by ALEXANDRA RETTER
From now until November 5, visitors to the Watkins Gallery at Winona State University (WSU) can explore a digital narrative work regarding the mythology surrounding Demeter, the Greek goddess of agriculture, and the Eleusinian Mysteries, secret rites of ancient Greece tied to Demeter.
The installation is by Joellyn Rock, an associate professor of art and design at the University of Minnesota Duluth who has exhibited her works internationally and throughout Minnesota. It is titled “The Mysteries Project.”
The work includes elements such as video clips, sketches and costumes. It weaves a tale of a group of people, including an independent filmmaker, a student intern, a production crew and a cast, who are attempting to make a film about Demeter, as well as Persephone, the daughter of Demeter who was taken by Hades, the Greek god of the underworld.
At an artist talk on the WSU campus last Monday, Rock said she has long been fascinated by the story of Demeter and Persephone.
“Partly I loved it because I grew up in Minnesota, and the seasons are so dramatic here, so the idea that Persephone gets taken down into the underworld and that’s an explanation for the seasons really appealed to me as a Minnesotan,” Rock said.
Rock said she found herself continuing to think about and return to the tale as the years passed. “I think artists just follow things,” Rock stated. “Our job is to trust that if we’re really interested in something, we should follow it.”
At an earlier point during the artist talk, Rock had described and showed a photo of a ceramic vase she had made on which the backside depicts a different version of the story of Persephone and Hades with them sitting in a basement apartment, watching TV.
Rock said she appreciates that meaning can still be found today in myths and other long-lasting stories. “We project onto them our own needs,” Rock explained.
Rock said some of her students and friends participated in the making of The Mysteries Project, noting that a student played Persephone for some time until she graduated.
In the fictional story that the work tells, the independent filmmaker is named Julia Hauenstein, and the student intern is named Sophia Funk. Rock said the surnames Hauenstein and Funk were the respective surnames of her grandmothers.
Rock explained she worked through some ethical concerns while completing the digital narrative. “I want to reassure you that nothing about this project intends to be disrespectful,” Rock shared. “But we started to wonder as we worked on it whether it might be disrespectful, because we’re talking about somebody’s real old religion.”
Roger Boulay, the gallery and art Collection coordinator and an assistant professor of art and design at WSU, said he considers academic departments and students when finding artists’ works to exhibit in the gallery.
“This show is actually a collaboration between the mass communication department and the art department, because [Rock’s] work deals with disciplines in new media that both mass communication and art and design are trying to teach students,” Boulay said. “I look for artists who, whether it’s the type of media they’re working in or the ideas they’re working in, might be a good fit to teach students … certain tools and techniques.”
Boulay reiterated that Rock’s installation hits all of these marks. He said he and his colleagues are excited to have the work on campus and feel it will help expose students to video as an art form.
“One strength of the installation is the way you’re made aware of your own body. You walk in and cast a shadow on the projections, and then if you stand in the middle of the room, your shadow disappears,” Boulay said. “When that happens to me, I feel as if I’m almost becoming a character in the narrative … with the installation, all of a sudden you’re part of it, immersed in it, instead of having the luxury of having distance from it.”