Cassandra’s Smile: On Alice Maher’s Metamorphoses
David Lloyd, Becoming, 2012
In a simple and strangely haunting image from Alice Maher’s new video installation, Cassandra’s Necklace, Cassandra is seen leaning at an angle, her forehead resting—or is it pushing?—against a rock. The ambiguity is telling: from one point of view, Cassandra is the rock’s antagonist, pushing, perhaps like Sisyphus, that other mortal cursed by the gods, a load that will inevitably overwhelm her. From another, Cassandra rests her head against the rock and becomes its complement, its completion even, in an aesthetically satisfying triangle, woman and rock collaborating in the shaping of something momentary, new, full of possibility. [Figure 1 @ 3.14] Cassandra is familiar to us as the tragic seeress, the princess of Troy cursed by Apollo for refusing his advances with a gift of prophecy and the burden of never being believed. Her ultimate fate is well known: captured in the fall of Troy that she had foretold unheeded, she becomes the Greek leader Agamemnon’s slave and concubine and is brought back a captive to Mycenae. There, both Cassandra and Agamemnon are killed by his wife Clytemnestra, in revenge for his sacrifice of their daughter Iphigeneia at the outset of the Trojan War, in order to gain favourable winds for the Greek fleet. It is a story of bloodshed and slaughter:
You who lead my ways! O you who are set against me!
Whither have you led me,
Ah into what house! …
A human slaughterhouse, its floor spattered with blood.1
But Maher’s Cassandra is nobody’s victim, neither of the gods nor of humans. Even where she appears in certain sequences buried under rocks, she seems less one who is crushed by them than one at home among them, intimate with stone, as if, in a different way, her own being with its material weight and shape makes her an intrinsic element of a total sculptural form. [Figure 2 @ 0.26]
In this respect, the filmic images of Cassandra’s Necklace appear as a kind of sculpture in motion, asking us to see both Cassandra and her environment as elements in a multi-dimensional whole. It is not only that they stage the materials of sculpture, from the ubiquitous stone and rock to more ephemeral elements like fabric and berries, but also that the juxtaposition of two screens that seem to arrange and work through the same materials from different but overlapping perspectives allows for a continuous metamorphosing of the image. To view a sculpture is always, wittingly or not, to engage with such a process of metamorphosis. Unlike a two-dimensional work, sculpture imposes on us the condition of movement and therefore of transformation of space and perspective. Unpredictable strangenesses follow from ceasing to see the work as an assemblage of planes and seeing it instead as a series of transitions, arbitrary in their point of focus, shifting between the apparently fixed planes that the work offers to view. Alice Maher’s work, both in installation and in sculpture, in the expansive sense of three-dimensional assemblages and constructions, has always been acutely sensitive to shifting and metamorphosing perspectives. Even an apparently two-dimensional work like the recent Music of Things (2009), which screens the film drawings Flora and The Double simultaneously in the same space on continuous and overlapping loops, extends this mobile frame of vision. There it is as if Maher were sculpting in two dimensions. Lingering on momentary conjunctions or on some more or less phantasmic image discovered in the work, the viewer may enter into its wormhole and be transported by strange paths to another image, another assemblage than the one consciously proposed. In the larger space of an exhibition that demands that the viewer keep moving from space to space, room to room, we confront juxtapositions of works that are in different media, or from different times, and yet echo and resonate with one another, much as the berries she consumes in Cassandra’s Necklace allude to the earlier work Berry Dress (1994). The circumambient movement from work to work reduces the ideally panoptical space of exhibition to an oneiric unruliness, a dream-logic governed by transitions without continuity, openings into improbable adjacent spaces, forms that yield other forms as if evolution were a process determined not by the rigors of scarcity and competition but by the intimate violence of metamorphosis itself. Thus, in Cassandra’s Necklace, we are haunted not only by the different pace and rhythms of recurrence of similar, sometimes coinciding images on two separate screens, but also by the figure of another Cassandra, maybe multiple Cassandras, flitting momentarily into our view and across that of Cassandra herself, as if metamorphosis becomes replication, multiplication, an uncanny splitting in this cave or womb of dreams where we can no longer be certain whether we see or project what we see. [Fig 3: @ 2.08]
