/31/01/2016 / by Navn Navnesen

Even though the mythology of antiquity is more than 2,500 years old – though its origins get lost in the mists of time – it is still a strong living part of our culture today. We meet it in innumerable contexts and variations in literature, in film and on television, in art and in many other versions that often are so vague that one does not realize at once the true source of the thoughts and motifs. Therefore it is useful to have a little forehand knowledge, even though in the case of Vibeke Glarbo and her installation “ La Cittá di Persefone”, we are neither to see a concrete illustration nor a detailed antiquarian treatment of old mythical material. As with all artistic work, many different impulses, inspirations and associations flow together into what results in a highly concrete work process. The place and the material also certainly play a large part in the finished result. But to increase the understanding of an artwork, it is often advantageous by way of introduction to look a bit at the inspirations that set the process going.

As a prelude let us meet the myth of Persephone.

In Greek mythology Persephone, daughter of Zeus and Demeter, is queen of the underworld. Her father is very well known, but for us modern people who have lost important aspects of our connection to nature, her mother is less well known. Demeter was as “Grain Mother” or “Mother Earth” an extremely important goddess. She was sister to both Zeus and the ruler of the underworld Hades. She protected crops and the bounty of the soil. Her cult – the cult of the Eleusinian mysteries that was the most important cult of mystic initiation in Greek society – concerned female fertility, the feminine principle. The Homeric hymn to Demeter tells the story of Demeter and her daughter Persephone. Zeus plays a major role not just as farther, but also as the seducer’s hidden helper, and, in the end, as the one who finds a solution to the conflict. One day when beautiful Persephone was picking flowers in a meadow with the daughters of Okeanos and Thethys, she was suddenly surprised by a chariot with four horses that appeared without warning from a gorge in the earth. In the chariot sat the ruler of the underworld Hades. He desired the unfortunate girl and had asked Zeus to help him kidnap the horrorstricken Persephone to the underworld as his wife. Zeus had agreed to help, well knowing that Demeter would never accept the match, as she would forever lose her daughter. The kidnapping – the rape – succeeded. Persephone’s friends were grief-stricken and Demeter wandered day and night over the whole earth. First she complained to Zeus not surprisingly without result. The world resounded with her pain and her screams. After nine days without food or sleep she met Helios, the sun, who told her the truth. Furious Demeter refused to stay on Olympus. Instead she wandered around the world disguised as a mortal. Eventually she came to Eleusis where the local king hired her as an attendant for the queen. Here the slave Iambe – daughter of Pan and Echo – succeeded in making the disguised, grieving Demeter laugh. (This is the origin of “iambic” poetry, which is characterized by satire and lampoons.) Demeter’s grief returned quickly again, and she decided that she would withhold the grain from the earth. Zeus and the other gods pleaded with her to let the crops grow, but she refused and threatened instead to starve humanity unless she saw her daughter again. Zeus had to relent. Hermes was sent to bring back Persephone from the underworld. Hades agreed, but before departure persuaded the unsuspecting Persephone to eat some pomegranate seeds, the symbol of unbreakable wedlock. Demeter was delighted to see her daughter again. But when Demeter asked her if she had eaten anything in the underworld, she suspected that something was wrong. If so, Persephone would have to return to Hades forever. As she had eaten some pomegranate seeds, it looked as though Demeter would lose her daughter once more. Then Zeus intervened and decided that Persephone would spend two-thirds of the year in the light of day on Olympus, but she would have to return to the darkness of Hades for the winter. Mother and daughter celebrated their reunion, fruitfulness returned to the earth and the arts of agriculture were brought to all peoples of the world. At the Eleusinian mysteries in Attica, the initiates were promised a special life in the underworld after death. The rites were successfully kept secret. Even today we do not fully know what happened. Anyone, even women and slaves, could be initiated. The mystical initiation festival that lasted for two days was a tremendous occasion that required a truce in any current wars. Great processions went from Athens to Eleusis with songs and other ritual celebrations. Among other things, the initiation festival involved, a dramatic enactment of the myth of Demeter and Persephone, revelations of sacred objects as well as fasting and prayers. Persephone’s descent and return from the underworld explains the seed and growth of grain, the changing of the seasons and the rhythm of all of nature. In the cult mysteries, the eternal cycle was interpreted as a promise for a happy life after death. Myths can be and have been interpreted in numerable ways. Even the Greeks themselves had different types of interpretations, and later times have added theirs. Myths are a kind of language of the soul, dream narratives, where we are dealing with, and to a certain degree explain, inner psychological states as well as outer, apparently unexplainable phenomena. They are interpretations of life. Myths are guides for those parts of the world that lie outside our logical thought’s mapping systems. Mythos is Greek and means: word, expression oral narrative, which has come to mean “untruth”, in contrast to another Greek word Logos that means: true words. But the so-called true words are not sufficient when it comes to describing, not to mention solving, life’s riddles. Therefore the tools of fantasy have always been used to express what is important and difficult. The ancient Greek myth about Demeter and Persephone, seen with more present day eyes, is partly a myth about the changing seasons – nature’s cyclic character – and partly about inner unconscious feelings – about depression and disillusion, desire and deceit, sex