Miranda Richardson, actor, on a figurine of a Minoan bull-leaper
GB Tell me why you chose this.
MR The beauty of the bull-leaper is partly in metaphor. This figure is a representation of a reality of life in ancient Crete. The bull-leapers, both male and female, were not performing out of choice but due to an imperative. They literally took the bull by the horns and turned a brutish spectator sport into art. I’ve always been excited by that – the idea of fear turned into the opposite of fear. Into love, if you like. Also, although there was a great deal of adorning and ritual anointing of the participants at the time, this figure has such a simplicity and purity about it and even a nonchalance, so that the act is reduced to its essence. The balance of the figure is exquisite and the facial expression almost happy-go-lucky. This is a fatalistic act, but in the moment of the leap is an expression of joy. It’s a leap of faith that can be applied to many things in life.
GB Where did you first learn about bull leapers?
MR I believe I was aware of some of the imagery when I was about eighteen, but I also, later, read a couple of the Mary Renault books and found them incredibly vivid and exciting. I was particularly impressed that girls were performing these acrobatics.
GB There is much debate over the history of bull leaping. Do you think it was a religious ritual or more gladiatorial?
MR I’ve always thought it was people proving their worth in a gladiatorial way and achieving fame and god-like status if they remained unscathed – although chances were they’d be gored. I’m so not acrobatic that having to do such a thing to save your life is both fearful and thrilling to me.
GB Minoan culture is quite mysterious to us. The whole Minoan period is even named after a mythological king. Is part of the beauty the fact that the figurine represents this lost civilization?
MR I think that beauty is connected to loss, certainly, but incipient loss. People find youth beautiful because it’s fleeting. I think this figure is beautiful partly because it’s about life and death.
GB Do you feel you have to be historically accurate or do you think it’s okay to live with your own version of the myth?
MR Oh I think it’s okay, I think it’s what these artefacts are about. I think we constantly reassess them, along with all the stories that we keep telling ourselves in various forms that have the same old themes.
GB Do you relate to this through your work, that rush of adrenalin and leap of faith?
MR Yes it does apply, but perhaps particularly because you have to be in the moment. There’s only one trick in the world and that’s focus. When you’re acting, it’s beautiful because there’s nothing else in the world. It sounds un-cerebral and I don’t mean to deny that side of things, but we are so rarely in that place.
GB Nowadays we’re so aware of who made artworks and they all have to be signed. This is an anonymous work. Is that part of its appeal?
MR Yes, it’s ego-less. It might have been someone well known who made it but we’ll never know. He or she is a great artist though because we see from the simplicity that they knew where to stop. It has an archetypal sense about it. It harks back but also suits our modern sensibility. And we’ll never know exactly what it was for. It could have been a rich kid’s toy.
GB Would you like to know for sure or do you prefer the mystery?
MR If I could go back in time and find out, I’d take the opportunity. I don’t mind if I’m wrong. The impact of the image is what did it for me – the balance and the flow and the contentedness on the face.
GB Would you like to own it?
MR There is an element of possession about these things. I suppose I possess it through having discovered it for myself and making it apply in my life. I’d love the opportunity to hold it and have a sense of what the whole thing might have been. I can’t imagine the figure of the bull beneath, but the figure is so free it’s like air. The representation of the bull would perforce be of the earth so the two connect, like a great dance piece
GB Does the fact that it’s thousands of years old give it more of a spiritual dimension to you – and the probability that the maker had some spiritual belief?
MR Yes we seem to have lost such a lot in that sense. We’re floundering these days, polarising faith and spirituality. But you’re talking to someone who apologises to a chair if she accidentally kicks it. It’s a more comfortable world for me, believing in a pantheistic way.
GB Do you think that the same kind of beauty could ever be achieved with a piece of contemporary art?
MR There are pure artists out there who might be capable of it – but because we’re so wrapped up in commerce and materialism and the ‘next big thing’ it’s very hard to find something that’s authentic. That’s something I keep thinking lately. What is authentic?
GB Yes, we live in times full of camp and irony. Maybe there’s less sincerity around.
MR I think it’s a general malaise and it’s exhausting. It’s good to take time around things, to appreciate the value in something that’s been worked on like this figurine.
GB What makes something worthy of the word Beauty to you?
MR I think it has to do with apparent unselfconsciousness. Maybe to do with fragility and yet strength. This figure has survived against all odds and I feel the cumulative appreciation through the ages. It cannot be other than what it is. So I have to say that beauty is not something that necessarily punches you in the eye, but that is to do with an absolute and unapologetic truth.