2012Sleuthing Clues About a Roman Mosaic Starring Ten Sporty Women
In the Villa Romana del Casale, Sicily, a small chamber is decorated with a fourth- century c.e. floor mosaic depicting ten sporty female figures. It is casually termed “The Bikini Girls Mosaic” because the women all wear bikinis. Since depictions of female athletes in antiquity are rare, this piece inspired me, as a New Media artist and as a Boston-qualifying marathon runner, to create a contemporary homage to these ancient women, whether they were actual documented people or imagined figures. I did this reserach paper in preparation for creating simple 2D animations from the mosaic, and site-specifically geo-locating them using augmented reality.
In order to conceptualize my contemporary piece, I needed to engage in a dialogue across space and time with the ancient artist who created the mosaic. I was striving to hear what he (presumably, given the artist’s culture) was trying to say through the piece so that I could position myself to respond. Would I be debuting the artist’s message to a new, contemporary audience, or would I be offering a critical rebuttal from my own time period? In a sense, I was playing a volley-game with the original artist; but would that game be cooperative or competitive?
Thus, in researching this mosaic, I set out to interpret how the artist intended the ancient viewer to interpret it. Were these women athletes to be taken seriously, or was this image some sort of parody? Further, who can we determine that ancient viewer to be? Was this piece intended for guests of the villa or for residents? Was it in a location that only women would access, was it for general viewing, or was it perhaps even an ancient Sports Illustrated Swimsuit Edition objectifying the “bikini girls” for men? If the intended audience was women, was the purpose of the image to empower and encourage their fitness, to commemorate an event, to simply to serve as decoration, or something else?
The aims of cultural heritage teams and the aims of artists differ. The former seeks to offer creative models of what the past may have been like based on the material record; i.e., they are engaged in scholarship that seeks to be as "objective" as possible given available evidence. The artist may be inspired by history, but has license to be as subjective as he or she wants to be; such is the nature of art. Heritage teams may be motivated foremost my a quest for knowledge, whereas artists may be more motivated by emotional response. However, both can learn from one another to meet their different, but overlapping, goals.
I hate gender stereotypes. I hate essentialist thinking about men and women, or "feminine" and "masculine." I hate how people (including advertisers) try to box me in and make assuptions about what I think, what I like, how I should behave, what I am or am not good at based on these stereotypes. It has been a frustrating decade in terms of how much marketing effort has gone into convincing people it's "hip" to revive and "reclaiming" a lot of old-school b.s.. It has been like the 1950s redux, particularly in regard to the "male gaze" and female objectification/commodification--something many of us believed we were 30 years past. There has even been a lot of popular effort to use "science" to "prove" that men are this and women are that. I think looking at sources from different time periods and different cultures helps to demonstrate that gender is largely socialized rather than biologically predetermined, that how gender is socialized reflects the values of a culture, and that much of what we call "traditional" gender roles is only Victorianism. Sometimes ancient texts seem more "progressive" than the modern day. In some ways, The Song of Songs is one of those texts.
This paper was inspired by a collection of documentary photographs by Danwen Xing which I saw at the Whitney Museum of Art. I knew that e-waste was becoming an issue, but I did not realize the extent of this environmental and public health challenge. Upon researching it further, I found out how women are affected by the cradle-to-grave process of electronics manufacturing. I realized that cyberfeminism, while a fun and empowering addition to feminist discourse, had a big elitist blind spot: the health and safety of our sisters, mostly in the Third World, who make our toys and tools, then pick through the decaying corpses of them to get scrap metals to sell so they can feed their kids. (Note: Awareness of this situation has grown since writing this paper, and some laws and policies have been duly updated. The Silicon Valley Toxics Coalition is a good place to start investigating current policies.)
Mona Hatoum is a Palestinian artist born in Lebanon and living in exile in London. For her, the most important element of her art is its relationship to the body. When Hatoum emigrated from the Middle East to England, she immediately felt a sense of displacement when she perceived a mind/body disjunct that contradicted her own cultural experience.
This essay contemplates considerations of representation and interpretation for one element of a cultural heritage project.