Tribute to Olympia
This is a three-minute video based on Edouard Manet’s oil painting of 1863 in which a naked courtesan lies boldly on her bed, looking straight at the viewer, as her black servant offers her flowers, no doubt a gift from a client.
I have recreated this scene but my Olympia is a skeleton, covered in blue flocking, with a bow on her head.I have produced this work as a film, even though only the slightest movements are recorded- of the servant blinking and swaying as she stands presenting the bouquet to Olympia. This creates a sense of expectancy on the one hand, and on the other, forces the viewer to concentrate on the minute changes in the servant’s posture and expression. No matter how long the servant stands there offering them, my Olympia will not take the flowers from her.
This is a post-modern interpretation of Manet’s iconic work. Anyone with some background in History of Art is bound to identify the reference and recognize the principal similarity (black servant presenting flowers to figure on high bed) and difference (blue skeleton as Olympia). I am commenting here on the ongoing development of Western art. By referencing Manet, I am paying tribute to this seminal painting of his, one of the most important of the 19th century. By producing a video which references it, I am commenting on the New Media of the 21st.
Manet’s ground-breaking work’s power to shock has survived over a century. The courtesan is a real woman, naked, rather than an idealised figure from mythology. She steadily meets the viewer’s gaze and in this, is self-aware and provocative. Manet broke with convention by rendering her thus. Now, in our post-Feminist era, and we know much more about the health risks of unprotected sex, and nudity certainly no longer shocks. Pornography in its myriad forms is universally available. Many taboos have been broken since Manet’s era.
However, Death remains taboo in some respects, and still maintains its power to stun us, as it should. By representing Olympia as a skeleton, I am introducing a major aspect of contemporary life: both quality and length of life have been greatly enhanced in the Western world since Manet’s days, with life expectancy around 80 years. The servant, however, was and remains black. She represents the Other, the Third World, which in large part continues poverty stricken with dire health care and short life expectancy –in numerous areas, close to 40- a differential which should be a major contemporary concern.
Furthermore, by creating a blue skeleton who wears a bow, I am implying that she is not totally dead and gone, that she still has a presence, vanity or perhaps self-respect? The skeleton is the last part of our physical selves to survive after death, but as we age we lose many bodily qualities. Most people attempt to arrest or cover-up this inevitable life process through means ranging from grooming, make-up and clothing to radical and multiple plastic surgeries and implants. These latter are becoming increasingly widespread in the West. And a wide range of major medical advances are truly death-defying in their reach. We all have to die in the end, but how far will these developments take us?
And of course the blackness of the servant’s skin evokes questions of the place of the Other, race equality, political correctness and population growth. The West is barely reproducing at replacement rate and the balance between populations is altering radically. There were more Honor students in India in 2008 than all students in USA; there are more people learning English in China than native English speakers in the rest of the world combined. We live in exponentially changing times.
In my video, the servant, while black, is alive, whereas the skeleton is dead and blue, although of course, regardless of their skin color, all people’s skeletons are in fact whit