“Was this the face that launched a thousand ships / and burnt the topless towers of Ilium?” Christopher Marlowe, Doctor Faustus, 1592
I have been editing the works I accomplished in April with my collaborator Luís Branco in northern Portugal. I had rented a stone house with a waterfall, a swimming pool, and a beautiful garden. My intent was to embody Helen; Beautiful Helen, Helen of Troy, Helen of Sparta—my own interpretation of this mythical woman with a contemporary 66 year-old feminist bent. I had done my research on Helen ahead of time. I had read much of the text and mythos surrounding Helen, and I had looked at how Helen has been “painted” over time.
I began with this question – how would Helen look back on her fabled life and her epic reputation, as an older woman, when all was said and done?
Did she fall in love and lust with the sexy Trojan prince, Paris, and leave her husband King Menelaus to sail off for Troy? This would imply a certain amount of agency on her part, which I am all for. Or did Paris abduct her— initiating a violent journey and her long captivity in Troy?
As either a ravishing seductress or a gorgeous victim, Helen has been blamed for the devastation and destruction of the Trojan War. Euripides, in his play titled Helen, portrays her as both a phantom temptress and a loyal wife. According to him (and others too) the Helen who stayed in Troy during those ten long years of the Trojan War was an eidolon / a ghost. And, while the ghost or the phantom of Helen was in Troy wed to Paris, the “real” Helen was waylaid in Egypt and remained a steadfast wife to Menelaus.
I love this Gustave Moreau image above of Helen at the main gate of Troy. Of all the Helens in all the stories, I relate most to this eidolon Helen, this doppelganger of Helen and these images below were inspired by her and by Moreau’s painting . . .
Then there are the “recovery” stories of Helen (whether she is the real Helen or the ghost of Helen) from the burning ruins of Troy by Menelaus. Euripides describes this reclaiming of Helen in the aftermath of the war in the play titled Andromache. Lord Peleus insults Menelaus thus:
“When you took Troy you failed to put your wife to death, though you had her in your power—on the contrary, when you looked at her breast, you threw away your sword and accepted her kiss, caressing the traitorous bitch, you miserable wretch, born slave to lust.”
The beautiful amphora above displays one of the earliest figurative depictions of Helen of Troy as she is being led back to the ship with Menelaus after the Greeks conquer Troy.
The “recovery” story is reenacted in Dutch painter Johann Tischbein’s painting above. Notice the dropped sword of Menelaus and Helen’s lightly draped and beautiful breasts. Menelaus intended to slay her for her infidelity but was so struck by her beauty (and her boobs) that he took her back to Sparta.
In any case, Helen does survive the Trojan war and, according to Homer in the Iliad, she returns to Sparta to live a harmonious life with Menelaus. I find this story line hard to believe. In another account by Euripides Helen is flown to Olympus by the gods after the war to live out her life as an immortal. This must have been the story line for Gustave Moreau’s Helen Glorified below.
Whether Helen is portrayed as a shameless queen, a brilliant specter or a virtuous wife—she has been constituted and reconstituted as a figment of patriarchal perception throughout millennia. If I were Helen (or her doppelganger) after all these journeys, wars, husbands – I would be exhausted . . . and want to live out the remainder of my life in a quiet fashion alone by the pool in Sparta (or wherever).
The image below is perhaps my favorite of The Helen Series.
All images are from the My Aphrodite series, Sherry Wiggins and Luís Filipe Branco, 2022
I have been looking, sorting, making sense of and editing the MANY images that I took with Luis Branco on the Costa Vicentina in Portugal at the end of March. It is good to let the images breath . . . you become attached to the images when you first shoot them and look through them. The shooting process was arduous . . . Luis and I worked many days clambering down the cliffs on the Costa Vicentina—shooting hundreds of images on the beautiful beaches at first light and at last light. And the ocean at the Costa Vicentina is almost too gorgeous, too vast, too poetic— it was overwhelming. I also had to figure out the right fabric (it was the cheesy diaphanous blue fabric I bought at Joanne’s on a whim), the right dress, the right make-up (but not too much) and most of all the right Aphrodite Attitude.
And then I just had to let go of the concepts, the ideas . . . and I had to take on a “what the f…” attitude with confidence. I was embodying the immortal goddess in my 66 year-old mortal form. And Luis had to get every shot . . .
This all came together during our last photoshoot in the evening light at the Praia da Carreagem—My Aphrodite emerged. These are my favorite images from that last photoshoot and from the whole week of shooting on the Costa Vicentina. These are the My Aphrodite images.
I am happy with these images (I need to get some processing and printing done) and Luis wants to convert some of the images to black and white. I will go on to sort and edit the series we shot of Helen of Troy and Sparta in Northern Portugal in April. And I am looking forward to researching and enacting more of My Heroines (Sappho, the Virgin Mary? And many more…) Happy Summer!!
The Mirror Between Us is an exhibition of performative photographs made by Sherry Wiggins and Luís Filipe Branco in the Alentejo region of Portugal between 2015 and 2019. The exhibit is installed in the Igreja de Sao Vicente in Evora, Portugal and will be on view April 16- June 4, 2022. This exhibition was curated and supported by Carolien van der Laan and Ludger van der Eerden, founders of the OBRAS Foundation and artist residency in Evoramonte, Portugal. The Municipality of Evora and Margarida Branco have provided the beautiful space in the church in the historic center of Evora. Andreia Vaz played her own composition on the violin, please look for the link to the video near the picture of her warming up on her violin.
