According to the myth Persephony was snatched by Hades, god of death, on a beautiful spring day while playing in a field. She was dragged to the underworld leaving her mother Demeter, goddess of agriculture miserable and totally unable to tend to the crops. A terrible drought hit the land hence a deal with Hades had to be made in order for humanity to survive. Persephony was tricked into eating pomegranate seeds from the underworld and thus she always had to return there. At least it was agreed that she went back to her mother six months each year, who was so happy to see her that brought spring back. Winter returned when Persephony had to go again to the underworld.
The descent into darkness and the emergence into light is so common in the stories of such a large number of cultures that ultimately it is recognised as a fundamental symbol of existence. It encompasses the circle of life, death and rebirth, dark phases in people’s lives, and of course the seasonal changes. Darkness is often synonymous with negative things, difficulties, endings and sorrow. Like in the Greek myth, one might be tricked into it but often it somehow seems unavoidable. While in the dark one has to keep the faith in the light in order to eventually be rewarded with well-being and joy at the end of the tunnel.
This ancient story came to my mind when I visited Momentum, the UVA exhibit in the Curve gallery at the Barbican. Past the curtains of the entrance and after the few well lit steps was the darkness. The first impression was unsettling because I was suddenly deprived of the security of seeing and being orientated. The fog, the quasi deep-sea sounds the other visitors that unexpectedly popped-up in front of me made me feel insecure. There was a moment I thought I would run to the exit, but then the unexpected happened. I saw some people sitting along the curved wall and I was surprised. What were they exactly doing? I thought I’d try it, so I leaned on the wall and slowly slid down on it until I sat on the floor. After a couple of minutes of being amazed with how comforting it was to be there I started thinking of the elements of this orchestration. There were the lights that moved slowly back and forth. They changed from a soft-lit haze towards the ceiling and walls, to sharp blades of light that cut the thick atmosphere vertically towards the floor. It was also the non-musical soundtrack,of sonar beeps and dolphin click-sounds. Then I thought, this is a womb. It is soft and comforting it is dark and cosy and all of us like identical siblings were clinging to its walls. It was not scary any more, at least not for a while.
This exhibit has been described as hypnotic and meditative by its creators and its visitors. Even though meditation is an attempt to be aware and present which is the opposite of being hypnotised, strangely Momentum can be both. It depends on how the descent into darkness is interpreted. One can choose to see it as a game and try to catch the light in a successful selfie, or turn inwards and contemplate.
What I did not mention before was that the myth described above was incredibly important for the ancient world. In fact rituals that commemorated it were practised for no less than 2.000 years in Greece and were attended by people from the entire known world, (at that time). They travelled from their lands to Eleusis an ancient city, not too far from Athens, in west Attica, to be initiated to the Mysteries. The importance that was given to those rituals was so grave that anyone who revealed their secrets was sentenced to death and thus the Mysteries managed to remain secret for ever. Some things are known about what happened in the dark to the initiates. Apparently they endured much in order to be initiated to the ancient cult, but ultimately they were emerged into light, changed, reborn.
Much has changed since then but some core things remain the same. Like the descend into the darkness that some might even undertake to go through willingly, especially when the promise of light in the end is certain. What happens in the dark is always a mystery and should not be discussed much because it loses its magic. It is something each of us has to carry within when it is time to resurface to glorious light , as the memory of a process.
And what a glorious day it was when I exited the Barbican!
The exhibition will be on until the 1st of June 2014
Barbican website here
United Visual Artists website here
Eleusinian Mysteries Wikipedia page here