Bodies transformed: ‘A Biography of Daphne’ at ACCA

By Quentin Sprague

Centred on the myth of Daphne and Apollo, this group exhibition harnesses a vision of unchecked metamorphosis

Installation view of Katie West’s Warna/Ground, Hold, and Keeping pieces (all 2018), at the Australian Centre for Contemporary Art, Melbourne 2021. Courtesy the artist. Photograph: Andrew Curtis

“My mind leads me to speak now of forms changed into new bodies,” begins Metamorphoses, the canonical narrative poem written around 8 AD by the Roman poet Ovid. Or at least it does according to one recent translation. Other translations hew close to the same spirit, but express it slightly differently: “My mind is bent to tell of bodies changed into new forms,” reads one, while another renders it more straightforwardly as, “Now I am ready to tell how bodies are changed.” Each shift in nuance suggests a slightly different agency on the part of the narrator, but however that unforgettable opening salvo is rendered one thing is clear: the ambitious tangle of storytelling that follows, which draws liberally on Greek and Roman mythology, is propelled by a compulsion not unlike that which fuels the dizzying array of bodily transformations contained within. The whole thing is heady and propulsive. It has also endured, in various shapes and forms (no pun) to this day. To call it influential would be, to put it mildly, an understatement.

A Biography of Daphne, a current group exhibition at Melbourne’s Australian Centre for Contemporary Art (ACCA), available during lockdown via a short curator-led video tour, teases one thread from Ovid’s exquisitely complex tapestry, and runs with it: the myth of Daphne and Apollo, in which the nymph Daphne evades Apollo’s pursuit by transforming into a laurel tree. If it sounds like an obscure subject upon which to base an exhibition of contemporary art – especially at this moment, trapped as we are in a seemingly endless present of pandemic and climate emergencies – that’s because it is. Group exhibitions of contemporary art all too often reach for broad-scale relevance, and in doing so fall victim to a frustrating vagueness of intention, but A Biography of Daphne manages to sidestep this pitfall. Yes, the included work is often obscure and challenging, but the exhibition’s overarching frame wouldn’t have it any other way. In the words of curator Mihnea Mircan – once Belgium-based, more recently Melbourne-based – it takes the myth as a “starting point for an investigation of trauma and metamorphosis, symbiosis and entanglement in contemporary art”.

Those readers who find their critical faculties once again dulled by lockdown might inwardly roll their eyes at such a proposition. It would be a forgivable response. But even though Mircan swaps out the compelling and messy human drama of his reference material for something far cooler in temperature – and in doing so arguably jettisons much of its urgency – A Biography of Daphne nonetheless conveys a rare sense of curatorial world-building. The question it carries strikes this writer as less about “co-implication” and “affinity” (Mircan’s words) than a simple “what if?” As in, what if an array of contemporary practice was read through the thematic lens of the myth? What thinking might emerge if contemporary art was tethered to archetype rather than cast, as it too often is, as free-floating and amorphous? How might our feel for it change as a result?

Mircan situates the myth of Daphne, quite literally, at either end of his exhibition. Two classic prints on loan from public collections frame it like parentheses: it is intended that everything is read between them. The first is a 1650s etching by Anthonie Waterloo, a French-born artist who worked during the Dutch Golden Age. Rather than showing the myth’s oft-depicted denouement – the moment in which, according to another translation of Ovid’s words, Daphne’s “hair turns into foliage, her arms grow into branches, sluggish roots adhere to feet that were so recently swift, her head becomes the summit of a tree” – Waterloo turns to the pursuit itself, showing the figures dwarfed by a finely detailed forest landscape. As a beginning it’s a nice touch, one that sets in motion a narrative flow that carries through the exhibition.

From there, A Biography of Daphne progresses from one contemporary artist to another in quick succession. In a nod to Mircan’s recent residence here, a handful are Australians, but South Africans, Singaporeans, Americans, French and English are among the nationalities thrown in the mix. Certain themes and ideas recur – pursuit and escape, the transformation from one body to another, the communion between human and nature – which in turn impart a series of generalised linkages that at times push hard against each artwork’s specific concerns. The ruptures that open in this space – between the exhibition’s overarching frame and the individual artworks contained within – are what grants the exhibition its oxygen. Yes, there is a sense of narrative through-line, but, if one discounts the didactic wall panels, anything like sustained argument is left for Mircan’s densely worded catalogue essay. The works soon take over.

