Visual Art

ACCA’s A Biography of Daphne uses the Greek myth to explore contemporary notions of transformation. By Melissa Bianca Amore.

A Biography of Daphne

An installation view of A Biography of Daphne 2021, at ACCA.
Credit: Andrew Curtis

In A Biography of Daphne at the Australian Centre for Contemporary Art (ACCA), the richly intertextual classical myth of Daphne is reconfigured to examine notions of metamorphosis, agency and resistance. The show embodies a compelling exchange between myth and contemporary art, revealing Romanian guest curator Mihnea Mircan’s extensive scholarly research in the field of contemporary myth-making.

The exhibition includes significant work by artists such as Lauren Burrow, Jill Magid, Jean-Luc Moulène, Candice Lin and P. Staff, who are anchored between two historical works. On arrival, the 17th-century etching Apollo and Daphne (1650s) by Anthonie Waterloo depicts Daphne fleeing Apollo, while on departure Agostino dei Musi’s 16th-century engraving Apollo and Daphne (1515) shows her transformation into a laurel tree. Both works counterpoint states of being between mimicry, vulnerability and rupture.

French artist Jean-Luc Moulène’s concrete sculpture Fixed Fountain (2021) powerfully pivots the exhibition between these transitional states. Centrally sited, the work serves as a bifurcation, a collision of figures in perpetual transition. Known for his sculptural entanglements and interlacing mechanisms – often rendered with a preposterous surrealist spirit – this work reveals Moulène’s investigations into “knot theory” and directly references the structural techniques of rubbing stones as a method of binding employed in pre-Columbian architecture. Moulène articulates the embodied resonance of Daphne’s myth; in the curator’s words: “Fixed Fountain permits a further comparison to the becoming-another that unites Daphne’s two bodies: her human form beginning to resemble a tree, her tree beginning to resemble a human body.” 

Western understanding of mythology is dominated by the Greek tales of gods, allegorical legends and fictional characters. Since the 17th century, the relevance of mythology to the contemporary world has often been discredited as a property of ancient and “primitive” civilisations. For some, including psychiatrist and psychoanalyst Carl Jung, mythological archetypes were important means of interpreting the collective unconscious and the human mind. As he commented in The Archetypes and the Collective Unconscious, “myths are original revelations of the preconscious psyche, involuntary statements about unconscious psychic happenings, and anything but allegories of physical processes”.

Israeli artist, novelist and filmmaker Roee Rosen explores another kind of myth in his suite of works, which include Physiognomies 04 1928 and Frankomas 1930. Active since the 1980s, Rosen has dedicated most of his practice to creating fictional characters that examine the parallels between fiction and truth. In this exhibition, Rosen’s invented artist Justine Frank – a Jewish–Belgian female painter who moved to Paris in the 1920s and became part of the male-dominated Surrealist movement – resurrects history and investigates how meaning is created in the process. Often erotic, sadistic, absurd and transgressive, the artist transforms into an actor, performing mime and spectacle as a gesture of cultural redemption and a re-creation of self. 

Aside from redefining notions of parody and transformation, Frank establishes an ambiguous dialogue with American conceptual artist Jill Magid’s clever Auto Portrait Pending (2005). Both works unconventionally challenge notions of metamorphosis in European myth, evoking an unexpected “double becoming”.

In Auto Portrait Pending, death gives birth to the artwork’s becoming. An empty gold ring – the artist’s tombstone – is displayed in an enclosed wall vitrine, alongside two legal contracts and a testimony outlining the artist’s requirements to trade her body to LifeGem Corporation to have her ashes converted into a diamond. “Make me a diamond when I die,” she specifies. “Cut me round and brilliant. Weigh me at one carat. Ensure that I am real.” Magid presents a precarious complexity that questions the parameters of authorship: at what stage in the ring or body’s sublimation does it become a finished work of art, and who is its author following the artist’s death? In the artist’s words, Auto Portrait Pending is an inner “pregnant pause” awaiting transformation.

This redeployment of self is further obscured in the video The Unmanned, Season 1, episode 3: 1953 – The Outlawed (2018) by French collaborative artists Fabien Giraud and Raphaël Siboni, a poetic examination of transfiguration, computation and temporality. Hypnotic in its hallucinatory effects and deeply melancholic cinematic landscape, the video shows Alan Turing (played by actor Aurore Broutin) on a raft drifting out to sea as he endures chemical castration after his conviction for homosexuality in 1952. The Outlawed heightens the debate around gender identity and the harrowing effects of Turing’s transformation. In a continuum with this work, although contrastingly whimsical, is Candice Lin & P. Staff’s Hormonal Fog – a fog machine that emits a disorientating haze made from extracted plant tinctures that increase oestrogen levels.

A Biography of Daphne aims to “create an expanded contemporary landscape around Daphne’s becoming, teasing out a dialogue between her ‘biography’ and some of the narratives that shape present-day notions of transformation and identity”. Employing the myth of Daphne constrains the artworks within that context, which both reveals and obscures the artworks’ meanings. Mircan skilfully renders the ambiguity of decoding myths while revealing their function as an encrypted message: a mode of signification and a semiotic system of relations.

Perhaps the real question is, how do we engage with mythological thinking? Is mythology history in a disguised form? According to American literary scholar Joseph Campbell, “a mythic figure is like the compass that you used to draw circles and arcs in school, with one leg in the field of time and the other in the eternal. The image of a god may look like a human or animal form, but its reference is transcendent of that.”

Kawun (2005) by Pitjantjatjara artist Wingu Tingima holds echoes of hidden messages and transcendence. It illustrates the transformation of the Seven Sisters (Kungarrakalpa) into a constellation – known by Western astronomers as the Pleiades – to escape from Nyiru, who against customary law wants to force one of them to marry him. The origins of First Nations culture are often retold as mythological thinking, in central narratives of Dreaming, cosmology and connections to Country. Another imminent threat is also recalled in Lauren Burrow’s A stick developing eyes (2020-21), which embodies an infinite stillness – a network of resin crocodile eyes swimming in a pool of cosmological darkness.

With a layered, lyrical vocabulary, A Biography of Daphne explores myth as a source of knowledge and as an essential clue into the collective minds of human civilisation and the spiritual. While works in the exhibition occupy a liminal space on the threshold of becoming, they oscillate somewhere between mythos (narrative) and logos (reason). In Claude Lévi-Strauss’s words: “On the one hand, a myth always refers to events alleged to have taken place long ago. But what gives the myth an operational value is that the specific pattern described is timeless; it explains the present and the past, as well as the future.” 

A Biography of Daphne is showing at ACCA, Melbourne, until September 5.

This article was first published in the print edition of The Saturday Paper on Jul 31, 2021 as "Metamorphoses".

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Melissa Bianca Amore is an art critic, curator and contemporary philosopher based in New York and Melbourne.