Monday, October 26, 2009

The Labours of Herakles

I can think of only one book that has been read by three successive generations of my family, albeit in as many different editions. This one:

It was one of the few books in Mum's house when she was little, and she would have read it at the same time as the author, Laura Orvieto, became a target of Mussolini's racial laws. As the cover of our current copy, pictured above, makes immediately clear, those stories of the history of the world are ancient Greek myths, which Orvieto rewrote for children. The events covered are roughly those leading up to and including the contents of the Iliad, and are presented in a plain and engaging manner, but also without pulling any punches: most notably, the sequence makes no omission of the episode of Atreus tricking Thyestes into eating his own children, and naturally it is the one I remembered most vividly from my own early encounters with the book.

Grisly details aside, reading those stories as a child was a source of pure joy; a feeling of discovery, yes, but also the sense of tapping into something primeval, the matrix from which all other stories came from. I didn't go to Sunday school, so that was my education into the fables of our origin. Our family holidays in the south of Italy - the Magna Graecia - and those August nights spent connecting the stars in the manner of the ancients did the rest: by the time we travelled to Greece itself, in 1981, it felt like a pilgrimage to a hallowed place and yet also a homecoming.

As for Orvieto's book, I forgot about it for some years, and the family's copy got lost, but once I had children of my own I was delighted to discover that it was still in print and bought it for our oldest, Joseph. He fell in love with it at once, just as he had with the Māori myths and legends, as if the Hellespont was just around the corner or Maui and Ulysses happened to be cousins. Which perhaps they are.

Marian Maguire, Herakles discusses boundaries issues with the Neighbours, from The Labours of Herakles

I am grateful to Deborah for introducing me to the work of Marian Maguire, currently showing at the Adam Art Gallery in Wellington. The series on display, The Labours of Herakles, is based on the same conceit as her earlier Odyssey of Captain Cook: what if Aotearoa and the tāngata whenua had come into contact with the ancient Greek world? To be more specific, not the actual ancient Greek world either, but rather its aestheticised, stylised double that survives in its iconic art forms and through the stories and legends that so fascinated me in my childhood.

The Herakles who lands in New Zealand is the supernatural hero of myth transported through time and space, sometimes appearing in the form of a two-dimensional figure in silhouette, as if he had just been carefully detached from a black-figure vase, sometimes as a full-bodied mortal looking every bit as real as the harsh environment that surrounds him. But it’s not a linear progression, nor does it offer consistent coordinates for interpretation. As Elizabeth Rankin documents in her very careful study of Maguire’s images and their sources, the interplay of representational forms within the lithographs and across the series is very complex and purposeful: it’s not merely a case of transposing Greek figures depicted in their originary style into an early colonial New Zealand setting to produce frisson and novelty, but rather a constant exchange of styles and forms - Attic black figure vase painting and Māori motifs and iconography alongside more naturalistic Nineteenth Century styles of illustration, painting and photography, all borrowing from each other at different junctures and sometimes within the same image. There is no straightforward, fixed solution to this interplay, no algorithm that solves within each scene the riddle of whose gaze is fixed on whom, asserting its power over the subject. The overall effect, as Rankin notes, is to highlight ‘the complexities of post-colonial understandings of early New Zealand history’[1]. That the series manages to do so entertainingly and accessibly is just another notable and praiseworthy trait. And the lithographs are simply exquisite, a joy to behold on site for those who can make it to this exhibition.

But therein lies also a conundrum: for in light of the proliferation of pseudo-histories so valiantly fought by some of my worthier colleagues in the blogosphere, and more generally the wretched state of the public conversation concerning the Treaty, the most fundamental aspects of the nation’s history and our race relations, the liberties taken by Maguire may themselves come under scrutiny. What of the choice, in the first instance, to cast the coloniser as a mythical and invincible hero? Here too the series confounds our expectations, for the transplanted Herakles is a most troubled character - unsettled, unsure of himself and prone to sometimes comical failures, as when he attempts to repel the Amazons, limit the rabbit population or even fashion a chariot out of number eight wire. In his rare exalted moments he may feel able to vanquish the natives at will, but in the end he has to negotiate terms with them. Crucially, he fails in his most cherished bid - building the new Arcadia - and his temples are no sooner erected that they fall into ruin.

