Thank you and goodbye Oliver Sacks

By David Walsh

Sometimes I find myself, in conversation, filling in a detail concerning an aspect of neurology. It might be the nature of colour blindness, or the clinical manifestations of synaesthesia, or the pain engendered by a misrepresentation of self. When I do this I’m occasionally, even often, right. And if I am, that’s not a credit to me. It’s a credit to Oliver Sacks, who studied these things, and understood their nature, and wrote about them, and revealed the burden of those who suffered.

He didn’t write to show off. And he didn’t write to educate. He wrote to entertain. I read all of his books, and I was most majestically entertained. So those things I learned, I learned without effort, because of all the writers I’ve ever read, Oliver Sacks is the easiest to read. The words are a window, and the view is grand.

Two years ago my daughter, Grace, was struck on the head by a rock. Her recovery entailed, amongst other things, overcoming neurological deficits that induced dyscalculia and anxiety. Her lovely teacher, Philippa Herron, patiently helped her through this most difficult time. Jemma, Grace’s mum, suggested an Oliver Sacks book would be an appropriate gift to thank her. She was right; an Oliver Sacks book is always an opportune gift, but in this case it was most apropos. I prevailed on a mutual acquaintance to ask Mr Sacks if he would autograph a book. Although we were strangers, a delightfully dedicated copy of Awakenings arrived in the mail.

To thank him I responded with a copy of the Mona catalogue, Monanisms. And within it, I inscribed the following jingle:

I’ve read around
I must admit,
Cheats abound
Also in lit.

I did you wrong,
No leg to stand on.
I was hallucinating,
Now I’m awakening.

Although I roam
I’ll come back,
And write a poem
To say, ‘Thanks
For each tome,
Doctor Sacks’.

The fellow who helped me out with the autograph, Lawrence Weschler, eulogised Doctor Sacks to the Wall Street Journal thus: he ‘conducted a master class in how to die, after having conducted a master class in how to live’.

Oliver Sacks showed the humanity of literature. And the humanity of science. And the humanity of humanity.

Goya and The Disasters of War

-By Elizabeth Pearce

We own one small etching by Francisco Goya, part of his famous series The Disasters of War. It has recently gone on display in the museum.

Esto es peor (This is worse); plate 37 from the series known as Los Desastres de la Guerra (The Disasters of War) Made 1810-20; first published in 1863 Francisco Jose de Goya

Esto es peor (This is worse);
plate 37 from the series known as Los Desastres de la Guerra (The Disasters of War)
Made 1810-20; first published in 1863
Francisco Jose de Goya

My colleague Jane Clark writes in her ‘art wank’ text that Goya is referencing not just the Napoleonic invasion and occupation of Spain, but violent conflict in general. In our plate, she writes, ‘the mutilated body of a Spanish fighter is impaled like ghastly fruit in a tree’. The nude figure

derives directly from the antique: the Hellenistic marble Belvedere Torso sculpture which Goya had sketched during a visit to Rome years before.  Where 18th-century cognoscenti saw ruined antiquities as evidence of a noble Classical past, Goya saw ruin as ruin and human nature as unchanging. There is no glory here. War, he suggests, is as timeless and innate a human trait as art.

I know about Goya mostly via a pair of young-ish British artists called Jake and Dinos Chapman, whose sculpture, Great Deeds Against the Dead (1994), we recently sold. The Chapman brothers obsessively revisit Goya in their work; ‘like a dog’, as they put it, ‘returns to its vomit’.

Great Deeds Against the Dead

©Great Deeds Against the Dead, 1994, Jake Chapman & Dinos Chapman
Photo credit: MONA/Leigh Carmichael

Grande hazaña! Con muertos! (An heroic feat! With dead men!); plate 39 from the series known as Los Desastres de la Guerra (The Disasters of War) Made 1810-20; first published in 1863 Francisco Jose de Goya

Grande hazaña! Con muertos! (An heroic feat! With dead men!);
plate 39 from the series known as Los Desastres de la Guerra (The Disasters of War)
Made 1810-20; first published in 1863
Francisco Jose de Goya

Evidently, Goya is the kind of artist that makes a permanent mark on the mindscape of his descendants. What kind of mark? That’s impossible to say, because acts of creativity multiply upon inception, mingle and spawn, in ways that are not easy to discern.

