The first 2 parts of James Joyce’s Ulysses were published in Georgian in 1980s, while the rest remained unpublished until 2012. Guram Tsibahkashvili shot the first part of a black and white photo series inspired by Ulyses in 1988. When the book was published in full by the Bakur Sulakauri Publishing House, the second part of Tsibakhashvili’s Ulysses was created in collaboration with painter Rita Khachaturian.

Ulysses is one of the most difficult books to read. It was first published in 1922 and is believed to be a classic of modernist literature. It was banned up until 1934 (due to its erotic themes) in English speaking countries, and for even longer in the USSR. In some countries, it’s still rated 18+. The book depicting modern Dublin life alludes to the Odyssey by Homer. Ulysses is told in parallel to 18 episodes of the Odyssey. The main characters are all akin Homer’s heroes.

As it turns out, Ulysses is not only difficult to read and understand, but one of the hardest books to illustrate as well. Despite it having a huge influence on the contemporary culture, it has rarely been a direct inspiration for visual arts. Many artists flat out refused to illustrate Ulysses – so many undertexts, associations and narratives, so many things going on at the same time… The book tells a story of one day from a life of Dubliners, however, various fragments of Western thought are brought together in this day, as if combining the knowledge preceded Ulysses. The various writing styles, Christian, Judean and many other cultural concepts, streams of consciousness, spontaneous flashes of thought, allusions to various mythologies, erotic memories and fantasies of characters that can be all be read along with reality… The last chapter of the book is completely devoid of punctuation.

I found a modest list of visual artists having worked on Ulysses in a 2016 Telegraph.co.uk article. The list includes Henri Matisse, Richard Hamilton, Robert Motherwell, Lawrence Weiner, Joseph Kosuth. Tsibakhashvili’s Ulysses stands out from the bunch, as together with the stories of Dublin, he tells his own stories of Tbilisi.

“Whilst reading the book, you start noticing things that you wouldn’t have thought of before”, Guram Tsibakhashvili told me. He discovered a new way of observing things while reading the first part of Ulysses and capturing it on black and white film. He managed to understand Joyce’s storytelling by shooting his friends and the road he had to travel every day while reading the book. This part of Ulysses-inspired photo series was shot in 1988. Overall, 75 pictures were selected. They each have handwritten fragments of Joyce’s novel on them. The double narration of pictures and text comes across as lighter, easier to digest than the book itself, which seems paradoxical. Firstly, because the fragments of text periodically take us back to the multi-faceted, layered storytelling style so characteristic to Joyce, and secondly, because the pictures develop stories parallel to those in text, divorcing the reader from the reality of the book and transporting them to a different time, location and dimension.

 

Additionally, the text and the pictures are directly related – they both depict very simple, very specific stories.

Guram Tsibakhashvili’s and Rita Khachaturian’s collaboration inspired by the second part of Ulysses – a stream of consciousness featuring “Penelope”, a female character from the last part of the book – unites 10 pictures. Photos are shot in various locations, on a digital camera. Along with texts, photos feature graphics by Khachaturian, overlaid on the pictures. Often, the artist draws the characters in using spaces on photos. Pictures and lighting accents, along with writings in white, read simultaneously, as if Joyce’s direct, unpunctuated thoughts are streamed directly with digital images.

 

However, the pictures and contrasts created by lighting add a whole new mystery to the narrative. Beyond thoughts, there are various other layers, mythological allusions and everyday details changing with a speed of thought.

In the single day described in Ulysses nothing happens, yet everything happens. Joyce uses the everyday life with its hidden details to show everyday moments from a new perspective. However, everyday moments are still regular moments. The text is so oversaturated with realism, that it almost leads to a collapse of realism. The reader’s attention is drawn back and forth, from one thing to another, sometimes in various directions. As if with the novel, the author poses a question – is it possible to describe one day completely? And in these details, associations and thoughts, the simplicity of the everyday is lost. What is Ulysses’ one day like in pictures? I’d already seen the photo series when I re-read the text; as if Joyce’s intimacy with the everyday, the thought process of a man was made more evident after looking at the pictures. Maybe because the pictures take the filters, the visions of its world from Ulysses, and apply them to our contemporary reality?

Mariam Loria

art historian

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