Kalli Rolfe Contemporary Art

Of Mythic Proportion : A Commentary On Presence And Time

These are epic works, figurative or abstract, in the richest forms of evocation they illustrate for us the weaving of myth and time, the weavings of myth in the creation of time. Against immense backgrounds in a panoramic density of colour, figures are cast in a scale of epic proportion. There for us to see in moments of transaction, of exchange, moments of flight or excitement; those moments retrospectively cast as symbolic enough to change our place in the world. We are invited to witness the integration of action and being in that mythical moment of the event by which history is written. Like Davila’s After Image series (2010), this exhibition continues to articulate the interface between myth and the bare presence of life. Each narrative work a snapshot of a moment to be found in a number of myths, personal or collective, from Nordic myths such as those depicted in Wagner’s Die Walküre to the story of Carmen Gallardo, an indigenous Mapuche Indian woman with whom Davila grew up. We find these moments in a cinematic realism of mythical time. Indeed, he says, discovering the conjunctions of these two forms, “the revelation of the parallel between early myths in the European tradition and the Mapuche people, opened a space for me.”(1) It is that space which this exhibition both constructs and conveys.

Scene one is a fatal conversation where things are to be decided but we don’t know what they are: he is offering what is not his to give and she is seeing in him what is not there; a classic account of love. There too is a commercial aspect; she is being, in some way, sold. Amidst rich earth tones of the ground an indigenous woman squats in conference with a man wearing a white shirt and a top hat, hence someone in league with or working for the colonising nations. The sexuality of this event is evident: his genitals are exposed while her hands are covering her breasts.

Scene two: The woman is no longer an object of exchange but a more active agent. This is the moment in Wagnerian myth where the woman meets a stranger who comes to the door and the flash of excitement between them eclipses her husband who witnesses his own exclusion and loss. It transpires that the stranger is the woman’s brother, separated in infancy, and having drugged the husband they engage in a passionate night of love. When the husband comes to, he kills the brother and she flees into the forest; fleeing from something, she is complete despite the loss of her love. In the oceanic depth of the night she is not alone, carrying the company of her child. No longer part of everyday life, having knowingly embraced and bedded her brother. The birth of the hero from an incestuous union is a common thread in mythology. Nietzsche comments on this ancient theme that such an offence against nature must have occurred “whenever prophetic and magical energies break the spell of present and future, the rigid law of individuation, and indeed the actual magic of nature.”(2)

Scene three: the woman is in flight and carrying a child. Her nudity is very particular, similar to the nudity depicted in ancient Greece: natural and without charge in the sense that she is not nude for any particular purpose, as an object of the gaze. Radiant green underlay, oceanic blue: The background becomes immense, as is the emotion of her gesture and presence. From the radiant heat of her feet, action is foregrounded. Her bigger legs and smaller arms, seen from a distance, are in proportion and deliver the movement and momentum of the body in flight. The child she is carrying in utero is peaceful, still, her movement allowed by the frame. The presence of the baby carried between the clarity of her intent and the heat of the passage of action. Yes, the child is dreaming – of the future, for he has as yet no past, only words. He is blonde, the child of a colonising force, the meeting of two tribes. Two oval shapes (that repeat throughout this installation) flank the figure of the woman with child. The object becomes here an emblem, absolutely economical, like a medallion in architecture or the emblems in Greek pottery around 600 BC where the flower was a symbol of nature.