Andreia Vaz played her own composition at the inauguration, here is a link to the video of Andreia’s beautiful performance on my Facebook page, Pedro Barral made the video:
Thank you to the many friends who have supported this work and this exhibition!! Margarida Branco, Senhor Mosco, Luis Pintassilgo, Pedro Barral, Andreia Vaz, Fatima Alvarez, Conor and Fiona Power, Martine de Kok, and all the many others in Portugal and in the US and around the world, and especially Ludger and Carolien! And my dear collaborator Luis Branco who only stands behind the camera, it is an honor and a joy to make work with you and we will keep making it!
The Mirror Between Us, an exhibition of performative photographs by Sherry Wiggins and Luis Filipe Branco, will be installed at the Igreja de Sao Vicente in Evora, Portugal, April 16- June 4, 2022. This exhibition was curated by Carolien van der Laan and Ludger van der Eerden, founders of the OBRAS Foundation in Evoramonte, Portugal. Cydney Payton wrote the essay for the exhibit, originally scheduled for 2020 and rescheduled for 2022 due to the covid pandemic.
Essay by Cydney M. Payton
“The camera is the ideal arm of consciousness.” —Susan Sontag
Mere scattered light and atoms make photographs. A photograph multiplies the self into another dimension, a rotation in the vector of two objects to create a mirror image of the other. As Susan Sontag wrote in On Photography, the camera allows one to lay claim to another reality. Sherry Wiggins and Luís Branco’s collaborative project The Mirror Between Us / O Espelho Entre Nós presents us with questions about female agency in such reality creation.
Today, the general nature of self-representation has become complicated by the full-throttle world of image manufacturing and collection—Twitter, Instagram, Facebook, news cycles. We are overburdened with sorting not only pictures but their implied histories and meanings. It is clear that making artistic work is far from the immediacy of a snapshot. So, when we look at the Wiggins/Branco photographs what are we to look for? The subject, easily identified as the artist Wiggins, is a woman of a certain age. Yet, it is in the broader subjects of landscape and nature that the narrative splits from that preconception. Amid lush fields and ancient cork trees, an artisanal past comes forward in idyllic even aggressive presentations of womanhood in nature.
The collaboration between Wiggins and photographer Luís Filipe Branco began in 2015 when Wiggins entered a residency at the rural OBRAS Foundation near Evoramonte in Portugal. Arriving from her home in Boulder, Colorado, Wiggins was already committed to a long-term investigation that she termed Searching Selves, a conceptual process whereby she would delve into the artistic practices of other artists. The aim was to challenge her studio practice by studying then traveling to locations where the artists lived to make work that conceptually spoke about her art and its relationship to those she was excavating. For Wiggins, intellectually and artistically embodying other artist’s work has become a unique methodology to confront ideas about female (re)presentation. At OBRAS, she had chosen to investigate the late Portuguese artist Helena Almeida who, like Wiggins, had a history of making performative photographs.
Initially, Branco came to OBRAS to document Wiggins’ Almeida-adjacent performances. For this work—performance, photographs, drawings—Wiggins entered into an Almeida-like emotional space. Where Almeida sought to arrange the body as a performance of painting, Wiggins would arrange the body against a material structure. Branco’s first photographs of Wiggins show a woman almost dancing on an overblown abstracted red flower designed with fabric. Branco, known as a photojournalist but trained as a fine artist, wanted the chance to make his images using Wiggins in a classical sense as an artist’s model. However, once their work began things quickly changed; the making of images became more of an exchange between the two artists, a mirroring, as seen in Two Chairs, at Herdade da Marmeleira, 2015 and Two Sherrys at Herdade da Marmeleira, 2015. Over the following four years, Wiggins/Branco would create five projects with Wiggins in the roles of creative agitator, model, and director and Branco as producer and image-maker. The Mirror Between Us represents work from four of those collaborations all produced in Portugal. The most recent project, inspired by the French artist Claude Cahun (1894-1954), began in the Netherlands in 2019 and is planned for production in 2021.
By creating a process of collaboration built on sites and ideas—some of which followed Wiggins continued Searching Selves investigation and others which evolved from their mutual interest in the landscape—Wiggins/Branco have generated several bodies of work largely gripped by issues of feminist presentation. By this I mean, that we cannot look at these photographs without impressing upon them the various histories of how women have been, and are, looked at. To some viewers, the largest consideration might be Wiggins’ age. By examining it, weighing it against notions of youth and beauty, we can see the agency that an older female body can have when captured by the lens against the landscape.
As we know, the notion of landscape is a modern invention. Historically, it was a word that came to represent the way gentry borrowed views thus cultivating and often stealing both image and land. In this regard, landscape implies acts of aggression, theft of property. The term arose in isolation from a true understanding that woodlands, hills, plains can never be truly owned. Landscape provided the means for nature to be lawfully bartered, traded, occupied. Borrowing a view might seem noble but it also suggests gendered exploitation of boundaries as property rights were for generations the domain of men. We can easily imagine that Seat at Evoramonte, 2019, suggests a kind of occupation by an unwanted figure on someone else’s land or expulsion of the woman in the frame from inside a home to the wilds outside. We see the body in this image precariously situated on a chair that tilts against the horizon with a single, almost skeletal tree, her hair echoing its loosely structural form. Branco has given the image weight by pushing the dynamic between the two objects—body and tree—with a sparseness that relates his work to Portuguese photographer Paulo Nozolino known for high-contrast black and white images with raw yet poetical graphic power.
