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An interview conducted by Caroline Lazar on the
subject of Mythology
Extended version of an interview published in Trespass
Magazine Issue 8 (available from the Inpress Books website)
SD - Sophie Dickens. Sculptor
CL - Caroline Lazar
KA - Karim Arafat, Dept. of Classics, Imperial College
CL: Why do you choose mythological subjects so often for your
SD: Partly because I have an art history background (I did art
history at the Courtauld Institute), but then I studied Anatomy at the
Slade, so I came at mythology through anatomy and through artists like
Titian. A lot of my work isn’t mythological, but the theme is the
same—it’s the physical interaction of a man struggling with
something. Like all the Leda ones I’ve done, where there’s a woman
preparing to lay an egg and you have her pregnant shape echoing the
shape of an egg.
There’s a quote from Radio 4 which I’ve written on my studio wall:
“mythological subjects represent universal truths,” but it has to be
visually interesting from my point of view. All this subject matter
makes fantastic pictures, but the strongest images come through again
and again. I’ve read bits of Ovid where I think “that would be good
and that would be good”, but actually you nearly always come back to
subjects that have been sculpted before and painted before. There’s a
reason why they’ve been selected and others haven’t. They are just
fantastic visual material. But I think I haven’t really gone into
things deeply enough. I come in, like this kind of vandal, grab what I
like, without any real depth of knowledge, other than a smattering of
Latin and some art history. I am like a burglar.
KA: I’m intrigued that you’re coming at it through the medium
of Titian—through the reception of the classical—but there’s no
reason why you should copy ancient models. After all in most cases
there’s no one single way of representing a myth. [Looking at
Sophie’s Hercules and the Lion] I mean just to take the lion as an
example. There’s one in the British Museum where Heracles is kneeling
and the lion is being flipped over his shoulder onto his back in a sort
of judo throw. It’s unique as far as I know and this is what yours
reminded me of, because it’s the only one I’ve seen where you’ve
got a vertical hold. He’s kneeling on the pot and he’s pretty much
doing the same in yours—the lion’s above him, over his shoulder.
SD: I just wish I’d looked at more pots ’cos then I’d know
KA: If looking at them means you feel you have to follow them,
then I think that would be a negative. You should be expressing yourself
and doing what you do, but I can easily email you a picture of the
original pot. [SD: I’d love that] It is just a painter who’s thought
“let’s do this differently.” I don’t know why. Sometimes you can
see they’re doing it differently because the pot’s a different
shape, so they’re confined by the space they’re working with, but
then you have to ask “why did they choose that shape in the first
place?” Sometimes you think that a painter just has a little bit of
extra inspiration. I ask my students what they think art is about, and
they go all misty-eyed, but in the end, it’s got to sell. If you’ve
got a standard scheme, then you do something radically different, your
customers will go next door.
SD: Unless you have wonderful enlightened patrons and they say
“yes, I love it, I want it different”. I don’t know what the
Greeks had. Whether it was keeping up with the Joneses, or whether they
were more adventurous. It’s funny we should have this conversation. I
have all this sculpture going to Germany for an exhibition. This
Hercules and the Lion has been in galleries but it’s still on its
first edition. I don’t know, maybe it’s not commercial, the idea of
this man grappling with a lion. People love it but they don’t
necessarily want it because it’s violent. Whereas I look at it and I
see it as dynamic—these joyous shapes interacting. If you think of the
successful sculptors of the last century—the Lynn Chadwicks and the
Henry Moores—they produced a lot of the same work. I just find that so
boring. I’m always trying to find new subject matter and I think
it’s probably a huge mistake because you don’t give your clients a
KA: I’m intrigued by your Minotaur. He’s got such a long
history, he’s been done by Picasso and all the Surrealists. Freud was
keen on the Minotaur too, so I was wondering why are you doing it?
SD: I saw a particularly bad Minotaur at an exhibition. He was
really fey, and I thought “NO!”, so I was spurred on to do a
sinister and aggressive, scary, angular Minotaur. I did a little black
drawing. Then the small one came out of that, and the big one came out
of a client wanting it to be made out of mirror-polished stainless
steel. In order for that to be copied, I had to make it big, to be
copied by steel fabricators. I love this idea. Polished stainless steel
becomes almost invisible—all shimmery ripples. It reflects the space
around it. It was so exciting, just having the opportunity to have it
made permanent. When I was doing Art History A level, the Riace bronzes,
which have been in the sea for thousands of years, came out in perfect
condition more or less, with their eyeballs intact. KA: After some
de-encrusting, they are! I show a black and white photograph of the foot
and people don’t always know it’s a sculpture. In colour they would,
but in black and white they don’t.
