Argo Navis & the Abolished Constellations

Alexandra Paperno. Abolished Constellations, 2016. Installation view at the ‘Møenlight Sonata’, curated by René Block. Kunsthal 44Møen, Møen, Denmark, 2018. Courtesy Galerie Volker Diehl.

For B.Y. & A.Y., the star hunters.

Homer, Odyssey, XII, 69-72

οἴη δὴ κείνη γε παρέπλω ποντοπόρος νηῦς,
Ἀργὼ πᾶσι μέλουσα, παρ᾽ Αἰήταο πλέουσα.
καὶ νύ κε τὴν ἔνθ᾽ ὦκα βάλεν μεγάλας ποτὶ πέτρας,
ἀλλ᾽ Ἥρη παρέπεμψεν, ἐπεὶ φίλος ἦεν Ἰήσων.

Only the famous Argo sailed through there
Returning from the visit with Aeetes.
The current hurdled the ship towards the rocks,
But Hera, who loved Jason, led them safe.

Apollonius Rhodius, Argonautica I, 109-114

αὐτή μιν Τριτωνὶς ἀριστήων ἐς ὅμιλον
ὦρσεν Ἀθηναίη, μετὰ δ᾽ ἤλυθεν ἐλδομένοισιν.
αὐτὴ γὰρ καὶ νῆα θοὴν κάμε: σὺν δέ οἱ Ἄργος
τεῦξεν Ἀρεστορίδης κείνης ὑποθημοσύνῃσιν.
τῶ καὶ πασάων προφερεστάτη ἔπλετο νηῶν,
ὅσσαι ὑπ᾽ εἰρεσίῃσιν ἐπειρήσαντο θαλάσσης.

Tritonian Athena herself urged him to join the band of chiefs,
And he came among them a welcome comrade.
She herself too fashioned the swift ship;
And with her Argus, son of Arestor, wrought it by her counsels.
Wherefore it proved the most excellent of all ships,
That have made trial of the sea with oars.

Alexandra Paperno. Abolished Constellations, 2016. Installation view at the ‘Observatory’, curated by Simon Mraz. Special Astrophysical Observatory of the Russian Academy of Science and its campus at Lower Arkhyz, Russia, 2016. Photograph by Yuri Palmin.

Who invented the sky? The only way to answer this question would be like this — the first person who looked up and wondered. Socrates tells us in Plato’s Theaetetus (Plat. Theaet. 155d), μάλα γὰρ φιλοσόφου τοῦτο τὸ πάθος, τὸ θαυμάζειν: οὐ γὰρ ἄλλη ἀρχὴ φιλοσοφίας ἢ αὕτη, καὶ ἔοικεν ὁ τὴν Ἶριν Θαύμαντος ἔκγονον φήσας οὐ κακῶς γενεαλογεῖν, namely: “For this feeling of wonder shows that you are a philosopher, since wonder is the only beginning of philosophy, and he who said that Iris was the child of Thaumas made a good genealogy.” Iris was a messenger of the heavens, so the sky was never too far away for those who wonder. But philosophy arrives too late, and we’re looking at an earlier world, populated with gods, heroes and stars; a world that had already eclipsed in Plato’s time. Was it perhaps at the end of the Ice Age when the brain cortex of the first modern humans began articulating symbolic orders?

An answer is impossible to come by, but the stars in the sky have lived with us for a long time, and we could never unsee them. That is, paradoxically, until the modern age, when, after thousands of years of dreams and wonders, we launched ourselves into space, in an attempt to escape from the condition of being human. Out there we realized to our despair (and our newly discovered indifference too) that there was no such a thing as the sky; this was no transcendental space or a place at all, but rather, everything that is above the surface of the earth, a combination of atmospheric layers and the infinite void. The infinite is not even an adequate concept, for the physical concept of time has no relevance for the individual person, and no use except in space physics. With the conquest of heaven, a direct consequence of the space and arms race, the sky went dimmer, if not altogether silent. Yet the void remains. 