In the series Outside Woman I & II, 2019, there is a reversal of this historic reading of the feminine body and nature. Until the nineteenth century most women, those without wealth and status, were held captive by domestic roles that led them to be rarely seen unaccompanied outside. Even peering from a window was seen as dangerous; the female body uncontained and being of nature posed a threat to male sexuality and power. In the photographs Outside Woman I & II, the woman is not only literally outside the window but she is draped in sheer flesh-colored fabric seemingly autoerotically possessed, drawing us into a conversation about statuary and ancient goddesses. Aphrodite comes forward but it is pre-Hellenic goddess Astarte in her aspect as the “Queen of the Evening Star,” a goddess of love, who resides in Wiggins’ provocation.
A more contemporary view suggests that the female form in Outside Woman I & II, being released from the bondage of domesticity, finds its natural footing unbound in nature while the camera with its implied maleness—to aim and shoot—remains trapped inside. Still, it has to be acknowledged that there is an edge of voyeurism to the images, a tilt of the power toward the lens and its operator. However, the woman appears unaware of the presence of being viewed—being shot—deferring the position of power to an external body of viewership such as us.
The coupling of these two artists—female and male, artist and cameraman—court criticality. Issues of power and sexuality are entwined with any reading of the work. These are issues in this era not to be overlooked. The bargain that is being struck between informed audiences and the image makers is that the work holds value in the presentation of the very ideas and concepts that might be objectionable in feminism; that we can gauge the power that is being brought into question, seeing it lob back and forth between the two artists.
Ultimately, the structure of this collaboration is directed by Wiggins’ incisive pursuit of self through reflection. It becomes evident in the repetitive figuration and performative practice that is being worked. However, Branco’s role is more than one of an absorptive responder, it requires attunement and mediation of technical and ephemeral factors. From Sontag, we also learn, “Photographs don’t seem deeply beholden to the intentions of an artist. Rather, they owe their existence to a loose cooperation (quasi-magical, quasi-accidental) between photographer and subject.” If this holds, then the images from the Wiggins/Branco collaboration move beyond a gendered platform into a more open conversation about dialogue in artistic practice, something that is often overlooked by a continued interest in the preciousness of production as largely an individualistic form to be codified as genius, even today, and especially in photography. Regardless, the photographs are not moralistic, but more representative of the oft-overlooked subjects—women and age.
This mirroring between the artists lends complexity to the Wiggins/Branco photographs as they are seen against the contemporary gloss of pictures created and consumed today. In Mirror at Santa Susanna, 2017, a woman holds an oval mirror refracting a blot of sunlight. It blinds the viewer from seeing the reflection of the camera lens, the photographer, and the artist in the mirror. This blast of light directs us to look in more detail at the background where arches of an ancient aqueduct run alongside a lake, now almost emptied by severe drought.
Civilizations’ first mirrors were pools of water—ponds, lakes, streams, oceans. Searching for a reflection of self in the surface of water, metal or glass is as ancient as the Egyptians, Greeks, and Romans. Yet, even to this day, mirrors like cameras, are seen by some as instruments that trap the soul negating individualism and soulfulness. It is as if the artists have chosen Santa Susannaas a site for their project to speak about its lost abilities as a soul-catcher since a lake without a watery surface is a lake abandoned by its phantasmagorical language. Wiggins/Branco’s Mirror at Santa Susanna bids us examine the connections between Santa Susanna and her lost art of reflection.
Reflection by definition throws back a body or surface of light without absorbing it. What makes us want to see ourselves in such a transitory dimension? Philosopher Jacques Lacan posited that “mirroring” is necessary to the primacy of development. Lacan’s concept of the mirror stage theorized that our earliest recognition of selfhood through reflection creates a way for the individual to define self against the spatial objectness of all that is around us. With the title, The Mirror Between Us, Wiggins/Branco have suggested that a mirror need not be directly situated for self-image. That it is in the middle space, between two objects, two reflections, that we are bound to what is timelessly feminine, axial and a vector, for the self and others.
The last word from Sontag on what appeals to us about looking at such images as those in this grouping and questioning what gives them artistic grounding. “Through photographs we follow in the most intimate, troubling way the reality of how people age.” She continues by stating, that to look back at a photograph of oneself or of anyone, famed or ordinary, artist or not, “is to feel, first of all, how much younger (she, he) was then.” No matter how long ago the image was made it still sits in the past. This is the experience, putting a gage on mortality, that attracts us to photography in general but it is also what attracts us to The Mirror Between Us, as we are witnessing a historic event, a past encounter, some kind of documentary evidence of the subject’s age made ageless by its photographic transcription.
—Cydney M. Payton
1. Susan Sontag, On Photography, (New York, New York, Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 1971). iii-lxx
2. A listing of Wiggins’ project Searching Selves to date, by order of production, includes Russian-American avant-garde filmmaker Maya Deren; Indian minimalist Nasreen Mohamedi; Portuguese conceptualist Helena Almeida; Brazilian multimedia artist Mira Schendel; and French writer and photographer Claude Cahun.
This essay occasions The Mirror Between Us / O Espelho Entre Nos, an exhibition of performative photographs by Sherry Wiggins and Luis Filipe Branco at the Igreja de Sao Vicente in Evora, Portugal, April 16-June 4, 2022. The opening is Saturday April 16th at 5 pm.
Other projects by Wiggins/Branco include the exhibitions Meeting Her Again/ Reencontrando-a for the Palacio dos Marqueses de Praia e Monforte, Estremoz, Portugal and Michael Warren Contemporary, Denver, Colorado (2017), Selected Works for The Month of Photography, Redline Contemporary Art Center, Denver (2019), and THE UNKNOWN HEROINE (2021) for Michael Warren Contemporary accompanied by a limited-edition artists book.