I’ve recently been reading a great book (meaning one of universal significance) called The Ascent of Man by Jacob Bronowski, an account of the way man’s pleasure in his own skill and knowledge has drawn him ever upwards toward the heights of empathy and liberty of which he is capable. (We can talk another time about where all the women were during this ascent; I think watching Dr Phil). Bronowski’s is a nourishing, optimistic view of our kind, but he is at pains to point out that human cultural evolution is not a series of finished, polished cultural artefacts – the arch, the plough, the Theory of Relativity – but a ceaseless unfolding, a repetition and multiplication of ideas that infect the minds and behaviour of the human species as a whole.

Goya’s idea, here, is especially infectious. And that idea, as I see it, is not simply that ‘war is bad’, nor even that humans are capable of terrible acts of violence towards each other, although I agree that this is an important part of what he has to say. For me, Goya is telling us something astonishingly modern about ourselves, something he had no right to see so clearly at the turn of the nineteenth century, and something that is capable of fundamentally (gradually) changing who we are: violence is a kind of de-humanisation. I mean that in the general sense, in that to hurt someone is to deny their equal claim to life and liberty, their freedom from unreasonable pain. But I also mean that to be human is to be forever striving to balance what you want for yourself – the latent violence of your base desire – with what you want for the human race. It is in that way that being human is itself a process; a quick, and not a static, state. At our best, the spatial metaphor for the human condition might be a ladder, an ascent; at our worst – as we see, here, through Goya’s eyes – it is a dreary circle, terror numbed by repetition. Consider the titles of the Disasters of War etchings, sampled at random from the eighty-two in total:

The way is hard!
And it can’t be helped.
They avail themselves.
They do not agree.
Bury them and keep quiet.
There is no more time.
Treat them, then on to other matters.
It will be the same.
All this and more.
The same thing elsewhere.

Goya began the series at the age of 62; it was only published in 1863, thirty-five years after his death. For him, the weight of human suffering was too great; his career in many ways marks his descent from firm faith in order and reason into chaos, fear and disillusionment. But in the process he shows us that which sits at the seat of the human ‘ascent’: self-knowledge.

 

Current exhibitions

Introducing Sunday

By David Walsh

Gros Michel bananas

Gros Michel bananas

These are Gros Michel bananas. Unless you’ve carefully sampled exotic fruit varieties in Thailand, or are over seventy, you don’t know what they taste like. Gros Michel comprised the bulk of all bananas sold in the world until the 1950s, when a fungus almost wiped them out. Now we mostly eat Cavendish bananas, but they are also threatened by disease. Banana varieties are clones. A single variety has no genetic diversity, and can thus be threatened by a single disease or parasitic species.

Komodo dragon

Komodo dragon

This is a pathenogenic (‘virgin creation’) lizard, a Komodo Dragon. It is non-obligate, which means that individuals of this species can also reproduce sexually. In the short term pathenogenesis offers significant advantages. For the Dragons, who are island dwellers, it seems a great way for an individual to start a new population on its own. Obligate pathenogenic species have the significant advantage of not having to locate mates. But obligate pathenogenic species don’t last long. They suffer from the ravages of rapidly evolving parasites, and they don’t have the genetic diversity to express a sufficient range of phenotypes to respond to changing environmental conditions or inter-species competition. Asexual reproduction is a dead end. Fortunately, no man is a banana. And no little girl is a Gros Michel.

David and Kirsha

David and Kirsha

These are two examples of a mammalian species that employs only sexual reproduction (despite one or two outlier claims). Unlike obligate pathenogens they have engaged in mate location. They did that because searching for a mate is fun. It’s fun because if it wasn’t they wouldn’t do it, and they wouldn’t pair-bond and they wouldn’t breed and they wouldn’t love and they wouldn’t care enough to provide enough care, and they wouldn’t have their children grow up to love and care for their children and their species wouldn’t abide. These two individuals, having been assigned (and in one case re-assigned) names due to social convention, are known as Kirsha and David.