But the history of the void, with its now missing stars and constellations, is not a history of physics, as much as a story of our puzzling earthly odyssey, as astronomer John C. Barentine tells us: “However old the constellations, it is safe to conclude that they have long journeyed with us on our path to becoming human.” Constellations are some of the oldest cultural inventions of humans, predating writing and social organization (what once was called civilization). Barentine continues: “The presumably oldest figures in existence, such as the Hunter and the Bull, refer to a time in human  history before the emergence of settled agricultural communities. It is probably no coincidence that Orion and Taurus reflect themes in the oldest extant works of art: the human form and game animals.” Already at the time of the Neolithic revolution, 12,000 years ago, understanding cues in the sky about the seasonal calendar was crucial to the survival of early humans. 

Alexandra Paperno. Abolished Constellations, 2016. Installation view at the ‘Observatory’, curated by Simon Mraz. Special Astrophysical Observatory of the Russian Academy of Science and its campus at Lower Arkhyz, Russia, 2016. Photograph by Yuri Palmin.

Our oldest accounts of constellations and stars date back to the Middle Bronze Age and the list of Sumerian names suggest they were drawn from an earlier source. In the Mesopotamian text “Prayer to the Gods of the Night” (1700 BC), we hear of the Arrow (the star Sirius), the Yoke (the star Arcturus), the Stars (the Pleiades star cluster), or the True Shepherd of Anu (Orion). Think about the long journey of Sirius, the brightest star in the night sky, known to Homer as the autumn star (Hom. Il. 5.1-5), and to Egyptians and Greeks as the “Dog star”. Its heliacal rise, connected with an extremely hot season at the end of summer, was known not only to Homer and Hesiod but to Aeschylus, Apollonius of Rhodes, Theognis, Eratosthenes, Nonnus and the folk tales about the star and its hot season survive as late as Anna Komnene’s Alexiad in the Byzantine period. Located in the constellation Canis Major, Sirius is still visible to the naked eye.

In the Shield of Achilles (Hom. Il. 18.478-608), provided by Hephaestus in the Iliad, and the first example of ekphrasis, Homer describes in its first layer, a number of constellations: Orion and the Bear, the star clusters of the Pleiades and the Hyades. A telling star-struck passage in the ekphrasis, ἥ τ᾽ αὐτοῦ στρέφεται καί τ᾽ Ὠρίωνα δοκεύει (Hom. Il. 18-488), “She turns about in the same spot and watches for Orion”, reappears in identical form in the Odyssey in a crucial moment, when the nymph Calypso is sending Odysseus from the island of Ogygia, and instructs him to keep on the left side the constellation of the Bear (Hom. Od. 5.270-277), without specifying whether he meant the Little Bear or the Great Bear, in what is the only passage in the epic that refers to stellar navigation. For seventeen days he sailed over the sea, and then on the eighteenth day the land of the Phaeacians appeared nearest to him.

Most of the constellations referred to in these passages have come down to us in Ptolemy’s Almagest, and survived unchallenged for some fourteen centuries, as the cosmological model underwent certain revisions (the geocentric model is of course completely debased, but the Homeric cosmology of the earth as a flat disk surrounded by an ocean and in between two layers of stars, is surprisingly similar to the current model of the Milky Way). The birth of the contemporary sky that begins with the Copernican revolution and ends with Trevor Paglen’s “The Last Pictures” (the sky as a junkyard of dead satellites), arrived also with discoveries of new stars and constellations, adding up to the 48 Ptolemaic constellations. But constellations are not discovered, they’re imaginary bodies. Ptolemy missed an entire quarter of the sky, and this information could only be added during the colonial voyages in the 16th century.

Our current knowledge of astrophysics insists on the standardization of stars and constellations for the sake of the photographic process, but in fact, tells us that not only are constellations imaginary, but they also serve no purpose whatsoever in astronomy. Why do we insist then on the star map? Russian painter Alexandra Paperno turned to the star maps at the beginning of her career in the early 2000s, not necessarily out of an interest in the vast cosmic space and our perception of the structure of the universe, but from a vantage point that resembles more an architecture of first principles, with primary and secondary qualities: What are pictorial spaces? What is an empty space? What are spaces generally? Living as we are, in a moment largely defined by hyper-metaphors of time such as acceleration, apocalypse and the instant, our relationship to space is tawdry and unimaginative; space is a site of incarceration.

