Walk up to the Burns Monument during the Edinburgh Art festival (hopefully becoming a permanent piece to this largely unused space) and you will find Jonathan Owen’s newest and almost-specially tailored sculptural piece sat within the monument.
One thing that immediately struck me was how the setting of the piece itself ties in with the narrative of the monument. The Burns monument is a 19th Century neoclassical monument; a cliched reminiscing monument of Greek and Roman classical structures. The original piece itself is a 19th century sculpture of a nymph, with a modesty ‘draping’ fitting for the conservative time period. Quoting a visitor to the monument, the setting and sculpture – had the object been kept original – is rather “classically generic”, giving an overall historical zeitgeist of the 19th century.
The statue, however, is reworked. In a sense, the original concept has been reworked. The upper torso of the nymph has been carved out, chest removed, and head tilting. Her body has been reformed to chains. According to the booklet, this “buckled form suggest(s) a body crumpled by two hundred years of male gaze”. This is a striking interpretation, the statue once initially being an idealised female form – an exoticism of a “mystical creature” – to a woman enchained by the patriarchy. This is further hit home when you consider the sculptor – a male artist – is the actor in the creation and reworking of the female body in question.
Thinking from a classical archaeological perspective, there is an interesting comparison and possible reinterpretation. The 19th Century Burns monument seems to be heavily designed from the Tholos in Delphi, a temple that is dedicated to Athena Pronoia, the Athena for Forethought. In a sense this temple, a temple previously dedicated to a strong female figure, was stripped and appropriated for a male poet, and Owen re-appropriates the monument back to a female form, a female statue prominently in the centre. She is broken down, but she stands, regaining her ‘space’.
The piece however also got me thinking about the other interpretations that you can deduce from the statue. I find it interesting that the allegory of chains are used when considering the historical links Robert Burns has with the slave trade and the changing perceptions of the past with previously revered individuals. In particular, I’m reminded of ‘The Slave’s Lament’ (of 1792), alongside the concept that Burns had a fleeting interest in human trafficking. By reworking an neoclassical object, a historical object contemporaneous with Burns has taken on a reinterpreted meaning from the present. In this sense, I’m brought down the thought process about the ethics of reworking older material culture to take on contemporary interpretations – should we encourage the reinterpretation of the past by reworking historical objects? What are the ethics of this with “classically generic” objects?
In any sense, I am a big fan of Owens sculptural works, and I hope to see more.
The Burns monument is on Regent Road, Edinburgh, EH7 5BL, and the exhibition is open Mon – Sun, 10am – 6pm.