Transferred mythological meaning in the works of Ólöf Nordal
In her most recent work, Corpus dulcis, Ólöf Nordal has made casts of parts of the male anatomy in chocolate and placed them on a huge trough where exhibition visitors can quite literally consume them.
The anatomical parts are beautifully shaped, and recall to some extent fragments from Michelangelo’s David, a statue that shows us man as the crowning achievement of creation, master of the Earth and the embodiment of idealized humanistic values. Besides the external forms of individual organs and parts of the anatomy, Ólöf Nordal has also shaped an image of the human heart for the same purpose, hollow like an Easter egg, which she calls Sapere corde, knowledge of the heart.
This is an ambiguous and confrontational work, and it is not unlikely that it will provoke a strong reaction or even scandal. But why?
Since the work is shown at Easter, it is only natural for us to associate its meaning with the Passover festivities. Although Easter is supposed to be a Christian festival, it incorporates traditions that can be traced to heathen custom. For example, we are accustomed to give children Easter eggs, and in their childhood memories the postwar generation associate Easter not least with excesses of chocolate. Eating Easter eggs, in turn, is related to the ancient belief in the egg as a symbol for the eternal cycle and regeneration of life on Earth. So when we eat Easter eggs we are really taking part in a fertility rite from ancient nature worship, involving the eternal recurrence and life-cycle.
Under Christianity, Easter became a resurrection festival through the Saviour’s sacrificial death by crucifixion. His death is supposed to ensure human resurrection and eternal life, and the Eucharist is a kind of confirmation that God became a man of flesh and blood, and thereby made the sacrifice that could secure eternal life. When we take the sacrament and drink the wine, we are supposed to be inaugurated into this mystery, which is the incarnation of God, in the same way that eating an Easter egg should make us partake of the eternal cycle and fertility of life on Earth. Thus the Easter egg is linked with the sacrament in the same way as the body is with the spirit, the secular with the sacred, nature worship with Christendom. It is first when we see this association stated in literal terms as symbolic cannibalism that the ritual begins to awaken revulsion.
It has been claim by the anthropologist René Girard and others that there are strong historical connections between belief in the sacred and the use of violence in human society. When a human community is disrupted it chooses itself a scapegoat, just as the referee is often blamed for poor performances on the soccer pitch. But the moment that the victim’s blood is shed, it is transformed into a sacred tenet of belief. It is a widespread interpretation, even found in the Bible, that Christ was a scapegoat who appeased the wrath of bloodthirsty God and thereby paid for Adam’s sin. Others have maintained that Christ’s role was completely the opposite: that he entered the world in order to reveal the connection between violence and the sacred, and to abolish for once and for all the link between blood sacrifices and faith. In this sense, God shed His sacred nature when He became man, and was punished for it by nature worshippers who saw the blood sacrifice as an act of appeasement towards the universal supremacy of the godhead. In this sense it was the historical role of Christianity to disclose and abolish primitive nature worship, break the link between the sacred and the blood sacrifice, and thereby undermine the belief in the bloodthirsty supremacy of a chastising and almighty God. The latter interpretation of Christianity’s historical role nonetheless reminds us that Christ’s sacrificial death is linked to primitive nature worship and to the close association between blood sacrifices and belief in the sacred. It is just such associations that are presented in Ólöf Nordal’s work in a tangible manner that may engender revulsion. The ambiguity in these dismembered chocolate anatomical parts creates a conflict between irreconcilable opposites, which the title of the work also plays upon: Corpus dulcis, the sweet body in both senses of taste and character, at the same time as it carries complex references to the secular and the sacred in historical and contemporary times.
But does such a work have anything to do with art? Shouldn’t a sculpture be made from permanent material and form a closed world which represents absolute harmony between spiritual and material values? Is it not an affront to the Muse of Art to serve up an artwork for people to partake of in the literal meaning of the word?
In terms of the classical or romantic understanding of the work of art, this may be true. Kant said that we should enjoy art with neutral satisfaction, and many modernists have elaborated on this same principle with their glorification of pure form and automatic personal expression. It is in the perfection of form and the purity of expression that the work of art acquires its aura as an original and infrangible memorial, as a vehicle of everlasting truth. Eating a work of art is a breach of all accepted laws of aesthetics.
The concept of beauty as an independent characteristic beyond all meaning is closely related to the religious aura of the artwork and the romantic notion of genius as the artist’s supernatural gift. In the Age of Enlightenment it was widely believed that art would become a substitute for religion as liberating force for the human spirit to nourish upon. It was then that art museums began to be built with the form and appearance of Greek temples, and ever since art has been enveloped with this aura. But when the aura vanishes, so too does the concept of beauty and genius. What remains is the question about meaning and context, and how they can be produced so as to arouse an understanding and a satisfaction that we might call aesthetic experience. An experience that equips us better to tackle the reality around us.