Alexandra Paperno. Argo Navis (from ‘Abolished Constellations’ series), 2016. Ink on paper, 76×56 cm

But our living spaces have little to do with the Aristotelian metaphors of place around the line and the point, or the fixed abode or point of origin in the myth: Our spaces are devoured by multiple overlapping temporalities, and are embedded in a percolation of spatiotemporal continuity, like a crumpled handkerchief, to use a metaphor of Michel Serres, out of which a viscous substance oozes out that contains the present as debris. In the Star Maps (2003-2005), Paperno captures what Petrus Schaesberg called the misty uncertainty of the sky, following two central interrelated ideas: First, the scant appearance of the starry sky in the history of representation of space in general as we have received it from Western painting, and secondly, the Kantian notion of the sublime, as an aesthetic category beyond the senses. The modern pictorial space resembles the stellar void: It’s unarticulated, ambiguous but never absent.

During Paperno’s research on star maps, the realization that different astronomical atlases and maps contained different constellations in the early modern period, and a curious art historical reference, the minor constellations Sculptor and Pictor (included in the Star Maps), discovered by French astronomer Abbé Nicholas Louis de Lacaille in the 1750s, and located in the southern hemisphere, led to an amazing revelation: As astronomical societies were being modernized throughout the Western world, in 1922, the modern map of 88 constellations was adopted (it was agreed that no more constellations would be added) and then more than 50 constellations, some dating back to antiquity, but for the most part coined by American and European astronomers mapping the southern skies, were abolished for a variety of reasons. Some of these were considered inaccurate, ambiguous, too faint, or too large. Looking at earlier star maps, the Russian painter carefully recomposed the fifty-one constellations as single wooden panels (also executed on paper in a different iteration).    

Many of these constellations are unfamiliar to us, with their Latin names, such as “Gladii Electorales Saxonici” (Crossed swords of the Electorate of Saxony, d. 1684, by Gottfried Kirch), “Machina Electrica” or “Officina Typographica” (Electricity Generator and Printshop, d. 1800 and 1801, by Johann Elert Bode), but the style of christening the stars gives us a lot of information about the ambitions of the Enlightenment era and the scientific revolutions. At the heart of Paperno’s project, however, there’s no stars as an object of contemplation but a void of knowledge and consciousness: How would it be possible to abolish something that in fact never existed? An international bureaucracy of knowledge dethroned an imaginary which, however impractical for modern science, was richly embedded in the fabric of our historicity, and the beginning of wonder, from an era when we began to search our yet unfinished destiny on earth. 

Although the sky, or rather, the void, is alive and not static (our galaxy is not necessarily too privileged a location for sighting stars, being too far away from the center of star formations, a place where life would be impossible), all the Ptolemaic constellations survived into the modern map, with the exception of one: “Argo Novis”, known since early antiquity under different names. It was considered unwieldy by science as De Lacaille explained in 1763, from his observation point in Cape Town, South Africa (there he asserted the position of nearly 10,000 stars), that there were more than a hundred and sixty stars in it, and it was initially broken into three different constellations Carina, Pupis, and Vela; Pyxis Nautica was added later. The Argo Novis was not abolished, but dismantled. Yet the history of the constellation and its accompanying myth (we are unable to ascertain which came first), dates back to the earliest era of transmissions and transformations in the Near East.  

Alexandra Paperno. Abolished Constellations, 2016. Installation view at the ‘Observatory’, curated by Simon Mraz. Special Astrophysical Observatory of the Russian Academy of Science and its campus at Lower Arkhyz, Russia, 2016. Photograph by Yuri Palmin.

A discoverer of constellations himself, Johann Elert Bode tells us in 1801: “This figure commemorates the famous ship of antiquity, which was built according to legend at the command of Minerva and Neptune in Thessaly from Argo, and it is that which the Greek hero Jason and the Argonauts used to collect the Golden Fleece from the place of the eastern shore of the Black Sea known as Colchis.” Argo Navis as a constellation appears first in a list by Eudoxus of Cnidus in the 4th century BC, and the ship was known to the author of the Odyssey. In a passage concerning the witchlike goddess Circe (Hom. Od. 12.69-72), as she is giving Odysseus instructions for his return voyage, she explains that the Sirens are located between Scylla and Charbydis, adding that there is only one seafaring ship that has ever passed through, and that is the Argo, with the intervention of Hera, who loved the argonaut Jason.