So Kirsha and David, each found a lover, found each-other, became bound to each-other, became mutual care-givers, and made another. And as members of a species within which individuals possess self-awareness, viewpoints can be expressed. Such viewpoints are typically congruent with biologically normative exigencies, but are expressed as if the social domain is dominant. This engenders a first-person narrative style.

Sunday

Sunday

This is our freshly minted little girl. The physical manifestation of our evolutionary drives. We think she is beautiful, but we would, wouldn’t we? Evolution sees to that. And evolution, often through concealed agency, sees to it that we express, or attempt to enhance, our social status by communicating our great good fortune at having a healthy by-product of our pair-bonding, and of our love. I could shout it from the rafters, or hand out cigars, but a blog should do the job.

Heide Museum

Heide Museum

This is Heide Museum, near Melbourne. One of the reasons Kirsha and I have experienced a productive pair-bonding is that our biologically expressed but socially mediated interests are aligned. Sharing interests allows one to select appropriate mates, but it also allows the signaling of appropriate bonding mechanisms. If I liked hotting-up cars, say Toranas, then conspicuous displays of my Torana prowess, say a donut demonstration, would reduce the amount of resource expended on testing inappropriate mates with inappropriate interests. But I like art and, using my collection and the construction of a museum, I gave off signals to which Kirsha was apparently receptive. And so I took her to Heide. I saw, in Heide, the birth-pangs of Australian modernism (presently an uncomfortable metaphor). Kirsha saw in it a kindred spirit to her art garden projects –  in New Orleans and now in Hobart. John and Sunday Reed made Heide, and thus might been inadvertently complicit in the tenuous chain making our relationship. And, of reeds – ‘Man’, said Blaise Pascal, ‘Is but a reed, the most feeble thing in nature, but he is a thinking reed’. That may be so, but our joyful little bundle of biology is female, not yet thinking so much, but already employing her natural gifts to elicit our love, to prevail on us to preserve her from breaking in the breeze. Our reed will be called Sunday. Never shall be Sunday too far away.

What to expect

By David Walsh

Expecting
verb (used with object)

  1. to look forward to; regard as likely to happen; anticipate the occurrence or the coming of:
    I expect to read it. I expect him later. She expects that they will come.
  1. to look for with reason or justification:
    We expect obedience.
  1. Informal. to suppose or surmise; guess:
    I expect that you are tired from the trip.
  1. to anticipate the birth of (one’s child):
    Paul and Sylvia expect their second very soon.

I’ve used this strategy before, I know. Giving the game away with a dictionary definition is such a simple segue into a blog that it should be beneath me. Again, it isn’t.

We (not Paul and Sylvia) are expecting the birth of a child. The well-paid and expert expectators that we visited to view the child in utero tell us that we will have a girl on July 19th or thereabouts. Definitions 4,2 and 1 are aligned here – we have justification to look forward to the birth of our child.

I have expected children before. I have also been married before. But I have not, hitherto, held these desirable states simultaneously. I am, inadvertently, upholding Catholic family values for the first time. Nevertheless, there is compounded joy in having many things go well. And I like joy.

Kirsha is also joyful about expecting a baby. She thought it would take a while for her to ‘fall’ pregnant. It didn’t. About a billion generations of our ancestors also fell pregnant, so how could she doubt the efficacy of our evolution-given efficient reproductive engines? Of course, many potential ancestors of many potential sexual organisms failed to get laid, or failed to get knocked up, or didn’t produce fertile offspring. That’s the very thing that honed the engine.

Not all kids are planned. My first two wonderful children (one of whom is now a wonderful adult) were, in part, the result of my natural capacity to defer the consideration of consequences while simultaneously seeking pleasure. I can’t really admire the ineffable subtlety of evolution entraining biologically useful behaviours in me by making them pleasurable. That would be similar to commending thermodynamics, or extolling the virtues of the law of gravity (which is a pretty bloody good law, actually).