SD: When I was about 19, I went to Naples because I was trying to
learn Italian—in the wrong place because you don’t learn southern
Italian if you want to learn good Italian—but, anyway, there was this
lecherous old museum curator who’d let me feel the thigh of these
marbles if I let him feel my thigh, so I went round feeling all these
pieces and you could feel the muscles, you’d get the
relaxing-contracting movement within them. An amazing experience, that
was. Not him—that was mild prostitution—but it was worth it. Those
sculptures were absolutely unbelievable.
KA: Did you think of making a Theseus to go with the Minotaur?
SD: No, I liked him in splendid isolation, and also I thought of
him as more predatory at the time. He was chasing the girl, rather than
KA: The way he’s almost always depicted is on the losing side
in the duel, so you don’t usually see him powerful, you see him
cowering. There’s just one, an Etruscan pot, which shows his
mother cuddling the baby Minotaur on her lap. It’s very nice. The
Etruscans don’t much go for these things, so this is really strikingly
different. [Re SD’s Minotaur] This is one looks as if he’s pawing
the ground ready to charge. You weren’t doing it in reaction to Freud
and Picasso and the Surrealists then? They landed on the Minotaur
because it expressed your subconscious, the things you were afraid of
– something that wasn’t pure monster, but was something part-human,
SD: No, I love all those, I particularly love Picasso’s endless
minotaur drawings and I’ve done loads of minotaur drawings myself, but
it was because I thought it was such an good subject. It’s a brilliant
opportunity to do some sculpture which really worked with my kind of
visual language. You have to choose your themes. My anatomy
doesn’t really go with women as well as it does with men. Scrawny men
is what I work with. The moment you start getting fatty deposits, it
starts looking a bit dumpy.
KA: You are deliberately or otherwise echoing Aristotle, you’ll
be pleased to know! Like the universal truths quote. Aristotle said, as
far as I remember it, that the male body was superior to the female on
the grounds of articulation – each part set off from each other part
– it was precisely about that definition of the musculature, which you
can’t do with a series of curves.
The Minotaur is limited in the sense that he doesn’t do anything
beyond the one story. There he is stuck in his labyrinth, waiting.
Nobody ever shows him eating his lunch, the tributes of youths and
maidens who get imported from Athens before Theseus comes. With
centaurs, there’s a whole range of stories both about individuals like
Chiron who tutored Achilles, and about centaurs in general. I spent
Easter in centaur country at a little place called Pholoe near Olympia
which is where Pholos the centaur came from. The locals still tout it as
the birthplace of the centaurs, but I didn’t see one!
CL: It’s funny how these stories can persist even when people
have forgotten their original significance. For example, my parents had
a cleaning lady who was absolutely terrified of black dogs (not easy for
her, because my parents got a black Labrador, which didn’t go down
well). It was only a long time later that I learnt about Black Shuck
who’s a hellhound in English folklore. She’d never heard of Black
Shuck, but she “knew” you should never trust a black dog. SD: We get
that with some people with our cat who’s black. Sometimes people come
to read the electricity meter and they have a voodoo-y thing about the
cat. They’re petrified of it.
SD: I have seen people do centaurs with horses’ heads and human
bodies, but they always seem rather sorrowful. They’re normally
sitting down looking a bit miserable. They are like a person in a mask,
rather than a real monster.
CL: Where do monsters come from? I suppose originally from dreams
and the subconscious. Someone must have had that idea of half-human,
half-animal, perhaps it happens especially in societies where people
lived closer to animals.
SD: It’s like Christianity too. You could say that religions
are a way of explaining why things are the way they are.
CL: Making sense of the world. SD: They’ve got to come out of
somewhere. It’s so interesting where they start, from asking questions
like why does it get dark every evening? They seem to be there, right at
the beginning of language. Where did creatures like the Minotaur come
KA: This was where Freud got interested. He used it as an
expression of the subconscious, because the Minotaur is a monster that
is partly human. A pure monster is a pure monster and therefore in a
sense you don’t need to account for it, but something that’s partly
human is “the enemy within” and does need some explaining.