and violence, death and return. Therefore there is a lot at stake in this timeless mythological landscape. At the same time the myth becomes relevant in a concrete connection. It turns up and becomes a part of Vibeke Glarbo’s realm of thoughts at decisive points in time. Vibeke Glarbo has known the myth for a long time. She has even worked with it earlier. In 1994 she had an exhibition at Kastrupgård entitled “Persephone”. Here one could see a monumental photographic reproduction of bodies – torsos – that had been painted with shellac and oil paint. The body on the photograph could be seen as the blank page. The paintings were an expression for the stories one goes through in life. Very likely Vibeke Glarbo wanted to provide the photographs’ distancing matter-of-factness with a more spontaneous physical sensuality in form of the painted adaptation. But interpretation wise it had consequences, in that the paintings became the traces that the trip to the underworld had drawn on the otherwise blank body. At that time Vibeke Glarbo used the human body as an anonymous reservoir, which, in agreement with Plato’s ideas, reflected the entire cosmos. In antiquity one looked upon the body as a microcosm that mirrored – reflected – the universal, and in western civilization one considered the study of the human body as being synonymous with the study of the cosmos. And to know the cosmos is to know oneself. The body is also the visible that is used to tell about the invisible. Herewith the body becomes metaphysical – a spiritual element – that symbolizes the inner spaces. From the body Vibeke Glarbo has moved out into space, but – understood on the basis of the previous considerations – also into the inner space, in the psyche. Literally this has happened by shifting the body out with, for example, the house or the boat, objects laden with symbolism. The house can be understood as a cathedral or a prison, a leaden house or a sarcophagus, as room with an open gate or room that imprisons. But preferably, and most of the time, there is always a way out for Vibeke Glarbo. Similarly, the boat can be seen as an expression for a journey, change – a prototype for life and transformation, for balance, survival and eternal evolution. The work “La Cittá di Persefone” has to do with all of this, but first and foremost it has to do with the art group “Transit” deciding in 2005 to once again make a big exhibition in Charlottenborg Exhibition Hall. The date was set for May 2006 and it was decided to use the large southern wing, which means that the artists had the largest room to their disposition. It was to be a big presentation! Vibeke Glarbo selected a CIRCLE as ground plan for a LABYRINTH of gates that in strong colours were to guide the viewer on a wandering into the heart of the labyrinth, while at the same time the paintwork was to create a feeling of a “colour bath” for the soul. An installation – a piece of architecture – that could be perceived as a 3-dimensional painting, a journey, a development – a transformation. The CIRCLE is the basis – that which limits and defines. It is that, which holds the whole thing together, but it is only present as a plan, as an idea. In complete agreement with Platonism, this idea is not actually visible. It is only all what we see that makes up “La Cittá di Persefone”, which includes the circle in itself and thereby refers to the circle – the cyclic principle. Naturally there were considerations about how the installation should stand and how it should fill the room, but it was just as important that it is a strongly symbolic form that was to assemble the whole open structure that was expected to be made. The circle is not present as a physical object, but it is present as something vital for the final work – that which determines everything. Inside the flat circle, Vibeke Glarbo put up the one cheap, lightweight “door” after another, making walls and partitions that create corridors, passages and labyrinthic sequences. The LABYRINTH, which also has roots in antique mythology – for example the myth about the Minotaur and the Labyrinth at Knossos on Crete, is an architectural structure that can be understood as a form of house. It is a kind of open structure one cannot take in all at once, a structure that one knows is there and knows in one way or another is logical, but that cannot apparently be seen – that is disorienting. “A structure like that makes me curious – and then the story unfolds…” Just like the circle, the labyrinth is deeply rooted in antiquity and mythology both as a purely physical structure, and also as a symbolic object and an expression for a psychological state. The next step in the process was to loosen up the logic in the labyrinth. To move around what was closed, to switch around what was open and closed. The result was that the LABYRINTH understood as a series of mazes, endless paths and impossibilities disappeared and gave way to a more open space that in itself was less guiding than before. The labyrinth opened up and transformed itself into the concept CITY. La Cittá. During the course of building, the construction became more of a place to be and less of a wandering of trials. Yet another important element turned up in the process. The word “cittá” is not just the Italian word for city. Etymologically it can be traced back to Sanskrit. Here is found the word CIT that means something like “to concentrate”. Further, CITTA as a noun in the third person neuter means “thought”. As “thoughts” are often understood as “feelings”, this word – CITTA – in Vedic has also come to mean “heart” understood as that place in the body where one experiences feelings. Now Vibeke Glarbo had found a word that in some strange way brought her from the ancient Sanskrit HEART via HOUSE to the present CITY. All these phenomena with their corresponding symbols and states are at interplay all at the same time. Once in a while they come forward and stand in a clear light. At other times, they retreat because concrete considerations take priority. For example, how does one get the lightweight doors, which are made of plywood with cardboard fiber in between (a material that can be purchased in modules according to size in any building centre) to stand so they do not fall down? Basic facts involve the physical reality and the actual work. It is a puzzle where the artist, in