The classical literature provides a great source of inspiration for anyone who is fascinated by tales of transformation. The aim of this film project is to create a response to the well-known story of Pygmalion and Galatea.
In order to be able to understand our protagonist Claryssus’ own narrative, we first need to have a look at her historical origins. The Roman poet Ovid, originally told the story of Pygmalion, in the tenth book of ‘Metamorphoses’, around 8 AD. Pygmalion was a very talented sculptor who lived in the island of Cyprus. He was so repulsed by the shameless behaviour of the prostitutes who also lived on the island, that he eventually began hating all women. He promised himself that he would never want to have anything to do with a woman, and so, he decided to create an ivory statue of his own ideal woman. Upon completing the statue, he instantly fell in love with it, as it was the most beautiful thing he ever laid his eyes on. Continuing to refuse to even talk to a real woman, he later became obsessed with his own work of art.
He was fully aware of the fact that his dream woman was made out of ivory, but he couldn’t keep himself from kissing her, talking to her, buying her gifts and going to bed with her as if she was flesh and blood. He was eventually trapped within his own unrealistic fantasy.
At a festival organised in honour of the Greek goddess of love, Aphrodite, Pygmalion prayed for a bride who has the likeness of his statue. Aphrodite, however, knew that he, deep down, wanted to marry his statue but was too ashamed to admit it. She also felt that Pygmalion was trying to complement her looks because the statute looked a lot like her, so, in the end, she decided to grant his wish.
One day, when Pygmalion was kissing his statue like usual, he realised that her lips were unusually soft and fleshy. Responding to Pygmalion’s kiss, the statue, then, slowly opened her eyes and turned into a real woman from head to toe. The story ends here, with both of them getting married, having kids and living a good life together. One interesting fact is that, the statue never had a name of her own, until she was named ‘Galatea’ by some of the 18th century authors, a Latin name, which meant ‘white as ivory’. Until then, Pygmalion was the main focus of the story.
Some might suggest that this story is full of anti-feminist ideas about female beauty and it links to being a good woman to being passive and silent. I, however, find it very open to interpretation. Why did Pygmalion end up hating all women because of a group of prostitutes? Why did he fall in love with his own creation? Was he just a misogynistic and narcissistic man with a God complex? He would refuse to touch a real woman because of his strict morals, but carry on fondling an inanimate object. Does his behaviour not demonstrate the absurdity of self-righteousness perfectly? Furthermore, despite his unhealthy behaviour, he gets rewarded with his wish, only because a Goddess (an authority figure) gets flattered by his obsession. Does this not suggest that corruption amongst the ones who hold the power and bribery are concepts as old as time.
Galatea of the Spheres, Salvador Dalí, 1952
As for Galatea, her entire existence is based upon a strange man’s imagination and fantasies. In a way, “she does not exist”, Lacan would say. She does not have an identity of her own, but she is rather the embodiment of an ideal. Did she come to life out of love or out of lust? What would ‘being alive’ mean to her and what would be the point of her existence?
This story makes me ask all these questions and I often think about the universality of these ancient myths. No matter how outdated or unrealistic they may seem, they all succeed in creating a discussion about what it means to be a human being.
Pygmalion’s myth was also adopted for stage by George Bernard Shaw in 1913. In his version, Eliza Doolittle, a poor flower girl who was transformed into an educated and classy lady, goes against the man who made her who she is. Famous Broadway musical, My Fair Lady, is at the same time, based on this play.
Shaw’s version of the story, also reminds me of Woody Allen’s ‘Annie Hall’, in which Allen encourages Diane Keaton’s character to read more books and take literature classes so they can be on the same level intellectually. Her intelligence, in the end, surpasses that of Woody Allen’s and she grows dissatisfied with him.
Woody Allen, Annie Hall, 1977, film still
We can see another adaptation of this myth to modern cinema in Craig Gillespie’s ‘Lars and the Real Girl’. In this quirky film, Ryan Gosling falls in love with a sex doll and believes her to be the perfect woman for him.
Craig Gillespie, Lars and the Real Girl, 2007, film still
A REFLECTION ON THE PROCESS OF MAKING A VIDEO
“Out, out brief candle
Life’s nothing but a walking shadow, a poor player
That struts and frets his hour upon the stage
And then is heard no more; it is a tale
Told by an idiot, full of sound and fury,
William Shakespeare, Macbeth
When I first began the experimental film project , I wanted to create a relatively simple piece, not as ambitious as my previous sculptural works, as the entire task of learning to use a video editing software seemed very daunting. As literature has always been my inspiration, I have decided to draw upon ancient Greek literature while focusing on the theme of metamorphosis. I initially wanted to tell a story, which has been told and adapted many times. My final outcome, however, turned out be a self-portrait as I have wound up presenting my own personal reading of a Greek myth.
Metamorphosis, according to the standard definition, is the biological process that describes physical development of animals, including birth, development of body structure and growth differentiation. I would, however, like to look at metamorphosis from less common perspective: from the point of view that was expressed and presented to the world by the Roman poet Ovid, in his book ‘Metamorphoses’.
