“the past as part of the present”

Examining the past is a way to understand the present, Mieke Bal proposes understanding “the past as part of the present” (Bal, 1999). Culture is a worldview, it is a collection of values, knowledge and artefacts, whose re-examining and questioning is in fact re-examining of our current value systems.  Artworks and texts are building blocks, setting up a world view. “ What does the work, as work, set up? Towering up within itself, the work opens up a world and keeps it abidingly in force.” (Heidegger 1993,p.169)

These concepts were the starting point for a project  I am currently working on. The idea is to re-read parts of a classical text – Ovid’s Metamorphoses in contemporary context and create visual art works to communicate this re-reading. I will document the development of this practise based research here. As the work on this started last October, I will briefly include the variations, so far, in this blog post.

In the first instance I chose four myths: Actaeon, Aglauros, Medusa and Arachne. They all have strong visual aspect – they are concerned with seeing, hiding (control of seeing), creating visuals and control/destruction of visuals. They are also concerned with loss of voice about the seen or experienced event.

My first sketches, created sometime in October, are of Actaeon.

The outside material of the first sketch was to be fragile, half-transparent brittle skin broken where the stag is emerging. The second one is opposite, he is imprisoned in a animal, his voice can not be heard as human.

Actaeon was a hunter who one day got separated from his hunting party. He unwittingly stumbled upon the goddess Diana and her band of huntresses enjoying a bath in a clear pool in the forest. Diana, offended and to prevent him boasting about this, sprayed him with some water that turned him into a stag. Seeing is taken as an offence, as penetrating as touch. Diana gives the reason of this punishment as “Now you may tell the story of seeing Diana naked – If storytelling is in your power!” (Ovid 3. 192). He is then hunted down by his own dogs and dismembered.

Not surprisingly the most common part of the myth represented in visual art, is the scene where Actaeon stumbles upon the bathing party.

This forms an erotic reading of the myth. Titian is the most influential example of this reading. Titian was aware of his audience, the paintings were intended for consumption by powerful men. The Poesie paintings were created for the Spanish king Philip II. Diana’s band read in this way can be encountered in early modern literature, specifically referencing lesbian community.

The nymphs are interchangeable, this is something that I have always found in renaissance art representing Diana. They are amorphous mass of female (often just) bodies. Titian groups the paintings of this cycle in conceptual pairs. Actaeon pairs with Calisto.

Diana and the nymphs are, in both of these paintings, a mass of pink interchangeable bodies. In the Calisto painting, the story of Actaeon is visually referenced as well. On the column in the background, there is a relief representing the Actaeon story. Both stories are of silencing and censorship.  

The way I read the myth of Actaeon is political. The goddess of hunt-Diana turned Actaeon into prey and his own dogs dismembered him. This transformation is primarily in status. It is in and of itself – dehumanisation. From a prince and a hunter Actaeon is transformed into prey-stag, someone who’s humanity is stripped off and whose death is irrelevant. In fact he has become food.

I have since developed new sketches for an installation to include video on all four walls of the space, with a possible VR option. They deal with dehumanisation in contemporary context.

The way to communicate effectively, the political aspect of this myth is going the be my primary concern.


BAL MIEKE, 1999. Quoting Caravaggio- Contemporary Art, Preposterous History. Chicago and London: The University of Chicago Press

HEIDEGGER MARTIN, 1993 Basic Writings: Martin Heidegger. 

OVID, 2004. Metamorphoses: A New Verse Translation London: Penguin Books Ltd. Kindle Edition.

“the past as part of the present”

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