Multiplication and replication are not new formal elements in Maher’s work, whether we recall the multiple floating heads of Filles d’Ouranos [1997: fig 4] or simply the accumulated, almost identical organic materials like snailshells and thorns that compose various sculptural works. Similarly, from her earliest exhibitions, Maher has tended to draw on the effects of juxtapositions of every kind, from the aligning of two- and three-dimensional works in mutually interpretive couples in her familiar show at the Douglas Hyde Gallery, Dublin (1995) to the photographic series Portrait (2003), where the artist dons a helmet-mask constructed of snail shells [Figure 5] or a mantle of foliage on her arm. Her richly textured materials and their apparent incongruity with the aesthetically rarefied world of gallery or museum—or, for that matter, of the high gloss photograph—constantly suggest the shadow of tactility even where the art is purely visual. Impossible not to feel what it might be to wear a dress made of dead bees [Figure 6], or inhale the earthy odors of snail shells, sense the warm slick of a collar of sheep’s hearts [Figure 7] around the neck. A similar sensation follows Cassandra’s donning of a necklace of lamb’s tongues in this most recent work, another image that refers back to an earlier moment in Maher’s corpus. The image seems at once to allude with casual cruelty to that terrifying tongue that has taken on an unbiddable life of its own and to its helpless futility, prophesying frantically to ears that will not hear. And yet Cassandra’s apparently comfortable familiarity with this organic adornment, and the enigmatic smile that crosses her face as she faces us, betray a different knowledge, an older one born of stone and flesh, one that draws from our initial shock a baffled desire to comprehend. [Figures 8 and 9, @ 7.05 and 8.16]
For the invocations performed by such materials open sensory doors into spaces where another relation to the world of things is not only possible but discretely at work, even if forgotten, in the groundwork of the psyche.We know the taste of many things—earth, flesh, metal buckets, pebbles or iron railings—because our first relation to the world is to put things in our mouths, know them by taste and texture as they mingle with the secretions that are the porous boundaries of our fluid and chemical selves. It is, strictly speaking, the antithesis of the aesthetic as it has come down to us since the Enlightenment, retaining the traces of what Kant disparaged as a “pathological” relation to the world, one predicated on the body, its needs and desires, where pleasure and pain mingle and border on one another. Where aesthetic judgment sublimates things into their purely visual or aural appearances, this tactile, profoundly sensuous relation to the world is in touch with the grain of things: that which offers resistance or seduces the nerve ends, arrests the breath or bursts on the palate. We know the feel of the rough rock under Cassandra’s feet or hand even if we only apprehend it visually. Not accidentally, many of the materials that Maher draws on—flax, brambles, nettles, twigs and branches, honey, moss, even, one might add, the charcoal used in so many of her drawings—are folk materials [Figure 10]. That does not signal a “folkloric” relation to the world—Maher is far too conscious of the losses suffered historically by both a people and a world of things virtually eradicated by the modernization that dubbed them folkloric, just as she is everywhere alert to the damage of remaking inflicted by the appropriations of the artist herself.2 Her care for materiality signals, rather, a steady attention to the borderlands at which artifice rubs up against the natural, to the possibilities of tapping still into dimensions of the psyche where some primal, absorbed relation to the world is unleashed again in the form of the uncanny, in the shudder or the laughter that greets the presence of the inhuman in the human, the familiar.3
