Eleanor Antin at Sperlonga: from Helen as Monster to Odysseus as Artist

Eleanor Antin Constructing Helen, 2007 (from Helen’s Odyssey)

In looking for exhibitions to visit during my upcoming trip to Los Angeles, I will just miss Eleanor Antin: Passengers at Diane Rosenstein Fine Art by one day. I am especially disappointed that I will not get a chance to see her amazing photograph Constructing Helen (above) from her 2007 series Helen’s Odyssey, as I recall watching her discuss of this series in general, and this work in particular, in an interview for Art21 – which you can see here. In this clip, she describes the varying manifestations of Helen of Troy in the series and how in this photograph she is a ‘monster’, a ‘sleeping nude, waiting to erupt into an artwork’. Antin describes how the artist figures bring a sense of violence into their acts of creation, ‘tweaking her nipple’ as they sculpt it, and their tools are like ‘weapons’ as ‘she is waiting for a man to tell her when to begin’. 

I found Antin’s account of her work especially compelling when considered alongside what surely must have been a guiding source for its striking composition – although I have not been able to find other discussions of this comparison to back me up: the gigantic sculpture of Odysseus blinding the cyclops, Polyphemus, in the emperor Tiberius’ grotto-cum-dining room in Sperlonga (below). In fact, a photograph of the sculpture’s restoration – for which I sadly could not find a date – in which the two restorers an be seen occupying comparable positions to two of the artists in Antin’s work, could have been the precise source for her work.

Odysseus and His Men Blinding the Cyclops, Polyphemus, from Sperlonga, c. 1st century C.E. (photographed during restoration) date unknown.

Yet. while such source-hunting for contemporary artists’ engagement with antiquity is somewhat satisfying, it does not answer the bigger question – raised by the artist – of what precisely connects the ancient source and the contemporary work? In other words, what connects Helen as monster and art-work, to Polyphemus as monster and art-work? Or Odysseus’ blinding of the cyclops to artists’ creating a sculpture?

My answer, as so often on this blog, is grounded in a story in Ovid’s Metamorphoses. Well, actually, two stories. A case could be made for the way that Antin interrogates the idea of constructing Helen as an art-work is part of what Classicist Alison Sharrock has dubbed ‘womanufacture’ and its prime case-study being the myth of Pygmalion in the song of Orpheus that comprises the tenth book of Ovid’s poem. Even though in Ovid’s version, the statue that the goddess Venus brings to life to honour the sculptor Pygmalion’s devotion to her is not named, in later traditions, she became known as Galatea. Now, later in Ovid’s poem, in Book 13, amid the wanderings of Aeneas, we have the story of the love triangle between a nymph Galatea, her beloved Acis and none other than the monstrous cyclops Polyphemus – years before his encounter with Odysseus and his men. Galatea’s complaint about this lonely one-eyed shepherd’s unwanted affections offers an aetiology or origin tale for how he became so monstrous later. In fact, her complaint is made to Scylla, whose love triangle with Glaucus and the witch Circe, would cause her to transform from a young girl into a monstrous dog-headed ship-destroyer, alongside the whirlpool Charybdis.

So, we may ask: has Antin’s Helen conflated these two Galateas in her construction of Helen, just as she has fused the Sperlonga sculptures and their restoration in her staged photograph? Whatever the artist’s intention, what is clear is that her work has given us an opportunity, armed with our Ovid, to not explain away the artwork, but to dig deeper and generate more important questions, such as: can we compare Helen as monster to other tales of transformations through failed love – e.g. Ovid’s Scylla (also, fittingly, another part of the Sperlonga series)? Or, with artist Paul Chan, in what way is Odysseus an artist, not merely in the way he plays the poet in retelling his tale to the court of the Phaeacians, but even at the moment of cunning violence in blinding Polyphemus?

For more information on the Antin exhibition, go here.

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