The style and movement of this figure is based on Greek and Roman fresco painting, known from Roman copies of the Greek. Such frescoes were viewed in semi-lit, semi-sacred spaces that allowed one to believe in the illusion (just as the installation of Monet’s work in the Musee d’Orsay leads one into the play of clouds and time across the surface of the water), a circumstance here recreated to some degree in Ormond Hall. Seeing the image of a work in photographic reproduction, the experience of its presence is technologically reduced. Works of antiquity are diminished in photographic reproduction because the aura, scale and nuance of colour have disappeared. These elements animate our reception of a work, for in receiving an impression, we suspend an intellectual response to receive the image as iconic. The depiction here of a woman in extreme moments, such as the dissolution of the modern state, was a tradition of Greek and Roman tragedy. The aesthetic rendering of such subjects today is rare, maligned in the age of the digital, where artwork mediated by technology cannot often reach this level of particularity and passion. The materials by definition cannot be manipulated to the degree of nuance and texture and the capacity for emotion is compromised. After the modern and postmodern, the digital age is, according to Davila, aligned with the plastic. Plastic unifies the contemporary aesthetic pervading our hyper-modern material worlds, while cancelling ‘any possible real’. To hear a resonance you have to believe; to believe in language and its capacity to evoke this nameless thread. The thread of language, of myth conveys this something with which experience may be lived and ordered and one wonders what happens in aestheticized worlds where myths cannot operate. It is a plastic space perhaps of emotion misled to rage.

Myth is the animating thread of folk practice; the necessary means of recognising a statement. Just as an inscription or inception requires the presence of a viewer in the room, we don’t talk to those who don’t believe in us. The stories Carmen Gallardo told Davila as a child were nurturing threads, myths from his childhood. She said to him, ‘I’ll talk to you but you have to believe’. More recently, she asked him to tell the story of the crossing, the mingling of two families, two cultures. These works are a story of survival, of reception, of the miraculous turns in life. What the woman is fleeing from is a matter of conjecture. She is a phallic woman, we might say, depicted with this absolute power to carry and create.

Scene four: In the detail of this painting the movement of the boy’s body and the moment of rapture captured on his face is extraordinary; it is that around which myths are written. Davila is able to paint sacred beauty within frames of social commentary, capturing at once the mythical and its role in structuring enjoyment. In this same painting we find an older phallic figure, caricatured to be wearing a Dionysian mask. The figure of the crafty outsider rendered in the style of Verdejo, a Chilean caricature from the 1930’s representing the wild peasant coming to work in the city of Santiago. This caricature, the political representation of one artist, captures a figure that appears in other places too; Greek representations of the non-Greek outsider in studies of the grotesque and deformed, or the Wagnerian depiction of the caretaker of the hero as from a lower caste or class, or the underlings working for the gods. Here the adolescent who has known neither parent, raised in the wild by this Wagnerian character Mime, is dancing by the fire. Scanning the epic movement, seeing the latter’s humungous penis is a visual joke, a comic moment of laughter like the flying phallus in Greco-Roman symbols of good luck. At the same time there is perhaps a menacing interest in his disturbing smirk.

We are liable to forget that for the Greeks the Delpic oracle’s injunction to ‘Know yourself ’ wasn’t a directive to introspection but to recognition of the proportion and priority accorded to the real as other in the form of the gods.(3) The epic theatre as a political spectacle of the polis was framed in reverence to the determining force of the gods, in recognition of how the jouissance of these others might wreck havoc in the lives of ordinary mortals like us. The figure of Dionysus, who embodies that havoc, was ever present as the figure to whom the spectacle of the theatre was dedicated. As Jean-Pierre Vernant points out, religion for the Greeks in fifth century Athens was integral to social and political life, any collective event whether public or private included aspects of a religious festival. The legendary hero of the epic is transferred to the theatrical stage where he (less often she) becomes a subject of debate, brought into dialogue with the chorus. When the hero is questioned by the chorus, the individual in the audience begins to likewise question himself: “it is the individual Greek in the audience who discovers himself to be a problem, in and through the presentation of the tragic drama”. Taken in by the theatrical illusion and touched by its presence yet nonetheless aware that this ‘presence’ marked rather an absence in everyday life, the spectator is also conscious that these figures were illusory simulations. “Tragedy thus opened up a new space in Greek culture, the space of the imaginary, experienced and understood as such, that is to say as a human production stemming from pure artifice”.(4)

