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.


Anonymous said...

i've been seeing something a little more simple in maguire's work than this splendid interpretation.

prevalent in the UK of the colonisation period was an obsession with cooption of hellenistic mythology, and linking empire to what eventually became zealandia

what we have then is juxtapostion of the the colonial, or victorian, mythology of self with the categorisation of other in the person of maori.

either way, fascinating.

Anonymous said...

man, here's an even better zealandia.

Giovanni Tiso said...

Anon, your link had some extra text in it - this should work.

objectdart Yes, excellent point, but I don't think that juxtaposition is quite the mode here, or that any single strand of interpretation is dominant or likely to suffice to read these works.

Consider Frizzell's very popular Mickey To Tiki Tu Meke: there may be a lot to read in there, but there are two terminals, a linear direction.

Maguire’s images aren’t like that. The Māori representative and Herakles may be staring at each other in the boundary discussion, but in fact each is represented in a form borrowed from the other - the Māori figure bears a strong resemblance to the Greek warrior in Ko wai koe?, while the model for Herakles is actually an early nineteenth-century drawing by Louise Auguste de Sainson of Ngatai, a Māori chief fom Bream bay. So it's not even a case of each of them seeing the other through their own eyes, but there is a third person's gaze at work in the picture itself. I think you'd be hard pressed to find any one way to satisfactorily understand, resolve that encounter, and it's part of the appeal of these works.

Something I definitely failed to get through in the post is the humour - some of the pieces are *very* funny.

Deborah said...

Another excellent post.

I think it's the humour that got me first - those rabbits... But also, for me, it's the blank incomprehension on Herakles' part. He's trying so hard to make a way of life for himself, but nothing is the way it ought to be, from his point of view. Herakles' attempt to repel the Amazons is futile is a case in point.

I'm going to be home very briefly in November for a family party, and then again from mid-December. I'm hoping to get up to Victoria to take another look at this exhibition.

Jake said...

I love it so much I want to marry it. Or, at least, visit Wellington this summer and look at it, so that I can wax long-winded about complicating and perhaps even lampooning the bicultural model of New Zealand history.

Oh, and do you know Tony de Lautour's work? He toyed with similar themes; in one series he painted over those early New Zealand landscape prints, adding cats with human faces and athletic kiwi to them.

Artandmylife said...

Nice post :-)

Giovanni Tiso said...

I wasn't familiar with de Lautour, thank you. His map piece and your historical interests compel me to point you to Odysseus' map of the coast of New Ithaca.

Anonymous said...

@giovanni yes, i think the 3rd party view is what i was trying to abbreviate.

there was a strange melange of culturally ambiguous self-depiction just prior to the aggrandisement of the early C20th, one that found itself both inside and outside New Zealand indigeneity.

they're characterising maori, while attempting to characterise themselves - even though the themselves have been mildly influenced by maori ways of being.

i think belich talks about a three stage pattern of colonisation, indigenisation, re-colonisation. whether it is the artist's intention or not, for me they strongly evoke the boundary between the second and third stage.

which generally makes for pretty good art.

(PS. anon is me. pesky wordpress is faffing me about)

Giovanni Tiso said...

for me they strongly evoke the boundary between the second and third stage.

Excellent point. I think you could probably use a couple of key images from the series to illustrate Belich's point, as well as the limits of neat periodisations.

Jake said...

Based on the images I've seen online and Giovanni's description, I don't think that these works fit into Belich's model of New Zealand history at all well. Belich's history is a bicultural one, where two peoples are made in a new place, through similar processes, after becoming sufficiently different from the old place.

The transformation is based partly on environment (the resource islands) and partly on a kind of evolutionary trajectory away from the influences of the respective old worlds, a trajectory informed by distance and travel. Ultimately, it's a story about becoming, and about overcoming the environment through resource management and technological triumph, in order to become part of the new place.

