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Coming Undone with Colijn Strydom

Colijn Strydom shares the thinking behind his latest endeavour, the Bacchae Project, a.k.a. “Beauty Terror Pentheus”:

In the Bacchae Project, I produce room-sized installations that consist of a mass of ceramics, drawings, paintings, performance and photography, using Euripides’ The Bacchae as the departure point for an exploration of themes of gender and whiteness. The overall structure and motif of the work is fragmentation and fluidity, and I move between the play and aspects of my own experience, including autobiographical elements.

I thought of imagining my flat as Pentheus’ palace and thinking about the ways I’ve been contained, protected and fragmented in the space (especially since March of last year). I imagine this character living in a strange, gridded alternative reality that hovers somewhere between my life and the world of this 2400-year-old play.

For each of the play’s scenes I have looked to something that either corresponds directly or that resonates personally. I’m thinking of the person in the photos as part myself, part meta-textual commentator, a kind of tourist: a free mover, unbound, irresponsible, implicated, inept and definitely not from “here”.

The following sections help to frame the project.

Euripides’ The Bacchae

The Bacchae is an ancient Greek tragedy written by Euripides. It was performed for the first time a year after his death, in 405 B.C.E. It tells the tale of Dionysus, the god of pleasure, wine, ecstasy and fertility, who takes revenge on Thebes and its ruler, Pentheus. The title of the play is derived from the name of the followers of Dionysus, called the Bacchae.

It starts with Dionysus’ return to Thebes, the city of his birth. The inhabitants have refused to acknowledge his divine nature, so he puts a spell on the local women which causes them all to leave the city for a celebration of dance and wine on Mount Cithaeron. The former king of Thebes, Cadmus, and the fortune teller, Tiresias, in deference to the god, go to attend the festivities, dressed in their party outfits. Pentheus, however, upon hearing of the happenings in his city, is outraged. He orders the arrest of the stranger who is then brought to him. He seems both fascinated and resistant to this foreigner’s effeminate appearance, commenting on his “bedroom eyes” (Carson 2015). Unable and unwilling to accept that this stranger is a god, Pentheus orders Dionysus to be held captive in the palace stables. The god’s wrath is invoked, and, after escaping his captors, he razes the building to the ground.

A herdsman comes from the mountains and reports to Pentheus the strange things he has seen the women do: twining snakes in their hair and performing miracles, as well as tearing animals apart with their hands and executing a devastating raid on a village.

Dionysus comes across Pentheus and convinces him to spy on the women, to which he agrees readily, his intentions being partially voyeuristic. However, it is necessary for Pentheus to be disguised as one of the Bacchae to avoid detection, and Dionysus dresses him up as a woman. He is quite taken by his female attire. Once led out, the king is also half-crazed by the power of the deity, seeing two suns and horns on Dionysus’ head.

A messenger reports that once they got to the mountains, Dionysus helped Pentheus get a better view of the women by helping him to the top of a tree. Once he was there, however, the god called the Bacchae’s attention to him, and they set on him with bloodcurdling fury. Pentheus’ own mother, Agave, tore his limbs from his body.

Agave enters the city carrying his head, thinking that it is a lion’s. Once the spell of the frenzy lifts, however, she sees what she has done and is in despair. At the end of the play, the body of Pentheus is assembled as best as possible, Agave and her sisters are sent into exile and Dionysus decrees that Cadmus and his wife will be turned into snakes and exiled too.

Whiteness and Gender

Throughout my practice, I have attempted to problematize and question my own positionality as a white man. This continues to be important to me: I feel I have a responsibility to work from within the structures of whiteness and masculinity, deconstructing them to find ways of emancipating myself. I chose to work with The Bacchae because it is seen as one of the foundational texts of Western European antiquity, which links it to contemporary ideas of whiteness; additionally, the text itself directly addresses gender roles and gender fluidity.

Ancient Greek Culture is often cited as the bedrock of Western European civilization. Jen Pinkowski writes that “classical thinkers, institutions, writings, and art have been portrayed as the epitome of ‘civilization’ since the Renaissance.” (Undark, 2019)

Despite the racial diversity apparent within ancient Greek societies, these same societies were very gendered and classed. For such a hierarchical, patriarchal society, a figure like Dionysus is highly subversive. He exists on the boundaries of gender, reason and madness. In addition to being effeminate and being primarily followed by women, he is said within the play to be a “foreign god” and “coming from the East” – all of which suggest a figure by his very nature antithetical to the values of white patriarchy.

Looking at Bacchae, one can see the emphasis placed on gender binaries, order and the male rule within Thebes and how threatened the structures are by Dionysian gender fluidity, “foreignness” and femininity. It is debatable whether the play itself is thoroughly subversive, but there are, undeniably, what we would read today as feminist elements.

Although Pentheus resists Dionysus’ influence, he seems to me the most conflicted of the characters. I have been using Anne Carson’s translation of the play, partially for her handling of Pentheus. Will Harrison writes of her translation that “Pentheus—practically drowning in unbearable, undefined longing—has clearly captured Carson’s imagination, and her conception of him stems from Euripedes’ own concern for the desperation of mortals.” (2017) He continues:

“While the youthful king’s voyeuristic urge is most commonly explained as a nascent attraction to women, Carson makes it seem just as plausible that he would rather be a woman, or least be freed from a gender binary as tyrannical as he is. By establishing Pentheus’ self-consciousness from the start, Carson is able to push his character well beyond the cantankerous tyrant we have come to expect and imbue this scene with an entirely new layer of tragedy.” (2017)

I am interested in this complexity and ambivalence. My intention is to make whiteness strange and blend my own experiences of gender fluidity and queerness with those of Pentheus. Ultimately, I hope to produce an uncomfortable but productive relationship between this ancient text and contemporary life.

Fragmentation

Fragmentation and fluidity are the driving forces both visually and metaphorically. Landscape, narrative elements and the dismembered body of Pentheus are central motifs.

My approach to the play and the themes that I wish to explore is deconstructive. This coming apart relates to the exploration of my own life in the 21st century too, where identity is lived through and constituted by multiple realities, many of them virtual.

Ceramics, Drawings and Paintings

Some of the images work together in sections to suggest larger wholes and others are fragments unto themselves. They range from mere gestures to being more finished. Most of the ceramics are in shades and hues of white – traditionally associated with Classical sculpture.

Blue line-work on white ceramics almost inevitably brings to mind Delft pottery, and these are associations I wish to bring to the work. It is a historical reference to the connections many white South Africans have with the Netherlands and Dutch colonialism.

– Colijn Strydom, 2021

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Follow the unfolding on Strydom’s Instagram account.

Buy Strydom’s limited edition screen print, The Razing of the Palace.

 

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