Art Backstories Discussion of current events

Mythology Meets Art in Venice – Trolls and Gods

Sometimes artists use themes or characters from Mythology, and currently, two artists have done this in Venice, Italy, in exhibitions running concurrently. In one case, Iceland-born artist Egill Sæbjörnsson has created two enormous and ugly trolls, which are a staple of Nordic Mythology, and in another, British artist Damien Hirst has created sculptures that depict many well-known Ancient Greek, Roman, Egyptian and Nautical myths. In this post I take a look at the references in the exhibitions of both artists and hazard a guess at what they may be trying to say. Opposing arguments are to be expected at important art exhibitions but these two have caused a particularly high level of puzzlement and publicity. In the case of the trolls – the hullabaloo is, well…because they are trolls. And in the case of the classical myths, it is because it is a huge exhibition by a very famous artist.

Just to get some definitions out of the way…

Mythology refers to the collected myths of groups of people in every culture in the world, and myths are the stories people tell to explain nature, history and customs. A culture’s collective mythology helps convey belonging, shared and religious experiences, behavioural models and moral and practical lessons. Some cultures consider myths to be true accounts of their very remote past. The modern take on myths is that they are manifestations of (or the physical form of) psychological, cultural, or societal truths, rather than as inaccurate historical accounts. But, they are still stories, and are about things and happenings that have not existed, and do not exist, and are not true. Truth is most often used to mean being in accord with fact or reality, or fidelity to an original or standard. Main characters in myths are usually gods, demigods or supernatural humans, while legends generally feature humans as their main characters. However, many exceptions or combinations exist, as in the Iliad, Odyssey and Aeneid. Folktales, which may also be about supernatural beings such as giants or talking animals, are not considered true by anyone, and nor are fairy tales. As stories spread to other cultures or as faiths change, myths can come to be considered folktales. Its divine characters are recast as either as humans or demihumans such as giants, elves and faeries. Or trolls and snake-headed witches.

Bear in mind the distinction between myths and the truth, because that very much has bearing on what these two artists represent.

Rude trolls at the Biennale 2017

In my review of Troll by Johanna Sinisalo, I pointed out that trolls are a distinct, important and serious part of Finnish culture. There are people in Finland who believe that trolls are real – or just want to believe trolls are real. The Finns have their trolls just like the Icelandic people have elves. A troll is a class of being in Norse Mythology and Scandinavian folklore. Trolls are said to dwell in isolated rocks, mountains, or caves, are considered dangerous to human beings, and are often depicted as ugly with huge noses. Scandinavian folklore or Nordic folklore is the folklore of Norway, Sweden, Finland, Denmark, Iceland and the Faroe Islands, and Iceland is regarded as Scandinavian in folkloric terms.

Researchers have come to the conclusion that even in modern times Icelanders continue with their belief in elves because of their awareness of and concern for the environment. The elves, guardians of nature, live amongst volcanic rocks, and Iceland is, after all, a geologically unstable island, full of active volcanoes and shifting landscapes. The connection between the environment and the elves seems obvious. (Ryan Jacobs, Why So Many Icelanders Still Believe in Invisible Elves, The Atlantic, Oct. 29, 2013) Icelanders, like singer/artist/producer Björk Guðmundsdóttir, take the protection of the largely pristine beauty of their island very seriously and personally. Icelanders are reputed to be self-reliant and take up the reins of solving problems themselves, in stead of waiting for representatives from institutions to do so on their behalf.

This might explain why conceptual artist Egill Sæbjörnsson, who was chosen to represent Iceland at the 2017 Venice Biennale art exhibition, has made two three-storey-high heads of bad-tempered, ugly, coffee-loving, farting trolls – rather than elves.

The heads have noses sticking out into the central exhibition space so that people can walk around them. The trolls, called “Ūgh” and “Bõögâr”, seem to come alive when video installations are projected onto each structure, so that it looks as if they move, snarl, breathe and talk to each other about which Venice tourists look the most delicious to devour. They have their own space on Imgrum.