That this kid, this homunculus-human, this proto-girl was planned is, however, a joyful joining of our biological nature and our human capacity to make choices. I can make a decision on behalf of my genes but also through the ‘me’ that they engender, to propagate them. They exert their influence by contributing to my state of mind. In fact, they elegantly exert their pressure by enabling me – I am conscious because of their inadvertent motivations. This process is all the more exquisite because it produces its outcome without any semblance of goal seeking.

As I said, I can make choices. Delia, my advisor on delicate public matters, delicately advised me to produce a blog confirming the rumour that I have herein clearly confirmed. Initially I resisted. And then I thought of a potential time to come when that rumour is an adult, and that adult wonders what those whose wills and drives produced her all those years before had on their minds at the time. This blog, then, is my answer.

This contrivance that induces in me my desire to pump out children, and words, also enables me to be aware of, but not enslaved by, the mid-term repercussions of my actions. A quick glance at definition 3 reminds me: I expect to be very tired from this trip.

David and Kirsha's Wedding

Image credit: Jonathan Wherrett (image has been cropped from the original).

Here’s hoping

By David Walsh

I like cricket. Today is a bad day.

Phillip Hughes isn’t my daughter, Grace. And he isn’t that other, vastly more famous, but much deader W. G. Grace. That’s the problem, we assign. Being dead a hundred years, that’s ok. That’s because you were born more than a hundred years ago. Not because you were hit in the head.

When I was nineteen a not particularly competent fast-bowling friend of mine, whose name was Shane, bowled a ball that brushed the side of my face. I was trying to hook, I missed, and he, fortunately, missed also. The ball grazed my face, but not my mien. How does one advance the calculus of an event that did not happen? It could have broken my jaw, or broken my will. It could have removed from me my facility to understand the nature of danger. It could have killed me.

It wasn’t likely to kill me. I know that because many bouncers are bowled, and few are felled. Batsmen die of old age, and alcoholic arrogance, surrounded by WAG wives and handsome, coordinated kids. I was not such a batsman, but then Shane, despite his estimable name, was not much of a bowler.

But, if it had killed me, I wouldn’t have the written word to console me, and I wouldn’t have had a child, and then another child, and I wouldn’t have had to deal with the other child being struck by a rock, shaped like a ball, and delivered with the same lack of intentionality, but with near equivalent consequence, to that daughter’s head.

She recovered, arguably the recovery lacking interest because it was vastly more likely than the initial injury. What happened to her, happened despite the fact that it can’t. She was floored by a billion-to-one event, its mischance fuelled only by the enormous number of events that provided kindling.

Phil Hughes got hit in the head. I’m barely a fan of cricket these days, and I’m not a fan of his. I am a fan of heads, and of course, I hope (and forlornly hope that hoping helps, while fully aware that hoping is hapless) that his head remains the one that made the many bad off-side decisions that just barely, and perhaps even unjustifiably, kept him out of the Test team.

If this turns out badly, worse than it already obviously is, there will be some seeking to learn a lesson. But there is no lesson, one can be the first to suffer, without being the worst to suffer, because the shit that happens, happens because events don’t reveal their cause in the singularity of their happening, but in the vast inexplicable but plausible web of chance and mischance. Phillip, I’m sorry that this happened, but I seek solace in the wonder that you had the opportunity to cut so many balls to the boundary, because your ancestors didn’t suffer more severe consequences for their actions than you. Here’s to the inconceivable unlikelihood that you did the stuff that has now caused you to suffer so much, and to the satisfying reality that I had the opportunity to bear testimony to those events, and might have the opportunity to witness them again.

In New Orleans

– By David Walsh

I’m in New Orleans and, right now, I’m missing my kids and my cat. Kirsha is off organizing her gun buy-back, so I thought I’d write a travelogue, because I’m contemplating the contradictory nature of a city that seems to be all underbellies and beguilements, but is desperately in need of the sort of intervention that Kirsha is planning.