Myth, like a primal scene constituted retrospectively to the elements it includes, revolves around fantasy, unconscious and proximate to the juncture of symbolic and imaginary in the formation of the real, and what is that ultimately if not death—that which we cannot for ourselves imagine. Lacoue-Labarthe notes that “it is within the Dionysian that presence is in fact precluded” for death “tirelessly and irreversibly carries off presence, dooming us to repetition”.(5) Death is the unpresentable, as Freud noted, the thing we cannot present to ourselves. It “is precisely what cannot be internalized, and maybe this is what defines the tragic (what Bataille called dramatization): the ‘consciousness’ or even (it comes down to the same thing) the admission that there is nothing to do with death but dramatize it”.(6) Davila gives us the folding of the moment of the apprehension of destruction back into the field of beauty, there where the incandescence of the instant draws us into wonder. Perhaps the point of the conjunction, the link between narrative image and after image, is to depict this movement of yielding to force as sensation, passing from the finite to restore the infinite, to exist in or alongside the otherness of continuing sensation. Perhaps these works of mythic proportion have that function: to clothe the base brutality of life’s most harsh encounters in a way that allows for something else to become transmissible.


Alongside these four narrative works are two abstract After Image works that speak to those moments of creation where time stands still as its dimensions are taken and inscribed forever in another place. Then installed on the stage, a work of collaboration that in itself acts as a commentary on the symbolic in its interface with these other aspects of the imaginary and the real, that which is unrepresentable.

In a documentary by Pauline Senn (2011) Davila described how many of the teachers at the Catholic boys’ school he attended as a child in Santiago were German, having arrived in Chile after suffering trauma in the war. That trauma was visited on their students, passed on in instances of molestation he was aware of. (Some of these immigrants acted as advisors, conspiring with Pinochet and the CIA to organize the overthrow of Allende and the torture of the population, and one aspect of the real Davila addressed particularly in his early works, was the political dead and disappeared, the real of torture during the Pinochet regime). The scene then moves to one of Santiago’s oldest churches and a painting, The Beheading of St. John by a Peruvian indigenous artist, Zapata Inga, from 1620. Davila reads the subversive force of the painting as it depicts a local Peruvian truth in the style of then contemporary Flemish painting: The skin tones and figure of John the Baptist represented with hands tied and in shackles signal the torture of indigenous Indians by the Spanish invaders along with the complicity of bourgeois culture depicted by the two well dressed people chatting in indifference to the murder before them and the ambiguous position of the priest outside the window. In viewing this painting we are caught by the moment of the upturned eyes of the figure beheaded. Davila discussed the impact this painting had on him as it brought into a visual frame through coded reference, the realities about him; the sadism of the teachers, the task of living between two cultures, Indian and Spanish, depicted through the intense rendition of experience in a manner that fascinated and frightened him as a child. The painting served as a model while transmitting paradoxically the Catholic message that you have to empathize with the suffering of the saint. Referring to torture and the world of religious painting, the Other is marked as a threatening predator on the one hand and as a conduit to scenes of extraordinary wonder on the other. The narrative works in this series take up those themes in resonance with the colour and forms of the Peruvian work.