Sæbjörnsson points out that to him, the trolls are alive and not merely art. They have been a personal, private project of him and his brother since 2008, and will continue to exist after the show. (The story of Egill and the Trolls can be found here or downloaded.) The “Out of Controll in Venice” (love the pun!) installation consists of music – a thirteen-track album, called In Venice, full of creepy sounds, growling and screams; sculpture – gigantic screaming troll heads scattered across Venice; fashion – in collaboration with Eygló, winner of Grapevine’s Fashion Design of the Year 2016; and pavilion sculptures with virtual reality.

“I thought trolls were the most hideous and stupid phenomena in existence, and I was ashamed of them, with their silly long noses and hair. The ultimate cliché of something Nordic: really bad. I’m not interested in Nordic identity. I’m a guy who says: “yeah, I’m Icelandic, but actually I’m Celtic, and actually the Celts come from Phoenicia, which is more-or-less where Syria is today, so I might as well be in Syria.” It’s not so many generations since then. I think more globally, seeing humanity as one. But I picked up the trolls out of curiosity because I thought they were the worst things you could make art with. And then I thought: “okay, then they must also be the most interesting”. I sometimes make these strange decisions. Getting immersed in the trolls’ world and seeing what they do and what they come up with is so liberating for me. There’s no ideology behind it. I’m not preaching. Do answers to philosophical questions make you happy? Or is it perhaps better to play Nintendo with trolls? To sit with friends and just enjoying being?” (Egill Sæbjörnsson interviewed by Claudia Grigg Edo, Berlin, Apr. 12, 2017 for Berlin Art Link)

Treasures from the Wreck of the Unbelievable

Damien Hirst is famous for works like a shark suspended in formaldehyde, called The Physical Impossibility of Death in the Mind of Someone Living (1991). Since then he is has done much more and much more daring work. Currently, until December, his solo exhibition Treasures from the Wreck of the Unbelievable is on show at the Punta della Dogana and Palazzo Grassi, in Venice, Italy. The exhibition consists of 189 pieces (!) of fantastical sculptures and video installations, and are explained as being the finds of…

“…an archaeological excavation that salvaged the precious cargo of a ship called the Apistos (Greek for “unbelievable”) that sunk [sic] about 2,000 years ago off the East coast of Africa. Discovered in 2008 and recovered at Hirst’s expense, the ship carried an immense collection of sculptures, jewels and coins, amassed by Cif Amotan II, a freed slave turned extremely wealthy man from Antioch, who was transporting them to a temple he had commissioned and dedicated to the Sun.”

(Eric David, Treasures from the Wreck of the Unbelievable: Damien Hirst’s Mythological Extravaganza in Venice, 17 May 2017,

This backstory is just a fraction of the whole. (The rest can be read in a Financial Times interview.) The works are depictions of icons from myths, fables, belief systems and fiction, recreated to look ancient and worn out by having been at the bottom of the sea. The clue is in the name of the fictional collector of these works, “Cif Amotan II”, which is an anagram for “I am a fiction”.

The works are immensely large, detailed, complicated, and lush (gold and gem-encrusted, made of marble and bronze), and each contains multiple references to Greek, Roman, Egyptian, Mesopotamian and Pre-Colombian myths, legends, beliefs and some actual history – but mostly myths and legends.

At the same time, the references, both in the sculpture and video installations themselves, and their names and back-stories, are quite obvious and, actually, the most commonplace or stereotypical examples in Mythology. The story of Cif Amotan II turns the story of the Ancient Greek Argonauts on its head – in other words, this is an Egyptian returning with objects from Ancient Greece and Rome, not vice versa, like the Argonauts did. The Argonauts were a band of heroes in Greek Mythology, who – as the stories go – in the years before the Trojan War, around 1300 BC, accompanied the legendary Jason in his quest to find the Golden Fleece. The band was said to include the hero, Theseus, who fought the Minotaur, amongst other monsters. All in all, the treasures of the Unbelievable look like the memorabilia, booty or spoils of war from the type of adventures had by the sailors on the Argonaut – as JJ Abrams and Doug Dorst imagined it in their sea-faring Sci-Fi novel S or Ship of Theseus.

