In the myths of ancient Greece, Prometheus stole fire from the gods and gave it to humankind, and for his trouble ended up shackled to a rock in the Caucasus, his ever-regenerating liver serving as one lucky eagle’s breakfast buffet. He is perhaps less famous for other exploits – such as the time he got called away while sculpting Aletheia, the figure of candour and truth, and left Dolos, the spirit of guile, in charge. Per Aesop (pardon the source), Dolos decided to show off by copying Prometheus’ piece, and his ‘sly fingers’ produced such impressive work that Prometheus thought to claim it as his own. Just one detail gave away the subterfuge: the forgery was missing feet. Once imbued with life, Aletheia could walk, while her copy, Mendacium, was fixed in place. Lies hobble, but the truth shall set you free. So what does an authentic life look like in this day and age, when our (nominally) private lives couple #nofilter boasts with flattering trick angles and political discourse occupies a hall of mirrors where feelings trounce facts and the epithet ‘fake news’ is hurled belligerently against reality itself? We might take another cue from the Greeks – or rather, from a trope that the Victorians detected in them: the idea that nature responds to and reflects human reality. Bizarre as it seems to think that hurricanes and runaway icebergs somehow signify our disordered condition, right now they stand all too readily for collective consciousness as well as troubling scientific facts. Meanwhile, we observe familiar rituals and markers of the changing season, no less real for being reassuring. In the northern hemisphere, October comes like a horse-drawn carriage and leaves like a jack-o-lantern. Crisp, limpid weather, trees the colour of sunset, and the sweet, mulchy smell of vegetal decay give way to early nightfall, bare branches and harder ground. And while children don masks to extort treats from strangers, we are left with a sense that we are cycling into a season of exposure when truths may be a little harder to ignore.
Born to parents named Pericles and Athena, Christos Tsirogiannis was, at the age of four, dazzled by black-and-white photographs of the discovery of Vergina tomb in northern Greece; no surprise, then, his lifelong calling as a forensic archaeologist. Tsirogiannis’s sleuthing has unearthed dozens of ill-gotten artefacts tucked away in auction houses and museum archives. He recently sounded the alarm about a southern Italian terracotta bell-krater (a container used for holding wine at social events) in the Metropolitan Museum of Art, enumerating in The Journal of Art Crime a number of damning facts: ‘The bell-krater is photographed using Polaroid technology not commercially available until after 1972; the krater is situated not in its archaeological context with a measuring tool, but with soil encrustations, on an armchair; in the regular photographs, the vase appears against a background whose brick-red colour seems clumsily matched with the dark red velvet surface, the same surface on which Medici [the notorious tomb-raider rather than the arts patrons] photographed several other antiquities which later proved to be illicit and were repatriated to Italy...’ Faced with museum officials’ silence and time-buying, Tsirogiannis took his evidence to the Manhattan district attorney, and the Met was served with what must be one of the most delightfully specific search warrants issued this decade: ‘attributed to Python from 360 to 350 B.C., approximately 14 ½ inches in diameter, and depicting the Greek god Dionysos in his youth with a woman on a cart being drawn by Papposilenos on one side and two youths standing between palmettes on the other.’
Winner of Un Certain Regard at this year’s Cannes Festival, Lerd (A Man of Integrity) will not be seen in the writer-director Mohammad Rasoulof’s home country of Iran, where his films are banned. Following a year in prison (reduced from an original sentence of six), Rasoulof shot this heavy-hearted film in secret. Its protagonist, Reza (a brooding Reza Akhlaghirad), is a man who refuses to compromise. He has left Tehran to farm goldfish; when they begin to die, he becomes suspicious of a thuggish neighbour who lives upstream and whose dam has cut off Reza’s water supply. They scuffle, Reza ends up in jail, and his problems mushroom. Conventional wisdom says he could pay to make them go away, but as the title implies, he won’t do it. There’s a surreal sequence that takes place in a cave, where Reza retreats to get away from it all, drinking watermelon moonshine and taking a baptismal dip in cloudy water that looks like milk. ‘How pure should a person be?’ Rasoulof seems to ask, and a violent ending provides an ambivalent answer. For protagonist and filmmaker alike, probity promises a world of trouble.
