Erla Thorarinsdóttir – Das Ewig-Weibliche – english

Erla Þórarins Creatrix 2015

Das Ewig-Weibliche


Erla Thorarinsdottir in Hallgrimskirkja


By Ólafur Gíslason

When I visited Erla Thorarinsdottir at her studio to observe her works in progress for her exhibition in Hallgrimskirkja, the final words from Goethe’s tragedy about Faust started resounding in my ears like a persistent echo: „Das Ewig-Weibliche / Zieht uns hinan“, or as it sounds in the translation of A. S. Kline: Woman, eternal / Beckons us on.

Those feminine forms, the breasts, the hearts and the vulva that recurrently opens in a rhythm of forms and nuances, perpetually reborn from silver to gold, an echo of some lost motifs and vanished memories that simultaneously conjured up unfathomable visions ranging from the nocturnal silver moon to the golden sun of the day. What is this femininity about that recalls us from these works and what did Goethe mean with the final words of the Chorus Mysticus in his magnificent and ambiguous late-18th-century tragedy about human destiny? These questions have puzzled people to this present day. For Goethe’s tragedy is just as relevant today as it was in the 18th century. This story about the man that sells his soul to Mephistopheles believing this will allow him to both enjoy love and dominate the world with the assistance of evil. The multiple interpretations of Goethe’s play will not be accounted for here, let it just be assumed that Faust’s progress and struggle is no less relevant in our times, it is not a story of a conflict between heaven and earth or the Heavens and Hell, rather the conflict that goes directly through man’s mind and body and the core of what it means to be human. That the story reflects, in the words of Jung, the “alchemical process” that shapes the individual consciousness, the disintegration and then reunion in a new and distinguished form.

Whether we try to explain Erla’s and Goethe’s femininity from a religious or a secular point of view, we cannot evade looking at it as a transcendence: man must step out the box of his own existence to handle the truth that can neither be measured nor touched upon, but is an event in itself: the experience related to our inner reality that Freud called sub-conscious  and Umberto Galmberti among others has called “the sphere of the sacred”, where all logic and difference ends.[i]

The femininity Goethe indicates in Faust is neither the Virgin Mary nor Eve, rather both at the same time, neither Demeter nor Persephone if we look further back to the polytheism of the ancient Greeks, but rather both: The primordial mother-goddess of creation and death that the Lithuanian anthropologist Marija Gimbustas calls “the intimidating Venus of prehistoric times”, a prolific yet annihilating goddess of life and death whose remains have been found in prehistoric sepulchres around Europe from the period Gimbutas calls matriarchal, reaching from around 30000 B.C. to about 2500 B.C.[ii]

The images of femininity Gimbutas unmasked in the goddess figures of prehistoric European times, has a parallel in Jung’s definition of the “Kingdom of Mothers” in Goethe’s Faust, where he amongst other says:

“The Kingdom of Mothers” [in Faust] has multiple parallels to the womb that often assumes the form of sub-consciousness in creative pictorial executions. This libido is a natural force, at once good and evil, that is to say morally neutral. By connecting to this force, Faust manages to execute his life’s work, first with negative results, later on for the good of mankind. In the Kingdom of Mothers he finds the Tripod, the hermetic vessel that accommodates “the Royal Wedding [the wedding of Paris and Helen in Faust]”.[iii]

Thus Jung explains in a fairly convincing way the “alchemic” ideas that form the basis of Goethe’s whole tragedy and epitomizes in the final “invocation of femininity” that thereby becomes one form of the unconscious archetype of the mother-goddess common to all humans.

