“The words fell down like snowflakes”: Homeric Analogy, Extended Simile and Doug Aitken’s Electric Earth (1999)

For our second session of presentations in my Classical Mythology/Contemporary Art class (last Wednesday), the students focused on the theme of ‘Heroes & Villains’ in the following art works:

Gerhard Richter October 18, 1977, 1988
Adrian Piper Cornered, 1988
Rineke Dijkstra The Buzzclub, Liverpool, UK/Mysteryworld, Zaandam, NL, 1996-1997, 1996-1997
Douglas Gordon and Philippe Parreno, Zidane: A Twenty First Century Portrait, 2006
Maurizio Cattelan Him, 2001
Cady Noland Oozewald, 1989)
Richard Prince Untitled (Cowboys), 1989
Marlene Dumas The Believer, 2006
Doug Aitken Electric Earth, 1999
Yang Fudong Seven Intellectuals in a Bamboo Forest, 2003-7

Perhaps the most interesting aspect of this theme that arouse from the presentations was not anything specific to any one mythological ‘hero’ (e.g. Achilles, Odysseus, Aeneas) or ‘villain’ (e.g. Thersites, Polyphemus, the suitors, Sinon), but more general and formal issues of how heroic action and its antithesis are constructed in a poetic narrative. For example, one presentation discussed Adrian Piper’s Cornered (1988), an installation comprising a TV, an upturned table, 3 chairs and two versions of the artist’s father’s birth certificate on the wall. On the screen, Piper discusses her racial identity for 16 minutes, the ambiguity of which is mirrored in the paternal birth certificates, one says her father is white, the other that he is octoroon (one-eighth black). In discussing issues of hero and villain in this piece, the class found it striking that the situation engineered by the installation put the spectator in the ‘villainous’ position of cornering the artist and demanding her decide her racial identity. This judgmental role for the audience as a collective group linked back to the ‘epic myths’ we had been reading, for example, in how both Homer’s Odyssey and Virgil’s Aeneid configure the dynamic between the (heroic) individual in relation to the group (ie Odysseus’ or Aeneas’ men). Yet, perhaps more fitting as a parallel to Piper’s work were the parasitic suitors of the Odyssey, especially in how they pressurize Penelope to make her decision and her cunning un-weaving, like Piper’s complex installation, to act as a means of deferring that decision. 

Adrian Piper Cornered, 1988
The other art work that opened up broader issues of how heroic and villainous behaviour is generated by ideas of perspective within epic narratives was Doug Aitken’s Electric Earth (1999). The multiple-video installation follows a man, who, as he dances through an urban wasteland, is depicted as being somehow directly connected to his environment and whose environment in turn directly reacts to him. (For example, as his dollar bill gets stuck in a Coke-dispensing machine, first fluttering in the wind and then moving back and forth in the machine, Aitken’s ‘hero’ mimics the fluttering with his flickering eyes and then the back and forth action with movements of his arms). We discussed the multi-angle focus on Aitken’s hero in relation to the narratorial strategies of the Odyssey, from seeing Odysseus via his absence in the Telemachy to his own narratives in Books 9-12 and the Cretan Lies of Book 19. However, perhaps the most unexpected parallel was to see the way in which the environment answered back to Aitken’s hero in terms of the figure of the extended Homeric simile. This works on a basic level in terms of how human action is analogously transposed onto an environment, whether it is fire or snow, or lions, snakes or locusts, but there is an additional dynamism of extended similes that is brought out through a comparison with Electric Earth as an immersive installation. 

Doug Aitken Electric Earth, 1999

For example, consider the simile at Odyssey Book 19. 204-209, here as lines 219-225 in Lombardo’s Essential Homer we were using:   

“All lies, but he made them seem like the truth,
And as she listened, her face melted with tears. 
Snow deposited high in the mountains by the Wild West Wind 
Slowly melts under the East Wind’s breath,
And as it melts the rivers rise in their channels. 
So her lovely cheeks coursed with tears as she wept
For her husband, who was sitting before her.”

While the simile matches Penelope’s tears with melted snow, the image of the snow deposited by the ‘Wild West Wind’ also brings to mind the analogy of Odysseus’ power of speech from Iliad Book 3 (Lombardo lines 236-238):

“But when he 
Opened his mouth and projected his voice
The words fell down like snowflakes in a blizzard”   

Now, the difference between these two images of snow in the Odyssey and the Iliad, could be compared to the difference between seeing Aitken’s work as a single-channel video (see link below) compared to the immersive multi-screen installation. Aitken’s hero judders his eyes and arms in reaction to the dollar bill fluttering in the wind, then moving in and out of the machine on one screen, the close up on another screen remains focused exclusively on the fluttering and moving bill. In the Homeric simile, the world seems to be somehow reacting to the hero (or the hero reacting to it), as the snow-melting image for Penelope’s tears is a way of describing her in terms of her reaction to Odysseus’ ‘lies’. Yet, the analogy of Odysseus’ words as being like snowflakes parallels the close-up of the dollar bill alone on another screen, making it somehow separate from the hero, thereby offering a different correspondence between the hero and his world. In this way, Aitken’s Electric Earth helps to clarify how Homer offers two perspectives on the dynamic between the hero and his world, in the form of the analogy and the extended simile. 

You can watch the single-channel version of Electric Earth here: http://www.ubu.com/film/aitken_electricearth.html 

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