addition to being busy working with the material, is always in pendulum between meaning and form – between the spheres of ideas and feelings and the earth between the fingers. “When I work, it is in the proportion of one to one. I started with a load of thin strips of timber. I screwed the frame together to get a feeling for the space. I have enormous respect for the material. And I always had colour in mind – the colour that was to redeem it all. The colours have to do with the heart…” Vibeke Glarbo is educated as a sculptor and not a painter. But during the years at the academy under Svend Wiig Hansen, she could not resist fantasizing about Richard Mortensen’s painting school. In contrast to Svend Wiig Hansen who was very anxiety driven, Richard Mortensen had a completely different view and a totally different spirituality in his art. She never got into that school, but the thoughts about it have been lying there smoldering ever since. This has not made her a painter, but sensitivity for and fascination of colour has developed. Colour is not unseldom a very important part of Vibeke Glarbo’s work, but with “La Cittá di Persefone” she has moved further into colour and its effects than ever before. It has not happened without outside help. “I had decided on a colour series of five colours from yellow over to red to a blue-black. And with help from the painter Niels Erik Jensen, I chose a colour series that was an expression of a gradation in colour quality. The choice was made on the basis of at least 50 different cans with pigment.” The five colours make up a colour series from dark to light composed on a form of symmetry with carmine (crimson red) in the centre. The colour scale towards the light – deepest inside the labyrinth – goes from cinnabar (vermilion) to yellow, and towards the dark – at the entrances of the labyrinth – from ultramarine to monastral blue. The colour is the sensuous stream that flows from the walls, gates and partitions out into the space and draws the viewer into the concrete/actual wandering from the outer to the inner space, but that also forms the soul’s journey from the blue black – almost closed – darkness via the crystal clear ultramarine, onto a carmine red that still has shadows in it, to the warming cinnabar for at last to be surrounded by a blissful and peaceful yellow that shines because of the white mixed in. It is easy to understand that a lot depended on the colour and the right sequence of colours, the intensities, the nuances, the colour values, the “temperature” and all those things. It is not so easy to paint a colour bath for the soul. Vibeke Glarbo speaks about the abstract American-Russian painter, Mark Rothko, who worked towards an extremely direct painting, where the picture consisted of one field of colour on a background colour. This was almost a religious obsession with colour’s ability to create a psychic state – to provide space for thoughtfulness, meditation – Nirvana. A painting of and about colour, heaviness and lightness, freed of drama, gestus and action. But Mark Rothko always worked in delicate, soft colours with a certain degree of transparency. Vibeke Glarbo wanted a more direct intensity and greater clarity than the case was with Mark Rothko. Thus it was not the intention to use transparency to veil the concrete physical space. On the contrary, the material required strong uniform colours, colours whose strength could “take over” the viewer and lead the viewer forward on a journey of realization. “I had many considerations about the character of the paint. The actual boards were raw and hard. I wanted a softer expression, and I achieved it by painting them over in many transparent layers. Thereby the surface gained some depth. Nature’s surfaces are uneven, and I made the hard surface soft by painting over several times, thereby making micro-intervals with small gradations in the material. By working with a balance between the grain of pigment and the binding medium, I achieved a saturation that gives the sculpture its strength of colour.” Painting layers made the boards more saturated with colour. It was essential to find the right degree of saturation. Considerations regarding the relationship between colour and form were constantly in focus, as Vibeke Glarbo explains herself: “ Colours are also a motif, but since colour is incorporeal, it must be placed on a “body” to present itself – a balancing act. Form belongs to the world of eternal ideas, but colour is passing. These two principles are brought together here…” Mythological material finds form and gains life through colour. Here it is difficult not to see impulses of inspiration from India’s knowledge about charkas, the energies that beyond being concrete centers in our bodies, also have their correlations with a journey of colour from the dark and blue via red onto yellow and the lightness of white. “One can decide for oneself how religious it is to be.” Vibeke Glarbo herself talks openly about black holes as expressions for depression – where one loses oneself. But she also realizes that the energies mean that one comes up again. For Vibeke Glarbo the myth of Persephone is a female myth about cycles. Nature’s grand cycle – the eternal process of transformation. “Nothing goes to waste. Everything becomes transformed. Nothing disappears. At the same time as one in a certain way becomes wiser with the years, it also becomes more and more clear for one that it is without end. The mystery is endless. Therefore the LABYRINTH in its open form is a true picture – a true state.” In our modern time, there is not one valid overall explanation – one interpretation that answers all of life’s questions. We live in a fragmented world. Our worldview is divided up into different pictures of the world – the aesthetic, the scientific, the religious, etc. There is no unified whole – no clear-cut answer. Therefore the circle as such cannot function as a clear bombastic symbol. However we live with a longing for and a deep belief in that wholeness can be found – that it is just still hidden from us. The circle has not disappeared. It has just become less visible. It is still present. It is inside ourselves, in our journey, in the cycle we are a part of. Maybe we cannot see it, but the invisible circle is there as an eternal idea.

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