The footboard of an old piano is nailed to the wall. A pair of hands offer forth its copper strings like entrails pulled from the piano’s belly. Music has been silenced; sacrificed to art. Below this arc of strings an Amazon lies prostrate, as if electrocuted, smote down by a thunderbolt of wire. Her mouth gasps to cry aloud but she finds her throat choked with plaster cast, feels it setting in her mouth now, now feels the words hardening on her tongue. Silence.
Loukas Morley’s new exhibition in the cast gallery – The Silence of Time – is a quiet one. Not only have pianos been disemboweled, but curtains that should whoosh on their railings hang static like monumental drapery, and water balloons, full to the point of bursting, are petrified in plaster cast. Nothing, at first glance, happens. Instead of noisily announcing its presence, this is an exhibition that demands the viewer look at the ‘in-between spaces’ of the gallery: at the mirrors nestled between the casts, the little figurines on the statue plinths, the paintings set behind the colossal statues. And yet, look hard enough in these nooks and crannies – peer behind the statues – and you will hear a quiet dialogue emerging: a dialogue between the art of antiquity and modernity, the past of the casts and the present of the now. It is through these dialogues that Morley’s exhibition gently and sophisticatedly interrupts ‘the silence of time’.
It is Morley’s ‘speculatrics’ that seem best to do this. His mirrors ingeniously frame and fragment the already-fragmented bodies of the casts – into the feet of a kore, the bum of the Cnidian Aphrodite, the chin of Claudius – to make us think hard about what is lost and gained in these acts of radical spotlighting. What’s at stake in seeing a flat image of the Cnidian Aphrodite’s bum in a mirror, for example, rather than walking around her naked form in three dimensions? Does it ‘queer’ the statue by de- or re-gendering her? Remember that Lucian refers to the Aphrodite’s bum ironically as being a gay man’s ultimate fantasy (Amores, 14). Does it afford the viewer a sense of anonymous voyeurism that is denied by the frontal view? See her from the front and you’ll see that the goddess is, in fact, shielding her pudenda and breasts, aware that she is being watched. Does it make the goddess more elusive, more desirable than ever? Reach out to cop a feel and you’ll touch nothing but the cool, hard plane of the mirror. Such fragmentation and framing by Morley, then, gets us to reflect on our approach to those other relics of antiquity – those statues that survive only as a pair of legs, for example, or statue types preserved only in Pompeian paintings rather than in three dimensions.
More than this, Morley’s mirrors are carefully positioned to bring objects from across the gallery into the same visual frame, often in striking juxtapositions.
Walk round the Ludovisi throne – (probably) depicting the birth of Aphrodite – and a mirror will suddenly strike you with an image of castration: a hollow scoop of plaster cast where Marsyas’ erect penis once stood proud. Lacan’s worst nightmare. The mirrors, then, ‘recurate’ the gallery, offering new comparisons and connections between the casts. Indeed, walk along the scenes of sexual violence that make up the east pediment of the temple of Olympus – as Lapith women elbow off lecherous centaurs – and a mirror suddenly flashes the Athena Parthenos at you. The maiden goddess – the Parthenos herself – reveals her godhead, among this scene of rape, at precisely the moment when virginity is what is at stake. Morley’s mirror cleverly makes the pediment frame an epiphany not of Phidias’ cult statue of Zeus in the Olympian temple, but, unexpectedly, of his other colossal masterpiece on the Athenian Acropolis, the Athena Parthenos. The mirror both pulls Athena into the pediment, making her a divine participant in the Centauromachy like her brother Apollo in the centre – perhaps a good talisman for the resisting Lapiths – but it also excludes her from the action, spotlighting her not so much as a sponsor but as a spectator of the action from across the gallery.