SHERRY WIGGINS lives in Boulder, Colorado. Her artistic practice addresses feminist relational processes and enactments. Over three decades her work has taken multiple forms such as drawings, installations, performances, photographs, public art, sculptures, video and writing. Wiggins has exhibited extensively in the U.S. and internationally in Brazil, India, the Middle East, and Portugal to name a few. She is represented by Michael Warren Contemporary in Denver, Colorado.
LUIS FILIPE BRANCO lives in Lisbon, Portugal. Luis began his career as a photojournalist at the Jornal Publico in Lisbon. Since then, Branco has worked as a freelance photographer, documentary filmmaker and fine art photographer collaborating with numerous musicians, poets and visual artists,
CYDNEY M. PAYTON lives in Monterey, California. She is a contemporary art curator and writer.
The artists wish to extend their sincere gratitude to the curators of The Mirror Between Us, Carolien van der Laan and Ludger van der Eerden, founders of the Foundation OBRAS in Evormonte, Portugal. In addition, the artists thank the Municipality of Evora and Margarida Branco for providing the beautiful exhibition space in the Igreja de Sao Vicente in the historic center of Evora, Portugal. The artists also extend a special acknowledgement to Joseph Logan for the design of this booklet.
I love this painting above by Gustave Moreau of “Helen Glorified.” I have immersed myself in the mythology and representation of the ancient Greek heroine Helen. I have chosen Helen as one of my heroines to study and consider and to soon embody in performative photographs (as I have recently embodied Eve and Salome). I am leaving in a week for Portugal to start my performance and work with Luis Branco on the Greek heroines Aphrodite, Helen and Sappho. Helen has been portrayed as “the most beautiful woman in the world” from ancient Greek times in countless poems, plays, paintings and artworks throughout history to contemporary times. Helen has also been presented as an original femme fatale— a seductress and enchantress and the main cause of the Trojan war. I am especially fascinated by her portrayal as an eidolon; a phantom, a ghost, a replicant of Helen sent to Troy with Paris while the “real” Helen was sent to Egypt. I am interested in how this figure / character of Helen has shaped ideas of beauty, sexuality, power and of womanhood in Western European culture. Here I will discuss and post some of the images, text, mythology and critique of Helen that interest me as I try to decipher how the mythos of Helen has helped to shape historical and contemporary notions of female agency or lack thereof.
I introduce a quote from Ruby Blondell, a contemporary classics scholar, on the idea of female power in ancient Greek culture as it relates to Helen:
“Female power poses notorious problems for ancient Greek culture. Because Greek ideology and cultural practice both place severe restrictions on female agency, it is difficult for women to exercise power without transgressing the norms constituted to regulate their behaviour. Since the control of female sexuality lies at the heart of these norms, sex—more specifically, the active female pursuit of an object of desire — is typically implicated in women’s transgressions and hence in the danger posed by the female as such. Insofar as female danger is wrapped up with sexual transgression, then, so is female power. And insofar as sex is bound,up with beauty, Helen of Troy — by definition the most beautiful woman of all time — is, also the most dangerous of women. Her godlike beauty grants her supreme erotic power over men, a power that resulted in what was, in Greek eyes, the most devastating war of all time.”
Ruby Blondell “‘Third Cheerleader from the left’: from Homer’s Helen to Helen of Troy”
Mythos and legend (and violence and lust) surround Helen a plenty. She is said to have been born a daughter of the king of the gods, Zeus. Her mother was generally considered to have been queen Leda, the mortal wife of the king of Sparta, Tyndareus. Zeus took the form of a giant swan and in some stories befriended and seduced Leda, in other stories raped Leda. Leda bore a giant egg from which Helen came forth. In other versions the goddess of divine retribution Nemesis, in bird form, is named as Helen’s mother still with Zeus the father and the egg was then given to Leda to hatch. There are several other important children born of this mythical egg. I prefer the story of Zeus taking the form of a swan (a symbol in ancient Greece of; light, transformation, intuition and grace) and then seducing the Spartan queen Leda. Alternately, in Greek literature and myth, the gods are always having their way with mortal women. In any case there is a beautiful bird, a god and a goddess, a queen, a possible rape or seduction and a giant egg involved in the conception of Helen.
The gods and goddesses (and Aphrodite and Helen specifically) are also involved in one of the presumed reasons for the Trojan war. In the story of the “Judgement of Paris” the handsome prince of Troy, Paris, is asked to judge / choose the most beautiful of the three goddesses: Aphrodite, Athena and Hera. All three goddesses offered Paris various bribes—Aphrodite offered Paris “the most beautiful woman in the world” Helen of Sparta. Paris gives the beauty prize (a golden apple) to Aphrodite and ultimately Paris goes off to find Helen. This story is memorialized in the painting below by Peter Paul Rubens. There are many repercussions from this original beauty contest . . .
What happens next has been told in many different versions in ancient Greece texts and throughout the millennia. The famed Trojan war, if it ever really happened, would have taken place around the 12th century BC. The ancient Greek poet Homer wrote the Iliad and the Odyssey sometime around the 8th century BC. Homer writes of Helen in both the Iliad and the Odyssey in one of her earliest portrayals, though much was already known about Helen in Greece at that time. The Iliad takes place during the 10th and final year of the Trojan War and Homer places Helen there. It is not clear how Helen came to Troy; did Helen fall in love with the handsome Paris and leave her husband and country for her lover? or did Paris abduct and or rape Helen and take her to Troy? This is never made clear—is she a treacherous slut or a hapless victim? I vote the treacherous slut, at least she has some power and choice in the situation.
And what did Helen really look like?
And did she go happily or was she abducted /raped?
