I was asked to give a talk. I gave a talk, and the people listening weren’t really listening. It wasn’t their fault. They weren’t being rude. It was just that they were in their glad rags, freshly arrived on the ferry; they’d descended to the Void bar, cool, sandstone rock and the thuck-thuck of bit.fall, and wanted some champagne and canapés (my sister used to run my Dad’s flash seafood restaurant in Perth, and she told me once about a would-be snooty bride-to-be who made a tremendous fuss about the ‘can-APEs’; I fear that I’ll forget one day to pronounce it the proper, French way).
Then suddenly bit.fall was stopped (via an iPad operated by a back-of-house techie) and a light came up and I alit the small stage, and it was tremendously disappointing and disrupting not to be left alone to enjoy the waterfall and the can-apes. The worst part was, my speech was meaty. What they wanted (slightly less than to just be left alone) was to be told a few juicy things about David (like did you know he doesn’t wear underwear?) or something concrete about the art. The other worst thing was: the people crowding bit.fall didn’t respond much to front-of-house Marty’s request to gather in front of the stage for my talk; in the end, they kind of ended up, um, sort of standing to the side of and behind me while I was talking. It was a little off-putting for us all. It’s hard to deliver with conviction your vision of the futility of history – to a sandstone wall.
My argument ended up being somewhat meatier than it may otherwise have been, because I had dinner with David and Kirsha, and David’s ‘dorky friends’ (Kirsha calls them that, she loves dorks), the night before. I had showed David my speech and he got all frothy-at-the-mouth about it: not because he disagreed with me but because he was sure my audience, scientists, would shout me down for not understanding the difference between history in an abstract sense, and measurable historical progress as part of the scientific endeavor to expand human knowledge. (How preferable it seems now to have been shouted down, as opposed to politely tolerated). We also had Weed Eggs for dinner that night, at David and Kirsha’s. I don’t mean cannabis, simply weeds from the garden. I’ll get to that as well.
This is the speech. I’m sorry but I think it’s good and so did up to two (2) audience members.
I was asked to address in my brief talk this evening the history of the collection, and some key pieces, both old and new; and finally, to shed some light on how – and I quote from the email I was sent – ‘people like us [that is, people like you] – medical professionals and scientists with no real background in art – can come to understand and appreciate these things’.
I’m going to ignore the first two points. Except to say that we don’t really believe in history at Mona. That doesn’t mean we don’t believe in learning – certainly we do. As you move around the museum, if you choose to use your O device you will find essays written by my colleague Jane Clark, rich in historical information, and designed to contextualise, as far as possible, the object you are looking at. But even as we’re doing it, we’re sure the whole thing’s a bit of a farce, which is why we call those essays ‘Art Wank’, and why we also write ‘Gonzo’ pieces on the art, which do away entirely with the concept of objectivity. The writing of history – recording of known or debated facts, the selecting of events and people deemed relevant to your appreciation of the object – is just one voice with which to speak about art, and one you should never take fully at its word. The only truthful way to speak about the present or the past is in a voice that announces, in its every utterance, its lies and silences, its weaknesses and desire to manipulate you, the listener, for its own ends. There is a kind of freedom in that.
I will give you an example of what I’m talking about. You asked about the history of the collection, which often boils down to moments of beginning. David claims various moments of genesis for his interest in art and decision to build a museum. Among these: his older sister Lindy’s love of Andy Warhol; his viewing of a documentary as a child, called ‘Man on the rim’; the fact that he could see this site, known then as ‘Moorilla’, from the house he used to live in on the other side of the river; and his purchase of his first work – a Nigerian palace door, carved in the first half of the twentieth century by the artist Areogun, depicting a man riding a bicycle with no pedals and no axle.
Palace door, Areogun
1900 to 1954
David bought the door in South Africa, where he had been gambling; at that time, it was illegal to export extra money from the country so he bought the door to suck up surplus cash. In writing this talk, I punched ‘Areogun palace door’ into my laptop search engine to see what turned up. I found an email, written to me from David in December 2010, a month before the museum opened, and which I’d forgotten about entirely. By chance, it hits on exactly what I am trying to say today, so I’m going to read it.
The palace door is made by Areogun. You already knew that. But what does it mean, why did he make it? He clearly had a flirtatious interest in the West, his unsteerable, downhill bicycle must at least be a joke, perhaps a metaphor.