Hirst, who rarely explains his work, commented on the exhibition in a rare interview with Catherine Mayer of the Financial Times, What Damien Hirst Did Next:

“…Hirst sees ambiguity as an essential element in art. What is Treasures and what does it mean, I ask during the first of these discussions. “I like that you just don’t know, on any level,” he replies. “The thing that makes art is that it’s much closer to religion…It locks into belief in some way.” He cites examples. A painting by Van Gogh may seem more meaningful if the viewer believes it is the last the artist painted. Anything attributed to Picasso is considered valuable. “That is the problem of art and the power of art,” Hirst says.

When questioned about the meaning of the exhibition, Hirst said: “Myth or fact. Whatever you choose to believe.”

Belief versus Mythology

Sphinxes, hydras, unicorns, pharaohs, Medusa, Proteus, Apollo, etc. – even someone uneducated in Classical Literature and Art would have an idea what those are. Regardless of the technical excellence and sheer scope of the works, one has to wonder whether Hirst is actually poking fun at the art establishment, like Jeff Koons does, and giving them back their clichéd ideas all glammed up and sized up – but spoiled (or enhanced?) by anachronisms. Kate Moss as a sphinx, for instance, or YoLandi Visser from the zef rap group Die Antwoord as a gold-encrusted figure of an Egyptian goddess, or Mickey Mouse as a treasure from the sea. For all their realism, and modelling on real celebrities, the sculptures are still of imaginary things, in which people no longer believe but think that just knowing about them is sophisticated and clever. 

By contrast, Egill Sæbjörnsson has made imaginary trolls, which he calls the ultimate Nordic cliché, into something comical, but also smart-ass and scary. However, the trolls are real to him, as he says, and are the manifestation of his philosophy of “anti-professionalism”. And there are people in Nordic countries who do (still) believe in them. 

In both cases, as Hirst put it, it is a matter of belief, or what you believe in. The creation of mythological figures, like those in these exhibitions, raises the issue of what the truth is, merely by being as “realistic” and as “tangible” as they are. These artists have created something real out of myths, and the viewer is taken on a ride in which their disbelief is suspended and they can, if they want to, believe that it is all true, factual and real. If you believe in trolls, goddesses, monsters or even superheroes, then both exhibitions will have much more importance to you than “just” art, or just illustrations of ancient stories. You will probably be able to find some deeper meaning there. If you don’t, then both exhibitions are just simply fantastically good and imaginative depictions of popular myths.

Mythological references in some of the 189 Treasures from the Wreck of the Unbelievable:

Aspect of Katie Ishtar ¥o-landi Beneath the Sea Ishtar was the Mesopotamian goddess of love, beauty, sex, desire, fertility, war, combat, and political power, an important deity in Mesopotamian religion from around 3500 BCE, until its gradual decline between the 1st and 5th centuries CE/AD with the spread of Christianity. YoLandi will now be able to say that she has been sculpted by Damien Hirst and that is a huge claim to fame.