In this story of love and seduction and/ or rape and abduction Helen is taken to Troy and suffers through the epic 10 year-long Trojan War (hated by most everyone). Paris is killed and many many others die and ultimately the forces of Menelaus (Agamemnon, Odysseus et all) deal a final blow to Troy with the Trojan horse ploy. Helen survives the war. Menelaus enters into the burning remains of Troy to kill her but is so struck by her beauty (and apparently her breasts) that he drops his sword and takes her back to Sparta. In Homer’s Odyssey Helen is back as the queen of Sparta and she and Menelaus seem to be ok.
The ancient Greek author Euripides in his play Helen (and several other ancient and modern authors) tell an alternate version of Helen’s locus and behavior during the Trojan War. Euripides tells the story that the goddess Hera was upset by the “Judgement of Paris” (when Paris declared Aphrodite the most beautiful). Hera created an eidolon, a phantom, a replicant of Helen and had the messenger god Hermes whisk the “real” Helen off to Egypt. The Helen who escaped with Paris, betraying her husband and her country and initiating the ten-year conflict in Troy, was actually an eidolon, a ghost, a look-alike. In Euripides play, the “real” Helen stays seventeen long years in Egypt remaining loyal to her husband Menelaus. The “real” Helen remains virtuous and true. The phantom Helen, the eidolon, the virtual Helen (who by the way breathes and has sex) is the treacherous slut who runs off with Paris to Troy and suffers the 10 year Trojan war. I love this idea of the double Helen, it speaks to the concept that Helen is really a construction, an idea (created by men). The idea of Helen exemplifies these constrasting values placed on women of virtue and fidelity versus sexual proclivity and treachery. Many of Gustave’s Moreaus’s paintings allude to this eidolon of Helen at Troy.
And lastly, I look to contemporary conceptual artist Eleanor Antin and her project “Helen’s Odyssey.” Eleanor Antin is a feminist fairy godmother artist for me and I admire her work tremendously, she is 87 years old now and still going strong. In her 2007 major project “Helen’s Odyssey,” Antin constructed elaborate photo tableu’s depicting various scene’s from Helen’s mythological life. Antin depicts two Helens also; one a blonde kind of ditsy fun loving Helen and the other a dark and more demonic Helen. The image I love most of all in this series is the image titled “Constructing Helen,” where various tiny male artists (poets, sculptors, painters, writers) construct a giant sculpture of Helen laying prone in all her glorious beauty. Of course, this alludes to the eidolon of Helen, the mirage of Helen, the idea of Helen, the art of Helen and her construction as a giant male fantasy.
And I am off to Portugal March 21st to create my version, my embodiment of Helen.
Muse, tell me the things done by golden Aphrodite,
the one from Cyprus, who arouses sweet desire for gods
and who subdues the populations of mortal humans,
and birds as well, who fly in the sky, as well as all beasts
– all those that grow on both dry land and the sea [pontos].
They all know the things done by the one with the beautiful garlands, the one from Cythera.
From the anonymous “Homeric Hymn to Aphrodite” c. 7th century BC translated by Gregory Nagy
Aphrodite (the ancient Greek goddess of beauty, love, marriage, passion, pleasure, procreation, prostitution and more) has arisen for me as a fascinating representative of female sexuality and agency. She is literally a fluid subject born of the ocean and celebrating, performing, supporting (and manipulating) love in all its various forms. I have begun my research into the mythos, history and meaning of Aphrodite along with her spiritual ancient Greek daughters/sisters the beautiful Helen of Troy (and Sparta and Argos) and the great poet Sappho of Lesbos. I intend to enact and embody these heroines of ancient Greece when I return to Portugal in a few weeks (March 22nd) to work with my collaborator, photographer, Luis Branco. This process of investigation and manifestation, that I have employed with several other historical heroines (most recently Eve and Salome), puts me in a kind of fugue state. I literally enter into these fabled women’s footsteps, bosoms, psyches and the mythologies that surround them. I examine these heroines / figures in ancient texts, contemporary scholarship and also in their representations in multiple art forms throughout history. Of course, many of these historic representations and texts are by men, so I must take this into account in my reimagining of these heroines. I contemplate these storied women and remake them in my own vision and visage.
Aphrodite emerges in early Greek history, literature, mythology as a syncretic goddess. Her powerful antecedent goddesses from the ancient civilizations across the waters of the Eastern Mediterranean are the Bronze Age deities; Innana, Ishtar and Astarte (and there are many more). Astarte was a goddess of the Phoenician and Canaanite pantheons associated with war, sexuality and royal power. All these ancient goddesses represented sexuality, power and fertility in varying degrees.
Aphrodite has been represented as a powerful, sometimes deceitful and manipulative, overwhelmingly beautiful and seductive goddess from her early beginnings in Greek mythology, cosmology, poetry and art. There are several different legends of Aphrodite’s birth— I am most compelled by the story of her primal birth in Hesiod’s “Theogony” (literally “The Birth of the Gods” composed between 730 and 700 BC). The story goes like this . . .
The world began with the spontaneous generation of four primordial beings: Chaos (the original Space in which creation takes place); then Gaia (Earth); Tartarus (Void) and Eros (Desire). These primal beings produced many elemental progeny. From Chaos came Darkness, Night, Brightness, Day . . . Gaia’s progeny includes Ouranus the Sky god, Ourea the Mountain god and Pontus the Sea god. Gaia (the elemental Earth goddess) has many offspring with her own son Ouranus the Sky god; these include the twelve Titans (Chronos among them), Cyclops and many other pretty horrific primal beings. Gaia becomes weary of the burden of bearing these difficult beings with Ouranus. She devises a plan to castrate Ouranos with a huge metal sickle or knife. Gaia asks their son Chronos to perform this task and Chronos agrees.