Athena is Dismayed at the Lack of Progress Herakles has made towards Arcadia

Yet in spite of the comic vein that runs through many of the lithographs and especially the etchings in the series, Herakles is no mere figure of fun either. He is capable of reflection and contemplation, and has moments of awareness - shot through with a weary melancholy - of the irreparable impact of his labours on the spiritual and physical lay of the land. In another key image we see him in his cabin, intent on writing a letter home, and it is at such moments - culminating in the surprising and frankly moving Herakles Goes to Gallipoli - that we witness his transformation into what we may be inclined to call a New Zealander.

Herakles Writes Home

Rankin notes here the anachronistic mix of books on the shelf above Herakles, which includes The Iliad and The Odyssey next The Bible and Darwin’s Origin of the Species, The Voyages of Captain James Cook alongside John Boardman’s handbook on Greek vase painting, but it is the inclusion of a Greek to Māori dictionary that ties us into the image of the negotiation of boundaries above and thus to the series’ main theme: the problematic coming together, literally face to face, of two cultures, each trying to comprehend and at the same time draw, write, define the other. It is from the force of that central image - which echoes in turn the earlier, seminal Ko wai koe? (Who Are You?) from The Odyssey of Captain Cook - that Maguire’s reflection on the constantly changing nature of post-colonial identities draws its strength.

As a migrant from Southern Europe who feels (fancifully, no doubt) culturally closer to ancient Greece than to modern Britain, that image and those themes spoke to me very powerfully, but so did Maguire’s capacity to draw into her images the history of art forms that are also technologies of memory. On this she has written very compellingly in the introduction of The Odyssey of Captain Cook, stating her intimate love of the printed artwork and the work of the engravers of two to three hundred years ago, who translated into reproducible form the work of the artists who accompanied the great explorers, sometimes stretching the limited record of those voyages by using the same characters and scenes into different New World settings.
I am sure that a similar evolution would have occurred with The Odyssey. Whether fact or fiction the story became established in an oral tradition and by the time it was painted on vases or written down in Homeric verse the storyline had settled into myth; a myth that made sense in the society that created it. Like the engravers the vase painters worked with great dexterity. They expressed complex storylines and emotions on a curved surface within a tight visual language. Similar parameters existed for Maori carvers as they fashioned ancestors and mythic beings out of timber. Like the Greek vase painters their virtuosity was constrained by convention and expectation, for their carvings partnered an oral storytelling tradition and were made to fit a philosophically balanced societal whole. [2]

In our wan postmodernity these philosophical balances are far more fragile, the negotiation of cultural boundaries, modes of representation and means to construct identity meaner and faster. Marian Maguire's art is an inspiring example of how to chart imaginatively this uncertain territory.

The Labours of Herakles will be showing at the Adam Art Gallery in Wellington until December 19th. Entry is by koha.

The excellent catalogues of the exhibition and of The Odyssey of Captain Cook are available at the gallery or through PaperGraphica.

Forthcoming tour dates:
Percy Thomson Gallery, Stratford 22 Dec - 7 Feb 2010
Lopdell House, Titirangi, Auckland 11 Feb - 11 April
Hocken Library, Dunedin 17 April - 18 July
Forrester, Oamaru 24 July- 5 Sept
Southland Museum, Invercargill 11 Sept - 24 Oct
Eastern Southland Gallery, Gore 30 Oct - 5 Dec
Ashburton Art Gallery 11 Dec - 20 Feb 2011
Tairawhiti Museum, Gisborne 17 April - 19 June
Waikato Museum, Hamilton 25 June - 25 Sept
Te Manawa, Palmerston North 8 Oct - 29 Jan 2012
Tauranga Art Gallery 11 Feb - 1 April

Or you can track Herakles' whereabouts here.

[1] Elizabeth Rankin, 'Ko wai koe? (Who Are You?): Reading Marian Maguire's Labours of Herakles', in Marian Maguire,
The Labours of Herakles, (Christchurch, PaperGraphica, 2008), p. 10.

[2] Marian Maguire,
The Odyssey of Captain Cook (Christchurch, PaperGraphica, 2005), p. 6.