Presumably he was ordered to make it, but did he make it for the one who gave the order, or did he make it for himself? If for himself, and I think it’s always a bit for himself, presumably the motive was an assemblage of: pride in craftsmanship, need for self-expression, love of status, an urge to serve and maybe even a fear of the consequences of failure.
These are the proximate motives but what generates them? Is the capacity of biology to reproduce genetically selected talent on display here?
I guess I’m saying all the reasons he does stuff were real to him, but there is stuff that is real to everyone. Do all artists, whether tribal or western, antiquarian or contemporary, concrete or conceptual have the same fundamental motives? I think so. That goes for most people from most fields of endeavour, I think.
Culture hides this stuff, but it keeps rippling through. I collect it. Does that make me a bit more sexy? I bloody hope so. I’m grasping at straws here.
The other key motive David sites is the desire to use art to impress women – he can’t make art, he says, so collecting it will have to do. That question of the genetic settings sparking some capacity for art-making (or collecting) is one we are focusing on at Mona at the moment. In future exhibitions we are planning to explore the relationship between creativity and evolutionary biology. I’ll come back to that in a minute, but first, I want to read you David’s other essay about the palace door, the one we printed in our book about the collection, Monanisms:
Areogun carved this unsteerable downhill bicycle and changed my life. The bike followed a far from straight-line course to a gallery near Johannesburg and then to Hobart. I saw it when I was about to have enough money to pay for it and nothing else to do with the money. I think it’s reasonable to contend that had South Africa allowed money to be exported and not art there would be no Mona.
Customs in Tasmania kept it for ten months. At one point there was talk of it having cocaine residues on it. There was nothing I could do so I did nothing. They eventually released it.
I built the old Moorilla Museum of Antiquities and installed it as one of my favourite works, and so it remains. At a function someone was observed to be smoking inside. To conceal his infringement he stubbed his cigarette out on this work, burning a small hole in it. I assume he’s an art critic.
The house I lived in at the time was very exposed to the weather. People told me that I had to look after my art better. The house was on the foreshore on the eastern side of the Derwent River. Moorilla was directly opposite on the west bank. It looked like a nice place. The owners of Moorilla went broke and the bank put the property up for sale. The germ of an idea entered my head…
There’s a mish-mash of motives here: the artists and David’s, materialising in the known and unconscious realms. The cloud of happenstance gets denser the harder you stare.
And so why stare at all? You’ll give yourself a headache. Instead, I recommend just taking these things, these history-less objects, as you find them, sitting, well lit, on a plinth or whatever, in the gallery. There’s no hope of recovering their context, some germ of origin for existence. They exist just for you now. Maybe they have something to teach you – but don’t just take them at their word. Make it up for yourself. If there’s something there for you, suck it up, and move on. If there’s nothing just push past to the next piece, or go and have a drink at the bar. The point, the only point, is to have something – a thought, feeling, memory or intention – slide into place, or shift its position. There’s no gold star for ‘getting it’ or even enjoying it.
I want to point out, if you haven’t already been annoyed by it, the different relationship to the past enjoyed by the arts and the sciences, and the attendant notion of ‘progress’. For those who work in the sciences – so I’m told – the notion of progress and history is real, and measured by milestones such as (and I’m paddling way out of my depth here) the increased life expectancy for sufferers of a particular condition, for instance. Art, in contrast, changes, but it doesn’t advance (and here I’m stealing the words of the wonderful art critic nun, sister Wendy).
Finally – I said I’d come back to the part about art and biology. I meant for my talk to frame the bridge we want to build at Mona between art and science, specifically. What I was going to say was – ignore the ‘key pieces’, and who cares about the history of the collection. And then I was going to build an argument about how the humanities have been divorced, over the course of the twentieth century, from the reality of the human body, and how we are focusing in future exhibitions on returning the arts to that reality. A grand scheme, and a grand theme for this ten-minute talk. I think I’ll save it for another day. Except to say – ‘people like you’ are just people like us, those who supposedly know nothing about art. Give yourself the permission to view art as part of ‘anything else’ – and I’m thinking now of a line from a much-maligned Woody Allen film – itself called Anything Else – delivered by a taxi driver to the lead character as he ponders ‘how strange life is, how full of inexplicable mystery’. ‘Well,’ the taxi-driver says, ‘you know, it’s like anything else’.
