Cover image of the review
Steve McQueen, Charlotte, 2004. 16mm colour film, silent, 5:42 mins. Courtesy the artist, Thomas Dane Gallery, London, and Marian Goodman Gallery, New York and Paris. Photograph: Andrew Curtis.

A Biography of Daphne

14 Aug 2021
25 Jun - 5 Sep 2021

“Wherever the might of Rome extends in the lands she has conquered, the people shall read and recite my words”. So says Ovid in the penultimate sentence of his Metamorphoses, the first-century, fifteen-book epic poem that gives Ovid’s Roman account of the creation of the universe and the history of the world up to the coronation of Julius Caesar. Today, Rome has conquered the Australian Centre for Contemporary Art (ACCA) in A Biography of Daphne, an exhibition by Romanian curator Mihnea Mircan. The exhibition takes the eighth story of Ovid’s poem, Daphne, which tells of the young god Apollo’s forceful pursuit of his first love Daphne, daughter of the river Peneus, to provide a complex, open, and deeply ambivalent investigation of trauma and transformation in contemporary art.

Anthonie Waterloo, Apollo and Daphne (1650s); published (1784–88). Etching, 29.5 x 24.6 cm (image and plate); 29.9 x 24.9 cm (sheet). National Gallery of Victoria, Melbourne, gift of Sir Lionel Lindsay 1954. Photograph: Andrew Curtis.

In Ovid’s story, blind chance is not blamed for Apollo’s pursuit of Daphne—nor Daphne’s flight from Apollo—but Eros’s resentment. Flush from his first military victory over a monstrous serpent, Apollo spots Cupid drawing his bow and arrow and teases the little cherub for playing with adult weapons. Spiteful, Cupid shoots Apollo with an arrow that rouses in him uncontrollable passion, and into Daphne he implants an arrow that repels it. Wounded by Eros, Apollo catches sight of Daphne and falls instantly in love and longs to have her. Daphne wishes to remain a virgin, and when Apollo dotes over her, she flees. Pictured as a menacing greyhound, Apollo takes frenzied pursuit until, catching up to her, and with his breath on her neck, Daphne pleads with her father Peneus to disfigure the beauty Apollo lusts after. With that, Daphne metamorphoses into the world’s first laurel tree.

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