New Orleans is Vegas without the bling, or Hobart without the dull. A stroll on the street can be an adventure, with beggars and spruikers and buskers and drunks competing for my attention. Being distracted is dangerous – the footpaths are a minefield of deep pits and overturned concrete, a consequence of the interplay of sub-tropical growth, subsidence, and a cavalier attitude to maintenance. Last night I heard a tale of a community effort to fix up the roads and sidewalks (never footpaths). This effort was inadvertently overturned by a letter to the local paper from a tourist who ‘would never return to New Orleans while the roads are in their present state’. The community response? Solidarity. They’re our roads, this is how they are, and this is how they’ll stay.

The flip side: last night we were able to attend a performance in a warehouse under a freeway featuring a giant machine that makes music. It was part of a series of music boxes that I first encountered a couple of years ago. This one made ethereal, theremin sounds, accompanied by voice and banjo. And then, an hour later, just around the corner from the music box, we heard a twenty-piece jazz orchestra playing elegant, original compositions with astonishing dexterity. There is plenty to do. Even the tourist traps are often worth being caught in.

Just as the state of the roads is accepted, and almost revered, so corrupt governance is taken for granted. When Kirsha first moved to Hobart she was surprised that traffic infringements couldn’t be ‘dealt with’. In New Orleans, getting a permit to build something is pretty easy; everything can be ‘fast tracked’. And, once permission is received, construction costs are low, since wages are off the books and illegal immigrants will work effectively and hard for just a few dollars an hour. The grey economy is thriving, except it isn’t grey: it is black, or Mexican.

Fatalism is rampant, and decadence driven by the certain knowledge of impending disaster – either the next big storm or a bullet in the bum (Kirsha has two friends who were shot in the bottom bicycling away from robbers). And don’t ask, ‘Why would anyone build a city in such a flood-prone region?’ A city that can’t fix a sidewalk won’t spend money building a levy that might thwart a flood in the future. And, after all, a decent-sized storm is a great opportunity for looters. The city remains as unprepared as it was in 1965 when Hurricane Betsy struck. The Mayor, Vic Schiro, in a forlorn effort to prevent panic, told TV and radio audiences: ‘Don’t believe any false rumours, unless you hear them from me’. The mayor at the time of Katrina, Ray Nagin, is in jail and will be for quite some time, as a result of his profiteering from that unfortunate event. There is a joke that highlights the level of corruption among these upstanding citizens. ‘Mayors should be limited to two terms. One in office. One in jail’.

Soon I’ll venture out to meet Kirsha for lunch. I’ll walk through the French Quarter, and I’m sure to hear some jazz, and it will be good enough to present on stage at Mona. It might be played by itinerants, or by Japanese visitors (who also dominate the bluegrass scene). I’ll see the colonial architecture, French, then Spanish, then French again. The Quarter has been falling down for over two hundred years, and I strongly suspect it will be falling down for the next two hundred. It is ‘elegantly wasted’, in a Keith Richards sort of way. And I’ll wander through the Marigny to the Bywater, names that reference the majestic but malevolent Mississippi, past the train crossing where the bullets bit into the bums. I’ll walk from there in the middle of the road, because the sidewalks, as I’ve said already, are barely traversable. And as I’ve also said, the roads aren’t much better, but that just slows cars down and thus makes it safe to walk among the traffic. I’ll pass a sign that says ‘Open seven days, Monday till Saturday’, and another that says, ‘Sorry, we are open’. If I walk quickly behind any young ladies, they will cross the road, harbouring suspicions that I might be a mugger (or a bum plugger). And I’ll get to our rendezvous point, a hippy cafe on a hippy street, and I’ll have a pear and brie sandwich, and it will be one of the tastiest sandwiches I’ve ever had. And the birds will chirp, and the bees will buzz, and the sun will shine, and I will ponder the wonder that is New Orleans, and will revel in the joy that wells up in me, as I notice that it isn’t such a small world, after all.

