Sirens, Medusa and the Isle of Lotus-Eaters
Kuldīga, summer of 2022
In this exhibition, Sabīne Vernere addresses mythology. Her oeuvre indicates an interest in bodily sensations at particularly tense junctures, often touching upon relationships between the masculine and the feminine. This has made her consider the myths of antiquity in which, together with other human passions, these relationships form the basis for the generation of the world, the being of gods and humans alike, as well as for the most various dramas. Looking at these myths through a feminist lens, one is urged to reappraise and acknowledge the patriarchal and sometimes absurd cultural codes that permeate these myths and remain incredibly powerful and imposing up to this day.
This interest of Vernere’s is embodied in three phenomena from the freak pageant of ancient mythology – the gorgon Medusa, a woman with snakes for hair and a petrifying gaze; the sirens, bird-like women whose sweet song lures passing sailors into becoming their meal; and the lotus-eaters, who spend their days eating narcotic flowers that make one forget everything else.
Traditionally, Medusa and the sirens are but episodic characters in the greater stories of mythical heroes. Medusa’s story is widely known from Metamorphoses, a work by the Roman poet Ovid. Prior to being turned into a monster, Medusa was a lovely woman renowned for her beautiful hair. She caught the eye of Poseidon (or Neptune), the god of the sea and horses, who raped her in the temple of the goddess Minerva. Embodying a problem for feminism, Minerva took revenge on Medusa, whom she envied for her beauty, by turning her into a monster and her beautiful hair into snakes as per a classical victim-blaming scenario. Afterwards, everyone who would look upon Medusa would turn into stone. Medusa took refuge inside a remote cave where she hid from the world, but misfortune would continue to follow her, with would-be heroes arriving one after another to try to kill her. Finally Perseus, abetted by the gods, did just that, cutting off her head. At this moment it became clear that Medusa had become pregnant after Poseidon raped her. Her children – the winged horse Pegasus and the giant Chrysaor – who had been growing inside her all the while, sprang out of her bloody neck.
The sirens’ story is known from Homer’s Odyssey. They lived on an island, singing divinely. Their song attracted sailors who then died on the rocky shores of the island. The story of the lotus-eaters is likewise known from the Odyssey: following a storm, Odysseus and his companions arrive at the shore of the mythical land of the lotus-eaters. Three of his companions leave to reconnaitre the land but have to be taken back to the ship by force, seeing as someone who has eaten the lotus wants to “to stay forever, browsing on that native bloom, forgetful of their homeland”. In a wider cultural context a lotus-eater is somebody who has dedicated their life to pleasure, taking no heed of anything else.
In Vernere’s works, the heroines of ancient myth, trapped into impossible configurations, pose questions that are of pressing importance today: why are female characters peripheral in mythology, with the center stage allotted to the “great deeds” of men, which mostly consist of rape and slaughter? How do these myths look through the eyes of female characters? In what way are they related to our own lives, on a personal and global level, today?
Thanks to Vernere’s work it becomes clear that the solution to these age-old dramas is not to be found in the effects of the lotus flower, or in giving in to the temptation to look away and forget oneself. Vernere rewrites these myths on her own.