Siren: Reinterpreting the Temptress Song
Jun 15 - Jul 15 2023
Beginning in ancient Greece and up through the modern era, poets and painters have portrayed seemingly guileless, chimeric creatures with enchanting voices that unfortunately forebode destruction. First mentioned in Homer’s Odyssey, these hallucinatory beings were heard offstage, leaving their physical characteristics to be imagined by the reader. Later they were described as part human and part bird –and capable of playing string instruments such as the lyre. These initial descriptions envisioned sirens of both sexes but by the Middle Ages, sirens were depicted solely as female and their hybrid natures more complex to include human heads and torsos combined with wings, claws and fishtails.
Increasingly, particularly in Christian iconography, sirens were seen as a symbol of irresistible temptation leading to man’s downfall and death. In the 17th century, the age of exploration, sirens were situated on exotic islands steep with rocky cliffs and lashed by high seas. Her appearance changed to that of a woman fish, mermaid-like, an evolution that her favored prey were unsuspecting mariners who Leonardo da Vinci wrote, would be first lulled to sleep by the siren’s sweet song and then murdered by them.
In modern times, sirens lost their fish tails and were depicted as fully human; their fabled songs, whilst still spellbinding, simply detained travelers and made them forget their native lands—rather than lure them to a certain death. Divested of their murderous reputations, sirens were at worst talented courtesans with questionable morals. The curators of Siren: Reinterpreting the Temptress Song propose to continue this rehabilitation and evolution of the siren and suggest that all along her song was indeed irresistible –but her enchantment did not cause misfortune rather it was meant to be an impossible-to-ignore warning sign of grounding shoals and capsizing squalls. Her songs inviting respite and temporary forgetfulness can too be viewed as a salve—a psychological waystation to regroup before taking up one’s duties and travels with renewed vigor.
One imagines that in our present time the siren’s song grows ever louder –like an incessant gale wind. She panics. The siren’s exotic locales have all but disappeared, her beloved seas choked with the detritus of a wasteful and selfish culture that celebrates greed and injustice. We push ourselves and others to exhaustion ---happiness a forever out of reach destination informed by a thousand self-righteous demands and entitlements while she serenades us to stay and quiet. Lastly, we fight about everything, each party insisting the other is in the wrong. “Hush” the siren sings. Rest your weary head and let things be.
Curated by Carrie Skoczek and Michael Gormley