Unnamed (top panel), 1999. Digital print onto photographic paper. 73.5cm x 75.5cm
ln her essay “ln the cave of the Enchantress”, from From the Beast to the Blond, Marina Warner tells of how with the coming of Christianity in Southern italy, the Sibyl had to flee her ancient cave in Cumae below the temple of Apollo, from where for hundreds of years she had made her oracular pronouncements, to find refuge in what became known as the Grotta della Sibilla, in the Umbrian mountains. Interestingly, as well as predicting the future, the Sibyl is also credited by some sources with the invention of the western alphabet – the essence of written language. But more obviously, she has been associated with the chthonic source from which truth and utterance are derived, inhabiting the dark recesses of a cave, a seductive feminine space that is also potentially lethal. Warner recounts how Antoine de la Sale, tutor to the son of Louis lll, King of Sicily, travelled to Monte Vettore in search of the Sibilline Cave. He found the entrance “shaped like a pointed shield” which he was forced to enter on all fours. Inside was a corridor running deep into the mountain, with crystal doors and fiery dragons, all “very horrid and marvellous.” The metaphor of the primal void embodying all signification and all meaning is, as it was for Odysseus, endlessly trying to return home from his travels, a desire for regression to a place of safety: the paradisal womb.
Earlier work by Helen Sear addressed these themes directly, but they are also embedded more elliptically in her new work made for CHORA. In her photographic-installation of a house in a forest arrived at by a grassy flower-strewn bank, she plays with a number of these associations. A tension is set up between the Dionysian and the Apollonian, between images of the “feminine” chthonic wilderness and, by implicit contrast, the “male” culture and language. In the leaning photograph which is placed directly against the base of the image of the house, she depicts a verdant forest floor. The Primulas glow with an unearthly, almost radioactive light on the matt surface. This slope, like Oberon’s “bank whereon the wild thyme blows, where oxlips and nodding violets grow”, is a place of potential seduction, disarming and leading the viewer towards the mysterious “house”, in the upper photograph (illustrated opposite). Glossy and beguiling, the incidental intrusions into this image of the observer’s own reflection serves only to personalise rather than universalise the experience of looking. We are lured, as to the Sybyl’s cave, towards the potential of meaning, towards the disclosure of the sacred and arcane. But a thicket – that traditional metaphor for the unconscious and the dark irrational forces of the ld- holds us off from this idealised fairy-tale cottage.
The house both seduces and beckons, but then frustrates. We are left uncertain whether it is a place of danger, as was the gingerbread house of Hansel and Gretel, or a place of refuge – a nest or womb. For the windowless space ultimately denies us access. Paradise, we are reminded, cannot so easily be regained.
Content and Texts © Sue Hubbard 1999
Image © Helen Sear 1999