If in part the uncanny stems from the disgust that supervenes upon this primary relation to things, both the uncanny and disgust remain inseparable from attraction and fascination. If the use of raw, organic materials in Cassandra’s Necklace is one instance of this, Maher’s frequent recurrence to hair, whether as an image in her drawings like Andromeda (2000) or Ombre (1997) [Figure 11] or as a material in works like Keep (1992) perfectly embodies this ambivalence. Living, abundant, glowing, hair is sensuous, attractive, erotic. But, as Hilary Robinson puts it, “The sensuality of hair growing on the head immediately tarnishes when it falls or is cut; it has the quality of something excreted or otherwise discarded by the body. …Hair is frighteningly of nature—it grows, dies, falls, changes colour, develops texture, all beyond our control; yet what it does and what we do with it are surrounded by cultural taboos and significations.”4 Brightness falls from the hair. For Freud, pubic hair signified castration or the Medusa’s locks, and suggested that most feminine of arts: weaving. Hair is a thing of beauty; hairiness is the sign of the satyr, of ugliness, of the barbarian. Hair is where the human and the animal consort with one another. Hirsute yet beautiful bodies of men and of women appear and dissolve through the morphing graphic tableaux of the Music of Things and in the later film-drawing installation Godchildren of Enantios (2011); serpentine coils of hair chain together embracing couples as they do the bronze Venus heads of Rood (2005) [Figure 12]; hair cloaks the naked body, like a reminiscence of those two signs of Irish incivility for Elizabethan conquerors: the glib or forelock favored by Irish men and the cloak that seemed the mask of perfidy. Maher herself refers to Mary Magdalene, whose hair grew magically to cover her nakedness in the desert, the very sign of her erotic ‘fall’ becoming her protective mantle. [Figure 13: Silvestro dei Gherarducci, Assumption of Mary Magdalene, in National Gallery of Ireland: NGI.841].
Hair, with all the ambivalence that attaches to it, marks the unstable boundary between nature and culture, death and life, which is also the locus of perpetual metamorphoses. The continual emergence or hair into its own dying is only the most visible and tactile of the corporeal subject’s ongoing internal and external transformations. From very early on, Maher’s work has inhabited and explored the shifting and layered terrain of metamorphosis that shapes works like Godchildren of Enantios and her “film drawings”, “Sleep”, “Double” and “Flora”, where the human dissolves into animal, vegetable or mineral—or, since that locution seems to privilege the human figure unduly, where all things and forms of things dissolve continually into other forms. The animate and the inanimate, natural and artificial, the erotic and the brutal, succeed one another without obeisance to the laws of causality or narrative continuity. These works embrace a quality of the folk mind that so shocked and disturbed Irish folklorists like Douglas Hyde who sought to collect and reduce it to a single identity: that is, its “inconsequentness and abruptness.”5
But in embracing that dissonant, syncopated quality of the mythic, Maher does not seek to redeem it, any more than she shies away from the deep mingling of violence and eroticism, abundance and dread, comedy and horror that accompanies it. A similar collapsing of distinction deliberately courses through Cassandra’s Necklace, in the ambiguities and ambivalences that characterize the female seer/artist and her materials—not only in the rocks and sheep’s tongues, but even in the berries which, as Cassandra greedily devours them, leave traces of juice on her hands and mouth that are easily read as blood. [Figure 14: @ 3.48] Here, as throughout Maher’s work, myth and folk aesthetics belie the accusation that they represent fixed forms of identity, frozen in archetypes or atavistic symbols. They offer to view the spaces of perpetual if discontinuous transition allowing, as the Indian critic Ashis Nandy suggests myth does, “access to the processes that constitute history at the level of the here-and-now.”6 Myth is not frozen or tied to fixed archetypes but opens corridors between past and future, turning every moment of awareness into a space of transition or an opening into the labyrinths of allusion. Though familiar mythic figures come and go in Maher’s work—Europa and her bull, the snakes of Eden or of Medusa, Greek satyrs and humans metamorphosing into rocks or trees, Cassandra inhabiting her sybilline cave—they give way also to more mundane or contemporary images, from ships’ metallic foghorns to a brass bed. A silver tray or dish doubles as that most archaically female accessories, a mirror, even as it simultaneously, eerily, recalls the dish on which John the Baptist’s head was presented to Salome or the shield in which Caravaggio portrays himself as the beheaded Medusa. [Figure 15 @ 5.45]. And is it now possible to envisage the erotic piling of interlacing male and female bodies in her film “Godchildren” without also thinking of those most infamous contemporary images of tormented bodies piled on one another in Abu Ghraib in a cruel parody of sexual intimacy?
