The circus, the citizen and the shadows of power

Fiona Woods

Long before Europa was first used by Greek geographers in the 6th C BC, to refer to an area of land east of the Atlantic and west of the river Don, it was the name given in Ancient Crete to a mythological queen. Europa was a Pheonician princess, dazzled by Zeus in the guise of the White Bull that abducted then raped her, fathering her three children. The foundational violence of this union seems appropriate as a base from which to consider some representations of the geopolitical entity to which her name was given.

One of the earliest of the European civilisations, the Minoan, was so-called after Europa’s son, the mythical King Minos. Civilisation is a contested term at the best of times: technically it refers to the material organisation of a culture based on levels of urbanisation, technological development and systems of representation. As early as 2000 BC, a number of Minoan cities had large-scale architectural developments and complex drainage systems. Government was administered through institutions. A complex script was in use that has not yet been deciphered and a highly influential visual culture, based on pictorial realism, was everywhere in evidence. The power of the Minoans was such that obligatory tributes were paid by other city states in the Aegean.

And yet, at the centre of this civilisation, mythology placed a terrible shadow. Through an act of arrogance towards the gods, King Minos drew down a punishment. His wife, Pasiphae was enchanted with an ardent desire for a magnificent bull; their coupling produced an offspring in the form of the Minotaur. The Human-as-such can only exist in opposition to the Animal. It must be continually produced through a policing of the human/animal boundary, both without and within. As monstrous evidence of that boundary breached, the Minotaur could not be tolerated, yet neither could he be killed. Minos ordered the construction of a prison directly beneath the palace to which this creature, this child of his wife, was banished.

Here then is an original heart of darkness. Recognising that no physical space would be adequate to contain this terrible hybrid of human and animal, Minos had the Minotaur confined in a labyrinth. Both a physical and a symbolic space, the labyrinth is unmistakably the figure of a rational human mind, constructed paradoxically as an apparatus of confusion and disorientation. The power that the labyrinth exerts over the Minotaur derives from the nexus of its contradictory energies - knowledge and ignorance, desire and fear, pride and shame. The Minotaur’s partial human self is insufficient to transcend these energies; he is trapped as a consequence of his double-animal nature. Sustained through the blood of youths sacrificed as part of the tributes extracted from other city-states, the reign of terror that the Minotaur represents cannot be overcome until the arrival of Theseus from Athens shifts the balance of geopolitical power. 

The interplay of the mythical and the political that precedes and infuses early democratic form is significant. Four thousand years later, contemporary European ‘civilisation’ continues to operate both above and below ground, spawning many monsters. Some of these stem from the unholy alliance of states and corporations, fusions for which we do not yet have figures, hybrids that exceed representation. It is difficult to act in relation to nebulous shadows: myth once functioned as a political safeguard in this respect, giving imaginary form to the otherwise indescribable menace that resides below every seat of power.

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Against this background, the artist Machteld van Buren has given herself the seemingly impossible task of representing the ‘circus’ of representative democracy that we call the European Union. Circus Europe is an evolving project, a body of work comprising large collaged images and an extended series of exhibitions, publications and journeys through the countries in question. The choice of collage as the central medium of the project is very precise. In their physical construction, the images make reference to the vibrancy of collage in the early Modernist period, also drawing on the deconstructive and radical political impulse from which the medium originally sprang. Whether or not it is the artist’s intention, a link is forged between that moment of great ferment in the political unfolding of the continent, and this one. 

Van Buren’s method involves taking a map of each country, cutting it into pieces and reassembling these in new ways, changing the directions of the roads and the rivers, refashioning geographical or political borders. These are overlaid or interwoven with abstract planes of colour or pattern, so that many of the images exist in shallow relief.  A final layer of animal imagery is worked in, often as body parts that cause the topographic representations to morph into something more creature-like.