You see – I meant to do one thing and did something else entirely. Just like history.
I left straight after my talk, partly because I was embarrassed and partly because I was running late for dinner with my friends Amy and Kate. As I was leaving, I passed David and Kirsha on the way to their apartment, possibly carrying some weeds or bunny rabbits for Invasive Species Stew (Kirsha’s theme for this year’s market is eating non-native species). David asked how my speech went.
‘Not that great.’
‘I think it’s because you don’t have your tits out.’ (I was wearing a somewhat conservative dress, in comparison, I suppose, to the bustier number I had been wearing at the dork dinner the night before). Kirsha nodded sympathetically.
The cluster fuck
These are the things that we discussed at dinner:
Do women have a duty to other women? Is there such a thing as ‘speaking for’ women, or a need to somehow set a good example?
Arguably, not minding comments about your breasts (ignoring, laughing, or seeking revenge by telling everyone the commenter doesn’t wear underwear) sends a bad message to men: it’s ok to make comments about women’s breasts. And that’s shirking your womanly responsibility.
The truth is, in this case, it actually was ok to make comments about my breasts. I don’t really have an elaborate explanation for that, it’s just that I don’t mind that much. I feel secure in being loved for the range of my other qualities (but that doesn’t mean that women it does bother don’t feel secure in this way). Indeed, I imagine that many (most?) women would be bothered by a breast-related comment made out of breast-related context; as I said, it is arguable that I should pretend it bothers me on their behalf.
That worries me. Firstly because I’m not a good actor and I don’t think I could pull it off (you should have seen me as ‘Prospera’ in my school production of The Tempest: shocking. The audience was shocked). Secondly because it is dead against my principles to fall into ‘cluster fuck’ thinking: that’s when you group together sets of opinions that fit nicely, like being pro-choice/anti-death penalty, without thinking things through independently. Cluster fucking is the death of thought. Cf. A lecture in my third year of journalism at Utas which consisted, in its entirety, of a slide-show of glossy pictures of mossy trees, set to some kind of emotive sound track (Rod Stewart’s ‘We are sailing’ comes to mind but surely that wasn’t it), followed by the moist-eyed lecturer’s request for a ‘show of hands’ for who supported the end of old-growth logging in Tasmania. A big, weepy cluster-fuck. (This is a one-off by the way, on the whole I heart Utas).
Feminism has become a cluster fuck. Or, in the case of a recent, bizarro claim by the UK writer Caitlin Moran in her book How to be a woman, a cluster-fondle:
Here is the quick way of working out if you’re a feminist. Put your hand in your pants. Do you have a vagina? Do you want to be in charge of it? If you said ‘yes’ to both, then congratulations! You’re a feminist.
Attendant to the talk of ‘misogyny’ lately (in place of good-old ‘sexism’) is that of ‘apathy’: young women are just not worried enough about gender politics. This seems to me like a good thing; it shows we’ve made some progress, and it opens up space to be worried about any number of other problems confronting the human race. It doesn’t mean that other ‘worried’ women (and I realise there are many) are not entitled to feel strongly about misogyny; but please listen to me if I say I feel differently. I will (and do) listen to the worried ones, too. Why the arrogant assumption that if a woman says she’s happy with the gender factor, or that (gasp) she’s not a feminist, she must be misinformed, selfish or naïve? In the Age recently: a ghastly poll about ‘what women want’. It opened with a preamble about the importance of letting women speak for themselves, followed by reams of stats about lifestyle, sex, work, and so forth. I won’t quibble with the stats, because my quarrel is not with the numbers but what was said about them (and also, stats are really boring, and if I spent five minutes on Google I’d find some others that refute them). Basically, for a significant majority, ‘being female hasn’t held their career back at all’. Awkward. Wheel in the ‘social commentators’ to ‘warn’ us these women are delusional: if you’re happy with your progress at work, it’s because you ‘tell yourself you don’t want’ to do better. Thank God I’ve got the ‘social commentators’ to tell me I’m unhappy, otherwise I would never have known. Further: those that do feel their sex has held them back ‘blamed the work-family juggle or working in a male-dominated industry’. Now, a male-dominated industry could surely be blamed for thwarted progress for a woman, yes. But ‘the work-family juggle’ is not an inevitable consequence of ‘being female’. It’s an inevitable consequence of having a family, which many women choose to do. There are consequences for that choice i.e. you will have to juggle, sometimes with great difficultly, your roles as worker and parent. We (society) should make this as easy as possible – things like 18 weeks paid maternity leave spring to mind. But being a working mother, in this country at least, is a choice, not a state of victimhood.