It seems to me that this is the story that Maguire is lampooning. Herakles is not in the process of constructing a new place -- what he builds is soon decrepit, his clearing of the land isn't heroic and productive, but destructive, and his attempts to limit the rabbit population are necessarily futile (and of course he brought the rabbits with him.)

To me it's not about the self and the other, and the kind of biculturalism achieved through reconciling Western cultural tropes to 'indigenous' New Zealand ones that Belich (and Michael King, and plenty of others) attempts, but a subversion of that, and an ironizing (if that is a word) of the romantic narratives that have suffused New Zealand's colonial history. It's as much about laughing at visions of New Zealand's history in the present as the visions of the 19th Century that you point out in your first comment, Che.

Which is why I want to marry it. And why Giovanni needs to stop showing me links to more of these prints that I can't afford.

Anonymous said...

what jake said.

but looking at the series in the few minutes i have to think deeply, this image immediately brought to mind this iconic painting.

to again agree with jake, what i personally see is an extremely humorous take on the colonists self-perception.

and yes, i'll admit that i was grasping at straws with the belich thing. but who has time to read so much these days? if i could at least get a C for this assignment, it would be much appreciated.

word verification: desmisce - when vermin start to displace your serfs.

Giovanni Tiso said...

@Jake I prefer ironizing to lampooning. I think the series unsettles the idea of a biculturalism that can be easily understood and domesticated for political or historiographical purposes. The perspective is reflexive and, yes, ironic, but stops well short of ridiculing or subverting entirely the notion of (bi)culturalism. It's better than that, and pieces like negotiating the boundary and Herakles Goes to Gallipoli are powerful reminders that there is such a thing as separate identities, alien histories.

objectdart Out of interest (and not because I'm a cleverpants - it says so in the catalogue) the direct referent of that lithograph (down to the title) is this painting by Gustavus Ferdinand Von Tempsky.

Giovanni Tiso said...

To clarify my objection to Jake's point: what I don't think is being lampooned is the history of our attempts to describe and understand our enduring biculturalism - the series engages in that very thing, as well as in myth-making. An artwork's perspective is by its nature less declarative, more open to interpretations, therefore implicitly more critical than a history book or a policy document (or a Treaty!) - but I don't think Maguire goes quite as far as you're arguing.

Jake said...

Fair enough -- as I say, I haven't seen the exhibition, only these and a few other images online.

Anonymous said...

@giovanni i think we're actually agreeing. your description of the work as a conceit is a better explanation than my clumsy 'juxtaposition'.

word verification: marnaleg - someone broke my mama's leg.

Giovanni Tiso said...

Fair enough -- as I say, I haven't seen the exhibition,

You'll like it all the more for it I think. By the way, I have updated the dates (which are incorrect on the gallery's website) and have added the stops after Wellington.

It's worth keeping an eye on Exhibition Services - turns out they have been responsible for most of the shows I've liked in the last few years, including this gem.

Megan Clayton said...



Golden hind;

Pig hunt;

Clean stables;
League tables.

Bronze wings;
Arrows, slings.

Cretan Bull,
Farmer's fool.

Mares of Thrace,
Last Race.

Amazon Girdle,
Temperance Hurdle.

Geryon's Cattle,
Taonga Battle.

Hesperides' fruit,
Kōuka root.

Cerberus taken,
Plans mistaken.

Giovanni Tiso said...

Just like that, ay? Welcome back, HB!

(There are two more new poems here and here.)

Anonymous said...

L'ho vista, Giovanni. Molto bella e divertente. Ridevo da sola perche' ero letteralmente l'unica visitatrice. Credo che sia la mostra peggio pubblicizzata che ho mai visto (assieme alle altre, anche loro interessanti che sono all'Adam Art Gallery). Peccato. Claudia

Giovanni Tiso said...

I must have told a couple of dozen people who work or study at Vic about the exhibition and I can't recall a single one who knew about it. You'd think they could have a board in the library foyer and outside the main cafes.