Tuesday, February 28, 2012

Rob Miller's Odysseus and the Sirens

The foyer of 101 Collins Street has ionic columns for their beauty rather than their engineering. It has marble spirals on the floor, sculpture alcoves, phases of the moon above the reception desk and 23 caret gold leaf walls. It has a temple like grandeur and stature. Rob Miller’s sculptures currently on display in the water features in front of these golden walls are interpretations of classical Greek myth. One is Odysseus. The shimmering backdrop and the enclosed space of the water feature gives the sculptures and the space an aedicula like quality. With this association in mind, there is sense of the work relaying a parable that through narrative can circle around abstract desires. 

In Miller's Odysseus and the Sirens there is a man with a round head wearing long robe leaning starboard on a boat. In the myth, the sirens sing such a seductive song that it lures sailors to their death. Odysseus ties himself to the mast of his ship to avoid crashing to his death. Miller's sculpture incorporates the mast and the man in one vertical line. The sculpture embodies the nature of the tragic hero; the solid and strong carved figure leans precariously towards temptation. This Odysseus, in this gilded foyer, seems a reminder of the perils of hubris. 

There is a focus on the breasts and buttock of the sirens in these sculptures. This creates an ogling element to Odysseus lean that also makes him a little less noble in his clever self-will and restraint. The form of the sirens evokes the little Venus of Hohle Fels, a sculpture from the Stone Age carved from a wooly mammoth's tusk. This reference to Venus and ancient fertility goddesses denote a simultaneous admiration, fear and objectification of female sexuality. Fertility has also been customarily synonymous with wealth and prosperity. In the opulence of this space these exaggerated body parts can be read as embodying a certian bountiful plenty.   We can again suggest that the desire and temptation Odysseus leans towards may have many faces and it’s left to the individual viewer to imagine what song would drive them off course.

The perils of hearing the song of the sirens has been retold in many ways. We know from Hollywood alone the monstrous destruction that the seduction of the femme fatale can bring. Think of Glen Close or Sharon Stone in those thrillers like Fatal Attraction and Basic Instinct. The female gaze has been mythologised as frightening, aggressive and a threat to society. Homer writes: 'Whoever draws too close, off guard, and catches the Sirens' voices in the air—no sailing home for him, no wife rising to meet him, no happy children beaming up at their father's face'. Though Miller’s siren sculptures have no heads or arms they seem to still be able to frighten by their gaze. However their missing limbs (wings) and heads also imply a breaking or restraint of any real power a siren may represent. These sculptures become a pure fantasy. 

The fetishised focus on the sirens’ bodies suggests Odysseus’ is both a victim and a voyeur. He lives to tell the tale of the women who could have devoured him. The siren’s song is a death song. It brings momentary bliss and unknowable pain and death. That Odysseus hears this song without being dragged in gives him a knowledge that he can cannot express in language. He never recounts the actual song. It is like the unquantifiable object that attracts us to one another. The focus on the torso in these sculptures suggests a mysterious disembodiment is at play in attraction and desire. These sirens have no mouths. There is no music in the air. The only way that the song is rendered by Miller is in Odysseus' posture. His desire is captured in his totally physical response, his slant and motion. Miller captures that the nature of the sirens' voice is Odysseus's own desire that leads him to potential destruction. However, since he momentarily cheats this fate, he is destined to enjoy this satisfaction by unspeakable proxy.   

In Franz Kafka’s essay The Silence of the Sirens he reinterprets the story to say that Odysseus blocked his ears as well as tied himself to the mast. However, the sirens admire his "innocent elation" , that they spare him. Whatever Odysseus heard was internal. Kafka writes: 'now the Sirens have a still more fatal weapon than their song, namely their silence. And though admittedly such a thing never happened, it is still conceivable that someone might possibly have escaped from their singing; but from their silence certainly never.' The song has become a way of projecting  his own self congratulatory and self destructive desires onto the sirens. The headless sirens of Miller’s work correlates well with Kafka's approach to the myth. There is a sense that this Odysseus will create the heads of his own nightmares and fantasies and that they may be far more frightening and exciting than any external metaphysical beast.

These dark and elegant silhouettes compliment the opulence of the space. Yet these headless and armless sirens are not without melancholy undertones. In this space where giant phallic columns just decorate and the luna cycles are safely under the control of the reception staff, these fierce creatures of the sea have become quite tame. They are beautiful and elegant but are without their song or their gaze to decide who to seduce next. As though this myth can be enjoyed in this space but the scary bits cannot be eluded to too specifically.

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