The two abstract After Image works capture something of a subjective moment, a study in the nuance of being and relationship, the manner in which consciousness dwells in the body. Consider for example, Untitled, 2011: vibrant movement of forms in flux with colour; an impression of how matter organizes itself into shapes, textures, forms. Here in the fluid intensity of movement is captured the pulse of the real. Perhaps by definition this trace left of movement gives us a sense of the moment and hence always carries some moment of intensity in seeing and registering a sense of touch. As we see a purple line floating in space, above a terrain traced in colours of the natural world, we embark into this space of momentum provided between colour and light. Ungraspable in itself, we merely know we have been grazed by a presence, traces of which are left here and recalled in the animation of viewing. The vibration emerging in this vision is a transmission, the dance of levity and grace falling towards the somber earth heralds this interior subjective moment, between representation and affect, a sensation we navigate between being and the fall found in subjective division. To be human is to navigate that space continually, perhaps largely unaware of our reception except in moments like these where we are led to dwell in them, to dwell on them, to think about how and what it is that we experience. Trauma tends to foreclose an aspect of our relation to time as the frames organising experience are overwhelmed in a negative way. As if to counter that affect these abstract After Image works capture the movement in the apprehension of sense and appearance. They are impressions that also set out to counter contemporary standards of beauty in nature as ‘largely set by photography’.(7) The texture of the moment, impossible to capture in realism, is conveyed by animation and marks left as traces of this movement indicating experience as inappropriable and sacred. Susan Sontag has noted that, “responses to beauty in art and to beauty in nature are interdependent… What is beautiful reminds us of nature as such – of what lies beyond the human and the made – and thereby stimulates and deepens our sense of the sheer spread and fullness of reality, inanimate as well as pulsing, that surrounds us all.” Hence “beauty regains its solidarity, its inevitability, as a judgment needed to make sense of a large portion of one’s energies, affinities, and admirations; and the usurping notions appear ludicrous.” (8) We see here that ‘landscape’ in Davila’s usage refers to many things, but certainly not a reference to the nationalist idea of a true Australian landscape. Neither can the images of beauty, more apparent within his work of recent years, as renditions of jouissance be seen simply as a turn to the sacred as people might be tempted to assume. It is rather the complexity of the interaction between symbolic, imaginary and real that Davila sets out to investigate and this investigation – as an approach to the real through social and political commentary on the symbolic and imaginary formations of daily contemporary life – is marked throughout his work. There are recurrent threads throughout that work and the tenor and forms of address carried within it change as does the way in which they are woven. We can read the recent elaboration of beauty within it as a response to a shifting relation to the real. What that means is that the position of the Other is altered as his work navigates subjective and political history in an incessant meditation on experience. A radical shift in the depiction of women, from earlier figures of the phallic woman (where the real is contextualized in reference to the terror of the Pinochet regime and then the vexations of modernity) to more recent portraits of women in the singularity of their own repose is indicative, a barometer of this shifting incarnation of the Other.

Love on the side of being (rather than the object linked to desire) is often represented as “hostile or foreign to the city and to religion …reputed to be rebellious, fugitive, errant, unassignable, and inassimilable”, insofar as it both “challenges that which it must replace” and conceals this fundamental ambivalence. It is at once “the promise of completion – but a promise always disappearing – and the threat of decomposition, always imminent. An entire modern eroticism and an entire modern spirituality, those of romantic love, of savage love, of transgressive love, are determined according to this dialectic.”(9) In this dialectic love encounters the impossible pain we have for life, another description of the real. Davila surveys this alongside the tragic condition wherein knowledge, and with it desire, is dislocated from the site of its enunciation, in order to comment upon it.

Lacan’s later work moved to a consideration of the alliance between the signifier and jouissance, an alliance to which he gave name, returning to an ancient spelling of symptom: le sinthome. The very individual particularity, the mark of a signifier by which the subject is born eclipsed, and the irreducible jouissance, that subtle form escaping the signifier while animating its routines together render us both particular and equal. What would such an alliance entail? The navigation of a different relation to the Other, whether a fault line in the Other is created to allow in some light or the subject ceases to identify with the lack in the Other, some space to manoeuvre is created. Previous constructions or fantasies built around the enigma of the mother’s jouissance start to fade as landscapes from another era, reference points that are no longer utterly engaging. The provenance of weaving, from symptom to sinthome, implies a belief in the structure as real, and its use in the name of particularity, subjectivity as a method of freedom that has not been statistically conscripted and constrained, economically accounted for. With the sinthome, emphasis falls on a real element of the symptom that remains beyond the symbolic.

