'Ovid's Medusa'

‘Ovid’s Medusa’

OVID’S MEDUSA

An exhibition by Camille Serisier.
Saturday 7th December, 2013.

 

The Sun’s Ex-Girlfriend

By Madeleine Stack

‘For a long time, I’ve been a fan of the Romantics.’ So begins Camille Serisier’s verbal artist’s statement, performed not by the artist herself but by a handsome young fella a little worse for wear after a big night out. In an uncensored take, young Scott Morrison (not the Minister for Immigration and Border Protection) sucks from the teat of a takeaway coffee cup, sighs. When describing the prevalent feminine imagery (read: massive tits) in Serisier’s work, a muttered aside; sotto voce: ‘well, they’re the first things you look at, aren’t they.’

For those who need a refresher: stage left, Medusa. She was so beautiful she incited lust in Neptune, the god of the sea. He raped her in Minerva’s temple. Minerva was pissed, and did what any pious woman would do when confronted with such indecorous behaviour on her own doorstep: made Medusa so hideous and terrifying no man would ever look at her again. A fate worse than death? Serisier’s retelling of the ancient story plots a new path for Medusa, allowing her to take her coiling, hissing locks where they’ll be appreciated and sailing off into the sunset. Hers is an alternative narrative, where the Australian relationship with nature as a thing to be conquered is equated with histories of female oppression and contemporary political events.

Serisier’s work combines tongue-in-cheek wit bubbling from beneath with a more sinister story, the scenes remixing imagery from the distant past, the possible future; it is hard to tell the difference. We live in a time where we view the things around us as being explainable and predictable while at the same time feeling poised on the brink of an era where everything we believe could be proved a lie. In a world where the ‘official’ version of events equates to the male version (history is written by the victors, after all), Serisier sidesteps distinctions between process, documentation, and the final work, allowing images to change and mutate as drawings, tableaux vivants, photographs and performance. These mutations in form reference the lack of a consistent record of female history and activity, and the instability of science and history.

Owing in part to a fear of his intentions being misunderstood, the other Scott Morrison was uncomfortable with Serisier’s final footage of his monologue – as were a number of the performers in her work who have objected to publication of what seems more like process documentation, to images or footage of themselves off guard. It is this sense of the mechanics of a theatre and the way that stories we are told are packaged to us, or being backstage before the set’s been struck and the actors have gone home that Serisier’s work conveys – a sort of serious clowning, heavy subject matter tempered by wit. A sign reads: ‘Should we head to Christmas Island? I hear it’s a great tourist destination!’ With props audience members and performers can subvert and intervene in the narrative, turning it as they see fit, acting as masters of the universe.

Though performers, sets and costumes have been used often in her work, this iteration of Ovid’s Medusa is the first time that Serisier has opened the floor to the audience, offering a fragile proposition with the intention of blurring the line between performers and viewers, those complicit and not. The possibility here is for new understandings of control, whether taken or relinquished, and our own ability to undermine traditional beliefs.

Françoise D’Eaubonne is generally cited as coining the term eco-feminism in her book Le Féminisme ou la Mort [1]. Feminism or Death. Nearly forty years later, and it still feels a bit like that. Serisier’s Medusa has no such qualms. In the second image of the series, Neptune holds Medusa up by the hair, lording over a fallen woman. But look at Neptune’s saggy belly, a lame gold cross on a bare grey chest! The god of the sea is nothing but a pathetic old man. In an interview with Camille, she said: ‘I want to create uncertainty in people. Lure them in with a joke and then make fun of their assumptions.’

These jokes use a combination of the alien and the familiar, a ‘clowning at the brim of hell’ [2] that includes a dig at Scott Morrison (the politician), one of whose namesake ships appears to be sinking without sight of rescue. With a nod to Playschool and the nativity, the grand narratives in paper and costume offer ambiguity, childish simplicity and the creation of a ‘true’ artifice.

The stage is a set but rogue characters keep moving in and out of frame, switching their costumes or taking them off entirely. A backdrop mimics the bruised sky before a storm, the luminous light. The grimmest of truths sweetened by a vaudeville act; sorbet-coloured landscapes, a young woman clad in a pair of enormous pale breasts. This ambiguous wilderness is both inviting and terrifyingly unfamiliar. There is a reason, or rather a number of reasons, why escape by sea is so prevalent an image in Ovid’s Medusa.

My inbox pings with an email from Camille:

‘I made the first drawing for the Ovid’s Medusa series on the night of the election. After the results were confirmed.’

‘I just thought this might be of interest.’

What Serisier’s work provides is the possibility of viewing one thing through the prism of another; Medusa’s arduous journey across the sea to new life mimicked on the front pages, young women in 21st century Australia still made hideous for their ‘tempting’ ways. This is paired with a softly impending terror – both ecological terror and the terror of the unknown coming from across the sea. A quiet, desperate trickle of humans built up by the media into a plague of biblical proportions.