Making fun: Mona and Buchel

– By Elizabeth Pearce

The Christoph Buchel exhibition closes next month. It’s notable that it made it thus far. Buchel was incensed at our decision to remove the ‘Are you of Aboriginal descent?’ faux-genetic testing, which he felt damaged the artistic integrity of the project; at one point, it looked like we might have to deinstall the lot: the Southdale shopping centre, the C’MONA Community Centre, and the installation in the south-west national park. (It was too late to consider pulling the Australian Fair for Freedom of Belief and Religion. Did you realise that was part of Buchel’s work as well?) Obviously we didn’t want to cut short the exhibition, not only because we think it’s excellent, but because its genesis was so painful for everyone involved. So I’m happy to say our curators, Nicole, Jarrod and Olivier, worked it out with him.

During the multi-phased debacle, David made it very clear the genetic testing would not be reinstated. I agree with that. However, I don’t think we should have taken it down in the first place. This is not because I’m concerned about Buchel’s artistic integrity (if he was so worried about that, he should have let us name him as the artist from the outset instead of letting David and the curators cop the flak) but because I think the genetic testing is satire, and effective satire, and that Aboriginal people and history are appropriate subjects for satire in some contexts, as I will explain below.

In the days after the exhibition opened, we were moved by feedback from some Tasmanian Aboriginal people that the genetic testing was hurtful because it objectified them, and shocking because they had not been consulted. I was (and am) deeply sorry for the offense. Buchel had high-tailed it back to Europe, our sense of abandonment assuming a distinctly postcolonial air. This – Tasmania – is our community, harbour of our dark history, much as we machinate our legitimacy with European art-world credibility. David did not deliberate: the work was taken down. I wasn’t asked for my opinion, but at that time, it concurred with his. (I’ve since changed it. Why is changing your mind considered a weakness, in our politicians for instance? As David points out in his blog post apology for the genetic testing incident, single-mindedness is an arsenal away from totalitarianism and dystopia.) When we opened the museum in 2011, we expressly wanted controversy, and as you know, we didn’t get any. But this was shaping up to be a thin kind of controversy, unsatisfying for us, in the sense that we were conflicted about parts of the project in the first place. If David had believed from the start in the artistic merit of the genetic testing, neither he nor it would have budged an inch.

So common among us at Mona was (and is) a desire for solidarity with the Tasmanian Aboriginal community. But you and I know – as thoughtful, postcolonial citizens – that ‘the Tasmanian Aboriginal community’ is not a monolith, no more than ‘the Swiss’ or, indeed, ‘the staff at Mona’. If this slipped my mind momentarily, I was promptly reminded of it by the strong, varied response to the removal of the work and to David’s abovementioned apology. He was criticised on multiple fronts: for permitting the erection of the work in the first place (hurtful), for authorizing its removal (patronizing), and for censoring the artist’s message (draconian). Greg Lehman is right: the affair is a ‘measure of how tender the wounds left by the British ­invasion of Tasmania still are’. But so, too, is it a measure for the importance of representation of self and others in the process of healing those wounds. For me, this comes down to the right to engage with conventions such as humour, satire, hyperbole, irony, farce… no mere literary trifles, but rather, central modes of human identity-construction and expression. I believe it is appropriate to engage Aboriginal experiences in a satirical mode because those experiences are not tangential to, special cases of, the human experience. We should not be afraid to include Aboriginal people when we make fun of ourselves, and in doing so, come to see ourselves more clearly. Indeed, maybe ‘making fun’ is a measure of our humanity.

