Bounded spaces
The seed and nest concepts in the work of Barbara Papadopoulou

In real life the years go by and everything and everyone gets replaced. Those we knew, though absent, are yet merged inextricably into new folk, so that each person is to us a sum of many others and the effect is of opening box after box in which the original is forever hidden.
Edna O'Brien, "The Doll"

With language you can dare, you can ruminate, you can pillage, you can weep, you can conquer [...] It is as fundamental as motherhood, but the seed is within yourself [...] The sperms are the moonbeams and sunbeams and shadows of every thought, half thought, and follicle of feeling that have attended you since your first breath of hardship.
Edna O'Brien, "Time and Tide"

In Edna O'Brien's short story "The Doll", the metaphor of nesting dolls captures aptly the reality of living experience. The conflict of the story evolves around the question of the doll's subjectivity, a powerful metaphor of personal identity, in which memory recollections are described as the famous Russian Matryoshka dolls. The narrator and the doll stand in an uneasy juxtaposition, a confrontation which reflects Freud's notion of the Uncanny. The story recalls Freud’s discussion of dolls as a significant element of childhood life, describing how children frequently maintain that their dolls are alive or that they themselves can make the inanimate dolls come to life – what he called a particularly favorable condition for awakening uncanny feelings. The miniature figures cast an enigmatic charm over their beholders: What lies behind our fascination with, and fear of, images made in human likeness? Must we always relinquish power over these replicas, or rather disinvest them of that power, in order to gain control over our essential selves? In one way or another, dolls are uncannily connected to our self identity. It is this quest which may have leaded Barbara Papadopoulou to the concept of the Matryoshkas.

Dating from late 19th century, the Matryoshka dolls are possibly the most popular metaphor in representing how the world is scaled. The Matryoshka metaphor implies forcefully that there is a nested hierarchy of scales, fitting neatly into each other to provide a coherent whole. In this metaphor each scale is seen as a distinct entity, yet the picture can only be complete when each one assumes its role as container of the smaller one and content of the larger one. The quest for meaning in human life is clearly connected to this idea.

Perception and experience, theorists argue, cannot be remembered but only imaginatively reconstructed and dramatized in words and images. Barbara Papadopoulou’s earlier work portrayed the search of female identity through a series of unconventional nudes. Her subsequent writings were based on memories of childhood experience in an autobiographical manner showing a deep longing to recover the past. The variation and development in her later work still consists of the same sensations and interests. The imagery, motifs and themes clearly connect her current work with her previous one: naked wounded female bodies, babies abandoned on the snow, traumatized sexuality or childhood, reproduction, growth. However, one may say that Papadopoulou has become more selective by going more deeply into a more limited range of themes. We can now detect a recognizable core in her work: the concept of seed. The thematic development of her interests lead her to an experimental and highly performative on-going project in which she planted words with grass-seeds in several public spaces of Berlin. Watering them every day and watching them grow, she created an interactive process which succeeded in attracting many of the local inhabitants.

Ancient Greek myths commonly claimed that humans were generated from the earth in a way somewhat analogous to plants. Philosophical anthropogenies, ranging from the Stoics to Anaxagoras and Plato, also adopted this seed metaphor to describe the creation of human race. While working on the Buried Words project, Papadopoulou turns (inevitably?) to the concept of childbirth creating a series of powerful images of pregnant women. The pregnant woman is blooming, after a seed has been placed into her, whereas the child acts as the sign of the seed's immortality. Both seed and nest metaphors refer to the meaning and continuity of life. Seed metaphor conceptualized the potential for growth, fruitfulness, birth ad rebirth, life and the cycle of life. Nest protects and nurtures that potential, allowing it to fulfill and blossom.

An exiled person’s identity consists of elements from two different worlds, forming a state of mind referred to as hybrid by some critics. The application of the term hybrid to both the identity of Barbara Papadopoulou and her artwork could easily accord with this definition. Papadopoulou, an Athenian living in Berlin, obviously has been artistically inspired by her “exile”, her hybridity. In psychological terms, the pull towards the childhood home is a pull towards what brought the exile into being and created one’s identity. A return to the womb, that is, to the safety and warmth of the nest as opposed to the unconscious fear of the unknown and of not belonging in a community. As the heroine of "The Doll” thinks "So I am far from those I am with, and far from those I have left". Hence, the emphasis on the pregnant women and their peaceful and contented world that she represents.

The seed is also a powerful metaphor in this context –a reassuring notion meaning new life, perhaps even spiritual birth or psychological growth. In Stoics’s terms, it describes the process of change and the hidden progress one is making until maturity. Exile usually relates to search for a new identity. Eamonn Hughes wrote that migration writers tend to examine their original identity, reflecting on the past. Parental ties, between mother and child in particular, tend to be crucial in this quest. The relationship between the soil and the seed could be used as a metaphor for the relationship between parents and their children, who must be nourished much as seeds are by the soil in which they grow. At the same time, the search for self identity in a woman always relates in one way or another to the notion of reproduction. The half of the woman is sexual and rapacious, wrote Edna O’Brien, but the other half is committed to the prodigious effort of childbearing. “So the girls and the women are possessed of the same inconsistency; they are both passionate and virginal, plaintive and full of defiance.” It is this very identity that confronts us within the pictures of the pregnant women. An identity which, given the appropriate nest, may live eternally through the magical power of the seed. For seeds are magical. They are self sustained and grow according to sets of invisible instructions contained within them. They always know where they are going since it’s all written in their original code. And, most probably, they never ask why –that is the comfort of an always-already included motif.

Penelope Petsini
Athens, September 2010

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