A Gilgamesh Cycle

Ruth Barker is a Glasgow-based artist, whose work is performance-based. In Barker's work, the re-telling of ancient myths through original poetic composition becomes a gesture towards the ritual understanding of self, gender, and mortality. For A Gilgamesh Cycle, Barker has developed a series of new works, which re-compose the ancient Mesopotamian epic of Gilgamesh through the lens of her own unconscious associations, experience of the contemporary world, and mythological research.

The performance poems that make up the Cycle are hypnotic, ritualised events. Barker's words are recited from memory with a concentrated focus that becomes by turns magical, claustrophobic, and cathartic. The performances incorporate lavish performance garments, bespoke creations that are commissioned for each work from fashion designers with whom Barker works.

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The epic of Gilgamesh is a myth from ancient Iraq that explores some of the biggest questions about love, loss, mortality and immortality. By making this work, and by reflecting upon it, Barker is exploring what the impulses are that push her to retell these ancient stories. What does she wish to achieve by doing this, and what might that tell us about art, or myth, or the human condition more generally?

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This research project is developed in the context of Barker's inquiry into why some artists (including herself) feel drawn to work with ancient myths in this way. The study contextualises Barker's experiences alongside the perspectives of other artists, and examines the decision-making and composition within her practice in relation to the approaches of other artists who work in similar ways. This process hopes to illuminate the intentions behind - and implications of - these artists work. Drawing on the work of theorists such as Jan Verwoert, Kaja Silverman, and Carl Jung, the study explores what these practices reveal about the relationships between psychoanalytic readings of the unconscious, the alogical structures of performance composition, and the role of the artist as a metaphorical seer, medium, or shaman.

Key to this study's development is Kaja Silverman's writing on ontological similitude, and her argument for recognising the deep commonality between our selves and the world. When we look most deeply inside ourselves, to the most intimate, private folds of our being, perhaps we can see not what makes us individual but what connects us to other people. Perhaps this similarity is what joins us to the world, and myth may be one way to articulate that connection: a way to negotiate these very biggest ideas about love and loss and grief, which are just as relevant now as they always have been.

Research Questions

In what ways is my own creative practice echoed by those of other performance art practitioners who retell ancient myths? (What are the motifs that these practices share?)

What can these motifs reveal about how and why ancient myths are still informing the creative practice of these performance artists?

Methodology

Through keeping an ongoing blog Barker has charted the conscious decision-making and intuitive processes involved in the development of new work, and used this as a way to explore her own subjective experience of writing, composing, editing, and performing. A total of 5 new performances have so far been made, documented, and analysed. These new works range from approximately 20 minutes to 6.5 hours in length, and all have been publicly performed.

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To Sing of Gilgamesh (Performance, 20 minutes approx, 2012), and Gilgamesh Song (Single channel video, 12 minutes, 2012), take Gilgamesh from the clay and build his likeness on a kitchen table. The works find certainty in the things that are known and not known, and peer at death through the glass of someone's front door.

Of Gilgamesh, And Others (performance, maximum length 6.5 hours, 2012 - 2013), attempts to tell the whole of the Gilgamesh epic, but tangles it through the artist's own life and images. Through Barker's attempts to retell this ancient story, it becomes apparent that the epic is ungraspable - an amorphous, ever changing narrative that has been re-imagined and re-shaped by every teller who has ever adopted it. The story of Gilgamesh, as it appears in Of Gilgamesh, And Others, is too long to hear during one gallery sitting.

Mouth Open In An Open O (performance, 25 minutes approx, 2012), is a vegetation myth that takes the form of a single calendar year running from September to September. The work is a tightly structured sequence of images of dreaming, growing, joining, and losing, which closes with Gilgamesh awake / asleep on the beach at the end of the world.

A Love Song, For Gilgamesh (performance, 20 minutes approx, 2013), focuses on the final section of the epic, and imagines the dead Enkidu calling Gilgamesh back from his failed search for immortality. As with all the works in the Cycle, A Love Song synthesises Barker's personal images, partly drawn from her own unconscious associative responses, with an understanding of the structure and content of the source myth.

In relation to her own work, Barker is examining the practices of Rachel Rosenthal, Joan Jonas, Meredith Monk, and Danai Anesiandou. Exploring similarities in compositional structure, creative methodologies, and subject matter is revealing repeated motifs that, when viewed in relation to the work of thinkers such as Kaja Silverman, shed light on the wider questions regarding why as well as how ancient myths are being retold in this context.

The performances that comprise this research project have been presented at venues including the Cornerhouse, Manchester; The Agency Gallery, London; the SS Rotterdam, NL; and Camden Arts Centre, London.