The Hungarian cultural anthropologist Karoly Kerényi made an interesting remark on this image of femininity as it appears in Greek mythology in the mother Demeter (goddess of fertility) and her daughter Kore (otherwise known as Persephone, the queen of the Underworld or Hades), both connected to the Eleusinian mysteries in Greece. There, the initiated were granted an insight into the mysteries of afterlife. Kerényi reasons, referencing an ancient text[iv], that at the mysteries in Eleusis the mother and daughter Demeter and Kore became one person, “the Holy Mother of Eleusis”. The secret of the Eleusinian mysteries consisted in an experience that was supposed to be a “totally new, surprising and logically unfathomable” and gave people an insight into the progress of eternal life. The uniqueness of the experience of the initiated in Eleusis consisted according to Kerényi in the radical difference between “knowing something” and “being something”:

“It is one thing to have the knowledge of the seed and the germ [of Demeter], another to have experienced them both in the past and future in connection with one’s own existence and continuity. Or as professor Jung claimed: To experience in that way the recursion [apocastasi ] of the forefathers’ life and how they prolong their existence through the bridge of the living individual present and life in coming generations.  Knowledge with this core – the being in death – can certainly not be underestimated.”[v]

In short, Kerényi says, the event of “the miracle” in Eleusis took place as the attendants watched in silence how the seed of Demeter germinated, thereafter followed by a loud cry from the hierophant (high priest). The Eleusinian mysteries thus have a parallel, according to Kerényi, in the Blood Miracle that still regularly takes place in Naples today when the blood of the patron saint Gennaro liquefies again and again, 1700 years after his execution.

Kerényi, however, makes a clear distinction between a “miracle” and a “mystery”:

The miracle always and everywhere wants to become public. The mystery thrives in silence. Does the secret of every real, great mystery not lie in simplicity itself? When spoken of, it is transformed into words, in silence it is the being itself. And it is also a miracle in the way that the whole existence of man with all its controversies is.”

Let me bring this discussion about Erla Thorarinsdottir’s exhibition to a close with the final words from Faust: Alles Vergängliche /Ist nur ein Gleichnis; /Das Unzulängliche, / Hier wird’s Ereignis;/ Das Unbeschreibliche, / Hier ist’s getan; / Das Ewig-Weibliche / Zieht uns hinan. (All that is temporal is only an allegory, unsatisfactory, here it happens, the indescribable, here it is realized, the eternal feminine calls upon us.)


[i] Umberto Galimberti: Orme del sacro – Il cristianesimo e la desacralizzazione del sacro. Milano, 2000, p.13-31

[ii] “The Fertility Goddess or Mother Goddess is a more complex image than most people think. She was not only the Mother Goddess who commands fertility, or the Lady of the Beasts who governs the fecundity of animals and all wild nature, or the frightening Mother Terrible, but a composite image with traits accumulated from both the pre-agricultural and agricultural eras. During the latter she became essentially a Goddess of Regeneration, i.e., a Moon Goddess, a product of a sedentary, matrilineal community, encompassing the archetypal unity and multiplicity of feminine nature. She was a giver of life and promotor of fertility and at the same time wielded the destructive power of nature. The feminine nature, like the moon is light as well as dark ”Marija Gimbutas: The Gods and Goddesses of Old Europe 7000 – 3000 BC. London, 1974, pgs. 152. The most famous image of this sort is the “Venus of Willendorf”, about 25000 years old.

[iii] C. G. Jung: Symbole der Wandlung: Analyse des Vorspiels zu eine Schizophrenie, here translated from Italian: Simboli della transformazione, Torino 2002, pg. 129.

[iv] See P.Roussel: : Les cultes égyptiens à Delos, 1916

[v] Károly Kerényi: Epilegomeni. Il miracolo di Eleusi. from the epilogue of the book Einfürung in das Wesen der Myhologie, that he published in collaboration with C.G.Jung in 1941, here translated from Italian: Prologemi allo studio scientifico della mitologia, Torino 1972, pgs. 255-256.

Sigurður Guðjónsson: Prelude, 2012 -English

An Attempt on the Veil of Aesthetics:

Sigurður Guðjónsson’s 2012 Video Work Prelude in the Light of Myth and Aesthetics

A naked man grapples with an unwieldy, invisible, and indeterminate object in the confined space of an unidentified room, which opens onto other rooms through a lone door and is fenced off in the foreground by horizontal strings, strings that form, along with an unidentified pendulum, the frame of this black-and-white motion picture, which in turn opens onto the darkened gallery space and becomes a kind of extension of it, into another world. The grappling goes on in a repetitive manner until the body flags, but not to the point of complete surrender; the video vanishes into itself and its repetitions like the repeated strokes of the pendulum and their faint sound, which combined with the creaking wood floor are the resonance of this video, leading us into a world that words do not compass nor descriptions explain: What world is this that hails us here; what struggle is proceeding in this extension of the dim gallery space?

