In da House of the Tragic Poet, 2021
Courtesy the Artist
At the start of the global pandemic in 2020, as many countries entered a period of strict lockdown, Goshka Macuga opened the Instagram account @grekaandfriends – her first ever social media presence. Named after Macuga’s own pet Greka, a rescue dog from Greece, @grekaandfriends showcases an ironic, compelling and critical account of our times, captured and narrated through Greka’s point of view. Anthropomorphizing animals is a recurring literary strategy in traditional fables, where animals and forces of nature often assume speech to illustrate or lead a particular moral lesson or commentary on the human condition. Macuga’s fascination with animals, plants and landscapes is at the very root of her broader interest in the relationship between art and nature, which has inspired many moments in her practice since her earliest works in the late 1990s through to her important 2008 solo exhibition at Tate Britain Objects in Relation – where she engaged with the legacy of British Surrealism and its symbolic associations with the natural elements described by Paul Nash in his 1937 essay The Life of the Inanimate Object – and more recently her sculptural series of head portraits of iconic philosophers serving as vases germinating with flowers, exhibited in the Pompeii@Madre exhibition at Museo Madre, in 2017. The possibility of transforming and understanding the world as non-human creatures is an inherent question within many of Macuga’s projects, which include the creation of an android (To the Son of Man Who Ate the Scroll, 2016) delivering a monologue concerning the possibility of the end of mankind. Numerous excerpts and quotes from significant speeches make up the android’s reflections as an architectural composition of ideas that refer to the Ars memorativa (The Art of Memory) and rhetoric as mnemonic tools which laid the foundations for artificial memory by expanding and developing humans’ natural cognitive faculties. These elements from Macuga’s past and ongoing research – which frequently operates as a collage of intricate networks of references – are helpful pointers to contextualise her contribution to Pompeii Commitment: a playful animation starring her dog Greka as Queen Venus, set within a computer-generated three-dimensional rendering of Pompeii’s House of the Tragic Poet – an important site for the understanding of architectural mnemonic in Ancient Rome, with a fascinating history of semiotic reception, and known by many for its distinctive dog mosaic (Cave canem, “Beware of dog”) at the entrance. Located on a major thoroughfare, the House of the Tragic Poet caused a sensation upon its discovery in 1824, extensively documented through watercolours and drawings. Its fragmented remains have been often re-imagined in a state of “original” wholeness, as seen in the Pompeiana engraving by Sir William Gell, from 1832, which also inspired the dwelling of Edward Bulwer-Lytton’s protagonist Glaucus in The Last Days of Pompeii (1832). Further examples of how archaeology and fiction were combined to reproduce the House of the Tragic Poet can be found in a photograph by Alfred-Nicolas Normand used as a model in designing Prince Jerome Napoleon’s Pompeian Palace in Paris. According to historical sources, Jerome Napoleon and his friends emulated what they imagined had been a Pompeian life of elegant leisure by dressing in togas, a scene which Gustave Boulanger captured in his 1861 painting Rehearsal of “The Flute Player” in the Atrium of the House of H.I.H. The Prince Napoleon, depicting an environment freely based upon one of the mosaics from the House of the Tragic Poet. Inspired by the striking legacy of part-truth-part-fictional representations (dating up to the late 20th century) of this particular Pompeian site, Macuga weaves together a satirical short play unfolding within the very walls of the House of the Tragic Poet, in which mythological characters – some of which are borrowed from the House’s painted panels, such as the Olympian couple Zeus and Hera – are impersonated by Greka together with other dogs closely associated with leading politicians as well as historical events. Among these are Dilyn, the white male Jack Russell currently living at 10 Downing Street with UK Prime Minister Boris Johnson; the shepherd Karakachan dog Buffy, donated to Russian President Vladimir Putin by Bulgarian Prime Minister Boyko Borisov; former White House residents Bo, Obama family’s Portuguese Water Dog, and Mildred “Millie” Kerr Bush, Barbara and George H. W. Bush’s English Springer Spaniel; Negro Matapacos, the Chilean dog known for his participation in the street protests in Santiago in 2011 and symbol of resistance to police brutality; and Laika, a stray mongrel from the streets of Moscow, who became the first dog to orbit the Earth in 1957. The canine characters engage in colloquial banter and debate, at times using explicit language, ultimately celebrating women’s emancipation (and multispecies evolution) in the face of the conservative patriarchal views embodied by Zeus-Dilyn. Combining historical references with contemporary events, Macuga’s script blends together different registers and adaptions of quotes from Robert Graves’ The Greek Myth, Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez’s speeches, parodies of Boris Johnson’s Twitter, Cardi B’s song lyrics as well as original erotic inscriptions found on Pompeii’s walls – a collage of truths and fictions, very much in the spirit of @grekaandfriends’ life on social media. SB
Home page image: Goshka Macuga, In da House of the Tragic Poet (video still), 2021. Courtesy the Artist
Goshka Macuga (Poland, 1967) has been living and working in London since 1989. Her practice connects different areas and methods of research. Her inquiries are often focused on institutional histories proposing unconventional associative readings of their social and political histories. Macuga’s strategic orchestration of existing materials, collectables and archival documents support the reframing of established narratives. In 2019, she conceived Exhibition M, a new large commission for the Museum of Modern Art in New York. She has had solo exhibitions at the New Museum, New York; Fondazione Prada, Milan; Schinkel Pavilion, Berlin; Lunds Konsthall, Lund; Museum of Contemporary Art, Chicago; Zachęta National Gallery of Art, Warsaw; Whitechapel Gallery, London; Tate Britain, London; Kunsthalle Basel; and the Walker Arts Centre, Minneapolis. She was included in Documenta 13 in 2012, and nominated for the Turner Prize in 2008. Her work is included in numerous public collections including Tate, MoMA, Government Art Collection, Arts Council Collection, MCA Chicago and Castello di Rivoli.