Siobhán Hapaska and the Shattered Medici Lion

In Dublin, the sculptor creates a fragile yet majestic symbol of power by reimagining the famous marble felines of Rome’s Villa Medici

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BY Caoimhín Mac Giolla Léith in Exhibition Reviews | 22 JAN 24

Suspended in mid-air at the heart of the brutalist cavern that is the Douglas Hyde Gallery, the monumental white lion, first viewed from above as you enter the gallery, might almost be sculpted from gravity-defying marble. Closer inspection, however, reveals Medici Lion (all works 2023) to be composed of buckled-together sections of what is, in fact, 3D-printed polylactide. Hovering about half a metre above the concrete floor, this grandiose emblem of compromised majesty is tautly tethered to opposing gallery walls by an extended harness of black military webbing. Absurdly commanding, it looms over the gallerygoers circling it in the surrounding gloom.

Siobhán Hapaska Medici Lion
Siobhán Hapaska, Medici Lion, 2023, polylactic acid, paint, buckles, white marble stone, vinyl print, audio, dimensions variable. Courtesy: the artist, Douglas Hyde Gallery and Kerlin, Dublin; photograph: Lee Welch

True to form for Hapaska, the fettered colossus has a ramifying back story. The ‘original’ Medici Lions were a pair of marble sculptures – one ancient, one a renaissance pendant – of a lion whose outstretched paw rests on a small globe, acquired in the late 1500s by Ferdinando I, Grand Duke of Tuscany, to grace the Villa Medici in Rome. In the centuries since, numerous copies have been produced to adorn other imposing buildings throughout Europe and the Americas, while smaller domestic versions proliferated worldwide. One such version in bronze, procured by Hapaska online, was the model for this sculpture, which she scaled up to full size in clay in preparation for printing. The small bronze, however, was missing one crucial element, represented here by a mound of white marble chips on the floor beneath its outstretched paw. Equivalent to the volume of the absent globe, this precious pile of rubble lends added bathos to the intimations of thwarted sovereignty. The smashed globe also echoes the fragmented nature of the lion itself, whose evocation of heraldry’s ‘lion rampant disjointed’ is probably fortuitous, but pertinent nonetheless.

Siobhán Hapaska Medici Lion
Siobhán Hapaska, Salvatore Mundi, 2023, polylactic acid, paint, dog wheelchair, crystal ball, led collar, mdf, plywood, paint, dimensions variable. Courtesy: the artist, Douglas Hyde Gallery and Kerlin, Dublin; photograph: Lee Welch

While marking a significant departure from her most recent body of sculptural work with its Old Testament overtones, Medici Lion cleaves to Hapaska’s abiding formal strategies and thematic concerns. 3D printed plastic is the latest addition to an ever-expanding arsenal of recondite materials she has deployed over the years, ranging from fibreglass to fur, and from uprooted olive trees to acupuncture needles. Far from the capricious result of a born maker’s innate curiosity, such materials are generally chosen for the aptness of their associate import as well as their inherent properties. Formal inventiveness is subordinate to conceptual requirements.

In this case, the substitution of a contemporary production process for that of classical statuary suggests the perennial, renewable nature of a timeless imperative towards conquest, with its concomitant displays of power and dominion. Hapaska’s long-term fascination with the dynamics of dislocation, hybridity and affiliation is here compounded by an interest in questions of colonization and escape. The second component of Medici Lion is a large photograph of the planet Mars, placed high in a gallery corner. We may read this as an up-to-date icon of the age-old dream of colonizing other worlds, replete with martial associations. The work’s final element is an audio soundtrack whose precise nature and provenance is difficult to ascertain without recourse to a gallery handout, though its solemn, ritualistic nature is immediately apparent. It features ambient sound recorded in Westminster Hall, London, while Queen Elizabeth II was lying in state, signalling the end of an era.

Siobhán Hapaska Medici Lion
Siobhán Hapaska, Medici Lion, 2023, polylactic acid, paint, buckles, white marble stone, vinyl print, audio, dimensions variable. Courtesy: the artist, Douglas Hyde Gallery and Kerlin, Dublin; photograph: Lee Welch

A much smaller pendant work, Salvator Mundi – whose only explicit relation to the eponymous (and contentious) 16th century painting by Leonardo da Vinci is the foregrounding of a crystal ball – resides upstairs. Stationed just inside the gallery door, like a misbegotten Cerberus, this plaster sculpture of a bandaged, three-legged dog in an antique gasmask is confined to a canine wheelchair. It incidentally supplies a missing link between the newly (re)constituted Medici Lion and a long line of comically grotesque hybrid creatures that have populated Hapaska’s oeuvre in the past.

Siobhán Hapaska’s ‘Medici Lion’ is at Douglas Hyde Gallery, Dublin, until 10 March

Main image: Siobhán Hapaska, Medici Lion (detail), 2023, polylactic acid, paint, buckles, white marble stone, vinyl print, audio, dimensions variable. Courtesy: the artist, Douglas Hyde Gallery and Kerlin, Dublin; photograph: Lee Welch

Caoimhín Mac Giolla Léith is a critic and occasional curator who teaches at University College Dublin, Ireland.

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