Further, the satire’s surrounding context establishes a productive, as opposed to malicious, intent. The Buchel project is about the nature of ethnicity; it pivots on the irony of Tasmania’s history of displacement and erasure (the fantasy of terra nullius was no where more bloodily enacted) alongside the dream, courtesy of one Critchley Parker, to replace the traumatised Jewish people in the wake of the holocaust. The Critchley story also feeds into the great Australia tradition of dying in the bush, itself a part of the man vs. nature drama at the heart of our national identity. In the past that drama has precluded Aboriginal presence, or subsumed it into the ‘natural’ forces to be overcome; the possession of the ‘empty’ Australian landscape has itself been cast as part of the natural and inevitable march of human progress. Buchel knows this and incorporates it into his broader intention, which is to juxtapose the absurdity of the Critchley dream with the silent horror of holocausts both near and far, the Jewish-inflected commercial imperialism of the shopping mall, and the ambivalent idealism of the community centre at the heart of the Mona enterprise – itself an impossible dream come true, but one that, some argue, has its own cultural imperialist implications for Tasmania. I believe, in this context, that the point of the satire is not Aboriginal identity itself, but the absurdity of trying to abstract, quantify, and objectify that identity – which is precisely what non-indigenous Australians have sought to do, in one way or another, since settlement.

My reading is consonant with my interpretation of other elements of the project. Consider C’MONA. On opening night, a colleague came streaming out of the Community Centre declaring offense on behalf of the persons participating (performing?) within. ‘They don’t know they’re a work of art,’ she said. ‘I am offended by that.’ She was referring to the people who had responded to our invitation to take part in what our website describes as ‘a fully functioning community centre… located on the bottom level of the museum’. ‘We seek to engage the full spectrum of the Tasmanian community,’ the brief continues (I know because I wrote it), ‘and invite proposals for workshops, events and activities representing a broad field of engagement and endeavor, including art and craft, discussion and debate, education, music and dance…’ There’s a St Vinnies, a library, and a children’s playground (my friend took her toddler there and sardonically enquired whether letting him wriggle down the slide was akin to artistic exploitation). The enthusiastic response includes groups like Students Against Racism, Community Health Knitting Group, the Tasmanian Suicide Prevention Community Network, and many more. On opening night, I was thrilled with unease as I toured the C’MONA ‘exhibition’. At first I thought it was because of the creepy-comical simulacrum of ‘the real’ that was taking place: C’MONA emphatically is a real community centre, and at the same time, a work of art, because what – after Duchamp – determines something as a work of art, other than its presence in a gallery? But my colleague’s expression of distaste – her sense that the participants were being objectified – has gradually revealed to me the depth of my ambivalence, and of C’MONA’s artistic significance.

It is in this way that controversy is valuable to us as consumers of art: because in the fallout, we clarify what is important to us. But is C’MONA art? Perhaps the question gives words too much power. It is what it is, whatever we label it. But then again, we need to answer the question in order to locate the power exchange that’s taking place. If C’MONA isn’t art, there is no abuse of power taking place, no exploitation or objectification; the people participating are not serving themselves up as fodder for us gawping art-world types. If it is art, that’s because it is located at Mona, and not in a town hall in Bridgewater (or wherever). The participants were not duped or blindfolded; they know where they are, and why. What makes us think they are not entitled to participate in their own objectification for the purposes of artistic expression? Why, again, is satire – or more specifically in this case, the use of metaphor – reserved for the elite? Or: does the permission to use and exploit the power of metaphor (C’MONA at once ‘stands for’ a community centre and actually is one) confer elite cultural status in the first place?

When it comes to a painful past – the fingers of which stretch out to hold us in the present and the future – satirising, objectifying, making fun, are fraught. But so, too, is not making fun, locking members of our (human) race into a stagnant, stultifying, straight-faced literalism; not permitting them the privilege to laugh and to be laughed at, nor to turn the painful joke to political use. I have a sneaking suspicion, and not for the first time, that the joke is on us – Mona. Perhaps this is overdue. And perhaps it is the kind of controversy we’ve been wanting after all.

Christoph Büchel, Land of David (C'Mona - Community Centre)

Christoph Büchel, Land of David (C’Mona – Community Centre)
Photo Credit: MONA/Rémi Chauvin

 

Christoph Büchel, Land of David (C'Mona - Community Centre)

Christoph Büchel, Land of David (C’Mona – Community Centre)
Photo Credit: MONA/Rémi Chauvin

Christoph Büchel, Land of David (Poynduk)

Christoph Büchel, Land of David (Poynduk)
Photo Credit: MONA/Rémi Chauvin