by Gertrude Gibbons
“The features are those of a real girl, who, you might think, lived, and wished to move, if modesty did not forbid it. Indeed, art hides his art. He marvels: and passion, for this bodily image, consumes his heart.
Often, he runs his hands over the work, tempted as to whether it is flesh or ivory, not admitting it to be ivory. He kisses it and thinks his kisses are returned; and speaks to it; and holds it, and imagines that his fingers press into the limbs, and is afraid lest bruises appear from the pressure.”
Ovid Metamorphoses X (trans. AS Kline)
The temptation is to touch. The glowing white surface hypnotises; it appears to emit its own light. This pure light is reflected distantly in the deep blackness of the surrounding wall mirrors. There the glowing pillows appear to float alone in outer space, eerily, like odd-shaped moons. This sense is troubling: the viewer might almost feel an intruder as they observe the sculpture placed on the double mattress in these rooms which were once those of a garçonnière. One is reminded of the usual ‘object’ belonging upon a mattress, in a room where natural light is dim through the half-drawn curtains, frosted windows, smoky lights and mirrors. Is this object, then, “flesh or ivory”?
No flesh was good enough for Pygmalion, as he criticised imperfection after imperfection of womankind. Instead, he would be content to create his own perfect idol. With obsessive attention, he perfected an ivory figure, so careful that it reflected back the life and warmth that had formed it. The cold stone somehow absorbs its warm creator’s feeling, a desperate desire so powerful that it eventually becomes realised; Pygmalion’s statue is given life. His own flesh, heart, is consumed by passion for representation, for art. The intensity of this passion is such that art itself is forgotten: “art hides his art”; the journey towards it, the process of making, disappears lost and the object floats pure and alone. There is an ensuing confusion as to whether the heart of flesh Pygmalion is more real than that of his ivory sculpture. Whose stillness is the more filled with motion, whose silence shouts the louder: Pygmalion as he waits, or the sculpture as it forever hovers on the edge of impossible response.
The sculptures upon two mattresses at Studioli were indeed once real pillows. Abandoned at the bottom of a travertine quarry in Tivoli, the cushions were used to remove stone from the quarry walls. Now they are entombed in plaster of the same calcite they once helped prise from the Earth. Like Pygmalion’s heart, art has consumed, literally encapsulated, these real pillows. An object becomes an art object. Its ‘reality’ has been hidden, veiled under an illusion of cloth reminiscent of sculpted cloaks on tomb effigies. “Flesh conceals bones” writes Thomas Hutton describing his exhibition at Studioli. Layer upon layer obscures, covers what lies beneath. The real object is masked by the illusion of a real object, such that its reality is negated. And there is a two-way exchange of substance: flesh covers bone and, equally, soft ‘flesh’ (both physically as that of the underlying pillows, and imagined as that of a human object upon the mattress) is here covered by hard calcite. Pygmalion loses his heart but his art gains one, and his idea is ‘given flesh’, its ivory concealed.
Here there is a play between juxtaposing objects and sensations: the hard false pillow upon the soft genuine mattress; a clean, pure and glowing object upon an absorbent and dull bed. The bed feels too hard and cold; the sculpture too perfect, precious, holy. Its most proper place seems the dark depths of the mirror, perhaps recalling the words “For now we see through a glass, darkly; but then face to face: Now I know in part; but then shall I know even as also I am known” (1 Corinthians 13:12). We wish to touch it, and by touching it satiate our hunger for that real beyond the mirror.
15 September – 25 October 2018