It’s not that women don’t face entrenched and overt discrimination in many areas of life – they do. But it’s possible to take a more flexible, less fearful attitude to human frailties and social failures, and to see that they affect us all (a classic feminist conversation-stopper: say something sympathetic about men, and all of a sudden you’re denying female pain. No need to panic, there’s plenty of pain for everyone). I used to think I must be extraordinarily lucky to have avoided all this misogyny. Maybe I just happened to know really nice boys and, you know, I did go to good schools and so forth, and my only two places of employment have been a university and an art gallery, not your usual hunting-ground for putrid male posturing perhaps. Um… Hang on. One of the men I work closely with, one whose name translates from the French into ‘Oliver’, has perpetrated the following behaviours: suggested I lose weight; thrown my shoes away because he didn’t like them; asked me, in the middle of a meeting, how many times a week I have sex; and tried to put his fingers up my nostrils while drunk. Technically this is rampant sexism, but mostly I find it annoying (the first two behaviours) and comically absurd (the second two); I don’t find it hurtful and I certainly don’t think it affects how I live my life or do my job. And look, although it was infuriating to fish my Birkenstocks out of the bin, really he was right: I had no business wearing them. It was not a camping trip.
So does that make me a feminist? I went out to dinner recently with a younger female friend. She’s studying law at uni. She told me, her eyes flickering nervously, that she didn’t feel that sexism was a problem in her life, ‘but it’s not that I don’t think men and women should be, like, equal’ she repeatedly insisted. ‘Of course I’m a feminist’. We both, it seems, feel torn loyalty to the term feminism: not simply because we have inherited its positive outcomes, but because it feels like disloyalty, or failure as a woman, to shirk it, or say we’ve outgrown it. Despite my emotional investment in the word, I don’t know if I’m a feminist. I think our words should do service to our thoughts, not the other way around – and that word is well and truly overworked. What I do know is that I don’t need an ideological construct to help me decide that I’m ‘in charge of [my] vagina’. I already know that. I take it for granted, just like my young friend takes it for granted that men and women are, like, equal. Most of the men I know (all of them actually, unless they are much better at acting than me) take it for granted, too.
We are lucky in that sense to have been born at the turn of this century as opposed to the turn of the last. I am thinking now of one of my favourite books EVAH – Betty Friedan’s The Feminine Mystique. One of the reasons I love it so much is because she barely discusses ‘men’ (that faceless monolith) at all, let alone indulge vague, lazy thinking about ‘patriarchy’ (whenever I hear that word, I think of the Hobart suburb of Dynnyrne: people talk about it, but no-one’s actually been there). Rather, she elegantly dissects the habits of mind that produce pressure on women to behave in certain ways. The chapter on Freud almost made we weep (I was getting my highlights done at the time, I held back). She starts by nervously acknowledging his ‘genius’1 then proceeds to pinpoint the way pop-Freudianism has helped create the impulse for women to explain away their desires: if you’re unhappy, get therapy, don’t change your life. Ultimately though, despite the truly difficult and disadvantaged position women found themselves in in relation to education, employment, and that more nebulous phenomenon, ‘culture’, Friedan rests responsibility for every woman with herself.
At the start of the book Friedan looks at women’s magazines and critiques the childish, frivolous image of woman she finds there; then works her way backwards – to the source of such images – through various cultural institutions and systems of social sanction, finally to the role of motherhood itself.2 There she finds a misdirected passion. She sees women substitute individual pursuit for the ‘religious cult’ of motherhood; sees them surrender – willingly – ‘the unique mark of the human being’: the capacity to live in the protracted light of the possible, to seek answers to questions of self and the world, and to partake in the ‘mysterious capacity to shape the future’. That’s for me, that capacity. But you can’t have it without a bit of pain. Suck it up. And don’t get cluster-fucked.
1 We are a little more circumspect about Sigmund now in comparison to then i.e. we know now, or should know, to enjoy him for his literary as opposed to scientific merits.
2 Of course she isn’t suggesting that motherhood and fulfillment are mutually exclusive.