Ron Telek is primarily a carver and a sculptor. He has worked in everything from wood and stone to cloth and bone, but most of his work is three-dimensional. Consequently, I was curious to see what his first print would look like. I expected a sort of two-dimensional equivalent of film noir, full of shadows and vaguely glimpsed forms, but instead the print was “The Siren: The Keeper of Drowned Men’s Souls,” an intricate piece that more than one viewer has compared to a tattoo design (I envision it stretching across someone’s back).
Besides the medium, another unusual aspect of the print is that its subject and execution includes only one hint of Telek’s Nisga’a background: the design on the back fin of the smaller siren.
Instead, the piece draws on Classical Greek and Roman mythology. At first, the subject is surprising, but, on second thought, why not? Although Telek has a First Nations background, he has mentioned several times the influence of Japanese,African, and South American art on his work and such influences can sometimes be seen in his work. Nor is this the first time he has done a non-aboriginal piece. All things considered, it is not surprising that other cultures should be visible in his work, especially since the siren is not that far removed from several figures in local First Nations mythology, such as the Otter Woman.
At any rate, despite its unusual aspects, many of Telek’s characteristic elements are in “The Siren,” such as the figure in the mouth and spirits in the form of faces erupting all over the body. What is unusual, though, are the suggests of sexual aggression or predation in the breasts, each of which is made of a single spirit with teeth where the nipples should be, or the open mouth with teeth where the vagina should be. This sense is reinforced by the waves of hair, which instead of being seductive become a Medusa-like mass of writhing spirits.
Aggression is also suggested in the heavy shoulders and the reaching left hand, whose size suggests that it is reaching out to the viewer.Telek’s siren does not merely lure men to their doom, but actively preys upon them.
Then, too, the relation between the siren and men she captures is ambiguous – but menacing no matter how you interpret it. Some of the spirits seem resigned, but far more of them appear to be angry or in pain, leaving you to wonder how, exactly, the siren is keeping them. Does she only gain substance and the power to act through the drowned souls? Is the fact that she seems composed of lost souls an indication that she only exists in people’s minds? However you interpret the piece, the siren is not the supernatural beauty that you sometimes encounter in Classical mythology. Instead, she seems a supernatural dominatrix, overwhelming and perhaps luring the drowned men through sheer force of presence.
This is a remarque of the limited edition print – that is, a copy with an additional element not found in the original. Usually, a remarque consists of a quick doodle, but, Telek has added the second siren, adding almost as much detail as in the original image, and increasing the size of the print by nearly half.
The second siren reinforces the impressions hinted at by the first. Its face is more shark-like than that of the original image, evoking the figure of other powerful female figures in various First Nation mythologies, such as the Haida Shark Woman and Dogfish Woman.
In addition, the second figure gives a perspective through the drowned man still wriggling in its hand. The sirens, clearly, are huge.
The idea that the sirens gain substance from the capture of drowned men is further reinforced by the facts that the second figure’s body includes fewer spirits, and that it is somewhat smaller – perhaps a juvenile or teenage siren. Perhaps it is not even sexually mature, since it is much more slender and lacks the mass of flowing hair of the main figure.
Psychologists could go wild on the implications of these images (I know at least one who is sure that Telek was abused as a child on the evidence of his carvings). Personally, though, I prefer to simply enjoy the imaginative possibilities – and to thank Telek for this present, and for adding the remarque before giving it to me.