Cartoons familiar and ancient: Looking into the Eyes of Ian Cheng’s Metis Suns

Flicking through artist Ian Cheng’s book Live Simulations, I came across the following description of his 2014 work Metis Suns:

Pichaku [sic?] looked into her eyes and instantly understood her every molecule. But it wasn’t any special ability on his part: he was 85% idiot with humans. It was hers. She precisely caricatured her face, her body language, her talk. She wasn’t a human pretending to be a cartoon. She was a cartoon pretending to be human. When two beings experience love at first sight, it is a meeting of true cartoons. Deep signal neurologies firing into an unnaturally precise dance. The history of cartoons is the history of neurological and cognitive sensitivity. Hyperbolic mouth, lips, and hands are an expression of a mammal’s most intensive neurological zones. Shifts in scale and movement are expressions of psychosocial status and subconscious attraction. Here we simulate an evolving dance for cartoons familiar and ancient.

In reading this, before watching a clip of the ‘live simulation’ and doing more research online about this this work of Cheng’s and its possible sources, I kept thinking that the female character was the goddess Metis, the Titan lover of Zeus and mother of Athena. This made me think that the second part of Cheng’s title (‘Suns’) was a pun on the ‘sons’ that she never had thanks to Zeus swallowing her to avoid the prophecy (a repeat of the Ouranos myth) that their sons would destroy him. I was following this thread merrily, probably on account of knowing that Cheng was a founding member of Badlands Unlimited, which included Micaela Durand and Paul Chan, the latter an avid reader in ancient literature and philosophy and ideas of metis as cunning.

Yet on watching a clip of Metis Suns, I became less and less sure of my identification between Cheng’s work and ancient Greece, specifically on account his use of the following image used to illustrate his description of the work (here shown, in another context, on his Instagram feed, fittingly called @eyecheng):

Cheng’s addition of cartoonish Yin-Yang eyes to what seems to be an ancient statue, led me to discover its source as one of a group of Sumerian statues from the Temple of Abu, Eshnunna (modern Tell Asmar in Iraq), discovered in 1933 and dating to 2700 BCE (you can make out the specific statue, in the back row, third from the left).

On closer inspection, we can see that Cheng’s comic alteration to the eyes, is based on the actual cartoon-style eyes of the ancient statue, which were made of white shell and black limestone inlays.

Now I understood Cheng’s description of cartoons as both ‘ancient and familiar’ in their shared exaggeration of the sense organs, especially the eyes. In this way, the ‘suns’ of the title could refer to the circular shapes of the eyes. But what about Metis?

Then the penny dropped. Athena, the daughter of Metis and Zeus, born from her father’s head, was known to the Greeks with the epithet glaukopis. While commonly translated as ‘grey-eyed’ or ‘flashing-eyed’, it can also mean ‘owl-eyed’ (the Greek word glaux meant ‘owl’). Even though ancient sculptures of the goddess did not show her eyes in any exaggerated way, her icon, the owl with her big eyes, appeared on the ancient Athenian drachma, which were even given the nickname, glaukes (‘owls’).

So, following a circuitous route, there could be a place for the ancient Greek goddess Metis in Ian Cheng’s Metis Suns, but in order to get there, we have to join the evolving dance of cartoons, ancient and modern.

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