"Aphrós" in Take Me Somewhere Nice And Tell Me How To Get There, ed. Georgia Stephenson (2020)
“Refuse and corpses show me what I permanently thrust aside in order to live”
Julia Kristeva, The Powers of Horror, 1980
Here she lays, in the summit of Mount Olympus, the forever beautiful Venus, Aphrodite, Cytherea and many other names that fail to capture such complex personality. Venus is eclectic, convoluted, and irremediably slippery, yet in the series ‘Venus - you were born from the scum of the water’ Maria Positano has disclosed her hybrid existence and delicately, yet stubbornly, compromised the goddess’ idealised and immortal beauty. Scraping with nails the crust of her crystalline sublimation, Positano eventually identifies Venus with ‘what has been cast off’. In Maria’s eyes and hands, Venus becomes the potential of re-reading the abject through the process of time, materials and the mythological metaphor of the idealised/exploited female body.
The Birth of Venus was firstly narrated by Hesiod in the Theogony (730-700 BC). Venus, he chanted, was born from the white filthy foam - aphrós - produced by the immortal skin of Uranus’s genitals that his son Cronus had severed and unabashedly thrown into the sea.
Sandro Botticelli (1445-1510), doyen of Italian Renaissance, has eternally visualised the Birth of Venus as the founding myth of beauty and love. He portrayed Venus’ birth among the clean and delicate brushstrokes of purity, perfection and classical beauty. It comes as no surprise that Botticelli chose the iconography of the scallop shell - round and pure as a pearl- and discarded the dirty, unruly aphrós produced by Uranus’ fallen genitals.
“It is not lack of cleanliness or health that causes abjection but what disturbs identity, system and order. What does not respect borders, positions, rules. The in-between, the ambiguous, the composite” reads Julia Kristeva in the Powers of Horror.
Botticelli’s omission, then transformed into an iconography, was driven by a need to cast off and reject impure associations with the goddess of beauty which would threaten the divine state of order. Even worse, they would suggest the emasculation of the patriarch. Venus then became, in the cocoon of the past and the consumerist eyes of the present, an ideal of classical beauty.
Positano’s body of sculptures ‘Venus - you were born from the scum of the water’ subverts classical female beauty and scrapes off its sleek surface to reveal what seethe beneath. By using discarded elements collected from the streets and scrapyards, Positano intelligently unveils the forfeited aspects of Venus' mythology and subsequently redesigns the concept of Classical Beauty. Ocean thorns grow out of severed, emaciated legs, a copper breast has oxidised, fake nails pungently spring out a fishing net. Chewing gums, found car parts and horse hair frame a new and pungent Venus emerging from the depth of the earth, landing from the sky and rising from the darkness of the water.
Nonetheless, this dichotomy is subtle and deceiving in Positano’s sculptures. Endowed with an elegant structure which suggests balance, the Venus/es display the same serene celestial palette of their Botticelli counterpart, with decorative wax detailing and intricate gilding. Yet, on a closer perusal, their contorted structures hint at the interdependence, loneliness and fragility of these abjected objects - they have been discarded, deemed unnecessary and repudiated from the iconography of (art) history in favour of a surface image of perfection. Just like the Venus of Botticelli has been denied the imagery of Uranus’ genitals and the transgression of order.
Yet the abject is never eradicated, continuing to haunt the boundaries of the body, threatening its patriarchal tenuity. In the same way, Positano infiltrates within these cracks of art history and sheds light onto a composite Venus from the perspective of the MAKER, actively engaging in her own manufacturing and gendering.
‘Take Me Somewhere Nice’ appears to me as a balancing act between abjection, past and present, disclosing the complexity of beauty, femininity and desire under the eerie wings of consumerism. It most definitely takes us onto a radical journey.