Perhaps both kinds of image, that of the tender violence of the erotic and that of the erotic violence of torture, stem alike from that “swampy soil” that was for Walter Benjamin the world of Kafka (with whose strange parables of hybrid creatures Maher’s work bears some relation): “Everything forgotten mingles with what has been forgotten of the prehistoric world, forms countless, uncertain, changing compounds, yielding a constant flow of new, strange products.”7 The law of that world is the Heraclitean “enantiodromia”, the law by which things give rise to their opposites, not in the fixed and static over-againstness of pairs like male-female, culture-nature, and so forth, but in a perpetual process of transformation, metamorphosis. In Maher’s 2011 exhibition The Godchildren of Enantios, the presiding figures of that transformative process were the Godchildren themselves, bronzes based on a pair of china ‘pastoral’ figures, boy and girl, that suggested also the schematic, pillar-like figures with which the film Godchildren of Enantios opens. Impeccable emblems of the reductive transformation of “folk” tradition into commercial popular culture, these figurines prove capable of absorbing their antithesis, the uncanny force of a violence to which their reductiveness mutely testifies. Kitschy figures of childhood innocence, they find again in Maher’s transformation of them the amoral innocence of metamorphosis itself: the heads that lie at their feet, or, in the drawings, the spherical stones that drop from their cylindrical traces, bespeak an unexplained violence, like Orpheus’s head drifting downstream, still singing. They take on all the unbothered cruelty of folk and children’s tales and the far more radical innocence of the mythic itself, accepting violence and eroticism together without judgment or hierarchy.
Figures of dismemberment in the accompanying film the Godchildren of Enantios are no less figures of memory, memory that opens onto the future. Drawn on a single sheet of paper, erased and redrawn time and again, Maher’s “film drawings” retain always the trace of what has gone before and, literally in the loop of the video, will recur. The erasure is always only partial. The traces of the fine pencil drawings remain as a smear or smudge on the paper, a shadow that prevents forgetting and an index of the tactile, the rubbed surface of the paper—or, in Cassandra’s Necklace, of the skin itself—almost palpable. [Figure 16 @ 6.40] The smear of graphite or of ink is the trace of what has passed, the formal mark of a transition that has taken place, the detritus of a process of continual becoming. In this, such impermanent drawings are not unlike the figurines of the Godchildren themselves, cast-off commodities picked up among the other bric-a-brac of an antique shop, redolent of the melancholy afterlife of the redundant object but also—as Benjamin always so clearly saw—signs of the return of the mass-produced commodity to the life of things. In them, and in their renewal, myth takes its place again as an archive and an accounting of the violence of history.
