DISPUTED BECOMING (OMPHALE HERAKLES OMPHALE)

2019

Selenium toned gelatin silver photograph

56 x 39 cm

ED 3 + 1 AP


Please enlarge image for detail

This photograph, printed in negative, can be described as a partial double exposure in that only the middle section has been exposed twice. Here two overlapping exposures representing different perspectives of the same figure merge in the middle creating a doubled, dual, or commingled figure.

The material subject of the image is a slightly smaller than life-size head of a statue (c.500 BCE), representing either Omphale or Herakles, or perhaps both. 

There are significant differences in how much we know about these two identities. Herakles is more commonly known and historically symbolised (in Western culture), strength and invulnerability. In a more contemporary reading he has become a symbol of an outmoded form of hyper-masculinity. Very little is known of Omphale, for the most part she remains buried in history but her story has significant contemporary social resonance. Omphale was a powerful queen of the  Iron Age empire in Asia Minor known as Lydia. She is said to ruled her kingdom independently after the death of her husband. While little is known about Omphale, the story most commonly associated with her involves Herakles,  enslavement and the exchange of their gendered roles. 

Told since ancient times, the story reveals that Herakles, having brutally murdered his friend Iphitos, was decreed by the Delphic Oracle to a three year period of enslavement to Omphale  to atone for his crime. Ancient writers, such as  Aeschylus and Apollodorus, state that a condition of Omphale’s was that the hyper-masculine Herakles wear only women’s clothes during that period and perform only women’s work such as spinning flax, while she wearing his lion-skin took up his olive-wood club and engaged in men’s activities like hunting.

The limestone head was acquired for the collection of the National Archaeological Museum Athens  in 1899 (Inv. No. 1738). At that time it was catalogued as a representation of Omphale. Today archaeologists more commonly considered it to be a representation of Herakles, however differences can be found recent published attributions. 

In an abridged version of the Catalogue of Sculptures 1: Archaic Sculptures from the 7th c. BC to 480 BC (Athens 2014) the author N. Kaltsas refers to P. Kastriotis who writing at the time of the head’s acquisition states “this head very probably depicts Omphale wearing Herakles’ lion’s pelt” . In the unabridged version of the catalogue G. Despinis writes “It represents most probably Herakles, young and beardless, and not Omphale, as it was believed.”

The photographic doubleness of Disputed Becoming (Omphale Herakles Omphale) might be considered as a reflection of the layered perspectives concerning the head’s attribution. It might also be considered reflective of  the doubleness, exchange and commingling of identities at the very heart of the ancient story and thereby call to mind contemporary issues related with notions gender fluidity.

Disputed Becoming (Omphale Herakles Omphale) is linked with Hazewinkel’s ongoing research into  powerful and mysterious Omphale and the reasons why she is so little represented in the canon of Western classical studies. It is related with his 2017 sculptural work Suspicious Marble (Omphale) - see here - and examples his continuing consideration of the contemporary social legacies of ancient archetypes, objects and myths.