Though the gallery is a public artspace and calls for an “aesthetic judgment” of objects placed within it, we may allow ourselves the pleasure, for the moment at least, of letting the matter of “aesthetics” rest and venturing to lead our thoughts back before the time of aesthetics, to that time and existence that knew neither to distinguish the true from the beautiful or being from its manifestations, what is from what appears to be: i.e., to the world of myth.

The Vatican Museum in Rome preserves an old stone cistern from about 160 C.E. that depicts in relief the punishments of Sisyphus, Ixion, and Tantalus, three figures from Greek mythology who each met a grim demise for having disrupted the divine and natural order that placed inviolable limits on human existence. Of the three, Sisyphus, founder of Corinth, is best known; he bound Thanatos, god of death, in chains and thereby halted mortal traffic to the Underworld. When the gods had freed Thanatos from captivity and cleared the traffic jam, Hades god of the underworld sentenced Sisyphus to roll a heavy stone up a steep mountain slope forevermore.

Sisyphos Ixion Tantalus sarcofago Vatmussvhv

Ixion, offspring of Ares the war god, is known in mythology for having contrived his father-in-law’s death to avoid the dowry payment. The first Olympian to fracture the familial sanctum with murder, Ixion was condemned to exile. Zeus pitied him, however, and allowed him onto Mount Olympus. There too Ixion transgressed, sexually harassing Zeus’s wife Hera, and was punished by being lured to have sex with a cloud that had assumed Hera´s shape. The offspring of Ixion and the cloud were the centaurs, half-man and half-beast. When Zeus had thus confirmed Ixion’s guilt, Ixion was sentenced to be bound to a burning wheel, to waft through the sky forevermore.

Tantalus, father of Pelops, was said to have killed his son and served him to the gods at a feast he held for them. As the first cannibal, his punishment in the underworld was to dwell forevermore in water, unable to quench his thirst, and below fruit-laden trees, unable to quell his hunger.

To our minds these myths are metaphors that testify to Greek and Roman understanding of universal divine and natural principles and fit punishment for the hubris of defying them. The sentences are cruel in that they are endless and therefore preclude reprieve or fulfillment. For some reason I connected the Roman relief illustrating these punishments to Sigurður Guðjónsson’s video work Prelude. Perhaps it was Sisyphus who brought the image to mind; some tie existed between his story and the story in the video. My question might then be: Can we view Sigurður Guðjónsson’s video image as a metaphor, allegory, or form of myth that depicts one thing and says another? What distinguishes Prelude from pure mythology?

Romans and Greeks who made images of Sisyphus and his fellow sufferers did not know how to render an “aesthetic judgment” of their torments; images showing the punishment of Sisyphus referred to unerring natural principles that applied equally to everyone irrespective of aesthetic or taste, irrespective of education or social status. Myth is beyond all aesthetic measures. It concerns familiar, basic aspects of each person’s life. Does the title Prelude—precursor, forerunner—perhaps point back toward the time and thought that reigned before aesthetics and “disinterested taste” came on the scene? With the advent of those ideas a certain gap formed between the viewer and the artist’s primary subjective experience of truth. Such a rift occurred in the 18th century, with the emergence of a branch of theory that specialized in the beautiful in and of itself and the emergence of the gallery and art museum as social and institutional settings and mediators of the beautiful; both developments were based on the idea of the artist’s free and subjective creativity on the one hand and on the viewer’s disinterested taste for beauty on the other. Still today, art institutions presuppose for us an aesthetic frame around their holdings, on the basis of that impartial taste and disinterested pleasure that Kant saw as the measure of the beautiful. Mythological truth, by contrast, does not require the aesthetic mediation of a gallery or museum; it is part, and offspring, of nature itself.

