There is a mysterious twilight in the gallery. In pools of light, cut-out wooden shapes, painted in hazy patterns of pink and blue and yellow, carry the drawn outlines of feet or breasts or faces. These cutouts are arranged to suggest stepping stones, or are fixed at intervals sometimes high up on the walls, or assembled to form the housing for three video screens.
The drawn animation that plays in a loop on these screens depicts things such as swaying tree branches and a woman’s lower legs as she casts off her shoes and dips her toes in water. Then we see the same legs, but this time running around a rock. A little later, there is a sequence in which the woman’s arm is clawed at and pinched. Due to the rawness of the animation it all happens precariously, as if newly rendered in each repetition of the loop.
The sounds of tweeting birds and a murmuring stream, together with the melancholic strains of violin and piano, reverberate in the gloaming.
This is ‘Daphne’, an art installation by Sarah Taylor Silverwood at The New Art Gallery Walsall. It was inspired by the Greek myth about the beautiful Daphne, who is chased by the god Apollo; but as he’s about to seize and rape her, she is magically transformed into a tree.
When she first read the story, Taylor Silverwood explains when we meet, she was held spellbound by these two sentences in the opening paragraph:
Over hill and dale she roamed, free and light as the breeze of spring. Other maidens round her spoke each of her love, but Daphne cared not to listen to the voice of man, though many a one sought her to be his wife.1
In the weeks and months during which she made this artwork, Taylor Silverwood found herself focussing ever more intently on Daphne’s ‘free and light’ and ‘roaming’ state, and her breezy independence. It is this moment of the story that her art installation suspends in time, presenting us with the fantasy that Daphne can forever remain within, or forever return to, this first, footloose state.
It is perfectly in keeping with myths to alter or extract from them in this way. Like fairy tales, fables and folk tales, myths are part of the oral tradition of story-telling and so it is in their very nature to be mutable, with elements from one story sometimes straying into another or taking on a life of their own.2 Perhaps we all know how a single, fleeting passage – in this case, about Daphne’s freewheeling spirit – will entirely captivate us, for reasons we might struggle to understand? From somewhere in the soft colours and patterns and repetitions of ‘Daphne’, feelings of intense absorption and pleasure emanate.
Myths and fairy stories are passed down from generation to generation, most often within the context of the family. Part of their function, it’s been argued, is to express something of the particular emotions of families, over time.3 In Taylor Silverwood’s case, she explains, she first read the story of Daphne ten years ago when she was about twenty, in a book of Greek myths originally owned by her grandmother who had recently died. The book was given to Taylor Silverwood by her mother, who like her grandmother had read this book as a child. Cherished by three generations of women who were and are very close, the book and its stories are singularly charged.
When Taylor Silverwood asked her mother to act as the model for her drawings of the youthful Daphne, she bridged the generations. As the artist herself suggests, there are connections throughout with how her place in her family is changing. Her installation ‘Daphne’ explores, she explains, ‘the way that patterns and structures of myths pass through time in parallel to a sort of shifting familial lineage or loop’.
The animation loops and Daphne’s moment of freedom is replayed, over and over. The grandmother’s storybook is now in the granddaughter’s hands, as life continues on.
Yet we are reminded of the menace of Apollo, in the sequences of Daphne running and having her arm pinched, and in the soundtrack’s darkening tones. I experience all this as an undercurrent, and as a reminder of how women deal with the daily threat of danger from men, yet live happily for much of the time. Grandmothers, mothers and daughters all fear at some level for each other, generation after generation – but still, Daphne casts off her shoes once again and is free.
Angela Kingston, February 2019
Angela Kingston is a freelance curator and writer www.angelakingston.co.uk
The exhibition ‘Daphne’ by Sarah Taylor Silverwood is at The New Art Gallery Walsall from 19 January – 12 May 2019
1. The First Stories, Grecian Gods and Heroes, collected and edited by J.L. Gunn, published by Thomas Nelson & Sons, Ltd. The first edition was published in July 1927.
2. For a discussion on this subject, see for example, Bruno Bettelheim, The Uses of Enchantment, part one, 1975. In an acknowledgement of how myths etc are subject to different kinds of re-tellings, Taylor Silverwood based the patterns on the wooden cut-outs on textile designs by Duncan Grant that were inspired by the story of Daphne.
3. Bettelheim, a psychoanalyst, gives a wonderful account of this in the aforementioned book.