From temporal experience to the knowledge formalized as conscious, what is the unconscious but the memory of things forgotten? “A place that has been occupied is drawn, and it imprints in the subject the landmarks of his history. The history is not the history of his life but the history of the signifier, which acquires for the subject the value of direction.”(10) Analysis then is the experience of a search, words and signifiers being found to navigate and circumscribe “what was ‘already known’ and ‘already there.’”(11) Cormac Gallagher puts this rather succinctly in saying that life “is not a journey, there is no past and present, we have to deal with the sins of our fathers as if they were our own”. The tragic subject dramatizes the question of possession, the recognition of that which they know. Lacan comments on the untameable truths we bear witness to in analysis, noting that “it is not desire that presides over knowledge, it is horror.” While taken up in the university, his discourse as Gallagher notes was intended not to remedy the ignorance of his audience by conveying knowledge; it aimed rather at what they already knew, at the unconscious knowledge that was always there. Emphasizing that speech is an event that is not a matter of philosophy or a moment of knowing, Lacan comments, “What you do, knows, knows what you are, knows you.” The idea of the unconscious thus implies that even in attenuating circumstances, there is no pardon. “What you do is knowledge, completely determined. Which is why, which is why the fact that it is determined by an articulation supported by the preceding generation in no way excuses you, since this only makes the saying, the saying of this knowledge, more hardened knowledge, as I might say. At the limit, a knowledge that was already there.”(12) Davila has always worked to contextualize this knowledge as the ordering limit of experience. Moving from fascination with dreams and other formations of the unconscious to address the points impossible to speak marks a shift from the unconscious as transferential to one that is real. To read something impossible to say, the unconscious as a text that is not necessarily written – might we not see this as an endeavour marked throughout Davila’s work Lacan refers to the letter as littoral, “the edge of the hole in knowledge”, and the symptom as something that does not cease writing itself in the real, “a movement which is only captured in being detached from whatever it is that you strike out”.(13) The sinthome then, this distillation of signifier and jouissance into a ‘letter’, an inscription of form, is a compact mythical moment wherein the real is traced alongside the aesthetic inscription that allows it to be. We see the mythical addressed to emerge in these works.


Like a jewel that opens a portal, as a child would say; Juan Davila and Constanze Zikos worked together to produce this painting that depicts a moment where signifiers are linked in a knotting effect that allows us to see the effect of the symbolic. What would that mean, if not to say that we can see elaborated here the stitching of links, of representations across the field that thereby appears as a portal to the real. A portal in the sense that the real is where death awakes, it depicts the frame of the symbolic in a moment of condensation, a demonstration. As if painting the moment after Freud’s realization on the Acropolis, that the Other does not exist, the centre is empty. This is a painting that captures that moment which stayed with Freud for decades. Writing of it was his gift to an esteemed Other, a gift to a fellow mortal, to address someone he once described as a man who knew how to give, for there is a moment perhaps when one becomes mortal, and prior to that point we are as yet really unaware.

The Parthenon was a temple of the goddess that Freud did not encounter or mention in the account of his experience of disassociation on the Acropolis. In an uncanny repetition of the imagined colouring of an earlier temple at Syracuse,(14) we see turquoise, reds and pink animating the labyrinthine pattern of the border here. On Athena’s shield, the medusa’s head was to function against the evil eye, throwing off a glance to repel intruders. The figure of the oval is repeated here within orbs and circles, seeming like amulets against an evil eye, one on each side of the central rectangle, with bronze metallic circles at each corner. Uncanny indeed is the manner in which we are drawn into a central space that lies like a silver emanation beyond the woven net of the warp and weft of the central frame. We could be looking into a fish tank or water or a space beyond, a rectangle framing in orange and green this screen like effect of Gordian knots itself hovers as if suspended and held by the eight symmetrical shapes, the ovals and circles spinning in their orbits holding this frame in place. The backlit silver space of the real is in contrast with the purple haze of the middle ground, textured with brushwork and green, we are drawn into the reflective ‘depths’ of each object as they rotate in suspended shimmer. Between the orange frame of the central space that we look into and the labyrinthine key pattern textured by turquoise and blue, red and rose gradients of colour animating the field of a motif embossed on wood laminate, the colour of movement carrying the detail of our eye to register and recognize something familiar and yet new. These metallic ovals, like a magnetic global opening, are an uncanny mix of geometric form in repetition, marks of formalization providing perspective, a manner of being, of seeing, a paradigm of interior space.

