The Voice of Myths and Fairy Tales (and of Fairy Tale-Myths)
by Ilaria Gianni
Studied from life, a myth is not an explanation that satisfies scientific interest, but the resurrection in narrative form of primeval reality, told to satisfy deep religious and moral needs. It expresses, stimulates, and codifies beliefs, safeguards and strengthens morality, ensures the efficiency of ritual, and contains practical rules for the conduct of man.
Myth is thus a vital ingredient of human civilization; it is not useless fable, but an active force built up over time.
Let us start with myths and fables and their method of telling stories, or better yet how they compose, structure, narrate and restore history. In the balance between objective documentation and fiction, and between the analysis of internal processes of nature and the inquiry into cultural production, Elisa Strinna can be defined in her work as a contemporary storyteller. Her aesthetic and conceptual research is based on profound historical analysis and a personal reading of the mechanisms inherent in the narrative structures contained in social and universal memory. Her work has a theoretical basis and is at the same time roaming; it occupies a new imaginative realm rooted in the ideas of the present, capable of proposing a translation of history and events in an attempt to highlight the relationship between illusion and reality. Elisa Strinna’s work provides understanding and is a means to investigate the essence of humanity, put in action without the help of guitars, harps and accordions, but thanks to devices that trigger multiple senses and reveal innate existence.
The structural anthropologist Claude Lévi-Strauss, in the course of his research, analyzed the role and function of mythical stories within so-called “primitive” civilizations, meaning by this expression not people who were devoid of social organization or culture, but without a writing system. Much of the oral culture of these populations has focused on mythological constructions that, if at first glance they may appear without reason, are actually rich in cultural and social values. While obscuring the logic that refers to political and economic structures, they illustrate the value and importance of rituals or social institutions. Myths are therefore not a pure figment of the imagination, but the result of
careful observation of the environment by men who, using their mental faculties, employ them to provide explanations. The goal is not to dismantle and understand reality from the individual elements, but rather to have a “general comprehension of the universe – and a comprehension not only general, but also total”.1 If Lévi-Strauss identified in myths the attempt to give order to natural reality, the work of Elisa Strinna attempts to produce possible representations of the incidental and to develop new “scriptures”. By collecting and deciphering information provided by both natural and human heritage, the artist creates the parable of a new mythology, building an unprecedented expressive system composed of sounds, shapes and images that, just as Lévi-Strauss maintained, give man the illusion
of being able to understand the universe but without providing the opportunity to exercise more material control over it. Indomitable nature becomes an element to listen to, the guardian of an unspoken script and a voice that is revealed in its obscure aspects. By activating this new mode of communication Elisa Strinna challenges the boundaries of truth and knowledge.
Wood Songs (2008) is an installation composed of sections of tree trunks made from various types of wood that are cut to the thickness of a vinyl LP in the form of discs. The wooden plaques bear circular grooves on each side, marks that indicate the life cycle of the tree and encode its history, released when touched by the stylus of a record player. The tree is revealed and plays the melody of its hidden life. Elisa Strinna attempts to translate the cultural history of nature. It becomes a tangible manifestation, or at least the implementation of a new primitive and obscure language for which we do not possess the linguistic code, but which transports us. The reverberation of the universe catches and moves us. In Articolazioni Oltre il Linguaggio (2014), a collaboration with the artist Elena Mazzi,
there is a complex dialogue between the historical, the natural and the human expressed in a duet of voices. The first one is from a sedimentary rock, a symbolic repository of the ancestral history of Earth, whose vocabulary, compounded over time by the accumulation of material, is deciphered by an instrument capable of translating the rhythms of the strata. The second voice is a singer who interprets a graph representing trends in the Western capitalist economy. The work therefore puts the viewer in the position of listening to a discourse on the history of the world in its material essence, face to face with an artificial element, dominant in contemporary reality. The relationship between these two factors gives rise to an “oral” component, a new lyric that aims to highlight how the two aspects
on which human life balances are interwoven, yet distant.
As in many mythical stories that use a binary contrast in the narrative to make sense of the relationship between natural processes and things created by man, also Articolazioni Oltre il Linguaggio engages in this impulse. The question is: Why today, in the age of scientific rationalism, would an artist, supported by the technology itself, try to build new fairy tale-myths 2? Does man’s desire to always have contact with nature and its mysteries perhaps still need to be filtered by a touch of illusory abstraction? Elisa Strinna dusts off the transcendental aspect of myths, only seemingly naive, that have always taken a leading role in the structuring of relations and the establishment of social institutions. Perhaps today, in this age of quick knowledge always at hand, it becomes increasingly necessary to
find a way to go beyond the given objective details and enter into the sphere of the subjective and the absolute. It is with this logic that the artist explores the ways in which we build, catalog and distinguish our knowledge, while questioning the method of construction of stories and the transmission of history.