And yet, at the very moment Athena flashes before our eyes, we become aware that this is not ‘Athena’ at all. This is a mirrored reflection… of a 19th century plaster cast… of a Roman marble miniature… of the 5th century B.C. cult statue… which was itself an attempt at representing the divinity. In this marvelous moment of epiphany, then, her godhead seems more elusive than ever, slipping from our grasp at each Platonic and temporal remove. In fact, Morley’s use of reflection is entirely in keeping with the technology of Greek religion. Archaeology suggests that the Parthenon itself had a pool of water directly in front of the cult statue, in which Athena’s image would be reflected for visitors directly entering the shrine. In his Guide to Greece, Pausanias describes a mirror used to reflect an enthroned sculptural group of Artemis, Desponia and Demeter in a sanctuary in Arcadia:
‘On the right as you go out of the temple there is a mirror fitted into the wall. If anyone looks into this mirror, he will see himself very dimly indeed or not at all, but the actual images of the god and the throne can be seen quite clearly.’ (Guide to Greece, 8.37.7).
Paradoxically, it is through the mirror that the elusive divinity is seen most ‘clearly’.
Sometimes Morley’s mirrors make you, the viewer, the artwork. Contemplate the cast of Psyche, the Soul, and you’ll see your own reflection in a mirror behind her. No longer a disengaged aesthete, you’re forced to contemplate yourself as an exhibit on display: a disembodied head floating like the Roman portrait busts that line these galleries. How can the Soul, that constituent of the self, be depicted any other way, you’re left thinking, than by the mirror? And yet… stare too long, and you risk becoming a Narcissus, to complete the gallery’s collection.
Even ‘complete’ objects look like fragments when juxtaposed with the fractured remnants of the casts and mirrors. Set between the pieces of the Corfu pediment and the Athenian Treasury metopes, Morley’s hexagonal ring made from door ‘frames’ can only look empty, as if it too once held sculptural reliefs that have been cut out. A ‘frame’ of nothingness. Likewise, a pair of draped curtains hang on the wall to frame a gap in the west pediment of Olympus – depicting the chariot race of Pelops and Oenomaus – where sculptures of the horses should be. They have been pulled apart to reveal nothing but the breeze-blocks of the gallery’s walls. They hang static on their ‘tracks’ just as the figures of the pediment stand frozen in tableau before the chariot race on the ‘track’ of Olympus.
More strikingly, when a three-legged stool is put next to the armless and headless cast of Iloneus, doesn’t it too look incomplete, as if it it’s missing the torso of a body sitting on it? Or rather, doesn’t it appear like the broken fragment of Duchamp’s Bicycle Wheel, missing the absurd attachment up top that would make it whole? The casts make us rethink the modern ‘ready-mades’ as much as the modern supplementations make us rethink the casts.
Perhaps my favourite ‘intervention’ in the gallery is the Franz Kline-esque painting put behind the Laocoon group. It’s visceral, thick, black brushstrokes – which again can only look ‘fractured’ in the cast gallery context – provide a bleak scenography for the drama of the sculptural group, depicting the Trojan priest Laocoon and his sons getting killed by the snakes. The fluid brushstrokes seethe and twist around each other like the serpents of the sculpture, knotting together to make a dense black chasm in the centre of the canvas, which could suck the figures to their doom at any moment. The paint-marks sweep up and extend out to the borders of the canvas, encoding the stretch of Morley’s arm, which in turn evokes the helpless reach of Laocoon and his sons. Just as the Laocoon tableau, depicting the ‘pregnant moment’ of the priest’s demise, asks to be brought to life by the viewer and made part of a larger narrative – or so Lessing would famously have it – so Morley’s painted gestures ask to be re-temporalised and re-sequenced into the flicks and sweeps that made them. They are as pregnant with movement.
There’s a self-confidence to the subtly of this exhibition that I admire enormously. Morley’s artistic interventions do not scream for attention in the crowded hall of casts. They whisper quietly, but authoritatively among them – and with voices worth listening to.
The Silence of Time: The Spaces In-Between, an exhibition of contemporary works by Loukas Morley, runs at the Museum of Classical Archaeology, Faculty of Classics, University of Cambridge, from 6th June to 6th September 2019. Admission is free. For more details about the exhibition, location of the museum, and opening hours, see www.classics.cam.ac.uk/museum/exhibitions/exhibitions/the-silence-of-time.