Heather B Swann reframes ancient rape story in TarraWarra Art Museum exhibit

Heather B. Swann’s West Hobart studio is the kind of space artists dream of, big enough to accommodate big ideas. Former mechanical institute, built in 1891, its ceilings are 5.5 meters high. Swann bought the place 26 years ago when properties in Hobart wanted a song. The studio, which is connected to her house in the renovated dining room, is one of the reasons she returned to live on the island where she was born almost 60 years ago.

“In Melbourne, there would be 12 artists in a space like this, and they would pay $ 100 a week each,” she says.

Heather B Swann in her studio, with one of her Ledas. “They are not afraid and they are not shy,” she said.Credit:Matthew Newton

Swann has the studio to herself and the huge sculptures she is making for her next exhibition at the TarraWarra Museum of Art. The Tasmanian spring has been consistently wet and cold, and the day we meet in late October, the darkness intensifies the strength of its mysterious creatures.

In one corner, a huge black swan with a long, wiry neck reaches nearly three meters tall. The bird creeps menacingly past a sculpture of a naked girl who stands erect and is almost as tall. The girl’s arm is studded with eyes, amulets protecting her from the hovering swan. At another end of the room, a large swan with a red leather beak and an alluring ruffled silk back watches another naked girl with her back to a rock. This girl has the face of Janus: she has eyes behind her head that guard against evil.

Two years ago, when TarraWarra curator Anthony Fitzpatrick called Swann and asked if she would be interested in doing an exhibit that answered the Greek myth of Leda and the swan, she immediately said yes.

Fitzpatrick wanted to show Swann’s work alongside that of Sidney Nolan, in a major exhibition of Nolan’s works from 1955 to 1966. Swann had been part of a group exhibition at TarraWarra in 2014 called Solitary, and his sculptures had made an impression, especially one that evoked Nolan’s haunting painting of 1954 Ms. Fraser.

Nolan was an avid explorer of myths, both of the classic type and of that which a nation tells of itself. He is best known for his paintings of Ned Kelly, but he has also produced a powerful series on Leda and the Swan. Nolan wasn’t the only one fascinated by the myth. Leda and the Swan has been the subject of artists, poets and writers through the ages, famously represented by Renaissance greats such as Leonardo da Vinci, Michelangelo, Correggio and Tintoretto.

Heather B Swann, The Stumbling Girl, 2019.

Heather B Swann, The Stumbling Girl, 2019.Credit:Courtesy of the artist and STATION, Melbourne and Sydney

The myth has several accounts, but it is essentially the story of the Greek god Zeus who, disguised as a swan, seduces Leda, the wife of the King of Sparta, and impregnates her, resulting in the birth of Helena, who grows up to be the most beautiful woman in Greece and unwittingly starts the Trojan War.

The representations of the myth by the artists were directed towards the sexually charged persons; in da Vinci’s portrait, Leda smiles shyly, stroking the swan’s neck, the bird pressed against its curved, bare flank. Michelangelo’s interpretation is very erotic, with a sculptural Leda, again naked, swooning as a swan slips between her legs, a composition that Rubens borrowed for his version of the myth. In these portraits, Leda is complicit or hesitant, she submits to the swan, invaded by desire rather than aggression. Feminist critics have argued that by embellishing the myth, male artists have excused that the story was basically about rape.

Nolan, for his part, does not embellish the myth. His paintings are ambiguous and disturbing; in some, Leda is bloody, the swan vicious. There is little eroticism about them and in his catalog essay Fitzpatrick draws a continuum between the series and Nolan’s Gallipoli paintings.

Heather B Swann, Nemesis, 2021. Courtesy of the artist and STATION, Melbourne and Sydney.

Heather B Swann, Nemesis, 2021. Courtesy of the artist and STATION, Melbourne and Sydney.Credit:Peter Whyte

But for a contemporary artist, the challenge remains: what does the myth have to say in our time? Swann approached the challenge in his typically meticulous way, drawing, reading and thinking. She returned to her favorite scholars, foremost among them Robert Calasso and his book Cadmus’ marriage and harmony (1988), who reinterprets Greek myths, telling the stories over and over again, revealing their many potential meanings.

