Ruth Barker

The Odysseus Fables: Numbers 1-7

At the Temple to an Unknown God

The Odysseus Fables 1-7

Web-based commission from Intersections, Newcastle. Running time: 5.29 minutes

Image shows At the Temple to an Unknown God (2010) photographic work produced as part of Low Metamorphosis. See also Low Metamorphosis blog.

Hear the work here.


The Odysseus Fables 1-7 is a new performance monologue by artist Ruth Barker produced for Intersections as part of Low Metamorphosis - a Leverhulme funded residency with the Centre for Interdisciplinary Artefact Studies (CIAS), Newcastle University. A synthesis of Barker's public practice and the latest incarnation in her series of performance texts, The Odysseus Fables 1-7 scripts an analogy between the obligations of public art and the deliberations of a contemporary re-imagined Odysseus. Slowly and deliberately orated, the seven-part recital appropriates a mythological narrative and the classical persona of Odysseus to set out a series of maxims for what public art may (not always) be. Rather than providing assertions, it, like the previously featured, Obligations questions the resonance and language of public art's voice; each lesson enunciates its mantra, revoking the existing imagination for public art. An act of catharsis freeing public art from the shackles of its obligations, The Odysseus Fables describe, in her words: 'lines on the balance between risk and sustainability'.

           Matthew Hearn


Intersections generates critical dialogue about public art practice and develops pioneering practice-based and theoretical research. Intersections is a project which links Fine Art at Newcastle University with the wider cultural sector through events, research projects and generating debate. Drawing together practitioners, theorists, sector organisations, policy makers and the wider public, Intersections examines issues arising from the creative friction inherent in the interaction of public art practice, policy and public space. For more information go here.



The Odysseus Fables: Numbers 1 – 7.

Lines on the balance between risk and sustainability.

1. Odysseus walks along the seashore, watching the waves break over the shingle. In his hand he holds a round stone. He wonders whether to throw the stone down into the swallowing ocean, or to drop it back onto the rippled beach. Holding it tight in his fist, he does neither, and walks on.

Moral: Public art may not always be something to hold onto. 


2. Odysseus labours long and hard until his task is complete. Looking at what he has made, he is dissatisfied. Turning his back on it, he sees the whole world round about him and he smiles. This is what he had been looking for all along.

Moral: Public art may not always be what it seems to be.


3. Odysseus buys a newspaper and reads it at his kitchen table. Turning the pages slowly, he realises that he is looking only at the pictures of people he does not recognise. Frowning, he wonders who they are.

Moral: Public art may not always be the same as public space.


4. Odysseus turns his back on the sea and decides to walk in a straight line away from the ocean until he can walk no more. He walks until his feet bleed. He walks further, until his sandals fall away and his knees ache from carrying him. He walks further still, until he cannot imagine taking another step, until the very thought of movement pains him. Then Odysseus lies stretched on the ground with his ear to the sand. And as he waits, his red eyes shut against the sun, he hears the sound of waves breaking.

Moral: Public art may not always be the language of context. 


5. Odysseus builds a huge pedestal in the centre of the city. When the pedestal is finished, Odysseus doesn’t know what to do with himself. He walks all the way round the base of his pedestal, and finds himself back where he began. The only thing different is the time.

Moral: Public art may not always be measured by duration. 


6. Odysseus wants to be brave. He asks his neighbours to tell him what the bravest thing to do is, but they say nothing. He asks his friends what the bravest thing is, but they also tell him nothing. He asks his wife for the bravest thing she can think of, and she softly whispers nothing in his ear. Finally, exhausted, Odysseus begs the Gods to reveal the secret of bravery, and a thunderclap booms loud over his head: DO NOTHING. Odysseus sits down and weeps. He knows he isn’t brave enough.

Moral: Public art may not always increase the value of private property.


7. Odysseus sits on a wall, holding the wooden oar of his ship out before him. He closes his left eye and opens his right eye and looks at the oar. Then he opens his left eye, and closes his right eye instead. As he does so, the oar seems to jump in his hand. He tries again and the same thing happens. ‘This is some mystery’ he says. ‘Which is the real one? And where does it go?’ And he throws the oar to the ground, disgusted.

Moral: Public art may not always be evident, but neither is it always invisible.