forward (as Max, the student who presented this work pointed our via the written tags of ‘Front’ and ‘Back’ on the longer, leg-like structure). Nonetheless, at the same time, this urge to continue is undermined by the grotesque mutilation of the shorter figure and the mesh of different materials (including car-parts) evokes another image for those euphemistic ‘bumps’ in terms of land-mines and the resulting destruction and debris.
To return to Homer, Odysseus’ tears and the moving simile of him as a wife of a fallen warrior both frame Demodocus’ song of Greek victory in terms that make us rethink the very idea of a song (imagined to be) called The Fall of Troy. While we would immediately understand such a song-title as evoking the destruction of the Trojans and the Greek triumph, it also emphasizes the ‘fall-out’ for all involved: Greek and Trojan warriors, as well as their families as Homer’s simile identifies Odysseus with none other than Hector’s wife, Andromache. It depends on not only what aspects of the war are emphasized, but how this emphasis is made. If we push-through those Bumps in the Road to get to the Light at the End, then The Fall of Troy is understood as Odysseus’ greatest hour. But the minute we realize the Light is a ‘burning, dangerous cage’, or the the Bumps are land-mines creating the deformed figure with a car-fender jutting out of its mouth, then it is the Fall we focus on, it is the impact and destruction of all who played a part in the Trojan War that we, Odysseus and Homer weep for.