High points recur throughout. They include a series of finely restrained flag-like “paintings” (I use that term only loosely) by the young Yindjibarndi artist Katie West, which are made from calico stained with dye extracted from eucalyptus and puffball, and are redolent of body shrouds or long-buried artifacts. There’s also Jill Magid’s 2005 work Auto portrait pending, which consists of a detailed contract between the artist and a shady-sounding corporation called Lifegem. It’s an agreement to one day transfigure Magid’s cremated body into a 1-carat diamond: a gold ring contained in a vitrine waits for the gem, its empty setting emanating dark promise. Nearby, in a blacked-out video room, the English artist-cum-filmmaker Steve McQueen shoots an eye in extreme close-up as he pokes and caresses it in exploratory fashion. It’s both unsettling and transfixing. Does it make a difference that the eye belongs to Charlotte Rampling? Yes and no. There are few actors as compellingly inscrutable as Rampling, and McQueen seems to be assessing that quality in the bluntest of ways. Or maybe he’s just testing the age-old adage that “the eyes are a window to the soul”, and coming up short. Either way, it’s faintly amusing until it’s not, and then it keeps going – one’s feel for it changes the whole time.

I could continue – there’s a lot of work, even too much, in the exhibition – but I will limit myself to the final room, which is perhaps the best. It’s here that Mircan’s curatorial sleight of hand is most concentrated (not unrelatedly, it’s the furthest from ACCA’s cavernous central gallery, which can overwhelm even the most carefully plotted exhibition). It’s also here where the second Daphne print – this time a 1515 engraving by Agostino dei Musi – flags the exhibition’s end. Around it are three works, the first of which is not a “work” at all, but a scientific film from 1928 by Jean Painlevé, who viewers will learn is considered among the inventors of the nature documentary. It depicts in fine detail the tiny crustaceans commonly known as water fleas, but which carry the proper name Daphnia after – you guessed it – the exhibition’s titular nymph.

Painlevé’s crustaceans are hugely magnified; they quiver and shake as if undergoing cellular transformations before our very eyes. Placed against this strange vision is a video by the Swedish-born artist Erik Bünger – a funny, humane and high-concept work that draws upon footage of the famous captive gorilla Koko deploying American Sign Language on the occasion of the 2015 UN Paris Climate Summit to speak out against human-led environmental degradation – and a large work (part-painting, part-drawing, part-wallpaper) by the Australian artist Mathew Jones that seeks hidden themes in the iconic illustrations of children’s author May Gibbs. Jones’s work is impressive, but it’s elsewhere that he gives us another of the exhibition’s best moments: scan a QR code nearby and you’ll be directed online to a short video in which Jones narrates a convincing link between what he argues is the suppressed homosexuality that layers Gibbs’s Snugglepot and Cuddlepie, and the culture of toxic masculinity that underpins our national identity. Although the thought of scanning yet another QR code will surely fill most viewers with despair, in this case Jones’s lucidly staged argument is well worth it.

But what, we might wonder, are the links? Are they real or imagined? In contrast to the etching by Anthonie Waterloo that prefaces A Biography of Daphne, Agostino dei Musi’s engraving depicts the moment of Daphne’s transformation. Her face is filled with terror as her arms unfurl into torsional branches and her feet become roots. Although dressed in classical trappings, it’s a difficult image, an assault by any other name. But look for a moment at those limbs and the roots that mirror them: they reach in all directions, they divide and then divide again; soon they will be everywhere. It’s this vision of unchecked transformation that plays through A Biography of Daphne. In fact, as a framework within which to make an exhibition – to take a broad view of contemporary practice and to somehow wrest from it a coherent narrative – it seems particularly apt. If recent history has taught us anything, it’s that although the world is constantly shaped by forces both big and small, certain moments create pressure points, which, whether we like it or not, set in motion world-altering transformations. In this light, one of Mircan’s overarching provocations becomes clear: everything is implicated. 

Quentin Sprague

Quentin Sprague is a Geelong-based writer, and author of The Stranger Artist.

Installation view of Katie West’s Warna/Ground, Hold, and Keeping pieces (all 2018), at the Australian Centre for Contemporary Art, Melbourne 2021. Courtesy the artist. Photograph: Andrew Curtis

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