The Bacchae

eyes that run like leaping fire - Elliott Hundley

You have a glib tongue, as though in your right mind, Yet in your words there is no real sense.

Wretched man, how ignorant you are of what you are saying! Before you were out of your mind-but now you are raving mad.
—-Euripides, The Bacchae

A while back, this guy, Euripides, wrote this play, The Bacchae.

It’s a story of Dionysus, a vain, jealous and vengeful god and the horrible revenge he exacts on mere mortals that refuse to worship him. It’s a story of Pentheus, the vain, stuck-up, and arrogant king who wants order, lawfulness, and absolute attention to his iron rule. It’s a story of women running wild in the woods, ecstatic with passion, blinded by lust and wine. It’s a tale of voyeurism, with the victims pulling the spy down and tearing him limb from limb. It’s the story of a mother returning triumphantly home carrying the disembodied head of her own son under her arm thinking it to be a hunting trophy.

The play was considered too grotesque to be seriously studied until Nietzsche wrote in praise of the genre. Now, of course, the flamboyant themes, aberrant scenes, and bizarre excesses are the cat’s meow, and the play has become fashionable, especially as an opera, where the outlandish aspects fit in well with the dramatic chorus.

The great theme of The Bacchae is a fascinating and important one. It is the constant, eternal struggle between freedom and control. Can an organized, rational society survive if it allows the irrational passions of the human heart to exist and express themselves? How can it survive if it does not? Where is the line to be drawn? What is the healthy limits to ecstatic pleasure? Are there any? The two forces: authority and freedom, rational and irrational, the head and the heart, duty and joy, moderation and excess, wisdom and instinct, self-control and human passion, restraint and release – are forever locked together wrestling in a death-grip struggle, each unable to defeat the other because, without its opposite, neither can survive.

Recently, the Nasher Museum in the Dallas Arts District crated up the Tony Cragg exhibition and sent it back to where it came from. I really enjoyed this one and was sad to see it go. It was replaced by a group of sculptures called The Bacchae by Elliott Hundley, a young Los Angeles based sculptor. I saw some photographs of the work and was disappointed. It looked junky, simple, and nothing special.

I was wrong.

Photographs can not do justice.

I took the DART train down to the Nasher on a Target First Saturday event, where I could stroll in and out and take it all in at my leisure. I was stunned. The stars of the show are the large flat assemblages that take up huge swaths of museum wall space. These are incredibly complex masses of kaleidoscopic images, from found objects to cut out photographs, from comic-book word balloons to paragraphs of newspaper-ransom-note-cut-outs – all suspended in various ways in front of giant billboard-like images. The closer you look, the more detail jumps out. You could spend a year in front of a single one of these and not be able to tease out all the passion and information contained within.

More traditional 3-D sculptural works occupy the center of the space and I found these interesting and well-done, but I, like everyone else in the crowded room was drawn back, again and again, to stand right against the little foot-ropes holding the mob back, and stare at the square inch of work that was right in front of my eyes until I could look at each little paper figure impaled on a wire pin or read the little quotes or try to decipher the galaxy of little objects that are presented sticking out from the wall.

The artist calls these “bulletin boards” and I can see why. They are enormous collections of a universe of detail and, like a lot of art, change tremendously with perspective and distance. Standing away (or looking at a photograph) you can see a landscape of large images partially obscured by clouds of smaller details. Once you approach, these details become apparent and you stare at them. If you want to get even closer, on certain works the artist provides magnifying glasses attached to a matrix of wooden sticks and you can peer through into an even smaller, almost microscopic world, of printers dots splayed across the mounted magazine advertisements and ink-jet printed paper objects.

As I looked I could listen to the comments of the other patrons around me – especially the children. This was a free admission with family activities day so there were a lot of kids. They were, of course, instantly drawn to the collages and it was a struggle for their parents to keep them from touching anything. The little ones would comment constantly. “Oh, that’s gross!” was a common reaction, said in that kid way that doesn’t necessarily mean that they didn’t think it was cool. A few parents would try to explain, in that condescending “I have brought my spawn to the art museum now I must get them to understand how important this is and how great a parent I am” tone and attitude but their voices would trail off, overwhelmed by the sheer mass of stuff that was stuck up on the wall in front of them.

Now, writing this, I want to go back and look at it all again. I want to try and break some of it down and see if I can relate it to the Euripides play now that I know a little more about it. I know I will. I can see a few hours stolen here and there to waste standing against that low rope staring at all that stuff stuck to all those pins.

detail from the LIghtning's Bride - Elliott Hundley

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elliott hundley