These are the Circus animals, captive creatures that perform ‘tricks’ of uncertain quality. The ants that populate the image of the Netherlands seem to be doing just what ants always do, while the seagulls nesting on the Greek archipelago are probably only interested in protecting their eggs. A few of the creatures might be juggling, or maybe they are just falling over. Some are definitely sleeping. They are a relatively unconvincing troupe, forced into close proximity by the circus ring, yet perhaps not so well suited in temperament. One suspects that their hearts are not really in itNowhere is the Circus Master in evidence, yet everywhere is his shadowy presence implied; the creatures are not performing of their own volition.

Real, live animals are not accorded the status of subjects in our legal or political systems. They are included in the realm of objects, things that can become the property of humans.  Yet the proliferation of animal imagery across cultures and histories makes it clear that non-human animals mean much more to us than animate objects. Non-human animals occupy an order in our psyches that Lacan called ‘the Real’, the pre-symbolic, pre-imaginary, pre-ego state, prior to the formation of our subjectivity. Human subjectivity guarantees us legal and political rights (in theory at least), but it emerges out of a symbolic order to which we are also ‘subject’. We seem to have a psychic yearning to reconnect with the Real. This manifests in part as a general human desire for proximity to non-human animals (albeit on our terms, not theirs). Semi-humanised animals feature everywhere in popular culture, in films, advertising, cartoons, novels, zoos, circuses and even, or perhaps especially, in wildlife documentaries, in spite of, or perhaps because of the fact that non-human animals resist representation. No matter how much we try to incorporate them into the symbolic realm, an excess always remains, an element that is foreclosed to us, something we can approach but not grasp.

Circus Europe raises questions about what it means to represent, in the dual sense of to signify and to act for. While much is made in the European context of the democratic ideal of equality of citizens, representative democracy in practice functions counter to this principle. Over 100 years ago Robert Michels argued that systems of representative democracy inevitably deteriorate towards oligarchy, the form of government in which power rests in the hands of a relatively small number of people (Michels 1911). Michels was merely re-articulating a problem that Athenians had already identified in the 4th C BC. Despite the foundational requirement of democracy that it serve the common good, Athenians recognised that when professional governing classes were allowed to form, they tended instead to use their skills primarily for their own benefit. As a counter-measure, lots were drawn for important executive positions in governmental institutions and in the civil service.

For Michels, the true oligarchical nature of modern, representative democracy is concealed by a confabulation of smoke and mirrors, in which the people are regularly given ‘the “ridiculous privilege” of choosing a new set of masters’ (Michels 1911, p 30). Circus Europe is a fitting allegory for this trick, performed in the glare of spotlights, but resulting from a coercion orchestrated offstage. With unelected bodies like the IMF openly directing the actions of elected governments, it is hard to see how the illusion can be sustained, although the willingness of the populace to be deceived must never be underestimated.
Circus Europe was first presented in Ireland in January 2013. Curated by Trudi van der Elsen, this stage of the project took the form of an exhibition and a book, produced through a collaboration between the artist and eight poets. Continuing to forge creative alliances with other artists, writers and poets as the project evolves is an important dimension of the work. As the expanding project moves across the continent, assembling and assimilating a multitude of voices, it serves to remind us that the public forum is the basis of democracy.

The bright lights and tricks of the circus ring have always concealed the terrible living conditions of circus animals behind the scenes. E.U. regulation has banned the use of animals in circuses, but Circus Europe playfully suggests that we the citizens have taken their place.  


Robert Michels, 1911, trans. Eden and Cedar Paul, Political Parties, A Sociological Study of the Oligarchical Tendencies of Modern Democracies, Kitchener, Ontario: Batoche Books.
Jacques Lacan, 1956, ‘Symbol and Language’, The Language of the Self, Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press. 

April 2013

Fiona Woods is a visual artist whose practice includes making, curating and writing. She is an Assistant Lecturer in Critical and Contextual Studies at Limerick School of Art and Design in Ireland, and is a member  of the Association of International Art Critics (AICA).