This is part of the story from Hesiod’s “Theogony” lines 176 to 200 (I am not sure whose translation this is):
And now on came great Ouranos, bringing Night with him.
And, longing for love, he settled himself all over Earth.
From his dark hiding-place, the son reached out
With his left hand, while with his right he swung
The fiendishly long and jagged sickle, pruning the genitals
Of his own father with one swoop and tossing them
Behind him, where they fell to no small effect.
Earth soaked up all the bloody drops that spurted out,
And as the seasons went by she gave birth to the Furies
And to great Giants gleaming in full armor, spears in hand,
And to the Meliai, as ash-tree Nymphs are generally called.
The genitalia themselves, freshly cut with flint, were thrown
Clear of the mainland into the restless, white-capped sea,
Where they floated a long time. A white foam from the god-flesh
Collected around them, and in that foam a maiden developed
And grew. Her first approach to land was near holy Cythera,
And from there she floated on to the island of Cypros.
There she came ashore, an awesome, beautiful divinity.
Tender grass sprouted up under her slender feet.
Is her name in speech human and divine, since it was in foam
She was nourished. But she is also called Cythereia since
She reached Cythera, and Cyprogenes because she was born
On the surf-line of Cypros, and Philommedes because she loves
The organs of sex,from which she made her epiphany.
Eros became her companion, and ravishing Desire waited on her
At her birth and when she made her debut among the Immortals.
From that moment on, among both gods and humans,
She has fulfilled the honored function that includes
Virginal sweet-talk, lovers’ smiles and deceits,
And all of the gentle pleasures of sex.
This is quite the elemental image and idea— beautiful Aphrodite emerges fully formed; born of Ouranus’s castrated giant phallus. The “foam” from which Aphrodite arises is the semen of her father Ouranus the god of the Sky. Her half-brother Chronos is the perpetrator of this heinous deed, castrating his own father at the bequest of his mother Earth (Gaia). Aphrodite is gestated in this matrix/fluid of her father’s phallus. She arises from the sea foam / seminal fluid with her two companions Eros (Eros is the primordial god of Love and sex) and Himeros (the god of uncontrollable and ravishing Desire). One of Aphrodite’s Greek names is Philommedes which has two meanings; both “genital loving” and “smile loving.” This story of her birth in Hesiod’s Theogony pre-dates the birth of Zeus and the other Olympian gods and goddesses. In other stories (Homer et all) she is the progeny of Zeus and the Titan goddess of the ocean, Dione.
Aphrodite was worshipped throughout the Mediterranean from the early Archaic period of Greek history (750 BC – 500 BC) on through the Classical and Hellenistic times. The Romans took Aphrodite on as their own and she morphs into the goddess Venus, along with the other dieties in the Greek Pantheon. Temples were built for her worship, rituals were performed in her name. Statues and artworks heralded her beauty and power and her many physical and spiritual attributes. Aphrodite was associated the element of water that she was born of and the islands of Cythera and Cyprus. She was also associated with sacred mountains, where temples were built in her name. Aphrodite was floral—she loved flowers and fruits (the rose, narcissus, lily, poppy, pomegranate, apple, quince). Birds are an important part of Aphrodite’s entourage; doves, ducks, geese and swans. Aphrodite is intrinsically “golden”—this means not only gold the precious metal; her goldenness is her inherent beauty. Aphrodite is associated with the dawn, she is a solar goddess.
The ancient Greek Aphrodite occupied a broad and bountiful sexual territory. She was the goddess of marital love as well as erotic love. Aphrodite was married to the crippled god Hephaistos—god of Fire, craft and metalsmithing but she was not in love with Hephaistos. She had a long passionate affair with Ares the god of War. Hephaistos caught them in the act of love and cast a finely crafted golden net over the lovers, which they were later released from. Hephaistos divorced Aphrodite, divorce amongst the gods . . . very modern. She had liaisons with many of the other gods; Dionysius, Hermes and Poseidon. Goddesses were not supposed to lay with mortal men, however not so with Aphrodite. Aphrodite had a passionate and tragic affair with the beautiful mortal man Adonis, as well as her affair with the Trojan prince Anchises. She had many children: with Ares she had Eros, Phobos, Deimos, Harmonia, Pothos, Anteros, and Himeros; with Hermes she had Hermaphroditus; with Posiedon she had Rhodos and Eryx; with Dionysus she had Peitho, The Graces and Priapu; and with the Trojan prince Anchises she bore Aeneus. Aphrodite was sexually generous and liberated, the lover of genitals (smile) and also very generative in terms of her progeny.
Aphrodites beauty and sensuality was celebrated in sculptures and paintings from early Greek times and on into the Hellenistic and Roman times. The Aphrodite of Knidos is perhaps the most famous of these sculptures. The original sculpture is lost to us and the sculpture above is a Roman copy of the original Greek sculpture by Praxiteles of Athens created around the 4th century BC. The original sculpture is believed to be one of the first life sized representations of the nude female form in Greek history. The original sculpture has been copied many times and evolved in various ways. You can see in the Aphrodite of Knidos sculpture that Aphrodite is gesturing modestly and covering her pubic area. In many of the subsequent nude Aphrodite / Venus sculptures, she also covers a breast. The term “Venus pudica” is a designation used in western art that refers to this classical form of a woman hiding her pubic area, and sometimes her breasts, almost with a sense of shame. Early Greek sculptures of Aphrodite started this trend of modesty or shame (which arose again in the Renaissance and afterwards) which seems unfortunate to me in terms of the representation of female sexuality and beauty. Although these nude sculptures are gorgeous and sensuous, they also speak to the disempowerment of Aphrodite the goddess of Love. Our “original” Aphrodite; who arose from the phallus of her father the Sky; who lay with the gods and mortals without shame; would not cover herself coyly in this way.
