Maenads & Satyrs (2015-18 DOWNIE ESHKAR KAISER)

Maenads & Satyrs is an immersive 3D installation commissioned by the Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum. The work transforms our experience of one of the museum’s key treasures, a Roman sarcophagus unearthed in Renaissance times.

A triptych of 3D projections, the installation places the viewers’ bodies in relation to the 3D bodies of the sarcophagus, which float ambiguously within their field of vision. The rendering, which evokes painting rather than photography, engages the viewer’s sense of touch, though in uncanny fashion: the lines of the image seem to dangle within hand’s reach, but of course one’s hand passes right through it as if a ghost’s, and it’s only vision itself that seems so curiously tactile.

When the three virtual cameras move in coordinated synchrony over the ancient figures, they seem to bring them back to life, momentarily unfreezing their motions as they enact their erotic dances. This has a powerful proprioceptive effect on the viewers, who feel not only their eyes but also their bodies drawn forth by these motions.

A similar sense of the body arises from the music, a composition for solo cello and electronics by composer Kaija Saariaho in a performance by Yeesun Kim of the Borromeo Quartet.

Stringed instruments are most suggestive of touch, and the cello the most suggestive of the body. Yeesun’s bow on the cello strings matches the stroke of lines of the 3D imagery as well as in the gestural motions of the virtual camera — all give an intensely tactile sensation.

Kaiser reflects on the work in an essay entitled Takes on Maenads & Satyrs, which appears in the exhibition catalogue Life, Death, & Revelry: The Farnese Sarcophagus (Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum / Paul Holberton Publishing; 2018).