If until now it has been myths (and mythmaking) with their cosmological, natural and metaphysical dimensions at the center of Elisa Strinna’s work, with the protagonists of La ragazza mela (2011-2013) we enter the realm of fairy tales. These are also narratives originating in folk tradition, but with a more social or moral foundation. Again quoting Lévi-Strauss: “A fairy tale is an attenuated transposition of themes whose amplified form is characteristic of myth. The first is subjected more strenuously than the second to the threefold criterion of logical consistency, religious orthodoxy and collective will. Fables offer a greater chance for play [...]”.3 In the short film La ragazza mela, Elisa Strinna addresses one of the stories collected in Fiabe Italiane by Italo Calvino.4 As with every fairy tale, the story here is built on a binary structure of characters with conflicting desires. If the original tells of queens and kings, infants and stepmothers, lovers and jealousy, magic and initiation, the artist moves the story to the present by presenting a critique of contemporary society focused on social and moral codes, ambitions and desires, nature and artifice. Strinna’s La ragazza mela is composed of images and written words. Her research on acoustic components that reveal traces of history inherent in nature is interrupted here in favor of staging forms saturated with contrasting color, emphasized in their expressions and gestures. The words that run on the screen outline the story, but it is the images that evoke the meaning of these new fairy tales. Even the updated version of La ragazza mela tells of a woman (no longer a queen) who is unable to have children until, reconciling with her natural component, she gives birth to an apple. In place of the king a bourgeois man appears, engaged in a challenge with the universe. The age-old opposition between natural and cultural processes again makes its appearance. In the video, nature prevails on man’s ambition to build something that can overcome it. The apple born from a woman becomes an object of aspiration for man (not a product), thus underlining the dynamics of systems of power. Making entry into the art collection of an upper-middle class home, the fruit becomes a threat to the codes of conduct and balance of the family, an obsession for the man and a nightmare for his wife. The latter – the antagonist character in the story – in an attempt to get rid of the fear of losing stability that had been artificially achieved, stabs the apple, out of which flows blood. The magical cure of the domestic worker not only allows the fruit to heal, but to transform into a woman.
In fairy tales the rules of discourse operate on two levels. First, the so-called “literal” meaning captures the flow of the narrative. Then there is the meta-language, where words become “elements of signification, in relation to a supplemental system of significance, which is found on another level”. 5 All these signs and symbols lead us to construct meaning understood as a mental image, the result of a cultural construction that allows us to comprehend a certain field of reality. 6
The one built by Elisa Strinna is a system of replication, reworking and representation of the existing and constructed heritage of humanity. Each of her works is a linguistic operation that questions the very nature of the world and the rules and relationships that man establishes with his surroundings. In an era in which the best system for the transmission of knowledge is no longer the oral tradition, the written page, or the production of an image, and at a time in which virtual connection, quick and invisible, allows us immediate access to all sources of information, the storyteller is an incomplete and imperfect mechanism for “transmitting data”. The artist thus forces us to take a step back, highlighting the importance of the narrative and its forms and figures as bearers of ethical, political and social values. Confronted with the work of Elisa Strinna we are put in a position of listening and elaborating and, as in all oral traditions, the content is not only limited to taking shape in the moment of direct confrontation. The stories – presented, played and written – more often than not continue to dwell in people’s minds and be remembered.
From the catalog Elisa Strinna, tanto tempo fa, quando la terra era piatta, edited by Galleria Massimodeluca 2014.
Ilaria Gianni is a curator and writer. After obtaining a postgraduate degree in Art History at the University of Rome “La Sapienza”, she achieved an MFA in Curating at Goldsmiths College, London. She is currently co-director of Nomas Foundation, Rome.
1. Claude Lévi-Strauss, Mito e significato, Il Saggiatore, Milan, 2010, page 31.
2. Claude Lévi-Strauss, in Antropologia strutturale Vol 2, Il Saggiatore, Milan, 1980, page 168.
Lévi-Strauss reflecting on the work of V. Propp (Morfologia della fiaba) says it is impossible to clearly separate the two
genera. “It is indeed possible to see how stories, which have the character of fairy tales in one society, are myths for
another, and vice versa.”
3. Claude Lévi-Strauss, op. cit., page 169.
4. Italo Calvino, Fiabe Italiane, Giulio Einaudi Editore, Turin, 1956.
5. Claude Lévi-Strauss, op. cit., page 183.
6. Ferdinand de Saussure, Corso di linguistica generale, Laterza, Bari, 1967.