Off Center: The Contemporary Art of Gods and Mortals at Olympus
In conjunction with the exhibition Gods and Mortals at Olympus, the Onassis Cultural Center NY commissioned two works of contemporary art: Kostas Ioannidis’ sound piece “Memory of, memory of, memory of,” in which verses by Ovid, William Butler Yeats, and other major poets inspired by Echo and Narcissus are recited entirely in the “whistling language of the mountains”; and Maria Zervos’ video installation, “My Half of the Sky, My Half of the Earth,” a work inspired by the poetry of Telesilla, who lived in Argos in the 4th century BCE.
In this issue of Off Center we look into themes and sources relating to these art pieces.
The first is a video by Maria Zervos entitled "My Half of the Sky, My Half of the Earth." It portrays a group of Olympians gathered near the city of Dion. Ordered by Zeus to leave the forest, the Mother of Gods responds with a simple but forceful demand: "Only when I have these will I go: my half of the sky, my half of the earth, and a portion of the sea." The piece was inspired by the life and writings of Telesilla (circa 510 BCE), a poetess-warrior known for her successful defense of Argos against the Spartans--a feat achieved by arming the city's female population. While that story may be apocryphal, it was commemorated for centuries with a cross-dressing festival, described to us by Plutarch: "Up to the present day they celebrate the Festival of Impudence (Hybristika) on the anniversary, putting the women into men's tunics and cloaks and the men in women's dresses and head-coverings."
Read more about Telesilla of Argos in this encyclopedia entry by Joshua J. Mark.
Though nearly all of her lyric poetry has been lost, the extant mentions of Telesilla are compiled on this page.
For an account of another powerful woman from the ancient world, and another example of how gender roles within it were more complex than we tend to assume, by Pulizer Prize-winning author Stacy Schiff on Cleopatra.
Read Ovid's account of Echo and Narcissus in his "Metamorphoses".
“The Man and the Echo,” by W.B. Yeats.
Oscar Wilde’s playful take on the Narcissus myth, from his “Poems in Prose”.
This excerpt from James Gleick’s “The Information: A history, a Theory, a Flood,” in which the author describes how drumming languages in Sub-Saharan African cultures—reminiscent of the whistling language of Greece—transmit detailed messages across vast distances, at speeds of up to 100 miles per hour:
Another ancient form of long distance communication is yodeling,traditionally used by herders to control their flocks and exchanges messages with one another in mountain landscapes. Read more about it in this text by Bart Plantenga, from his book "Yo De Lay Ee Ooo: The Secret History of Yodeling Around the World".
The second piece commissioned for the exhibition is a sound installation by Kostas Ioannidis, entitled "Memory of, memory of,memory of." Performed and recorded in the landscape of Dion, it cuts together audio of locals communicating in the ancient "whistling" language of their ancestors. Inspired by bird songs, the whistling language was used to transmit complex messages across vast distances--from mountaintop to mountaintop. In the piece, speakers whistle verses about Echo and Narcissus by Ovid and W.B. Yeats.
Watch a short film about the making of Ioannidis' installation.
Watch this excerpt from a documentary, in which Greeks demonstrate their use the whistling language.
Watch this short video, in which Caitlin O'Connell-Rodwell, a behavioral ecologist and leading expert on elephants, describes how they communicate seismically with one another, using vocalizations in the ground (because humans are not alone in using such techniques!)
To Ted Hughes’ “Tales from Ovid,” his modern translation of twenty-four stories from the “Metamorphoses.” Here, the poet reads his account of Echo and Narcissus:
"An Introduction to Sound Art," by composer and sound artist Robert Worby.
On the recent rise of sound art, by critic Barbara Pollack, in Art News.
A sonic history of sound art and collage, arranged and composed by J Milo Taylor, and mixed by Joel Cahen:
With its corresponding readers' guide.