The German philosopher Hegel recognized the profound implications of this shift, which he tied to early 19th-century Romantic ideals of freedom, among other things. His analysis of this shift still has remarkable contemporary relevance. He writes:

In our day, in the case of almost all peoples, criticism, the cultivation of reflection, and, in our German case, freedom of thought have mastered the artists too, and have made them, so to say, a tabula rasa in respect of the material and the form of their productions, after the necessary particular stages of the romantic art-form have been traversed. Bondage to a particular subject-matter and a mode of portrayal suitable for this material alone are for artists today something past, and art therefore has become a free instrument which the artist can wield in proportion to his subjective skill in relation to any material of whatever kind. The artist thus stands above specific consecrated forms and configurations and moves freely on his own account, independent of the subject-matter and mode of conception in which the holy and eternal was previously made visible to human apprehension. No content, no form is any longer immediately identical with the inwardness, the nature, the unconscious substantial essence of the artist; every material may be indifferent to him if only it does not contradict the formal law of being simply beautiful and capable of artistic treatment. Today there is no material which stands in and for itself above this relativity, and even if one matter be raised above it, still there is at least no absolute need for its representation by art.[1]

As Giorgio Agamben has pointed out, the shift that Hegel is discussing here is too far-reaching to simply be dismissed as past history:

„Once the creative subjectivity of the artist begins to place itself above his material and his production, like a playwright who freely puts his characters on the scene, this shared concrete space of the work of art dissolves, and what the spectator sees in it is no longer something that he can immediately find again in his consciousness as his highest truth. Everything that the spectator can still find in the work of art is, now, mediated by aesthetic representation [italics added], which is itself, independently of any content, the supreme value and the most intimate truth that unfolds its power in the artwork itself and starting from the artwork itself. The free creative principle of the artist rises up like a precious veil of Maya between the spectator and such truth as he can attain in the work of art, a veil of which he will never be able to take possession concretely, but only through the reflection in the magic mirror of his taste.“[2]

Thus the difference between the Roman image of Sisyphus and the video work Prelude is that while Sisyphus and his fellow sufferers teach us immutable natural laws native to all flesh and bone, in the video work there are no principles to be found that do not enjoy the protection of the opaque veil of aesthetics, which Agamben likens to the clothing in Goya‘s painting Clothed Maya, which forever impedes our getting a sense of Maya´s flesh. Aesthetics has thus turned truth into a matter of taste within “pure Culture,” as Agamben puts it, whereby viewers see their own Selves as Other, their own subjective beings as abstracted beings. No defined content or concrete measure of personal being are discoverable in the work, only the perfect alienation of the self. Viewers have no way to approach the work but through this alienation, says Agamben. The original unity of the work has been fractured, since on the one hand we have aesthetic judgment and on the other hand the artist’s subjective creative principles, without specified content.

Is, then, the truth of the artwork Prelude to be found precisely in this rift? Doesn’t the work indicate this rift? On the one hand we have the staged subjective being of the artist, without defined content, the pure and free principles of the created work. On the other hand we have the viewer who contemplates the work through the veil of taste that the museum has already created for him. Both seek some primary truth, but there is an impenetrable wall between them.

When one considers that the naked man in Sigurður Guðjónsson’s video work is Guðjónsson himself, this aesthetic chasm between artist and viewer nears the point of pathos. The artist’s staged grappling with an indeterminate obstacle does not achieve full meaning until the work is in place in the gallery and the viewer arrives on the scene. Then the nakedness is no longer naked, but rather hidden by Maya´s æsthetical veil; the grappling is a show in the gallery proscenium and as soon as the viewer enters the room he is caught in the magic mirror of taste, which has no set premises, least of all within himself, no common values of “beauty” or of the particular quality an object must possess to earn the status of art. Though one may say that Prelude is well-composed from a formal standpoint, that each part serves the whole, and that the general impression is “strong,” this sheds little light for us, let alone on ourselves. Here aesthetics ring false. If the artwork’s content is not contained in its form, then what does the artwork say? How can we find words for the event that occurs when we enter the room? The ready conclusion is that here we witness the artist grappling at the cage of aesthetics in which the whole art world has locked him.

The artist’s struggle with the work of creation was different in nature in Greek and Roman days. The artist was primarily the tool of natural forces; his truth was their truth. Perhaps this began to change with the Renaissance and humanism.