The Spanish photographer Joan Fontcuberta might be described as working in an anti-documentary vein. Citing Dalí, Miró and Borges as inspirations, he likes to distort reality and history with staged pictures and elaborate backstories. The stray thread that unravels the hoax is his tendency to insert himself into the action, inventing and impersonating characters such as a vanished Russian cosmonaut named Ivan Istochnikov (istochnikov, like fontcuberta, means ‘hidden fountain’) – although the dossiers that back up his far-fetched scenarios are so thoroughly detailed that he has tricked the public over and over. Fontcuberta calls his practice ‘a pedagogy of doubt, protecting us from the disease of manipulation. We want to believe. Believing is more comfortable because unbelieving implies effort, confrontation.’ His 1993 series ‘Constellations’ features an expanse of what looks to be starry sky but is actually dust on a car windscreen. And in ‘Karelia: Miracles and Co’ (2002), he assumes a monk’s robes and appears to walk on water. Fontcuberta is missing a finger, which he claims makes him ‘a terrible photographer. Lately, photographic skill is thick on the ground but mystery is in short supply. Wouldn’t you rather ponder the tableaux of an artful illusionist?’
London’s Royal Academy of Arts has ‘Something Resembling Truth’, an astonishing survey of Jasper Johns, on view until December, when it hops the pond (and then some) to the Broad in Los Angeles. Part of the Royal Academicians series recognising the world’s greatest living artists – Anish Kapoor, David Hockney, Anselm Kiefer, Ai Weiwei and counting – the exhibition encompasses work from the 1950s through today: richly textured renderings of letters, numbers, maps and marksman’s targets; an encaustic American flag. Johns is identified with the art world’s pivot away from Abstract Expressionism and toward Pop Art, and with neck-cricking auction prices. At 86, ‘He is in his studio all the time, still painting and print-making,’ one of the show’s curators told the Guardian. ‘I often find that having an idea in my head prevents me from doing something else,’ Johns once said. ‘Working is therefore a way of getting rid of an idea.’ Of his subject matter, he has noted, ‘I tend to like things that already exist,’ while at the same time, ‘Whatever I do seems artificial and false, to me.’
Philip Glass’s remarkable three-act opera Satyagraha (1980) takes a grand jeté into the world of dance and the city of Berlin at the end of October, under the guidance of Belgian choreographer Sidi Larbi Cherkaoui – no stranger to challenging collaborations, having worked with the artists Marina Abramović and Antony Gormley and the film director Joe Wright on Anna Karenina. Gandhi coined the term satyagraha to refer to his form of nonviolent resistance (it loosely translates as ‘truth force’), and Glass spins the concept into a redemption play of sorts, naming each act after a historical figure (Leo Tolstoy, Rabindranath Tagore, Martin Luther King Jr.) who held fast to truth in his own indelible way. This new incarnation blends the hypnotic strains of Glass’s choral composition with trip-the-light-fantastic feet, and makes the heart surge in appreciation of exquisite acts of courage – in the past and onstage. ‘I feel that the energy of the body is lifted even more while singing,’ Cherkaoui says. ‘Singing is a kind of choreography inside of the body. It can reach a place where the eye is sometimes blind.’
How Sad, How Lovely is a spare, haunting album released posthumously, the title an apt description of its composer’s life. Elizabeth (Connie) Converse grew up the daughter of a New Hampshire minister in a tight-knit, teetotal family. She dropped out of undergraduate studies midway, found a studio in Manhattan’s Greenwich Village and published essays about global politics. She also taught herself guitar and recorded songs of wry honesty with an irresistibly homespun sound – her voice simultaneously rich and fluty against plaintive strings. Between 1950 and 1955, Converse wrote dozens of songs and appeared on the CBS Morning Show; however, the big break didn’t materialise. So she moved to Ann Arbor, Michigan, took an academic job, volunteered as a political activist and began writing a novel. In 1974 she mailed cryptic goodbye notes to friends and family and drove off, never to be heard from again. The Brooklyn label Squirrel Thing Records rediscovered Converse’s recordings after one of its founders caught a clip of her voice on public radio, and released How Sad, How Lovely in 2009. ‘These reels are strewn with minor mishaps,’ Converse wrote to her brother some fifty years earlier. ‘On the other hand, they’re not so bad.’
Illustrations by Jeffrey Cheung.
‘The truth I do not dare to know / I muffle with a jest.’