Traditional aesthetics can be said to have lost their meaning in our age. Suffice it to mention Walter Benjamin’s well-known essay The Work of Art in the Age of Mechanical Reproduction from 1936, in which he describes how technological and economic changes cause the work of art to lose its aura. Benjamin also states that, in the future, the film will become the most important visual medium, with the role of releasing and relieving certain “physical shock effects.” Even though Benjamin’s essay was written with great vision in its day, much has happened in our social, economic and technological environment since that he could never have envisaged. In the flood of multimedia and mass media of all descriptions that characterizes the age we live in, visual art has long since abandoned its pedestal as a closed world and source of “neutral satisfaction.” It inevitably enters the maelstrom of mass culture in which experience is more important than the material object, and the value of a work is measured rather by the interactive impact it has in the individual’s aesthetic interpretation and experience than in the closed form of universal references. The “liberating shock effects” that Benjamin refers to are not “neutral satisfaction” but experience which fluctuates between different cultural references and interpretative possibilities, at the same time as opening up new horizons and possibilities for new experience. Aesthetic experience in our age is therefore an event based on active interpretation and participation rather than on neutral satisfaction. In this context, the work’s material and formal structure as an art object is subjugated to the event it is supposed to generate. When exhibition visitors are invited to eat a work of art, they become participants in an event which has complex semiological references extending far beyond its traditional, closed form.
Like most of Ólöf Nordal’s earlier work, Corpus dulcis is based on symbolism that is deeply rooted in an ethnic and religious cultural heritage. In her hands, this old symbolism becomes a kind of quest for an ethnic and cultural identity, while its representation tends to unveil the forms of that identity and show us how they have been emptied of their original meaning. This can be seen as early as her first works from her student years in America, when in 1990 she produced simple forms from Icelandic landscape features which are associated with parts of the anatomy: bluff/forehead, foot, shoulder, ridge/backbone, neck, cheek/mountainside, side, etc. Although the custom of associating the land with parts of the anatomy is known from other languages, it is probably uncommonly widespread in Icelandic, suggesting a mythological understanding of the significance of the landscape. In Ólöf Nordal’s treatment, these phenomena become hyper-simplified forms, almost abstract in their effect, concealing mythological meaning beneath their surface. On the one hand we see nature as a living body, on the other hand as abstract form.
Soon afterwards, she began working with ornament derived from medieval Icelandic handicraft. An example is In the Twilight (1992) in which two wooden chests, one white and the other black, lie on the floor adorned with porcelain tiles or mosaic, with an embossed frieze of roses along them. The black chest is empty, but the white one full of fish-liver oil. In the Middle Ages, ornament was inextricably linked with the functionality and significance of objects, since there were no pure aesthetics at that time. In our age, the pictorial language of ornament has lost its meaning, and we tend to see it as mere decoration or superfluous embellishment. In Nordal’s work, the ornament has been given literally a new semiological content, whereby the black chest contains emptiness and the white one the source of light, energy and nourishment. Thus the work invites different cultural associations that shed light on history, at the same time as playing upon the antitheses of light and darkness, filling and emptiness.
Ólöf Nordal produced more drawings and installations based on old ornament over the following years, for example The High-Seat Pillars (1992) and the installations Dream (1993) and My Mother in the Pen-Pen from the same year.
Most memorable of all, however, is her animal exhibition of 1996, featuring four white ravens on a pedestal, “busts” of a ptarmigan and falcon, and relief portraits of a polar bear, snowy owl and fox, all wrought in pure white gypsum. A common feature of these animals is that they have all in some way been associated emblematically with Iceland, as well as establishing themselves in folklore, whereby a black raven, for example, boded death and misfortune, while a white raven was a lucky charm and even considered to be a kind of form of divine revelation. Although only a handful of accounts are known of white ravens being sighted in Iceland, it was widely believed elsewhere in Europe that they were more common in Iceland than anywhere else in the world. They therefore served as a distinctive national emblem of Iceland just like the polar bear, and were in fact similarly thought to arrive on sea ice. While the white raven was considered almost sacred, the polar bear was thought to be a human under a spell.
In Ólöf Nordal’s treatment, these animal images became a form emptied of its original content and endowed with a new signification. Just as the myth of the white raven claims it to be a divine revelation and not an ordinary albino with a pigmentation deficiency, in her interpretation it becomes a mythological symbol on a different plane, standing for the national identity that once believed in the white raven which, biologically speaking, is nothing more than a deformed animal. In the same way that Bertel Thorvaldsen’s white neoclassical mythological figures have been stripped of their original religious content by the reigning image of perfect beauty, Nordal’s animal figures become the ambiguous image of an ethnic consciousness which appears in forms that preserve old myths with concealed historical roots. The difference is, that while Thorvaldsen aimed towards neutral satisfaction with his forms, Ólöf Nordal’s “neoclassical” ravens prompt questions about the relationship between form and content. If we regard these ravens as deformed animals, as biologists do, we strike out their myth or history. But by regarding them as emblems of Iceland we erase their biological definition, at the same time as the myth reduces their history to mere form. Roland Barthes says that the nature of myth is to convert meaning into form. It empties language of its content while erasing history. This main theme repeats itself in all Ólöf Nordal’s works, from her landscape drawings to the chocolate sacrament of Corpus dulcis, and prompts questions as to whether ethnic consciousness in the late capitalist global village is like the white gypsum raven: form which has been purged of its historical content.
© Ólafur Gíslason, 1998