Jacob Yanes: notes on “Philomela”
Philomela is a sculptural installation based on story of Tereus, Procne, and Philomela, as told by Ovid in the Metamorphoses. This installation follows my major concern in how individuals become the subjects and translators of violence. In this work I use the character of Philomela and the events of her story as a framework in which to examine the difficult task of reconnection and reengagement after one has been subjected to deliberate violence.
Philomela is about pain: physical pain and the mental anguish of dissociation and voicelessness. The entire installation consists of an embroidered tapestry and a representation of Philomela. The sculpture of Philomela was made using techniques similar to Spanish icon makers, but with an inversion of material value: Whereas the sculptors in the Spanish tradition used cedar, polychrome and gold leaf, I used carved, laminated cardboard, wood putty and asphalt primer. The tapestry is a large wall-hanging embroidered with colored text, intended to represent Philomela’s own words and handiwork. It is composed of ten three-line phrases, some drawn from the original story, some from American slave narratives, and others from my personal experience. The tapestry was woven on a computer-driven Jacquard loom.
In brief, the story of Philomela is as follows: Philomela, a princess of Athens, is abducted and raped by her brother-in law, King Tereus of Thrace. When Philomela declares that she will expose the assault, Tereus cuts out her tongue and imprisons her in a remote cabin. Voiceless and confined, Philomela weaves a tapestry that describes Tereus’ actions and her whereabouts, and has it smuggled to her sister Procne, the wife of Tereus. This act earns her freedom, but initiates a cycle of violent repercussions unintended by Philomela.
The tale of Philomela is an allegory of the problem of abuse, its effects and nature. It demonstrates how willful violence is a behavior that inevitably targets a person’s capacity for autonomous action, self-expression and self-conception: attributes that are bound within human relationships, the governance of the body, and the defining force of language. The story shows how a person subjected to violence is injured across the spectrum of those defining relationships. My installation “Philomela” will deal with a condition wherein agency, and in fact “selfhood”, have been partially annihilated as the result of violence; and it will examine how, in this aftermath, the will to live, the desire to “be”, becomes the need to give voice-- a monumental and meticulous effort of language.
Though Philomela’s condition is literalized in Ovid’s myth, the complication and intractability of isolation, if less physical, is just as absolute for many people who have suffered significant harm. The victim of violence can be surrounded by seemingly impassible gulfs of empathy and understanding, gulfs made wide by shame and social stigma, broadened further by the denial or collective amnesia of communities. The complicated nature of this isolation, which exists both in external perceptions and internal dissociations, requires that Philomela (or any one who has survived) commit to a massive effort of articulation and re-articulation, which addresses directly the shadow of injustice as it extends over those places from which she is outcast: the social, the psychic, and even the physical body, where conscious experience is seated. For the effects of assault linger in the conditions of everyday existence, not merely as memory.
Philomela’s articulation, in my installation, occurs in two places. First, in the text of the tapestry, which I am imagining as a series of statements drawn from Philomela’s interior experience: statements of fact and intent; statements of fear, outrage, anger; statements of resistance, appeal, and need. I imagine that Philomela finds these words as she navigates the miasma of psychic trauma-- clouds and mist lit by the spiritual breaks of violence, fissures in the human instincts of love and connection. I understand these instincts as enduring even in the extremity of experience, equal to and concurrent with the body’s instinct to maintain life: resilient, and of a piece with the incorporeal spirit.
The second place of articulation occurs in the sculptural representation of Philomela. This sculpture is intended to represent Philomela’s embodied presence: the physical body which is the seat of language and fact of personhood; the locus of control and conversely of pain; and the starting point of one’s involvement with the world. The stance of Philomela will be of one who, having been targeted, is now resolved to reenter the space in which she was harmed. Her posture, the position of her head and neck, the presence of her eyes, her arms, her clothing-- the manner and material of her construction-- will all be expressive of the history writ upon her and the one she must write for herself.
What this sculpture expresses is a thing experienced both in language and the body: an energy determined by conscious or unconscious vulnerabilities, strengths, fears, errors, compromises, self-understanding and solutions to survival-- characteristics and states that are redrawn in relationship to overwhelming pain. Philomela, having been made subject to another’s violence, suffers the pain of a self fractured and reapportioned into the vectors of a world substantiated only through brutality and its painful imprint. This new world, dictated by unremitting violence, has displaced the older, brighter one: the world that is shared with others and built collectively upon their best capacities and closest needs; the world that is granted us when we are born, and upheld by the love and care with which we tend to our body, lives and spirit; the one that sexual and physical violence intentionally destroy; and the one that Philomela may only access again through speaking. This project is intended to testify to the manifest humanity of her effort.
In addition to the serious problems of domestic violence, violence against women, and societal or institutional abuse (particularly against women), the story of Philomela can also stand generally for the subterfuge or outright stifling of political dissent within the body politic, and the subsequent necessity of regaining traction in the ground of protest. Philomela’s story contains a proposition for political action: that we must equip ourselves with the willingness to articulate issues understood as too somber or severe for the perceived “indecency” of protest; and resist those forces which, arguing only from the sacrosanct, would wish us to remain unfocused in the public conversation governing what is just or unjust, right or wrong. We must recognize that our shame as citizens can be used to tie our tongues; and the outrage of this, perhaps felt simply as rage by a voiceless populace, can easily be used to perpetuate those trends that remain hidden, unquestioned, and unspoken.