Rome adapted and repurposed the mythology and iconography of Aphrodite into the goddess Venus, still a powerful goddess of love and but also victory and war. During the early Christian era evidence of Venus and Aphrodite (and many other Greek and Roman icons, temples and emblems of “pagan” culture) were destroyed or desecrated and built upon. Aphrodite / Venus submerged / disappeared for hundreds of years . . .
Aphrodite reborn . . .
Aphrodite / Venus was resurrected for us in the Western world during the Renaissance and beyond. In Sandro Botticelli’s “Birth of Venus” she is literally reborn in her golden glory and she is accompanied by the gods of the winds, Zephyr and Aura. The Hora of spring is ready to cloth Aphrodite / Venus. I have posted below some of my favorite and more famous Aphrodite / Venus paintings of the Renaissance, the Baroque, the Rococo, the French Academic and the Pre-Raphaelite periods. Only one of these paintings is by a woman, the Italian Renaissance painter Artemisia Gentileschi. Aphrodite / Venus is always white, the Ruben’s painting shows her with her black maid. Aphrodite / Venus’s influence on our thoughts about beauty, desire and different forms of love and sexual relationships and womanhood reflects back to us in subtle and complicated ways. Notice still the “Venus pudica” stance in many of these paintings which can be either standing or prone. She is always sexy but is she always powerful/empowered?
And in the 20th Century we had many “Golden Goddesses” of film, here are a few of my favorites:
And finally my favorite Golden Goddess / Diva of the 21st Century—who does appear sexy, powerful and pregnant at the 2017 Grammy Awards:
This has been a deep dive for me into the origins and evolution of “My Aphrodite” —goddess of Beauty, Love, Sexuality and Power . . .
all images by Sherry Wiggins and Luís Filipe Branco, 2021
I have been looking through the thousands of images that I made with photographer Luís Branco in October at the OBRAS Artist Residencies in Portugal. We had a very productive time—our work has become increasingly theatrical, though always improvisational and never choreographed. Sorting the meaning and impact of the images takes time, reflection (and editing) to figure out.
It has been difficult to look at these images where I act out and embody the heroine Salome. Who was Salome anyway? Salome has been portrayed by poets and painters, in theatre and opera, and in film; as an alluring beauty, a chaste princess, a licentious woman, an evil seductress, a murderous vamp, an orientalist female visage, and more. Salome’s representation has evolved over the last two thousand years from its biblical beginnings, however her manifestations have never lost their misogynist overtones. She is adorned in jewels, semi-naked and swathed in diaphanous fabrics. She is often pictured with the head of John the Baptist on a platter, sometimes kissing his bloody head. Flaubert, Gustave Moreau, Oscar Wilde, Aubrey Beardsley, Richard Strauss, and even Al Pacino have all had their way with this damsel. Performers and actors; Mata Hari, Maude Allan, Rita Hayworth, Jessica Chastain have donned her immodest silken veils.
And why have I, a 66 year-old feminist conceptual artist, chosen to portray Salome?
By embodying Salome, I am beckoning the sexist male gaze that has tainted this mythical creature from her early beginnings. Concurrently I am questioning this gaze.
I arrived in Portugal last October with costume jewelry and gold and silver fabrics to bedeck myself. I found a fabulous brass tray at the Saturday market in Estremoz, the perfect platter for the imagined head of John the Baptist. We shot many images in the studio at OBRAS with a simple black background, the tray, the necklace and me. I am exposed (my sagging skin, my aging body).
When my partner, Jamie, saw these last few images she asked “What were you thinking about?” I was, actually, thinking about Oscar Wilde’s Salome and her unrequited love for Jokanaan (John the Baptist), of her kissing the decapitated head of her beloved. Yes, O.W.’s Salome is pretty weird . . .
We were also shooting Salome in the castle at Evoramonte.
She is a dream, an apparition . . . much like Gustave Moreau’s painting “The Apparition” and the golden and silvered wall of the castle appears like a mirage or a beautiful abstract painting.
One of our last photoshoots, Salome at Sunset, was Luis’s idea and I improvised my Salome in the rental car at sunset, not quite so self-serious . This was fun.
Luís and my rendition of Salome is that of an aging princess, a slutty siren, a phantasm, a self-reflective woman, a wannabe movie star. My Salome is sometimes sexy, vulnerable, a little bit witchy, mystical, even funny. She shows her age, her make-up is a little overdone, her countenance confident, her body still strong and able. I can beckon Salome, I can beckon your gaze and my own gaze at myself.
I am looking forward to returning to Portugal to produce more “heroines” this spring. Luís Branco and I will have a large exhibition of our work “The Mirror Between Us” installed in the beautiful Igreja de Sao Vicente in Evora, Portugal in April of this year. We would like to thank Carolien van der Laan and Ludger van der Eerden of the OBRAS Foundation for their continuing support of our work.
I have been home for a little over a week now—settling in and beginning to look at the many images I made in Portugal at the OBRAS Artist Residencies with my collaborator, photographer Luís Branco. It was the best residency yet at OBRAS Portugal, this was my seventh residency at OBRAS Portugal (lucky 7) and I have been collaborating with Luís in Portugal and in the Netherlands since 2015. I arrived at Herdade da Marmeleira (the site of OBRAS Portugal) and I was greeted by my dear friends Carolien and Ludger, the founders of Foundation OBRAS and my hosts and major supporters of Luís and my work.