[For further details on the episode of the Sirens, see my “Archipelagos of Time: On the Song of the Sirens”

The ship was thought to be a variety of galley, an oceangoing craft with a shallow draft, low profile and long narrow hull (Barentine), and according to Eratosthenes, the constellation represented the first ship to sail the ocean, long before Jason’s time. A myth of the construction of the ship was relayed by Apollonius Rhodius in his Argonautica, claiming that its builder was Argus, under the supervision of Athena (Apollon. 1.109-114). The Argonautica, composed in the 3rd century AD, is the only surviving epic poem of the Hellenistic era, incorporating Apollonius Rhodius’ research into geography, Homeric literature and Greek ethnography. Its most enduring innovation upon the Greek epic is the possibility of love between a hero and a heroine, exemplified in the vivacious story of Jason and Medea, but the story was well known in a much earlier period, and the myth of the Argonauts underlies the Homeric epic as a memory source. 

Jason’s father Aeson was removed from the throne by his brother Pelias, and Jason was then entrusted to the centaur Chiron. After his upbringing with the centaur, and learning of his true story, Jason set for Iolcus, and upon confronting Pelias, the king devised for him the toil of an impossibly difficult voyage, in order that he might lose his home-return among strangers or at sea, with a mission to find the Golden Fleece. Jason visited Hera at Dodona, and with her help, Athena would have the ship built from pine trees grown on Mount Pelion, and he assembled a crew with as many heroes as he could find, known as the Argonauts. At last they reached Colchis and presented their demand to King Aetes, but unwilling to part with his most prized possession, the king declared Jason would have to catch and subdue two fire-breathing bulls dedicated to Hephaestus and use the bulls to plow a stony field sacred to Ares. 

Alexandra Paperno, Pictor, (from the Star Maps Series), 2003, mixed media on canvas, 150×120 cm

But there would be more: He would have to sow the field with dragon’s teeth and then slay the army of giants that would rise. Finally, after defeating the guardian dragon, the Fleece would be his. Jason was then enchanted with the king’s daughter Medea, and agreed to marry her in exchange for her help (she’s a skilled sorceress). With the fleece in hand, Jason, Medea and the Argonauts set off from Colchis, taking Absyrtus, the king’s only son, as a hostage. A Colchian vessel set off in pursuit of the Argo and easily overtook it, and sensing that the end was near, Medea killed Absyrtus, dropping pieces of the body overboard. As expected from an epic, the Argo was led off as a punishment and a number of storms were sent by Zeus, and then Jason is told they should seek ritual purification with Circe, the famous nymph living on the island of Aeaea, whom we know well from the Odyssey. 

[The episode of Circe in the Odyssey is one of the main events in my parafiction, “The Charonion”]

In Book IV of the Argonautica, the Argonauts find Circe bathing in salt water, surrounded by wild animals. The goddess invites Jason, Medea and the Argonauts into her mansion, and without any further ado, they show her the bloody sword used to cut the body of Absyrtus, and Circe realizes quickly enough that they have come in order to be purified of murder. After the purification, Medea tells Circe of their toll in great details, but omits the murder of Absyrtus. Circe knows the truth and disapproves of their crime, but on account of her kinship with Medea, she promises to cause them no harm and orders them to depart from her island immediately. It seems as if after the visit to Aeaea, the Argonautica comes to a happy conclusion in Thessaly, but ambiguous accounts remain, telling of intrigues, murders, escapes and the rise of the ship to heaven as a constellation, or another version in which a beam from the Argo’s stern detaches and kills Jason instantly while he slept under a tree. 

The long journey of the Argo Navis in the mythography, protracted, inconclusive, and ultimately unfinishable, always reminds me of the liminal space of Paperno’s Abolished Constellations. In its first argonautic expedition, the Argo Navis alongside the other fifty abolished constellations (let us name a few more: Keeper of Harvests, Pendulum Clock, Marble Sculpture, Tigris River), were displayed in 2016, at a derelict unconsecrated 8th century church linked to the now extinct Albanian-Scythian Christian community, in a scientific village home to the Special Astrophysical Observatory of the Russian Academy of Sciences and the Large Altazimuth Telescope (for several years the largest single primary optical reflecting telescope in the world, but now an anachronism) in Nizhny Arkhyz, perched on the mountains of the northern Caucasus. The panels were assembled as a grid construction that resembles an altarpiece, doubling up the sense of what is meant by heavenly. A heaven that has fallen, an abolished heaven.