Medusa is used as a vessel for a larger story, winding from Greek mythology through the Romantics, Géricault’s Raft to the present day when there is still only one woman on that boat. There is perhaps no better allegory for the current political debate over asylum seekers than Serisier’s, where a young woman escaping from repression is met with hostility not hospitality. The images also seem to align perfectly with an Australian folklore of strange creatures, endless vistas, and politicians disappearing into the wild ocean without a trace. Where else would Medusa have escaped to? Nowhere but the diffuse, golden light near to the equator; a land holding both startling beauty and startling cruelty. A place of impassable expanses, where the past can be left behind.

In the series Masters of the Universe, human hands reach through the heavens to control space, time and weather. For Ovid’s Medusa, Serisier invites the audience to take the reins, picking up costumes and props to become performers of her narrative. An environment which seems to expand and contract, evolving as the night wears on and costumes change hands, and performers swing in and out of character stepping out from behind the screen and into the party.

In the stop motion film Ovid’s Medusa #34, the artist is at work. Serisier hesitates – answers the phone – wanders off stage. Hits upon a solution: stacked crates. Art is hard. She holds up the sky. The sky falls, the sky curls. The artist eats an apple and deliberates. A sea is unfurled underfoot. We are not sure what should be done. The sky lightens and darkens, she rows back and forth through the waves. The stage is set.

The sea is visible, the scene in position – lilac, violet, lemon, gentle foaming tides. Santa Claus jerks off, grinning as Medusa sails blithely by. I’m reminded of Clarice Lispector’s sad-but-joyful heroine Macabéa: ‘Meanwhile the clouds are white and the sky is all blue. Why so much God. Why not a little for men.’[3] Or for women, even? One walks onto the set and at once the brush-stroke metamorphoses into the thing itself: sea, paper, water, paint. And the same for the characters – a boy swigging from a tinnie is at the same time, the moon – and how could he not be. Medusa’s tail snakes through the waves, though she is constantly watched by a series of tilting stars and the censuring, ever-present moon – the face of male oppression.

Ovid’s Medusa reframes a period when the end of the earth was a lip off of which one could fall, where nobody could have conceived of a place like Australia in their wildest dreams. Now, we see science as fact and presume to predict natural phenomena, forgetting that for a long time early colonists thought certain native animals so strange they must have sprung directly from myth. The tyranny of distance – between times and belief systems, between humans and the natural environment – are linked to a culture that didn’t feel the same sense of authority over nature as we do.

In Ovid’s Metamorphoses appears a great and bewildering array of characters, none more intriguing than that of the Sun’s ex-girlfiend – correction: ex-girlfriend. This is the ex as a stereotypical figure, she of the big tits and red bikini; ‘my CRAZY ex’. Challenging the dominant archetypes of womanhood, Medusa’s paper dildo is symbolic of her adaptation to a new environment, taking on traditionally male attributes in order to become self-sufficient. The first Google result for ‘ex-boyfriend is: ‘Your relationship with a special guy has come and gone, but now you want him back.’ The first for ‘ex-girlfriend’ reads: ‘Get Revenge: Naked Pics of Your Ex!’. One website boasts the full names and locations of almost thirty thousand women. The complaints range from the repulsive to the ludicrous: ‘She Could NOT Lie Straight In Bed!!’ Oh, the crimes of womankind.

In the Greek pantheon, as in Serisier’s performative tableaux vivants, everything is moveable and nothing is what it seems. Women are turned into flowers, men to mountains, planets and trees engage in petty squabbles. As above, so below. The moon is a cheeky boy, bare-chested and tattooed. These ancient mythologies make sense reframed in a land girt by sea and busting with the strange and the bizarre. Moving around the set, one actor takes their part until they can abandon their role to another, symbolically referring to the many ways that men and women are encouraged to fill archetypal roles of femininity and masculinity, or of victim and aggressor.

Serisier rebuilds using her own references and those drawn from Catholicism, myth and legend, personal histories and universal narratives. Though these stories are widely accepted, they are highly contradictory, and by drawing together these unrelated threads she creates a new story dissembling preexisting associations. These works are informed by theories of comparative religion, eco-feminism and storytelling, as well as often being self-referential, with characters looping back and repeating through series.

Caught in the fishing net of time and space, historical bias turns into what we know as History and Geography. Ancient stories are shown to be all too contemporary, geographies are conflated, dream and reality combine. In a review of The Oxford History of Australia, Alan Atkinson writes: ‘It’s not just about space (land, water or whatever), and it’s not just about people, but about the way the two interact.’[4]

  1. 1974
  2. Bolaño, Roberto 2002. Antwerp. London: Picador.
  3. Lispector, Clarice 1992. The Hour of the Star. New York: New Directions.
  4. The Australian Review, November 23, 2013

Photography by Lachlan Gardiner

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