My intent was to shoot (with Luís) my embodiments and reinterpretations of the heroines Eve and of Salome with some reference to their historic representations in painting and literature. The characters / heroines I am choosing are all based on the ultimate inspiration for this project Claude Cahun— both their 1925 text Heroines as well as Cahun’s more theatrical self- portraits and performative images. There are 15 heroines in Cahun’s text (Eve, Judith, Penelope, Helen, Sappho, The Virgin Mary, Cinderella, Marguerite, Salome, Beauty, THE ESSENTIAL WIFE or the the Unknown Princess (whom I have already represented in THE UNKNOWN HEROINE book and exhibition), Sophie, Salamacis, and THE ANDROGYNE. Of course there is tongue and cheek involved with Cahun’s re-presentations of these heroines, and also my own – after all I am a 66 year old feminist artist embodying these fabled women and Cahun was a radical feminist, gender fluid, artist in the early 20th century rewriting the allegories and stories of their lives.
I was a little intimidated at the beginning, embodying these illustrious heroines seemed a daunting task. Luís and I began shooting Eve / the Serpent in the beautiful studio at OBRAS under more controlled conditions. This way I could slowly take on this “original woman,” mother of us all, and apparently the reason we are not all still in paradise. Working in the studio situation I began to get my dangerous woman Eve / Serpent ju ju going and Luis captured some great images. Here are a few:
There are lots of representations of Eve but this watercolor by William Blake “The Temptation of Eve” (created for Milton’s Paradise Lost) spoke to me. I love the organic quality of the tree and the fruit, the serpent wrapping around Eve’s body, and Adam seemingly unaware of the circumstances. I also like the conflation of Eve and the Serpent, they are one body. I am a Buddhist and not a biblical scholar, but I do sincerely question this idea that “they” (Eve and the Serpent) are responsible for the expulsion from Paradise. I had found this super cool holographic snake fabric and special gloves (during my preparations in the US) and I brought this new costume to use for this embodiment.
Then we started shooting Eve / Serpent Woman by the Marmeleira tree in the courtyard at OBRAS. As I have written before, I chose the Marmeleira tree at OBRAS because it is so beautiful and also because there is some research and speculation about the original “forbidden fruit” in Paradise. If our biblical paradise was located on this earth, it was most likely in some more southern habitat. Apples are a more northern fruit. Some say that the Marmelo fruit / the Quince fruit could have been the fruit of the Tree of Knowledge. The fig, the persimmon, the pomegranate, are also possible suspects. We did our first shoot with the Marmeleira tree at dusk. Here are a few of those images:
Luis came back a week later and we did two more photo shoots (one in the morning and one in the evening) with the Marmeleira tree, this time with lights. Here are a few images from these last two photoshoots.
Cydney Payton has been helping me go through the many images of Eve and the Marmeleira tree. I am really excited about this new heroine of mine. I have many other images to sort through including my Salome embodiments. Lots of really good work! Other friends have been helping me sort the images, thank you! I am also sure that this project will go on with many more of Claude Cahun and my heroines. Va va voom!!
My friend Karla Dakin found this excellent article which confirms my belief in the marmelo / quince – It wasn’t an apple:
I am settling into the paradise, spaciousness and good company of other artists here at the OBRAS Artist Residency in the Alentejo region of Portugal. I have been lucky enough to be a guest here many times, so it feels wonderfully comfortable to me here and the hospitality and gracious care of Carolien and Ludger (my hosts) is such a gift. I have been shooting “self-portraits” early in the mornings with my relatively new Sony camera. This morning I found a rhythm with the light, the autofocus and the composition. One of Graciela Iturbide’s self-portraits, the remarkable Mexican photographer, was the inspiration for beginning—but no dead birds for me. I am showing her portrait below.
The landscape of earth, ancient stone, cork oak (and many sheep) surrounds me and from my little casa I look up at the mountain of Evoramonte. The building are all made of stone and earth. I found these stones that Ludger lovingly excavated from an ancient stone wall. They look like eyes to me.
Just beginning, so happy to be here and to have the space and stillness.
I am getting ready to embody more of Claude Cahun’s “Heroines” and make them my own. As I have written before, remarkable French artist Claude Cahun published the text “Heroines” in 1925 as a series of fifteen short stories and monologues. “Heroines” remains a radical text that deconstructs gender roles and stereotypes in Western literature with such figures as Cinderella, Salome, Eve, Sappho and Androgyne. Norman MacAfee translated Cahun’s text into English and the “Heroines” text was published in the book/ catalogue Inverted Odysseys in 1999. I acted out one of the essays, “THE ESSENTIAL WIFE or the the Unknown Princess,” in performative photographs that I made with Luis Branco for the project and book THE UNKNOWN HEROINE which I just published this year. Norman MacAfee allowed me to use the translated Cahun text in my book. Now I intend to embody the rest of Cahun’s Heroines. I have been looking at representations of these heroines in western art history. I will be reacting to these representations and asserting my own flavor and ideas (as well as Cahun’s more feminist interpretations of these women). I hope to start shooting this project in Portugal in a few weeks with Luis Branco. I am going to start with Eve ….
Following are some of these historic visual representations (albeit mostly by Western European white male painters). Maybe we can change these stories.
These are the heroines Cahun writes of in her text: Eve; Delilah; Judith; Penelope; Helen; Sappho; Virgin Mary; Cinderella; Marguerite; Salome; Beauty; THE WIFE or the Unknown Princess; Sophie; Salmacis; and The Androgyne. I hope to explore and embody all these heroines.