Calendar Stone, The Diver

The Sun Stone, Stone of the Five Eras, or sometimes wrongly called the “Aztec calendar stone” is a late post-classic Mexica sculpture housed in the National Anthropology Museum in Mexico City, and is perhaps the most famous work of Aztec sculpture. Hirst’s Calendar Stone looks remarkably close to the real thing.
Hydra and Kali Beneath the Waves Lernaean Hydra or Hydra of Lerna, more often known simply as the Hydra, was a serpentine water monster in Greek and Roman mythology. Kālī, also known as Kālikā, is a Hindu goddess.
Mickey Mickey Mouse is the official trademarked mascot of The Walt Disney Company, created in 1928. The reworking of the Mickey Mouse image into an ancient, sea-life encrusted treasure, is allowed as a derivative work or a fan tribute. Besides, it is called Mickey, not Mickey Mouse, and is practically unrecognizable, but for the ears.
Proteus In Greek mythology, Proteus is an early sea-god or god of rivers and oceanic bodies of water, one of several deities whom Homer calls the “Old Man of the Sea”.
Remnants of Apollo This is a massive sculpture of a foot in a Greek or Roman sandal, with a squirrel on it. Apollo is one of the most important and complex of the Olympian deities in classical Greek and Roman religion and Greek and Roman mythology. That explains the sandal. Apollo has been variously recognized as a god of music, truth and prophecy, healing, the sun and light, plague, poetry, and more. The Roman worship of Apollo was adopted from the Greeks. As a Greek god, Apollo had no direct Roman equivalent, although later Roman poets often referred to him as Phoebus. The squirrel on the massive foot of the god could be an obscure reference to Norse Mythology and the creation of the world: Ratatoskr (Old Norse, meaning “drill-tooth” or “bore-tooth”) is a squirrel who runs up and down the world tree, Yggdrasil, to carry messages between the Veðrfölnir, a hawk sitting between the eyes of an eagle that is perched on top of Yggdrasil, and the wyrm (dragon) Níðhöggr, who dwells beneath one of the roots of the tree.
Skull of a Cyclops The cyclops in Greek mythology and later Roman mythology is a member of a primordial race of giants, each with a single eye in the centre of his forehead.
Skull of a Unicorn The unicorn is a creature in legends, a beast with a single large, pointed, spiralling horn projecting from its forehead. The unicorn was depicted in ancient seals of the Indus Valley Civilization and was mentioned by the ancient Greeks in accounts of natural history. It is also mentioned in European folklore, and in the Middle Ages and Renaissance, when it was described as a wild woodland creature, a symbol of purity and grace, which could only be captured by a virgin.
Sphinx This sculpture is of an Ancient Egyptian sphinx, with its head apparently modelled on the British model Kate Moss. The sphinx is wearing the White Crown representing Ancient Upper Egypt, a headdress of kings (not queens) worn until the unification of Upper and Lower Egypt around 3100 BCE. A sphinx is a mythical creature with the head of a human and the body of a lion. In Greek tradition, it has the head of a human, the haunches of a lion, and sometimes the wings of a bird, and is dangerous. Unlike the Greek sphinx, which was a woman, the Egyptian sphinx is typically shown as a man (an “androsphinx”) and is viewed as benevolent.
The Fate of a Banished Man (Standing). This sculpture depicts a man fighting a giant snake while seated on a horse. It is in the style of the classical sculpture of “Laocoön” or “The Laocoön Group”, which was discovered in 1506 and is now in the Vatican Museum. The detailed, muscular style of both horse and rider imitates the equestrian sculptures of Leonardo Da Vinci, and the contorted face of the rider copies the realist and expressive sculptures of human heads by Franz Xaver Messerschmidt. Laocoön, the son of Acoetes, is a figure in Greek and Roman mythology and features in the Epic Cycle, a set of Ancient Greek epic poems that relates the story of the Trojan War. Laocoön was a Trojan priest who was attacked, with his two sons, by giant serpents sent by the gods.
The Severed Head of Medusa In Greek mythology, Medusa was a monster, a Gorgon, generally described as a winged human female with living venomous snakes in place of hair.

About the header: 

Argo Navis constellation map, with the stars indicated by dots.

“Argo Navis” (the Ship Argo), or simply Argo, was a large constellation in the Earth’s southern sky that has since been divided into three constellations (Carina, Puppis and Vela). It was identified with the Argo, the ship used by Jason and the Argonauts in Greek mythology. This map of the stars in the constellation was made by Johannes Hevelius in Uranographia, his celestial catalogue, in 1690.

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