It was an impenetrable site… A flight from Moscow to the resort town of Mineralnye Voda, followed by long bus journeys in the mountains, and an hour-long walk inside the terrain of Lower Arkhyz, in a frosty autumn, crossing small rivulets and mud passages, in order to arrive at an altarpiece to something that doesn’t exist anymore because in fact it was never real – the gods are dead. This speaks to Paperno’s notion of the ruin as a central notion in European civilization: The ruin is fresh because it was already ruined from the outset. Later on, the abolished constellations traveled to Berlin, where they were on show in a window storefront in a gallery space where it would be the last exhibition before its eventual folding up, or on the Danish island of Møn, a biosphere reserve in the Baltic sea, loosely connected to another island, Zealand, with irregular transportation.  

Alexandra Paperno. Abolished Constellations, 2016. Installation view at the ‘Observatory’, curated by Simon Mraz. Special Astrophysical Observatory of the Russian Academy of Science and its campus at Lower Arkhyz, Russia, 2016. Photograph by Yuri Palmin.

In these precarious, remote, vanishing, half-real sites, the witness to the constellations, is forced to reflect on the irrational infinity of space as such, and in the words of Schaesberg discussing Paperno’s star maps: “Reflective moods inevitably set in when one contemplates the constellations, but Paperno’s overall concept of this series — including single stars, star maps, and constellations, not to mention still lifes with globes — conjures up the Thracian maid’s laughter when Thales of Miletus fell into the well, the epitome of disdain for astronomy’s endeavors, and hints at today’s amazing awareness that we human beings, in a remote corner of the boundless universe, are terribly alone.” These empty and half-empty interiors of the pictorial space, fragile and tense, make us dwell in a world of wonder: It is a world without nature, abandoned, and yet filled with our own specters.

In the spring of 2020, as the abolished constellations in their single individual panels, rested alone in a studio, in the center of Moscow, after their unlikely argonautic travels, still incomplete, the world closed down on us, and we became separated not only from each other, but also from our world, perhaps indefinitely. Unsure whether the purification of Circe would be enough to bring us from Aeaea to Thessaly, for the first time in our lifetimes, we wandered in the silent dark. And perhaps then we remembered the lives of those early humans, who spent long nights under the stars, around a bonfire, telling each other the stories of Jason and Odysseus, under different names, giving new names to Sirius and the Bear, as if they had never been named before. I then interrogated one of the abolished constellations, the “Machina Electrica” (d. 1800), hanging on my walls: Will the night sky still be there if we stopped looking? An answer came from the Odyssey, a year and a half later, on the shores of Seleucia Pieria, during a clear night: ἥ τ᾽ αὐτοῦ στρέφεται καί τ᾽ Ὠρίωνα δοκεύει / She turns about in the same spot and watches for Orion.

Alexandra Paperno. Grey Sun, 2003. ‘Self-Love Among the Ruins’ exhibition view, curated by Ekaterina Inozemtseva. Schusev State Museum of Architecture, Moscow, 2018. Courtesy Smart Art.

Bibliography

  • John C. Barentine, The Lost Constellations: A History of Obsolete, Extinct, or Forgotten Star Lore, Springer, Praxis Series, 2016 
  • Margalit Finkelberg, “She turns about in the same spot and watches for Orion”: Ancient Criticism and Exegesis of Od. 5.274 = Il. 18.488”, Greek, Roman and Byzantine Studies 44 (2004), p. 231-244
  • Theodossiou, E., Manimanis, V. N., Mantarakis, P., & Dimitrijevic, M. S., “Astronomy and Constellations in the Iliad and Odyssey”, Journal of Astronomical History and Heritage, Vol. 14, No. 1, p. 22 – 30 (2011)
  • Alexandra Paperno & Katya Inozemtseva, “Self-Love Among the Ruins: A Conversation between Katya Inozemtseva & Alexandra Paperno”, in Alexandra Paperno. Self Love Among the Ruins, Ad Marginem Press, 2019, p. 6-23
  • Petrus Schaesberg, “Alexandra Paperno: Star Maps”, in Alexandra Paperno: Star Maps, National Center for Contemporary Arts Moscow, 2007, p. 5-14

Arie Amaya-Akkermans is a writer and art critic based in Istanbul. He’s also tweeting about Classics, continental philosophy, contemporary art and Turkey/Greece. He’s the co-editor of Perambulation.