Also influential was that of Mary Beard Women and power: a manifesto (2017), in which the famous English historian explores how hostility to women’s voices in the public sphere has its roots in the classical world. Drawing on these and other literary and historical references, Swann formulated his response.

“I suddenly realized this was just a myth… and I don’t need to change it. I have to face the myth as it is, but I can look at it in a different way, so instead of doing the sculpture of the supposedly seductive moment or the violent moment, I can make a sculpture of another part of the world. myth that is intangible, who knows when it is, before or after. I don’t have to focus on the same thing that most men have focused on… and by doing that I can honor the girls. “

Swann’s three standing Leda figures are posed and kept. Like animals that freeze to escape predators, their still position is a form of defense. It is also a reference to the art of ancient Greece.

A threatening swan approaches Leda in Swann's studio in Hobart.

A threatening swan approaches Leda in Swann’s studio in Hobart.Credit:Matthew Newton

On a research trip to Athens in October 2019, Swann spent days viewing sculptures at the National Archaeological Museum. She is deeply inspired by Greek sculpture from the archaic period, which mainly features “kouroi”, large-scale standing figures of naked young men, and “korai”, female figures less tall than their male counterparts. still dressed. Swann borrowed the korai pillar posture for his Ledas, but intentionally presented them naked.

“They are not afraid and they are not shy,” says Swann. “In the archaic figures, all the men are naked and all the women are dressed, so I wanted to reverse that.”

Originally trained as an engraver, Swann has, for almost 30 years as an artist, worked in a variety of media and enjoys experimenting with new materials and shapes. She sews, sculpts, sculpts, molds, draws, paints and builds. Performing arts are also often part of his work. Swann Ledas are made from laminated and shaped plywood. More intricate elements, like a belly button or the intimate folds of the skin, are created with plasticine or papier-mâché. The sculptures are then covered with layers of binder infused with marble dust, until they take on the marble shine. Finally, they are varnished.

Swann is also a creator of worlds: her drawings and sculptures are placed in such a way as to create an immersive experience. At TarraWarra, she planned a “nature scene”, with sculptures and drawings evoking a threatening landscape, featuring a rock, a waterfall and an infestation of prickly pears. On a table in her studio, she begins to unfold a huge ink drawing of 12 panels, more than four meters wide and nearly five meters high, which she made for one of the walls of the gallery. It’s a monstrously large image of a prickly pear that echoes a prowling man.

Heather B. Swann, Nail, 2021. Courtesy of the artist and STATION, Melbourne and Sydney.

Heather B. Swann, Nail, 2021. Courtesy of the artist and STATION, Melbourne and Sydney.Credit:Peter Whyte

While Swann was in Athens, the idea for another small sculpture was born by chance. One night, removing the combs from her long silver hair, she put two combs together and the convex shape they formed reminded her of the mythical dentata vagina.

“And I thought, I’m going to make a glass one,” Swann said.

In the finished piece, two glass combs tied together hang from a steel hook. A white wooden hand that sparkles with a circle of brass beads hangs from the end of another hook. On closer inspection, the pearls are the heads of nails driven into the hand. Title Tooth and nail, the sculpture refers to the expression “to fight tooth and nail”.

Swann holds his small sculpture Dents et Ongles.

Swann holds his small sculpture Dents et Ongles.

“Teeth and nails are what have always been my guiding principle,” says Swann. “If I’m hurt I’ll hurt, it’s a generational thing, a big picture, a little picture, a relational thing.”


The idea makes sense at a time when a new generation of women is saying enough. Enough to silence themselves, enough for the politicians who blame the silly little girl who got drunk, enough to not be able to walk freely without fear of being raped or killed.

“We have to change the story and not accept this rape story as something natural or erotic,” says Swann. “I can’t change the myth of Leda and the Swan, it’s not going to go away. But we can change the way we look at it.

Heather B Swann: Leda and the Swan, and Sidney Nolan: Myth Rider, TarraWarra Museum of Art, December 4 to March 6.

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Margarita B. Bittner