Friday, December 4, 2015

JKBrickwork’s Kinetic Sculpture of Sisyphus


Everybody knows something about Sisyphus, it seems, especially that he spends eternity pushing a boulder to the top of a hill in the World of the Dead. Odysseus saw him there and told how every time Sisyphus nearly muscled the boulder to the summit, it would bound back down and settle in the plain. Odysseus did not, however, explain WHY Sisyphus is consigned to this eternal labor.
     Explanations about reasons for the Sisyphean punishment vary among mythographers in classical texts, both Greek and Latin. He cheated Death (Thanatos), some say, in arranging with his wife to leave his mortal remains unburied so that as a disembodied shade he could persuade the nether gods to allow his return to living; upon his return to our realm, Sisyphus ventured to abide among the living. Zeus, in another telling, frowned upon Sisyphus’ irreverence — for Sisyphus had told Asopus that the Olympian had abducted his daughter — and sent Thanatos to deal with the transgressor. Sisyphus bound Thanatos in chains, thus temporarily interrupting the need for mortals to die, until Ares intervened, freed Death, and sent Sisyphus to the eternal toil of pushing that stone ever upwards.
JKBrickworks, Jason's Kinetic Sisyphus:
     Since ancient authors touched upon Sisyphus’ labor — and it would surprise us if they were consistent entirely in the whys and wherefores — literary and other artists in all ages have written about the legendary trickster. My personal favorite is Ally Condie’s remarkable telling in her Matched trilogy of teen-directed novels (Dutton 2010-2012), where Sisyphus is shown to have undertaken his eternal push for purpose of wearing down a canyon through a ridgeline and thereby channeling a stream for subsequent ages to follow. Albert Camus’ 1942 articulation of the absurdity of Sisyphus’ task is itself a classic: “Sisyphus, proletarian of the gods, powerless and rebellious, know the whole extent of his wretched condition: it is what he thinks of during his descent.” And collecting occasional New Yorker cartoons playing with the Sisyphus myth, especially those by Chas Addams and Christopher Weyant, was for many years a welcome diversion for me.
    Now, a Lego engineer at named Jason has crafted a remarkable kinetic sculpture of Sisyphus pushing a boulder. Jason’s YouTube was picked up by Disney Research and forwarded to me by Abi Pettijohn, an attentive student in my Myth class. In ClCv 241, I hope to train students to look for interesting modern usages of classical myths. My hope is that the really interesting ones will spark further thinking. Abi has done her job very well indeed.
     The JKBrickworks Sisyphus can be seen in action on YouTube (use this link: Aside from the marvelous engineering on display, I draw attention to the mythological artwork explained by the engineer himself in the video. Jason introduces himself and his creation, but makes sure we understand the freize panels adorning the base upon which his Sisyphus moves. (Jason is a long way, in every measure, beyond any of the Lego fabrications I built when I worked in Danish brick!) Jason explains on the video:
So, before I explain how all the mechanics work, I thought I would show you the base of the model where I have depicted my interpretation of some of the scenes of Sisyphus’ life in this Greek relief style. On the front we have him in his chariot and horse attacking some of the visitors to his kingdom. [On the back panel:] This is actually Hades in the Underworld being chained up. He was actually intending to chain Sisyphus up, but Sisyphus managed to turn the tables on him. [On the opposite long flank:] Here he is hosting a dinner party and he was stabbing some of his guests. He really was a pretty evil dude. [On the short front flank:] This is Zeus who finally had enough of shenanigans and punished him by having him roll the boulder up the mountain. And of course Zeus cursed the boulder so that it would always roll back to the bottom when it got to the top.
      Jason is not pretending to offer up a scholarly discourse on Sisyphus. So, I gladly allow him his narrative. Moreover, the brickwork involved in his four remarkably skilful friezes (not to mention the stunning figure of his Sisyphus itself) gives this mythographer a bit of a free pass. However, the four narratives Jason offers are novel and unfounded in classical accounts.
       Jason’s Sisyphus is regarded as “a pretty evil dude” and is thus depicted killing guests at a “dinner party”. Gross violations of xenia are not part of customary, classical (if you will) narratives of Sisyphean criminality. The binding of Hades is similar to the Sisyphus’ binding of Thanatos, to be sure; and maybe a critic of Jason’s mythopoesis is going to far to make him split a hair distinguishing between Death and Hades, the god of the dead. I know of no classical myth that tells of Sisyphus trampling by chariot visitors to his kingdom. Corinth, Sisyphus’ kingdom, was known for many things in antiquity, but not primarily renown for its inhospitality. Nor was Sisyphus known among classical authors for dangerous treatment of visitors in general. Jason’s fourth claim, that “Zeus finally [tired] of Sisyphus’ shenanigans” is pretty much right on the money, even if classical authors give the cursing of the infamous boulder over to other gods at times.
      I write in response to Jason’s Kinetic Sisyphus not out of pedantry, not to mark the contents and explanations of his friezes as erroneous, but rather to welcome this remarkable contribution to the world of modern usages of classical mythology, that corpus of timeless narratives that continues to change and grow.
   RTM, with thanks to by Abigail Pettijohn

Some bibliography offered by Classical Tradition, comp. by A. Grafton and G.W. Most (Harvard, 2010), s.v. “Sisyphus” [G.B.]
B. Seidensticker and A. Wessels, eds., Mythos Sisyphos: Texte von Homer bis Günter Kunert (Leipzig 2001).
Also, see Oxford Guide to Classical Mythology in the Arts, 1300 – 1990s  (Oxford University Press, 1994).