The construction floating like a holographic form has clear elements that cannot be fused; we see the frame of a metaphorical construction along with moments of dislocation where the key pattern of the border meets and overlaps, all of which produce a floating sense of wonder. The shimmer of metallic paint, of the colour undulating along the border or between the forms, the oval shapes that appear almost to rotate, this animation is associated with the forms and noble materials of a Venetian tableau. This painting was written in quotation of what for want of a better term we might call a Venetian form: Organised not by artists but by craftsmen, ancient pieces of marble, sculpture and mosaic plundered and recycled into a more modern Venice, to appear on a wall of the main cathedral. The collaboration here, a marriage of two approaches, works off an image of this tableau to depict a frame of the symbolic, the moment of condensation, a demonstration of representation and artifice similarly applied to create a sacred shimmer.

The texture is given here in colour, metallic glow, pattern and subtlety of paint to illuminate this graphic outline, bringing it to life as contemporary iconic. Moving around this form, ambulating in spaces defined by colours and lines that take us from the iconic to the familiar in a tableau that is at once inherited and novel. Recognized shapes, dazzling symmetry, uncanny in an undulation of yellow, informing spaces between the lines to animate, convey, to highlight and move beyond. The central knotting is like a screen before a void that is not black but silver, shiny and beautiful. Alluring and yet distant, held at bay beyond the screen, reflected in the shiny object orbs and deflected by the dark blue amulets. As if we are looking into the afterlife or the future, like a sacred ground or territory, an other worldly device, the mesmerizing effect of this metallic glow takes us as we are ‘spoken by the real, possessed by language’.(15) To depict these shapes as signifiers framing indications of responseand where my body ceases to cope, where my mind shuts down, may I be in the process of saying goodbye to a life I have loved. May that love be conveyed, transmitted beyond me, to reassure, to confirm, to animate another.

Kate Briggs 2012

Notes 1 Juan Davila, correspondence with author, 22 July 2011. 2 Nietzsche, F. The Birth of Tragedy and Other Writings. Edited by Raymond Geuss and Ronald Spiers. Translated by Ronald Spiers. Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press, 1999. Pp. 47-48. 3 Cf., Gérard Wajcman, The Birth of the Intimate, Lacanian Ink 23, 2004, pp. 70-72. 4 Jean-Pierre Vernant. The God of Tragic Fiction. Jean-Pierre Vernant and Pierre Vidal-Naquet, Myth and Tragedy in Ancient Greece. Translated by Janet Lloyd. NY: Zone Books, 1988. Pp. 186, 187. 5 Philippe Lacoue-Labarthe, The Subject of Philosophy. Edited and with a forward by Thomas Trezise. Translated by Tomas Trezise et al. Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 1993. P.115. 6 Ibid., p. 112. 7 Susan Sontag, An argument about beauty, Daedalus, Fall 2002, p. 26. 8 Ibid. 9 Jean-Luc Nancy, The Inoperative Community. Edited by Peter Connor, Translated by Peter Connor et al. Theory and History of Literature, Volume 76. Minneapolis and Oxford: University of Minnesota Press, 1991. P. 93. 10 Francisco-Hugo Freda, ‘From the experience of search to the experience of encounter’, trans. Maria Cristina Aguirre from Ornicar? 153, Amp-Dispatch 3/8/2001. 11 Cormac Gallagher, ‘Lacan’s viator and the time traveller’s wife’, http://www.lacaninireland.com/web/wp-content/ uploads/2010/06/S-WIFE-Cormac-Gallagher.pdf. 12 Jacques Lacan, Les Non-Dupes Errent. The Seminar of Jacques Lacan. Book XXI. 1973-1974. Sessions of 19 March, 9 April, 8 January 1974 and 11 December 1973. Unpublished translation. 13 Lacan, Litterature, issue 3, 1971. Unpublished translation. 14 Reference to an image of the Temple of Athene, Syracuse, Sicily. Sicilia Antigua, monumentos en el pasado y presente, Visión, Roma, info@visionpubl.com. 15 A phrase attributed to Lacan by Henry Bond, an English artist and writer who identifies himself as autistic; cited by Eric Laurent, Research and Punish: Ethics today. Lacan Quotidien in Translation 199, 29 May 2012. NLS-Messager, English: h ttp://www.amp-nls.org/en/ template.php?sec=actualites&file=actualites/nls_messager.html

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