‘Metamorphoses’ consists of more than 200 classic Ancient Greek/Roman myths that are reimagined by Ovid. Transformation being the major theme in the book, it displays a wide range of themes, such as love, violence, art and power relations. For this experimental film project, I have used Ovid’s magnum opus as my primary source of inspiration. In the next couple of paragraphs, I will try to elaborate how I link the final outcome of my film project to the notions of bodily awareness and the awareness of self and being.
Although Claryssus is based on a well-known story, reflecting upon my progress and the final outcome, I have discovered that the story I intended to tell, ended up strictly corresponding to the events in my life at the time. During the making of this film, as Galatea was metamorphosing from a state of being inanimate to a state of being alive, I, myself was also transforming my life after an epiphany. In consequence, Galatea’s transformation could also be seen as a metaphor for awareness. What Galatea (or Claryssus in the film) discovers in the story is what it feels like to be alive. She experiences something that she never knew before. She becomes ‘aware’ of her surroundings, her vision, her flesh, her movement and her now beating heart. She gains a perception and a cerebral reaction to things around her. In cognitive theory, the notion of awareness does not necessarily implies understanding, and, for that reason, we can ask if Galatea understands what she sees. What, then, is her understanding of existence? Does she have any subjective ideas about her experience?
It is, however, hard to make out her reaction exactly. At the end of the video, in which her eyes completely lack any expression, we can only assume that she is questioning the meaning of all this. No matter how long we look at her deep blue eyes, we can’t decipher what is going through her mind. This only reminds us that life is an ultimately subjective and a lonely experience.
Jean-Léon Gérôme, ‘Pygmalion and Galatea’, Oil on canvas, 1890
In art history, Galatea has mostly been depicted with Pygmalion by her side, at the moment of the famous ‘kiss’ that brought her to life. However, in my video, I decided to portray her alone to emphasise her loneliness, akin to that of characters in Albert Camus’ stories.
Étienne Maurice Falconet, ‘Pygmalion et Galatée’, 1763
A digitally manipulated photograph of Rodin’s ‘The Kiss’ which was in exhibition at the Scottish National Gallery in Edinburgh between 2013 and 2014.
‘Claryssus’, a pseudo Greco-Roman name I have derived from the name Claire (or Clair) meaning ‘clear’ in Latin, is a portrait of a woman in the first minutes of her life. We are merely witnessing her initial moments following her transformation into a living being. For the duration of the video, we assume the role of an observer in front of her. Although it is inspired by a story, the video chooses not to tell a story, and this is more than evident in the lack of a plot. The video doesn’t aim the audience to empathise with the protagonist in any way. The viewer is simply carried to an alternative state of awareness of life through the rhythmic heartbeat in the background, which is similar to Maya Deren’s Meshes of the Afternoon.
Maya Deren, Meshes of the Afternoon, 1943, film still
The film is shot in the portrait mode as opposed to the conventional way of shooting in landscape. The reason behind this artistic decision is to present the audience a different way of looking at things, just like in Man Ray’s ‘Rayographs’, in which he suggests a new way of seeing by putting familiar objects in unfamiliar surroundings and context. This is quite similar to the strangeness of Claryssus’ first minutes. For her, at that particular moment, everything is unfamiliar and strange.
Man Ray, Rayograph, 1922
still image from Claryssus
The movement of the shadows also plays a big role in the video. These shadows resemble the abstract forms and shapes that one can only see in fantasies and dreams. Their shapes and the slow-paced movement, according to some of my peers, make the work more ambiguous and intriguing. Heavily influenced by the Surrealists, filming the movement of the shadows allowed me to communicate my own mythical reality to the observer, and also to draw a sharp contour between light and darkness which symbolise the dream states and objective reality. Bill Viola has also been a major influence for this film as much as the Surrealists. I find Viola’s slow motion videos truly fascinating, as they make me aware of the notion of time, causing me to become uneasy. Because we are so used to the continuous flow of time, we don’t realise the passing of it until its flow is somehow disrupted. When things are fastened or slowed down in a video, we find ourselves in an unfamiliar surrounding outside of our linear understanding of time, that we instantly become aware of time. In ‘Claryssus’ I have used only four different sequences each around 20 seconds long and stretched them into a video that is over 5 minutes.
Bill Viola, Emergence, 2002, high definition video
In summary, I have made many decisions in the making of this video based on the fact that I wanted to create an awareness of space, time and being through visual elements, to be able to signify my newly gained awareness and perspective in life. With the slow pace of the video, the viewer is made aware of the time concept; with the soundtrack they are made aware of their own heartbeat (being); and finally, with portrait style presentation they are made aware of their own vision. Suffice to say, my experimental film ‘Claryssus’ is simply created to make the viewer ‘aware’ just like Galatea suddenly becomes ‘aware’.
Sheyda A. Khaymaz