SD: I’ve made my Minotaur very much as the rapist too, with
huge testicles and an erect penis. He’s a threatening, frightening
figure.KA: Is it a result of our natural desire, our bestiality? These
are expressions, to say the least, of the socially unacceptable! SD: Did
Freud, having asked the questions, come to any conclusions? KA: I
suppose that it’s the subconscious expression of the monster within
us. What we are potentially capable of, the non-human side of us, the
uncontrollable side of us. And, of course, he was very influential on
the Surrealists. SD: You could say that that’s true for however many
thousands of years before Freud too.
CL: Niki Aguirre who led one of the Trespass workshops made a
really good point which is that villains make a choice to be bad but
monsters can’t really help it. They don’t have a choice.
SD: No, exactly. They are the result of unnatural passions.
It’s a sad fate. Is the article about monsters then? What’s it
about? What’s your line? Does Hercules come into that? Is he a monster
himself or does he just fight monsters?
KA: Good question. He does a lot beyond the twelve labours.
SD: He did terrible things. He murdered his own children. Hera
made him mad and he murdered his own children. He had a horrifically
miserable life, didn’t he? It wasn’t even his fault anyway. It’s
so mean. He was sent mad and then suffers as if he was responsible.
KA: One tends to think “this is the myth”, “this is the
story”, but actually it isn’t. It’s one version of the story.
There’s something else as well. The Greeks were primarily a
pre-literate society, they have books and they read but they’re not
literate in the way we are, so a lot of it’s oral. You know what
it’s like. I think of the parallel of Little Red Riding Hood. Do you
tell your children the version where the wolf eats granny and the wolf
is torn apart at the end to get granny out, or do you tell the version
where they find granny hiding in the cupboard. Is it variations to make
an impression on the audience? Is it because you’ve forgotten the
story? Is there another literary source that we don’t have? Is there
some political purpose in telling the story? So myth is very fluid and
SD: Like Chinese whispers, but that’s lovely, isn’t it? It
means we don’t have to stick to anything.
KA: They were as flexible as anything and you should follow in
CL: I think one of our problems is we are used to having a Bible
and we have a canonical text – KA: yes, “text” is the word.
It’s written and unchanging. Though we tend to forget it wasn’t
written in English sometimes so you can get variations out of
translating it differently. Yes, we have a text which is fixed and that
is it. But they didn’t. Talking about parallels more seriously, I
sometimes find parallels for myths in newspapers and I cut them out
because again it livens students up. Now you mention Heracles massacring
his children, I’ve got a cutting of somebody who did precisely that in
modern Greece, years ago. It was strikingly similar. Or somebody more
recently who was killed by a discus.
SD: There’s been that case recently. The man who threw his
children out of a balcony.
KA: That’s what Euripides wrote about, one of his plays was
called “The madness of Heracles. It goes back to what we were saying
SD: You feel that Hercules is blameless in the versions I’ve
read. That he’s a victim too.
KA: What is the term they use in Court – Diminished
responsibility? when the balance of the mind is disturbed? There’s
even now a sense of being taken over by something divine under the legal
jargon, so we retain this idea to an extent.
SD: So if I ever do anything horrendous, I’ll say that the
balance of my mind was disturbed!
KA: Yes, you’ll have to plead insanity, but you’ll have to
take the consequences!
SD: Oh dear, Broadmoor with everyone else. That might be worse!
CL: There’s a very nice book which comes over as rather
old-fashioned now because it was written so long ago, called The Greeks
and the Irrational – KA: oh yes, by E.R. Dodds. CL: He talks
about the way in which the Homeric heroes talk when they do something
wrong. It’s like they get taken over by the gods for good and bad –
so they get inspired to fight better, or their understanding is taken
away and they do something stupid. Everybody around them seems to accept
both that they have responsibility for their actions and that a god made
them do it.
SD: That’s exactly right and that’s why it’s nice to do
these stories because there’s that element of pathos and humour, and
you can relate to them on an emotional level. When you sell mythological
art, people are not buying it because they think it’s Hercules. They
find a connection. Like fighting your demons or whatever.