In the artistic tradition of depicting scenes from Homer’s mythological verse “The Odyssey”, SIREN is a modern adaptation on the Mariner’s tale, adopted by the artist to frame a specific series of work with its central themes of care and destruction; a landscape of red crosses and bandages. In Homer’s episode of Odysseus and the Sirens, Odysseus wants to experience the sirens’ song – which offers ultimate truths and knowledge – without the fate of his ship being drawn onto the rocks, like the mariners before him: scuppered and supposedly fed upon by the winged creatures, known as sirens. In Homer’s telling, the crew of the ship block their ears with bees wax and bind their heads with cloth. Odysseus is tied to the mast to allow him to listen to the Sirens’ song whilst disabling him from steering the ships path towards the coastal rocks, under the influence of the hypnotic song. My adaptation has been used to loosely frame a series of medical-themed works; the bandaged heads for the ship’s crew, the bandaged body for the bound Odysseus, the hospital bed, the ambulance or pram represent the vessel. The nurses with scissor form bodies, the surrogate mothering nurses or the bearers of syringes represent the sirens of the Greek myth. Though I have related this series of work to a particular episode of Homer’s Odyssey, the work was originally made with the intention of avoiding any narrative or meaning. The patients and medical staff were the models in old First Aid books, containing instructive photographs. The photographs had a very staged look, the patients always dressed in suits and ties, with the bandaging on the outside of their clothing. The nurses, in contrast with their almost theatrical costumes, seemed like genuine, stern figures showing you in stages how to do something practical or medical, looking slightly uncomfortable at being photographed. The photographs in themselves were interesting, so I started to draw from these in my late teens and I never really stopped; it became an on-going process, practicing drawing and painting with the same familiar subjects, trying to push the drawing or painting further from an aesthetic point of view. At first, the work merely reflected the photographs, almost like reproductions but it later became a depiction of exaggerated versions of the images with a very instant feel; they somehow just hung in a moment on the page. What initially interested me in using these first aid photographs was that it allowed me to draw the figure without the baggage of sentiment or narrative. They were instructive and the figures had become almost like objects. A bandaged man seemed less a man with a personality or story but more like a wrapped object, especially with the habitual suit and tie and blank face. This allowed me to use the subjects quite freely and to concentrate more on the aesthetic qualities of my work. There was certainly a sense of distance in these photographs, even though they were essentially about how to treat pain and suffering, rather than how the person came to be injured. Art needs distance, I didn’t want to depict pain and suffering. I also liked the titles, a form of instruction: ‘How to bandage a body with a bed sheet’. This particular title came from one of the books where household objects were adapted, such as a wooden spoon for a splint; I’d watched an old American gangster film and the suited and wounded actor tore up a bed sheet to bandage his wound – so I suppose I started to use a little bit of ham drama. I was drawn to how the material looked on the surface, I’d try and make the paint achieve unpredictable things and in a way, I started to hope for more and more accidental success, where the image formed from out of almost nowhere. The scissor form nurses came about by using a simple exercise; a random page was selected from one of these first aid books and whatever appeared on the pages I had to make an image. In this case, there was a photograph of medical scissors and on the facing page, a Red Cross nurse attending to a patient. I combined the two, making the nurse into an object almost. I then entertained myself drawing these part steel, part human figures. My initial thought was the idea that you become the job that you practice, the curse of work, bound by the path you choose. Still, the main attraction to drawing these was the aesthetic contradiction of drawing something that should have been rigid metal, done as organic or human flesh. The look of scissors, especially really old handmade ones, bent out of shape interested me; as did the historical fact that scissors were invented by Leonardo da Vinci, so they were an artist’s invention also. I tried to find something ‘removed’ initially because I wanted to concentrate not on meaning but on making. However, the subjects I had chosen as mere stooges, started to become more like symbols, figures on the point of falling apart and being pieced back together. But art is a self-portrait and in my own world of making art, a strange struggle between creation and destruction started to be played out: TRIPP WWW.TRIPPGALLERY.CO.UK you are first of all literally seduced by painting in your early successes; to see a painting form and feel it come to a resolution has its own power, a feeling of victory within it and also inherently within that, the potential of absolute defeat. I’ve learnt that creation goes in hand with destruction. Freud calls the aspect of self-destruction in a person, the ‘death drive’, the desire for the body to return to an organic form. I understood this enigma within my own precarious existence and also within my painting; whilst you struggle for a work’s survival or success, it is also in the process of destroying itself. The bandaged figures became almost symbolic of this struggle, I was caught, am caught, in the trap of making paintings; art initially seduced me but eventually it became a repeated series of destructions and losses, with usually only a photograph left at its brief moment of success, before I tried to push it further. I’ve seen paintings appear out of nowhere and this can be an incredible feeling but also at the same time I have been convinced a work has been given to me by the ‘Gods’ only to find the next day that its nothing but a poor illusion. So, as much as I started these wounded figures with an unfeeling eye; without an emotional reason, I later began to feel that they were representations of something more personal. The sirens have often been misrepresented in modern adaptations, as femme fatales, beautiful women seducing victims, when in fact it is their song that is the seduction and its offer of ultimate knowledge. The Mariner is drawn to his death by his search for knowledge, the siren isn’t the aggressor but rather it reflects a person’s ambition. The siren doesn’t feed upon the shipwrecked Mariner, the Mariner starves to death on the rock island. In Greek mythology a siren is a whole different being and I read only recently that they can be regarded as spirit figures called “psychopomps”, a fascinating character that seems to appear in all religions, a creature or person in the spirit world that acts as a midwife between life and death, both at birth and death, but sometimes appearing in life as helping figures. As a friend pointed out to me, the scissor form nurses looked like Cheerleaders with pompoms and so I found the psychopomp a fitting name (psych is breath, life or sou, pompos meaning guide), I never meant them as kitsch sexual imagery, the nurses uniform and spread metal legs, I saw them rather as the combination of care and brutality, like an inviting trap. I’d like to put an end to this on-going series, I kept thinking I’d make the ultimate version of some of the images. Within the show, there are drawings and etchings of a large bed — a study for a painting that has had many distinct finished stages but has never been completed. I filmed the making of this painting, the latter stages recorded as photographs, and I wondered if the filming was putting me off finishing the work. This bed painting does not seem to end and yet it seems, somehow, to represent a common predicament; you wake every day to reinvent what you have done before. Where there are no absolutes in art, to enact it out on one canvas, seemingly without end is, perhaps, bordering on insanity. I have to finish this series because I can find nothing left within it to surprise me. So these works now feel like the survivors from my studio. The siren is often a sound made at an ending, when something is over; climbing to the surface to look out upon what has been left standing.
CHRIS BURNS Sept 2017