A. Durer_ Melancolia I

Dürer’s renowned masterpiece Melancholia, from 1514, is interpreted by most as an allegory of the artist’s existential predicament, the predicament concealed in all artistic creation. Dürer relies here on a well-known imaginary allegorical framework, in which reasonably familiar objects and phenomena from the world of alchemy, arcana, and hermetic science frame the existential situation dictated by unshakeable natural principles or, in the worldview of the day, the will of the Christian god, to which humanity was obliged to submit, so that its own creative work would correspond in every way to the original creation of the world in ancient times. The artist was to recreate the world. There is no call here to analyze the many allusions to hermetic science imbedded in Dürer’s picture; it suffices to point out that we need no “aesthetic” to receive those messages. For Dürer scarcely would have understood the meaning of the word, any more than ideas of “common taste” or “disinterested pleasure.” The story of the path to the philosopher’s stone through the martyrdom of matter, through cosmic darkness and up the ladder to the eternal light of truth, is told here in a masterful way via allegorical code. Can Dürer’s Melancholia provide a clue to the hidden message of the naked man in the video Prelude?

If we view Dürer’s Melancholia and Prelude as parallels insofar as each work depicts in its way the existential situation of the artist at creative work, the question arises: what distinguishes the two? In what aspects does Dürer’s presentation differ from that of the video, and what can we glean from that? Most obvious is the technical difference: one image has sound and motion; the other is still and silent. For our purposes, that difference is perhaps not key. What is more important is that while Dürer uses an imagined personification of melancholy as his proxy, in Prelude the author himself is alone and naked in the lead role.

Here it may be instructive to consult the figurative language shaped by Friedrich Nietzsche in his first book on Greek tragedy (Die Geburt der Tragödie) in which he portrays the Apollonian and Dionysian as two opposite and coactive poles of Greek tragedy, a notion which would shape all his subsequent philosophy. According to Nietzsche, the polar opposites of Apollonian and Dionysian wisdom also stood for appearance and being: the fixed image (apparent in sculpture) and the fluid chaos and volatility of pain and pleasure (apparent in music). Nietzsche sees these powers grappling in all the arts, the Apollonian masking the underlying volatile pain. If we compare the two works by Dürer and Guðjónsson in light of the hypothesis that they both portray the existential situation of the creative artist, then in Dürer’s work Dionysian chaos is hidden under many layers of Apollonian masks, all the symbols of hermetic science, the feminine persona of Melancholy, Hermes disguised as angel child, the curled dog, the bat, the millstone, the black sun, and Athanorum itself, the tower that conceals the alchemical forge with its simmering flames. These facets (and others that fill out the visual narration) all play the role of the mask that tragedy employs to hide the pain and chaos simmering below, which are, according to Nietzsche, the essential content of melancholy and of Dionysian tragedy. Sigurður Guðjónsson makes a conscious attempt in this work to throw off all Apollonian masks, to approach the Dionysian core—but can’t get all the way: he is locked in the cage of aesthetics that bars him from both the viewer and himself, in a work that we may understand as an attempt on Apollonian aesthetics as such. Or, as Nietzsche puts it in The Birth of Tragedy:

„The Apollonian illusion reveals its identity as the veil thrown over the Dionysiac meanings for the duration of the play, and yet the illusion is so potent that at its close the Apollonian drama is projected into a sphere where it begins to speak with Dionysiac wisdom, thereby denying itself and its Apollonian concreteness. The difficult relations between the two elements in tragedy may be symbolized by a fraternal union between the two deities; Dionysos speaks the language of Apollo, but Apollo, finally, the language of Dionysus; thereby the highest goal of tragedy and of art in general is reached“.[3]

Ólafur Gíslason

English translation: Sarah Brownsberger

[1] G. W. F. Hegel, Aesthetics, transl. T. M. Knox, Oxford (Clarendon Press), 1998, vol. 1, “The Romantic Form of Art,” p. 605.

[2] Giorgio Agamben, The Man Without Content (1994), transl. by Georgia Albert, Stanford, California (Stanford University Press), 1999, pp. 36-37.

[3] Friedrich Nietzsche, The Birth of Tragedy (1872), ch. XXI, transl. by Francis Golffing, New York (Doubleday), 1956, p. 131.

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