Perhaps, through her enigmatic gaze, this too is what Cassandra demands of us, now at our own turning point when the violence and destruction of the present, and the urge to heed innumerable prophetic warnings, resounds like an unrelenting din. She calls for an accounting that reckons not only the ceaseless violence of wars and occupations and the imminence of catastrophe, but also the possibility of another relation to the world. In 1983, during the massive build-up of nuclear arsenals on both sides of the Cold War’s Iron Curtain, the East German novelist Christa Wolf also turned to Cassandra for a figure whose futile foresight seemed to embody the desperation of feminist anti-war activists facing the impending doom of “mutually assured destruction”. Faced with her own doom at Mycenae, after Troy’s destruction has already been accomplished, Wolf’s Cassandra concludes that “we have no chance against a time that needs heroes.”8 Brilliant and haunting as Wolf’s novel is, hers is not Maher’s Cassandra, who radiates neither despair nor defeat. Nor does Maher’s Cassandra fuse with Leda, whose memory haunts the etched eggs of Les Jumeaux (2008). Leda, raped by Zeus in the form of a swan, gets cast as the foremother of destruction, giving birth to Helen and Clytemnestra who bring about in turn the destruction of Troy and of the house of Atreus. In W.B. Yeats’s famous sonnet “Leda and the Swan”, as she puts on Zeus’s “knowledge with his power”, Leda seems to represents the woman who—not unlike Cassandra—has foreknowledge pressed upon her by the god. For Yeats, the price of awareness, of entering from myth into history, is violence of conception and violence of outcome. Leda is represented as the mere vessel of such knowledge. But Maher’s Cassandra dwells in a domain of enigma, ambiguity, ambivalence where the knowledge we would need to be able to comprehend her demands neither certainty nor the prophecy of an ineluctable fate, but the capacity to live in the shifting, shadowy moment of change and transformation, down among the things that, disregarded, overlooked, reduced to mere “raw material” in our brutal world of production and destruction, find another voice in her company. If, as Adorno and Horkheimer so powerfully argued, the irrational destruction of the world is the paradoxical outcome of the domination of reason, of the Logos, over both nature and woman, Cassandra here stands for the undoing of that fatal division between reason and the flesh, spirit and body, word and thing, that underlies the unutterable violence of our history and of our present.9 Like Mnemosyne, Cassandra is a figure of memory, recalling to life forgotten things and forgotten knowledges. But she is no less the figure of opening, of awareness of the possibilities that continue to dwell in the appearance of defeat, that issue from the destruction that gives rise to change. Cassandra bears not the hopeless assurance of impending destruction, a foreknowledge from which, appalled, we turn away, but instead the promise of a metamorphosis through which other worlds become possible.
1 From Cassandra’s Necklace (2012) [@ 3’.15”].
2 From Cassandra’s Necklace (2012) [@ 0’.26”].
3 From Cassandra’s Necklace (2012) [@2’.08”].
4 Filles d’Ouranos (1997).
5 Helmet (2003) from Portrait series.
6 Bee Dress (1994).
7 Collar (2003).
8 From Cassandra’s Necklace (2012) [@ 7’ 05”].
9 From Cassandra’s Necklace (2012) [@ 8’.16”].
10 Coat of Nettles (1995).
11 Andromeda  or Ombre .
12 Double Venus, from Rood (2005).
13 Silvestro dei Gherarducci, Assumption of Mary Magdalene [in National Gallery of Ireland: NGI.841].
1 Christa Wolf, Cassandra: A Novel and Four Essays, trans. Jan Van Heurck (New York: Farrar Strauss Giroux, 1984), p. 216.
2 Siobhán Kilfeather remarked that “The idea that materials carry their own narrative histories and that they both co-operate with and resist human impositions might be traced through a number of Maher’s works” in “Alice Maher’s Materials”, Field Day Review 2 (2006), p. 3.
3 “Natural Artifice” was the title of Maher’s Brighton Museum and Art Gallery show in 2007. In her catalogue essay, Gill Perry connects the term to Maher’s explorations or stagings of the “female self”. See Gill Perry, “Tales, Trails, and Transformations: The Work of Alice Maher”, in Alice Maher: Natural Artifice (Brighton: Royal Pavilions, Libraries and Museums, 2007), p.17.
4 Hilary Robinson, “Irish/Woman/Artwork: Selective Readings” in “The Irish Issue: The British Question”, Feminist Review 50 (Summer 1995): p. 100.
5 Douglas Hyde, “Gaelic Folk Songs”, in Language, Lore and Lyrics: Essays and Lectures, ed. Breandán Ó Conaire (Blackrock 1986).
6 Ashis Nandy, The Intimate Enemy: Loss and Recovery of Self under Colonialism (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1983), p. 59.
7 Walter Benjamin, “Franz Kafka: On the 10th Anniversary of his Death”, in Illumminations: Essays and Reflections, ed. Hannah Arendt (New York: Schocken Books, 1985), p. 131.
8 Wolf, Cassandra, p.138.
9 Max Horkheimer and Theodor W. Adorno, Dialectic of Enlightenment, trans John Cumming (New York: Continuum, 1972), p. 111.